Saturday 23d April
I am feeling feverish. I have class in the early afternoon, so I take two paracetamol – I never take anything at all, but I need to kick the fever as it’s too late to cancel class. My fever drops and I sweat through class but it goes well and everyone does really beautiful work. It’s a tranquil scene of rocks in the low tide at a beach not far from my home. I have included it here in case you haven’t seen my last blog entry. Did the fact that I got really cold sketching on the beach contribute to my current condition? I suspect so. Nevertheless, I think I have made my students happy, so it’s worth it: the group where we share our work is floooded with the efforts of the students, which only happens when they are really pleased with what they have produced, and so I am relieved. After class, the fever creeps up again.
Sunday 24th April
I decide to spend the entire day on the sofa. My son Paddy is home from university and despite the fact that he has lots of hard exams coming up – or perhaps because of it – he thinks he and I should watch Suits all day on Netflix. So we do, and it’s terrific. Paddy is very funny and witty and there are far worse ways to spend a day feeling unwell. I take a Covid test and it’s negative, but we all know about false negatives. I feel well enough to sketch the TV and Paddy, and I really like portraying the light and dark of the sun hitting the furniture…and the little dog Reuben. I use the reverse side of a previous sketch that already has a failed sketch of a palm tree on it. The page has masking tape at the top and lots of ink smudges. My sketch turns out just as I wanted it, which often happens when you are drawing on a piece of scrap paper. Probably not a coincidence – there are no expectations.
Paddy is the most laid back person, with the most permanently sunny disposition, I have ever met. I think you can see that in his face and posture.
Reuben is the sunniest dog I have ever met, but laid back? Sure, until he is presented with a new toy, or sees a bird invading his territory (all rats and mice are welcome). He goes to complete pieces if there is a new ball, a new frisbee or a new squeaky elephant nearby. Like all of us terrible consumers, he falls out of love with his toys after a while, and wants something new. I am not sure you can tell this from the drawing.
Monday 25th April
I pretend to be too unwell to get up and bring our youngest, Liv to the bus stop for school. It’s my job, and the whole trip takes ten minutes, but I don’t want to get up, and my husband does it. Very soon I am not pretending, and the neausea and vomiting begin. The fever is up again. I ring the doctor. She says she’s pretty sure it’s Covid and that if I feel better and then feel worse again, or if I get the rigors (huh?) I am to go to A&E. What are the rigors? I ask. Uncontrollable shaking, she says. I feel a little better as the day wears on. No one in their right mind in Ireland goes to A&E because you could wait on a chair in the waiting room with all the rough types for 16 hours or more. I take another Covid test and it’s negative again. My husband tells me my face is an odd deep red. I am used to being permanently pink but this is different – it looks like sunburn.
Reuben starts a bedside vigil: you would not know he is there.
Tuesday 26th April
In the wee hours I wake up shaking uncontrollably. I can’t even google what might be going on because my fingers are jackhammering and you can’t even hit the right keys on an iPhone Mini in the full of your health, never mind when you are hitting things at random. The rigors last for half an hour while I freeze, and then they pass and I get too hot. Then I can’t sleep anyway because I am vomiting constantly, but not enough to feel any relief. I am still deep reddish pink.
The day wears on and I feel well enough to eat something. Reuben still has not moved from my bedside and the kids take him out for brief walks.
Wednesday 27th April
I have gone sharply downhill. I can barely speak. The nausea is crippling. The headache is excruciating. My urine sample, which refuses to arrive for hours, is the colour of tea. My husband brings it to the doctor, and she phones to tell me I am severely dehydrated. She arranges to send me into A&E and tells me I won’t have to wait when I arrive. I guess that’s good….is it?
Reuben is still in my room but now sits on my bed staring at me and wagging his tail, ball at his feet, wanting me to throw it across the room. He has had enough of this vigil thing, but is not reading the room very well.
