Having spent a night listening to a bagpipe being played under water, and making the occasional grab for a snorkel my sister-in-law forcibly deposited me at the reception desk of the Velletri Hospital’s Pronto Soccorso (Emergency Department known generally in Oz as “Casualty“). After determining that I was suffering the lung infection popularly known as pneumonia it became necessary for me to be admitted for treatment. They could not find an available bed in the wards and so I was forced to bunker-down on one of the stretchers in the Pronto Soccorso.
The Ozzie’s description of the place proved pretty accurate! I was in “good” company. It turns out that the ten or so compari with whom I shared the facility were being held for “overnight assessment” which is a euphemism for a process to ascertain who would survive the night and who wouldn’t. So I was surrounded by nine very geriatric women and one equally geriatric man whose prospects for survival are not magnificent. I have given up buying expensive, long wearing suits but these poor buggers don’t even purchase milk in large quantities. If they bought a litre they would want to have a very thirsty cat and if they came home with two litres they’d need to dispose of most of it by way of a Will.
Anyhow, it transpired that it was a very interesting night – probably one that everyone should undertake at least once in their lifetime but usually right at the end.
The bed was at least a foot short of a decent length which left my \"six footer\'s\" legs dangling. There were no sheets or blankets and a base that could only be charitably described as a very, very poor apology for a mattress. These are stretchers that were NOT built for comfort or for stays longer than an hour or so. They were bulletproof and blood proof. They were specifically designed for use in situations where a body could be examined to ascertain whether or not there was a heartbeat and/or breathing and which could be quickly hosed down to rid it of guts, excrement, blood and organic tissue to make way for the next assessment.
I had a good position – alongside the window which was good to make an escape but was on the ground floor so the prospects of TOTAL and PERMANENT escape were mitigated and the leap would probably simply take you out one way to be returned through another, albeit on a different but similar stretcher.
Anyhow I simply wanted to paint a scene that would provide fitting backdrop to the events that were to unfold during the night. Not only were my compagni ill physically but a few of them were not in the sharpest mental nick. Many were comatose which was not necessarily a bad thing, but two of them had their bodies there but their minds were definitely elsewhere. They were NOT asleep but they were NOT awake! They were simply “somewhere else”.
It meant that they continually made strange noises at high amplitude. One gave an all-night and perfect impersonation of a Mercury outboard motor and another thought that she was caught in her nickers as the victim of a raid by the Keystone cops. The tragedy is that you don’t know whether these poor souls are trapped within their bodies and know what is happening but are unable to express their needs or whether they are simply oblivious to the world around them. They know there is something (someone?) out there but they can’t make contact – there’s no communication mechanism.
The other problem (for the bystanders) is that, suspended in a state between life and the hereafter, sedatives don’t seem to assist. One fellow’s (the outboard motor) family took it in shifts to sit with him through the whole night but it had no noticeable effect. Absolutely nothing could prevent the sideshow on water. Fortunately, just when I had abandoned all hope of sleep, he ran out of petrol. The quiet was absolutely astounding and I very quickly finished my ablutions and threw my head at the pillow before he had time to refuel.
It begs the question: “What can one possibly do for or with these wretched folk?” They cannot share space with other people – that would simply result in the rest of us being sucked in to the same state. You can’t leave them in isolation. They deserve our care but how the hell do we know how to provide that care? What price are those closest to the afflicted prepared to “pay” in loss of their own enjoyment of life? What sacrifices are they required and prepared to make to sit up all night, every night, trying to ameliorate an impossible situation?
I do not have the answers to these dilemmas. I wonder whether any of us do.
The other associated quandary is that it may well be that our “caring” for their physical health has actually contributed to their current state. We are pretty good at extending the physical life beyond its natural limits but we haven’t yet found a way to bring the mental health along a similar pathway. Possibly we have contributed to them simply outliving their time and place, at least in physical terms. Maybe their body should have died when their brain did. That way they are spared this torture of an existence and the rest of us can concentrate on getting peace in our time.
With the advances made in technology and medical diagnosis and treatments we feel compelled to use every possible device to extend the life of the body to the point where the people who love us most are forced to decide when is the “right” time to terminate our existence by turning off a machine.
In most cases it is illegal (and immoral) to end the life of a human being but there are no rules, legal or moral, about actually extending someone’s life beyond a point where it becomes a huge burden to an individual and those charged with their care.