My name is Pete Mercer. I’m originally from Hull, East Yorkshire, but now live in Sydney, Australia.
What happens to the human body when it is hit by a car travelling at 80 km per hour? When flesh and bone collides with hard metal at speed? This happened to me on country lane in East Yorkshire in 1983.
I was 16 years old. Part-way through the exams at the end of my secondary school education (although I planned to stay on an additional 2 years to study advanced level qualifications). There was a gap of a few days between exams so that night I’d decided to take a break from studying.
My 16th birthday was in April, two months earlier. With money I received I bought a 50cc Garelli moped. Some friends were passionate about motorbikes. Not me. The moped was just a means of getting from A to B. Although it was a pretty cute little moped. Bright red, styled in Italy.
The area was rural. My school catchment area covered a radius of about 30km. Consequently many of my school friends didn’t live nearby. Public transport was limited so, to visit friends, I mostly relied on lifts from my dad. The moped gave me a new independence.
That night I rode to my friend Gary’s house a few kilometres away. We watched a movie. It was the time when video recorders were only just becoming popular. Getting together with friends to watch a video was still a novelty.
I left Gary’s house at 9pm. It was dark. The weather was cool but dry. My journey home took me through a small town, Hedon, a village called Preston, then along a dark country road.
I pulled the throttle back for maximum speed. An exhilarating 40 km per hour. There were only a few cars on the road that night. I heard a single honk of a car horn behind me. I checked myself – I was correctly positioned in the road, my lights were working. The car pulled alongside me. I looked over to see my dad smiling and waving. He held up a white paper package. Fish and chips, a treat for our supper. I gave him a thumbs up as he accelerated away. His lights disappeared into the distance. It would only take me another 10 minutes to get home.
The longest part of the journey was a 3 km stretch between two villages, Preston and Wyton. The road was bordered by fields of wheat, corn, potatoes and bright yellow rapeseed. I approached an S-bend close to Wyton. I’d ridden through this bend many times before. It was a known accident blackspot. I slowed down and took extra care. There were bushes along the edge of the road so I couldn’t see the headlights of the car approaching from the opposite direction. The driver of the car couldn’t see me either.
The 19 year old driver thought the road was empty. He didn’t reduce his speed. Instead he cut the corner, driving on the wrong side of the road. My side of the road.
The car headlights were a sudden, blinding flash. White light was all around me. I gasped, eyes wide. My body froze.
The Police told me later that I had managed to brake. My tyres left telltale skid marks on the road. This, along with other forensic evidence, enabled the police to piece together what happened that night. They calculated the exact point of impact. Marks left by the tyres where 35 centimetres from the kerb on my side of the road. I was positioned correctly.
I remember the moment before the car hit me but not the impact itself. When I became conscious I heard voices of strangers. ‘My god, look at his legs!‘ someone whispered anxiously. My legs were twisted and bent into unnatural angles to the rest of my body. I was in pain of course but the overwhelming feeling was bewilderment.
My vision was limited by the window of my helmet. Looking up at a black sky unable to move my head. I was confused.
There was an odd feeling of thick, stiff strands sticking into my back and legs. The ground was uneven, undulating. As I reached around I realised It was wheat. I was lying in a wheat field across the deep furrows. The harvesting left the stubble still in the ground, ready to be burned off. ‘Take it easy son. You’ve been hit by car but you’re going to be OK’. Another voice. ‘Take my helmet off!’ I yelled. I disliked wearing the helmet. Lying on the ground unable to move I felt claustrophobic.
One of the strangers did as I asked and removed my helmet. The wheat stubble parted as I gently put my head back to rest it on the soil. I took a deep breath. The strangers urged me to lie still. With the helmet gone I felt better able to do this.
The drivers of two passing cars had stopped to help me. Fortunately one of them was an off duty ambulance driver.
I reached inside my jacket. My left arm was the only limb I could move. There was pain in every part of my body. Instinctively I felt for my right arm. I was wearing a thick, aran sweater. I felt the texture of the cable knit as I put my hand around my right arm, just below the shoulder. The sensation was strange. It felt like the arm belonged to another person. It was numb.
‘Don’t worry son. We’re gonna get you to the hospital. The ambulance will be here soon. Should I phone your parents so they can come to the hospital? Can you tell me their phone number?’