I look in the mirror and I am no longer red, but yellow. My eyes are yellow, my face is yellow. My mum had hepatitis 40 years ago and I remember the yellow. The half-hour trip in to A&E is horrible. Window open. Window closed. Window open. Window closed. Can’t speak. Want husband to know he can relay fun facts to me but can’t form the words. My blankie, a beautiful Foxford mohair, is across my knees. My beautiful Liv has packed my overnight bag. I am seen quickly and triaged in the nurses’ station. I am connected to a drip. They move me to a trolley in a curtained alcove at the end of a room, where I sleep for the first time in days. I think this is great and wonder what all the fuss about A&E is about. After a blissful half hour of sleep I am woken by a gentle nurse who tells me she is moving me to a chair. She says it’s not as bad as it sounds, as it’s a reclining chair. It turns out that the chair is in the nurses’ station, and there is a curtain dividing me from all the patients being triaged, but the curtain is on one side of the chair and the wall is on the other, so I am cheek by jowl with the new arrivals. At my feet is the trolley where the nurses fetch new gloves, masks, blood pressure cuffs. Each item is overpackaged in loud crinkly plastic or crumply paper that the nurses seem to enjoy noisily crumpling up in the same way that some people like popping bubble-wrap. It is setting my nerves a-jangling. The swing doors to the Covid ward are across the corridor from the nurses’ station, and they bang shut when someone walks through them. A fluorescent light is over my eyes and I ask a nurse to pass me a few face masks so I can make an eye mask. She flings one at me but face masks don’t hurt no matter how hard they are flung. My chair reclines (somewhat) and is a hard light beige plastic. I don’t know which is worse, the mottled colour of the fake leather or the feel of it. I feel so unwell and the nurses give me anti-nausea drugs into my arm but they don’t have an effect. A pair of deep brown eyes appears above my face. It is a doctor. He has black hair and skin the colour of caramel and he is so gentle. I try to tell if I am making him laugh but with the face mask it is hard to know. I text my daughter about the deep brown eyes and she says it is a sorely underrated trait in a doctor. After he has gone I see a man (he has an Eastern European set to his shoulders) take up position outside the nurses’ station. He is having a pee, right there in the corridor. A nurse is very cross with him but she is small and blonde and he looks to be no stranger to the gym, and he ignores her. She cleans up his mess. There are toilets everywhere he could have used.
I hear all the ailments being described to the nurses on the other side of the curtain. A man has cancer and thought he was going for radiotherapy, but now has covid. He is most apologetic to be wasting the nurses’ time. Another man has been off drink for eighteen months, until the day before. He has COPD and knows he shouldn’t smoke but says that when he drinks he goes crazy with the fags. He starts to cry. The nurses are extremely sweet to him, and to the man with cancer. A woman in the corridor outside the nurses’ station had a trolley, but nipped to the loo and her trolley has now been replaced by a chair. She shouts and roars in fury. She is told that it might have been taken for someone who is very unwell. She retorts that SHE is very unwell. After a few minutes she shouts that she has checked everyone else and there’s nothing wrong with most of them.
The nurses and porters chat and share stories with great gusto. Plans for days off are discussed. New boyfriends are mentioned. County, name and village of origin are requested, whereupon the connection game is started. GAA team? Occupation? Cousins? Contented noises are made when connections are found. I feel churlish for wishing they would button it and reflect on how it’s just a day’s work for them. But I also think of ways the HSE could make things less uncomfortable for patients at a minimal cost to the taxpayer: training for nurses and porters to use indoor voices; soft-closing hinges for swing doors; some kind of special quiet-crumpling training technique for packaging. Eye masks. Then again, they have to do what they have to do to get through the day. They see and treat dreadfully sick and injured people and children every day. I am not in a position to judge.
At 4.37am me and my drip are transferred to a trolley and wheeled to a new spot along the corridor. It is the last little space before the doors to the waiting room outside. If I reach out my arm, I can touch the cupboard where the clean sheets and blankets are kept. The nurses are there all the time, but the clean, folded linen smells lovely and absorbs the nurses’ voices, so they are soft and comforting. I am reminded of sitting on our swirly mustard carpet in the 1970s, watching my mummy stack and fold linen for our vast household (11 for a few years, 10 the rest of the time). It’s a super position because I can see all the action along two corridors. My bloods, I am told, are badly deranged. The doctors think it’s my liver and hepatitis is mentioned.
Thursday 28th April
7.30am. I awake to the sight and sound of a very angry, very tiny old lady with dyed black hair, pearls and a Chanel-style jacket who is not happy with the way the nurses have spoken to her. I’ll call her Marie. She is deeply confused and is trying to make a dramatic and dignified exit, but keeps taking the wrong corridor. The nurses try to send her down the right path, but she gets angrier with everything they say. Marie threatens to call the guards (police) on them. A security guard turns up and very gently tries to steer her towards the exit. She is outraged. “I was going to call the guards on YOU!” she says. “And now you have called security! I don’t need security!” Her voice is close to cracking in sheer fury. The security guard has her nearly out the door, just past my trolley, when the sound of laughter can be heard from the nurses’ station (as it always is, 24/7). Marie hears it. “Laughing, is it?!” she says. She turns on her heel and storms back up the corridor. “Laughing at me!” she shrieks at the nurses. “You are all laughing at me! I will NOT be laughed at! I heard you LAUGHING AT ME!” She is eventually persuaded to accept the escort out of the A&E ward.
