I couldn’t move much after my operation. First-year nursing students, an auxiliary or, very occasionally, a qualified nurse would appear up to five times a day to check our temperatures and blood pressures – basically make sure we weren’t going downhill. Most of them were female. That’s when I first heard Albert, in the bed next to mine.
“Oh Nurse, your beautiful smile makes my day worthwhile.”
He told us he was 85, stone deaf and with legs covered in diabetic ulcers. The nurses loved him. To him, all the women were beautiful. Male nurses were simply called ‘staff’.
The day came when they gave me a walking frame. I wasn’t allowed to use it unaided but I was given a call button so I could be helped to the loo. Half an hour of fruitless button-pressing and increasing urgency gave me the resolve to try to use the frame on my own. I’d been taught how to stand and steady myself so I set off slowly, amazed to find that my left leg had a mind of its own. Head down, a jet-powered Albert had decided he needed the loo too, and this was a race he was going to win. I watched, laughing, as his frame passed mine in a blur.
“Two sugars please, and a biscuit!”
Twice a day they came round with the tea trolley, after which he would scratch his legs until they bled. The other three of us in the ward had his tea sweetened with saccharin when we realised what he was doing. His beautiful nurses came to dress his wounds in the evenings, usually making a thorough job of it, packaging his legs so efficiently that he couldn’t scratch. More often than not, though, a doctor would examine him the next day, remove the dressings and leave Albert to have a good scratch, a particularly bloody good scratch.
I intervened once when a doctor was trying to get him to agree to go home. It seemed clear to me that Albert’s occasional ‘yes’ was merely him punctuating the silence. The doctor tried to use headphones and an amplifier but they only whistled at the point where Albert said he could hear.
He would cry in pain, saying that his legs were on fire, sometimes for long periods, sometimes for most of the night but he ate eagerly, anything that he shouldn’t. We stopped the two sugars but it was harder to control his puddings: jam roly-poly, apple crumble – anything sweet. There didn’t seem to be any control on what patients ordered and he stayed as thin as a lath. It was impossible not to be moved by his plight. Once I pushed the call button and held it. Two families were visiting the ward when Albert started to cry, over and over.
“Oh, what will become of me! Oh the pain, the pain! I’m burning! My legs are on fire! Oh help me somebody!”
A nurse appeared.
“Get help for this poor man now please.”
Apparently someone had decided that Albert didn’t need codeine. That order was overturned, he was given his medicine and a nurse held his hand for an hour until he calmed down.
Just before I was discharged, the nurses realised that his birthday was the next day.
“So he’ll be 86 then?”
“No, he’s 77.”
“Really? We thought he was 85 already.”
“We’ve got his records with his date of birth. He’s 77 tomorrow.”
The day shift arranged to stay behind for a few minutes so they were together with the night shift. There were twelve of them, clustered around his bed, singing. It made his day. He kissed them all, apart from a couple of ‘staff’. Afterwards, I was talking to the man in the bed opposite, nodded towards Albert and said, fairly quietly,
“You know, Albert wants to stay here. He doesn’t want to go home.”
Albert turned to look at me, held my gaze, nodded and winked. Strange that he heard that!
I hope he’s being cared for, wherever he is.