‘I live with my dad’ I said. I told him the phone number. My parents had separated 5 years earlier. My mum lived with her husband in another village nearby. I called out my mum’s phone number too. ‘You must phone them both. Please phone them both!’ I repeated. Since my parents separation I had taken on the role of mediator, go-between and peacekeeper. I managed to fulfil this role even in great pain, lying in a wheat field with my legs bent into unnatural angles. It was important to treat them equally, both must receive a phone call.
My dad had arrived safely at home. The fish and chips were in the oven to keep warm. He began to worry. I was taking too long. I should be home by now. He backed the car out of the garage again to come looking for me.
As he approach the S-bend he saw the lights of cars parked badly on the grassy bank at the side of the road. It was obvious there had been an incident. In a panic, he pulled up and ran over to ask what had happened. ‘It was a young kid on a moped. Hit by a car‘ someone said. He knew it was me even before he saw the twisted wreck of the red Garelli moped in the ditch.
The ambulance had left moments earlier with me inside. He found out which hospital I’d been taken to then rushed to be with me.
In the ambulance I slipped in and out of consciousness. The paramedics said reassuring words over the noisy siren. A bright light shone my face. I gave in to my helplessness and closed my eyes as the paramedics did their work.
I received a shot of intravenous pain relief every 30 minutes. The drugs were effective for 20 minutes, leaving a shortfall of 10 minutes. 10 minutes of agony.
A side effect of the drugs was suppressed inhibitions. I was uncharacteristicly demanding, my language was fruity. As the pain relief wore off and the pain kicked in I began yelling at the nurses. ‘Get me some more fucking pain killers!’ ‘Get me some more fucking pain killers!’ Over and over again.
Each time the nurses patiently explained, the maximum safe dosage was every 30 minutes. I’d have to wait. I was placated for a few minutes. Then I’d start yelling again. ‘Get me some more fucking pain killers!’
My mother was in the corridor outside, talking with the ward sister, Sister Bullock. As I hurled expletives at the nursing staff my mother, through her tears, apologised on my behalf. ‘He doesn’t usually swear. I’ve never heard him speak like this before’. Sister Bullock smiled kindly. ‘He won’t remember any of this’ she said. Sister Bullock had seen it all before.
My mother hated swearing. She’d heard me say the F word only once before, when I was 10 years old. I told the boy from the house next door to ‘fuck off’. As the words left my lips I knew I’d made a mistake. My mother was in the kitchen washing the dishes. The window was open. She threw open the back door, furious. ‘Come here!’ she said, her teeth clenched. She grabbed me by the collar, pulling me into the house, to the sink in the kitchen. ‘Stay there!’ she ordered. ‘Im sorry! I’m sorry!’ I wailed. ‘It’s too late for that’. I was really in for it this time. She rubbed the damp cloth from the sink with soap. When she’d achieved a good lather she forced it into my mouth for a few seconds. ‘Don’t you ever, ever say that word again!’ she said.
This time, at the hospital, she was more forgiving.
On arrival in Emergency my clothes were cut off with big scissors (they were returned to me later in a plastic bag, shredded). My injuries were assessed. I was taken for the first of several surgeries.
Both of my legs were broken. My left leg had a hairline fracture below the knee. The injuries to my right leg were more serious. The thigh bone was broken. The leg needed skeletal traction. A hole was drilled through the shin bone to hold a thick metal pin. A thread in the middle of the pin held it firmly inside bone, the ends sticking out from either side of my leg. Weights were hung over the bottom of the bed and attached to the ends of the pin with a cable. This pulled the leg downwards, holding the ends of the broken bone in position as they knitted together. My broken right ankle was put in a cast extending up to my knee, leaving holes for the ends of the pins.
Waking up after this surgery is my first memory of hospital. My mother was leaning over the bed talking to me quietly. ‘You’ve had an accident Pete. You’re in hospital. I’m here. Your dad’s here. Fred’s here’.
‘I’m sorry Mam… but it wasn’t my fault’ I said. I wasn’t sure what had happened but I knew I’d done nothing wrong. ‘I know. I know. It’s alright’ she whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks.
I was in a private room receiving round-the-clock intensive care. When my parents needed to go home to rest a male nurse stayed with me constantly. He monitored my condition in case I deteriorated, he also did his best to lift my spirits. We spent the time talking and, occasionally, even joking.