The nausea has passed and my headache is lessening. I am on IV antibiotics and they have started to work their magic. A woman lies in the trolley one space away from me, Her back is to me, and so she does not see me. I will call her Sandra. She is a ghastly shade of yellow. I tell myself not to judge – she clearly has cyrrhosis, but like my liver trouble, it could be as a result of anything. Then I overhear her tell someone on the phone that she is the only alcoholic in the family. She is much younger than me and I am shocked. The toxins from her blood are making her confused and she refuses to believe she is in Galway. Sandra tries repeatedly to leave and get a taxi home. The nurses soon work out that if they put up the guard rail, she can’t figure out how to lower it (neither can I) to climb off the trolley. She repeatedly asks the man in the next bed along to let it down so she can go home. He, a sick man, is extremely patient with her and tells her he can’t as he doesn’t want to risk her falling. By the next day the confusion has turned to belligerence. Sandra is angry at everyone for not letting the guard rail of her trolley down so she can leave. She does not believe she is ill. Her husband comes in to visit and tries to explain that she is unwell, but he doesn’t get very far. I feel for him. She is found a bed in a ward and everyone is happy to see her go.
A middle-aged man further along the corridor is the same colour that I was a few days earlier – a deep, shocking pink. He snores away on his trolley most of the time. I see a nurse talking to him. She is very angry. “Niall!” she says. “Give me what’s in your pocket! Give it to me!” He is reluctant to turn out his pockets, but does so. Without my glasses I can make out something even more shocking pink than his face, with a white lid. “You’ve taken the hand gel!” says the nurse. “You can’t be taking the hand gel!” Niall starts to cry. The nurse comforts him and tells him we’re all human. The large security guard bursts through the double doors behind my trolley. The gentle demeanor he showed Marie has vanished. “You can’t be at that Niall!” he shouts. “You can’t steal the hand sanitiser in here!” Niall, who wasn’t thinking of sanitising anything with the hand gel, is escorted off the A&E ward by the guard. I am determined not to look at him as he passes but I can’t help myself and glance at him. His face is completely red, the colour of crushed raspberries. His hair is thin and grey, his clothes are dirty and grey. I think of him as a little boy, beautiful and perfect, and I feel sad for what has happened to him.
I tell my husband I don’t want to be old. That I want to have a swift heart attack in the sea in Mauritius brought on by the sudden appearance of a shark.
A beautiful doctor whom I’ll call Maha and say is from Dubai, comes and sees me. I tell her I am shocked at the alcoholism, which I have never seen at close quarters before. I tell her there must be no alcoholism in her country. “Oh there is,” she says, “lots. There is plenty of alcohol available on the black market. The first time I saw someone present in hospital clearly suffering with alcohol poisoning, I was shocked to see it completely ignored.” “Is that because of the potential implications, culturally and legally?” I ask. “Yes,” she says, “no one wants to go there.” “A bit like Ireland in the recent past,” I suggest, “where girls definitely weren’t pregnant, and even if they were, they got pregnant all on their own?” “Yes,” says Maha, “that’s the sort of thing.” But she will go back there. Their gain will be our loss, for she is lovely, and super-clever.
Less lovely is a French doctor: I am not giving her a fake country. She really is from France. She is tall and slender and I do not warm to her. I try to make conversation and bemoan being ill seeing as I walk my little dog a swift three miles every day. She asks me what type of dog I have. I tell her he’s a Jack Russell. “I hate Jack Russells,” she says in her direct French way. I tell her that if she spends half an hour with my dog she will fall in love with him: that he is so fluffy she will be fooled long enough to get past her aversion. She does not smile, and I immediately loathe her.
Friday 29th April
Two men serve the food: it’s breakfast time. I like to think of them as waiters. One is African and seems very smart. He is polite and calm. The other is Irish. The Irish waiter asks a patient how he likes his tea. “Black,” says the man, “but I’m not allowed to say black, am I?” “You can say black tea,” says the Irish waiter. My heart goes out to the African waiter, who is standing right there, having to put up with the extreme thickness of people. He turns out to be from, I’m going to say, Mozambique, and I feel in another situation he would be a doctor, if he wanted to be – he just feels really clever. I suspect he won’t remain a waiter in A&E for too long.
