Institutionalised.

You see the new parents arrive in hospital, with their pristine clothes, clutching fashionable Costa coffee cups like this is just a temporary blip in their busy lives. In a way you envy them, they aren’t dishevelled, exhausted, scared of tomorrow’s ward rounds…..or at least not yet. They haven’t slept on a partially reclining chair, or sheltered under a sheet for days, weeks, months….maybe they never will. In their minds they’ll still be home for a take away, not everyone will be so lucky….

The professionals linger with hospital mugs, hair that’s a mess, their clothes clean and comfortable, but creased from being thrown into a bag as they’ve dashed out of the house to switch over. They acknowledge you with a weary nod, trying to establish whether your situation is worse than theirs. As the faces change around you, you feel trapped, yet strangely safe. You’ve learnt that going home isn’t the end, it won’t be easier or necessarily better. The flood of emotions hits you harder once the adrenaline runs out and the sleep deprivation truly kicks in. You’ve learnt that recovery only really starts when you’ve been discharged, but there won’t be any doctors at home to question. The ‘buck’ will pass firmly back to you. Somehow you’ve qualified as a triage nurse, trying to screen your child for potential symptoms each day. You’re scared of making the wrong call, missing something crucial.

As evening draws in, the lights go off, a gentle glow flows down the corridor, shadows dance on the curtains. The lack of sleep makes you slightly delirious, you can almost imagine yourself somewhere else. You lie there alone, looking up at the ceiling, thinking of everyone else at home tucking their children into bed, kissing them goodnight before settling down to a glass of wine. Their job is over for the day….yours is only just beginning. The sugar coated life you once had is over.

Your momentary solitude is quickly broken. The atmosphere fills with the beeping of monitoring equipment, parents squabbling, nurses swiftly scrambling from bed to bed, constantly carrying out ‘obs’. You’re on the bay again tonight, your privacy is maintained by a semi-translucent curtain. You didn’t strike it lucky with a side room….

The nights and days blend into just time. Hospital bays offer front row seats in the soap opera of other people lives. You keep your head down, but still become immersed in a drama you can’t turn off. You’ve seen how the false pretences that people hide behind everyday quickly dissolve. Masks that are used to protect us, slip as the pressure mounts and fear creeps in. Pent up emotions, which have been quietly simmering below the surface, spontaneously erupt. No one really knows how they’ll react until they’ve been there, even the toughest crumble.

You feel the eyes of other parents on you, listening to your questions, judging how you conduct yourself, analysing how your child is doing. Someone is always listening, there are no secrets on the ‘bays’. You live in a goldfish bowl.

It’s ‘changeover’, so you glance towards the nurses desk. You hope you’re allocated a familiar face, someone that knows ‘P’, who’s been with you along the journey. Maybe they’ll find you a leftover sandwich and a cake slice, it’s the little things that get you through. In those cold, lonely hours, strangers become your closest friends.

As the clock strikes 8, you witness the familiar exodus. Parents lulled into a false sense of security that illness also sleeps at night. Children are abandoned until morning, as if they are in some sort of private crèche. Overstretched nurses fire fight through the night, you’ve seen babies temperatures spike, Sepsis protocols being initiated, consultants rushing to beds to make critical decisions. Off the ward parents slumber peacefully, oblivious to the fight their child is facing alone.

You slowly slip your hand through the bars to hold her finger, gripping it gently. If she wakes, you’ll be there by her side.

Whatever happens, she will never be alone.

As another child is discharged, you see the faces around you change once again. You feel like you are in a game of monopoly, stuck in jail waiting to roll a double, as everyone else passes you by. Hopefully tomorrow you might get lucky, maybe you’ll be the one going home.

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