I’d been in hospital for a day or two when my mother whispered ‘Pete, are you awake?’ She wanted to tell me that my brother was coming to visit. ‘Pete, Mark’s coming to see you. He’s in the middle of his exams at university so he can only come for a few hours. Then he’ll have to catch the train back to Sheffield to study. He wanted to come and see you though. He’ll be here this afternoon’. I didn’t open my eyes. ‘Whoopee do’ I said, sarcastically.
The bones in my upper and lower right arm were broken. They were fixed with metal plates and screws. Later, the medical staff couldn’t find a pulse in the arm. The cause was a ruptured artery in my right shoulder. Another surgery. The surgeon, Mr King, sawed through my collarbone to insert a plastic tube into the damaged area. More screws and another metal plate were used to repair the collarbone.
During the first weeks in hospital I didn’t think about the long term implications of my injuries. It was all I could do to cope with the immediate aftermath. Not just the physical pain but the shock too. The world of a 16 year old schoolboy had suddenly disappeared. Everything was alien to me. My life had been O level exams, my new moped and sneaking into pubs under age. Now it was multiple surgeries, hospital smells, physical pain and the distress of seeing my parents helplessly watch me suffer.
After the surgery the arm was in a sling, covered in thick dressings and strapped across my chest. The focus of the medical staff seemed to be my right leg, suspended above the bed by traction paraphernalia. I wasn’t aware there was growing concern that the damage to my right arm may be worse than first thought.
After a week in hospital I was moved from a private room to one shared with another patient. A young motor cyclist, recently admitted. He was in pain, groaning constantly. I could empathise of course, but it was distressing to hear someone suffering.
One day I woke to find my mother and Auntie Dot, my dad’s sister, sitting at my bedside. Dot and I had a close relationship. She’d lived with my family when I was younger, before she married. She was my naughty auntie. A bad influence, in the best possible way. Among other bad habits, she taught me how to burp loudly, how to make fart noises using my arm pits and how to use small pieces of black paper from a box of chocolates to blackout my teeth. Whenever she went on holiday, usually to seaside towns like Scarborough and Bridlington, she would send me a saucy postcard, the rudest she could find.
My mother said they’d been there chatting for about 20 minutes. Dot told me that while I’d been asleep she’d asked my mother a (typically inappropriate) question about me: ‘has he got a big one?’ she said. ‘I’ve got no idea’ my mother replied, ‘I haven’t seen it for years’. Then, Dot said, they’d furtively lifted the bed sheet to check out my ‘wedding tackle’.
Of course the conversation between Dot and my mother never happened. And of course they didn’t look under the sheet. This was Dot’s irreverent way of lifting us from the gloom. She could be relied upon to make us laugh.
Finally it was explained to me, there was another problem with my right arm. The impact of the collision had damaged the nerves in the shoulder. Hence the lack of sensation and movement. Years later, by way of the internet, I discovered the name of this injury. The network of nerves in the shoulder is called the Brachial Pluxus. I had a Brachial Plexus Injury. This is most commonly a result of motorcycle accidents or in new born babies (the physical act of being born forcing the arm backwards, tearing the nerves).
The exact nature of the damage to my Brachial Plexus, unknown at this stage, would determine the likelihood of recovery. Torn nerves are sometimes able to repair themselves, in a similar way to broken bones. If this hasn’t happened within 5 years of the injury then there is no hope. Alternatively, severed nerves can sometimes be surgerically repaired. It would be quite some time before I would find out which of these scenarios applied to me.
I sensed Mr King was not optimistic about the chances of recovery in my arm. He didn’t say this explicitly, it was implied. During a casual conversation about school he said it was ‘good to hear’ I was academically competent. He was ‘pleased’ I was ‘bright’. To me the subtext was clear and devastating. It was fortunate I was reasonably intelligent because I’d need to find a job that uses my brain. A physical job was not going be an option for me.
After a few weeks, during a routine x-ray, it was discovered my broken femur (thigh bone) was not correctly aligned. Without intervention this misalignment would leave me with one leg shorter than the other. Meaning I might need to use a walking stick for the rest of my life. Traction wasn’t going to work. Surgery was needed to re-break the bone, align it correctly, then fix it together with a metal plate and screws.
My body was now held together by quite a lot of metalware. Two metal plates in my arm, one on my collarbone and one in my thigh bone. All held in place by some 40 screws.