A young man has arrived. His hood is up, hands in hoodie pouch, shoulders hunched. “This way to X-ray, Paul,” says a nurse in a bright voice. “Don’t you lay your hands on me!” says Paul, in a heavy Galway City accent. After that Paul is never without a security guard. He goes out to smoke every twenty minutes and the security guard goes with him each time. Later in the day he is led away by two Gardaí, but he is made to apologise to the nurses first for being such a pain.
The doctor and her team stop by. “We’re keeping you in for a few days,” says the head doctor, my consultant for many’s the year. “You are down for a bed. I am SO sorry you are still here.” “I actually rather like it,” I say. There is a silence, and the team looks from one to another. “No one has ever said that before,” says the consultant, “and you must never say it again.” Later a nurse says she is very sorry I am still here. I tell her the same thing I told the consultant. “Any more of that talk, and you’re barred,” she says. “Barred for life!”
I am moved to an alcove off the nurses’ station. The nurses are getting frustrated that I am still on a trolley after two days and two nights. One of the bed managers, a sort of head nurse, knows me from the world of art. I hear them chatting about the delays. One says the people in the office in Administration have no idea of the work that’s done on the ward. Another nurse, who turns out to be a very special and beautiful person, thinks otherwise. “I live down the road from one of them,” she says. “They know exactly what we do – they just don’t care.”
In my new place I am still on a corridor…but in a kind of alcove. It’s worse than the other place because there’s nothing to see and if your roommates are acting up there’s no security to put manners on them. Worse, a man who has suffered breathing difficulties after mowing the lawn insists on listening to reruns of the Gay Byrne show. This is the Ireland we left behind. It is by far the worst thing to happen to me so far. Worse still, he listens to Mass on his radio, and people who listen to Mass think they have a special dispensation to turn up the volume. The singing is atrocious.
An elderly man I’ll call Seamus, zero teeth, head back, eyes closed, skin taut over his cheekbones, looks dead, speaks only Irish. He squawks out unintelligible words like a parrot every five minutes. I don’t understand them – it is Connemara Irish which sounds wonderfully melodic but has never been my strong suit – but one or two of the nurses do, and talk to him in Irish. The care they show him is very touching. Despite the loudly squawked words, there is something beautiful about the old man. I feel that he isn’t really here in a crowded ward but vaguely hovering somewhere in 1941 in his mind, in the sun and wind, running barefoot through fields of wild flowers, and splashing about in the turquoise water of the Atlantic (which is how I spent my summers as a kid). However, he’s not my only roommate. The man next to me is a huge American I’ll call Henry. Henry must use a bed pan to pee. So far, so understandable. Then I hear the nurse ask him if he wouldn’t like more privacy and go down the corridor to the loo. It becomes apparent that he just can’t be bothered to leave his trolley. He has a huge booming voice and long straggly grey hair which he admires from time to time. Later on, at around one in the morning, he is told he is to be moved to a ward. He sits up. There is a delay. He needs to pee. He decides to pull down his pants and do it right there, standing up, inches from my trolley. The nurse sees him and tells him not to do that. As soon as she disappears he does it again, every ten minutes, checking each time that the coast is clear. He is not concerned about me at all, who is awake and inches away. This makes me very angry, and I see red. I cannot get away, as I cannot walk past him to go and tell the nurses without taking the risk of being next to this awful nakedness and peeing. I go anyway. The nurse tells me he is perfectly able-bodied but cannot be bothered to go to the loo. The staff nurse offers to help me write a letter of complaint. I tell him that there is no need for that, as my blog will have all the details of the fantastic care I have been given, as well as the truth…there is a pause. Henry is wheeled away and I am left with old Seamus, the quiet night of the ward punctuated by extinct words in Irish. Soon Seamus is wheeled away too, and I inherit his little alcove.
Saturday 30th April
From my hiding place behind the curtain in Seamus’s alcove, I hear the next crop of patients arriving. A man in his fifties is there from drinking too much. Far from being chastened, all he talks about, non-stop, with everyone who can’t move, as well as those who can, is the best drinking spots he knows. Every townland, every village is marked by a pub he knows and loves. He talks wistfully about the days when he could drink for days. The special and kind nurse tells him that is why he is here now. He says he has only had two bottles of cider, and two shots, and maybe ten or twelve shots on top of that. This time I make sure not to look at his face. I will spare you the details of the sound effects he makes. I am extremely uncommunicative with everyone I meet other than the nurses. I tell the special and kind nurse that the men are so loud and I wish they’d settle down. She clearly thinks I am mean (she’s right) and says “Isn’t it lovely to hear them chatting and enjoying conversation.” But that’s before the drink-obsessed man arrives, and I think he proves to be a handful even for her.
