There’s irony involved in my recounting in Wise Blood the amputation of a pair of my pedal digits. It was a bloody business; But, in truth, not a lot of wisdom in evidence. Neglect, misjudgement, ignorance, bad luck perhaps. Not much wisdom though.
Wellington Hospital behaves like a City State. Once admitted acutely as a patient I became a subject of its authoritarian regime. A benevolent dictatorship where if you know what’s good for you, you’ll allow people you don’t know to do things to you they say are good for you. The vascular ward is straight out of Sartre. Everything I experienced within its dread portals posed an existential threat. From being denied food and liquid for nearly 24 hours ahead of a proposed operation that never happened to being in a cubicle next to some poor sod in extremis and then to a group of surgeons doing their morning rounds and discussing volubly each patient’s symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis. Patients’ rights are something typed on a piece of A3 and taped to a wall.
The food is awful. Dire. The piece of Cod that passeth all understanding. In my case what was on offer was also at odds with my dietary regime. Sugar and potassium are unhelpful and it’s not too much of a stretch to expect that would have been known. But when I asked if a diabetic choice were available, I was proudly told that all meals were designed to meet those needs. Mmm. Some Orwell with your jelly and ice cream?
And so – into theatre. A good name for it. A cast of anonymous, masked actors who perform an arcane ritual on the body of a volunteer who has been hypnotised. To brighten up things, the cast compete to see who can wear the most colourful and eccentric headgear.
I’ve had Sartre and Orwell and now Dali made an appearance; The surgery complete, I’m asked what I would like done with the two amputated toes. ‘I want to see them and farewell them’, I replied. And so, with due solemnity and gravitas, my poor, orphaned digits were presented to me in a small, open container. I reached in and cradled them gently in the palm of my hand. There was a respectful silence in the theatre. I waited a few moments and then said, ‘You know, that’s the first time I’ve been able to touch my toes for almost twenty years.’
You can do what you like to me. Anything at all. But not my eyes. Don’t touch my eyes.
The waiting room in the hospital Eye Department is bereft of all visual stimulation. I surmise that the plain eau de Nil walls, armless DHB standard issue chairs and unisex white clothing the staff wear are all post-ironic. The other poor sods awaiting their fate either stare despairingly at their iPhones, pick without conviction at the ragged pile of vintage magazines or have mumbled conversations that, even from a distance, somehow convey equal measures of ennui and terror. I smile as I’m reminded of the Netherworld reception room in ‘Beetlejuice’. But the guy sitting next to me doesn’t have a shrunken head. Although he may well be dead.
As I progress through the hierarchical system of nurse, junior doctor and specialist, I’m directed to an alcove to await the next episode of ritual humiliation. There are seven others sharing the tiny space – my knees almost touching those of the noisy woman opposite. She seems to know everyone else in the tiny space and is leading a morbidly animated discussion on the various ghastly outcomes that may be visited on us. The bit about ‘injections straight into your eye’ gets my attention and promotes some nausea, palpitations and prickly heat. It’s like sharing the tumbril with a bladesmith, keen to describe the efficacy of the guillotine.
The young Englishman, Tim, with the Oxbridge accent is rather jolly. He’s strapping me into a machine that is a kind of clinician’s Space Invaders. He’s going to laser my eyes. Usually, when rigid with fear, I deploy humour as a counter-measure. Tim notices the rictus that I’m trying to pass off as a calm smile and asks, ‘What’s funny?‘ I describe the Hammer Horror alcove experience and suggest that there should be a sign above the waiting area describing it as ‘Sartre’s Waiting Room’.‘Ah yes’, he says, ‘Existential hell.‘ That’s what a University education does. It robs me of the opportunity to explain and amplify the startling brilliance of my wit and wisdom.
Telling a Head of Department why his appointments system is hopelessly inefficient and offering to ‘come in and fix it up’ is most likely not a good idea. And it probably explains why I sat around for another hour before my appointment was kept. The impatient patient.
Author’s Note. Thanks are due to Josh Stuart for helping me back into the groove, as well as suggesting this topic as the means of re-entry.