It’s 11.00pm. I am resigned to the idea of waking up tomorrow next to my new garrulous, explosive-sounding, drink-obsessed neighbour. I overhear nurses talking quietly, firing out codes of wards. That means beds. I almost don’t dare to ask if my name is on the list. It is. I am wheeled up though the hospital to an upper floor. It feels like I am ascending into the arms of the angels. I am accompanied by a nurse who was on the ward the night I arrived. “That was a crazy night,” she says. “Normally the maximum I have is eight. That night I had twenty-five.” That explains the reclining chair in the nurses’ station. I arrive in a beautiful ward, female-only, dark and calm. A bed, beautifully made up – hospital corners, no doubt – lies waiting. I climb in and feel my body go off “alert” mode for the first time since Wednesday.
Sunday 1st May
I am euphoric to be there. In the afternoon, my husband and Liv come to take me for a walk. We walk along the Promenade which is nearby. It is sunny and windy and just lovely.
Monday 2nd May
I am well enough to record an episode of my beloved podcast, which I enjoy doing so much. It’s called Sketch Therapist and it’s available where you get your podcasts, or most of them anyway. I ask a nurse if there is somewhere very quiet I can go where I won’t be disturbed. She thinks for a minute. “Try Endoscopy,” she says. “On a bank holiday there won’t be anyone there, and the corridor outside it will be empty.” She is right. I have to stop when a young hospital worker walks past, and when the coastguard helicopter lands outside, so the editing could be a bit more seamless. If anyone looks down the long corridor and sees my feet sticking out between those tall mesh-sided metal bins full of bags of hospital laundry and cardboard boxes of supplies, they would be well within their rights to call the morgue.
Tuesday 3rd May
The doctor says I am only in until I have an MRI and that I am free to go out for the day, as long as I don’t miss my antibiotics, which are injected thrice daily. I get a strong feeling that he couldn’t care less what I do or where I go, and so I head into Galway City in the sunshine, to do a bit of clothes shopping. My drip feed is hanging out of my arm but I decide not to let that cramp my style. My lovely Liv has sneaked a €50 note into the little wallet she put in my bag, and I feel as rich as Croesus. I try on the most flouncy, foolish, frothy clothes I can, in pink and lime.
Wednesday 4th May
Once again I am let out for the day. I walk all the way to Blackrock at the end of Salthill Prom. I find a sun-warmed stone bench – it’s a kind of amphitheatre arrangement opposite the diving tower – and I sketch in utter bliss and contentment. The sun is sparkling and Galwegians are out in force, enjoying the beautiful afternoon.
Thursday 5th May
I have been promised a scan today. If the news is good, I will be allowed home. Much as I like my new station, there’s no pleasing some people and the old lady next to my bed is annoying me. Not because she’s confused (her bloods are all whoopsy-daisy) and constantly asks why she’s in hospital; not because she needs to know the time every ten minutes, all night and all day, and can’t understand the 24 hour clock or time expressed any way other than “five past” “twenty to” and so on; and not because she’s deaf and needs it all shouted at her many times. No: it’s because she is a busybody and is not happy that she doesn’t know why I am here, who is visiting me and why, and what I am doing on my computer, and why the nurses treat me differently (they don’t) and why I keep pulling over the curtain (“she’s always like that!”). In a very loud voice, as if I am not right beside her. She “visits” all the other old ladies, sitting by their beds all day long, talking at them, whether they like it or not, and I don’t want to be one of them. One old lady who can’t get rid of her tries to drop a hint – “you’re like a priest going from bed to bed” – but to no avail. I am not an ogre – I am by far the most able-bodied there, and so if the old ladies need anything or I think they’re in a spot of bother I go to fetch a nurse if I can’t reassure them myself.
It’s 8.30pm. I have been told that the doctor who reads the scan goes home at six, and the on-call doctor goes home at 9.00pm, and if they don’t read the scan then it’ll be first thing in the morning. After getting my hopes up I feel defeated for the first time. I lay back on the pillow like one of those characters in a movie set in prison when they’ve given up hope. I am drifting off, when I see a doctor – caramel skin and deep brown eyes, but a taller version than the one in A&E – standing by my bedside. “You’re going home,” he says. “Your scan was good.” I can barely believe it.
Deep brown eyes, especially when it comes accompanied by good news, is a trait sorely underrated in a doctor.