In hospital my dreams were surreal, often distressing. In a particularly vivid one I was trapped beneath many layers of fabric, like an Egyptian mummy. I clawed at the thick dressings on my leg, tearing them away. When I woke I was frightened and confused. I buzzed the night staff to come and help me, not knowing how I would explain what had happened. The shocked nurse put her hand to her mouth as she opened the door. She saw me sitting up in bed surrounded by big piles of torn cotton wool. The fresh 20 centimetre incision in my thigh was exposed, bleeding. ‘What have you done?!’ she said walking quickly towards me. ‘I don’t know! I’m sorry! I did it in my sleep! I don’t know!’ I needed her to believe that I hadn’t created this mess intentionally. She set work re-packing the dressing around my leg to get me through the night. It would be re-dressed properly in the morning.
One day a smiling Occupational Therepist appeared beside my bed. She introduced herself, then explained she was going to help me to learn how to write using my left hand. This was unexpected. No one had told me an ‘OT’ had been assigned to me. I looked at her not knowing what to say.
I’m naturally right handed. Obviously I would need to learn how to write with my my left hand, but this wasn’t a concept I’d had time to digest. The cheery OT produced an A4 notepad and thick felt tip pens. The paper was lined, but it was different to regular lined paper. The lines were about 4 cm apart. The kind young children use in the first years of primary school. To get started she said I should write repeated lines of the letters of the alphabet. aaaaaaaaaaaaa, AAAAAAAAAA, bbbbbbbbbb, BBBBBBBBBB, and so on. She would be back tomorrow to see how I’d got on.
To me this was patronising, a pointless exercise. I humored the OT by completing several pages of the alphabet. When she returned the next day I informed her I wouldn’t be doing anymore. That I knew how to write, I just needed practice. I’d do this by writing letters to my friends using regular writing paper. I asked the OT bring me some basket weaving to do instead, to pass the time (which she did).
I was a tricky customer for that poor OT. To put this in context though, I’d been utterly helpless for the past few weeks. The medical staff had done everything for me. From washing my face to carrying away my urine. Learning to write with my left hand was a task I could take charge of. So I did.
That summer was unusually hot, the third hottest summer in 100 years. With no air conditioning the ward was sweltering. The patients nearest the windows, in direct sunlight, were particularly uncomfortable. To keep cool, a small number of electric fans were shared between the patients. I was relieved and grateful when my dad’s workmates clubbed together to buy me my own fan (which was eventually left as a donation to the hospital).
Those long, hot days were spent listening to BBC Radio 1. There are a number of songs from that time that, over 30 years later, still evoke memories of that stifling hospital room: China Girl (David Bowie), Wherever I Lay My Hat (Paul Young) and, poignantly, Every Breath You Take (The Police).
Trauma of the type I’d experienced temporarily shuts down basic bodily functions. I’d been in hospital for 10 days without, to use hospital parlance, a bowel movement. I hadn’t felt the need to go, but I was curious. I leaned over to my mother to whisper in her ear ‘Mam, I want to ask you something’. ‘Yeah? What is it Pete?’ she said. ‘Well… I was wondering … how do you have a shit in this place? When you can’t get out of bed?’ I had no experience of hospitals. I genuinely didn’t know. She laughed, then told me about bedpans. How the nurses bring them in a trolley then, after use, dispose of the contents. I was horrified. Surely not. I was 16 years old. Mature in some ways but still with some teenage awkwardness, easily embarrassed. It felt like there was no end to the indignity. I’d been stripped naked, had my body shaved, catheterised, strung up in traction, cut open, stitched up again, patronised – and now I had to buzz the nurses to ask if I could have a shit. Which they would then carry away for me. I was done with this. I wanted out.
The femur (thigh bone) is the largest bone in the human body. A broken femur shaft needs 3 months to repair itself. So, regardless of my other injuries, I would spend 3 months in a hospital bed.
It was unimaginable to me. I thought up different ways to quantify that length of time: 13 weeks, a quarter of a year, 1/300th of a lifetime. I couldn’t do it. I pleaded with my mother, sobbing. I just wanted to go home.
My consultant, Mr King, made his ward rounds at the same time each week. His entourage of 8 or so clipboard carrying medics shuffled along behind him. The group moved from bed to bed, spending a few minutes with each patient. After a perfunctory exchange – ‘hello how are you‘ – Mr King summarised my case for the group: RTA (Road Traffic Accident), description of my injuries, treatment and prognosis. A Q&A with the medics, then they moved on.
I liked Mr King, he was one of the more personable consultants, but I found the deferential culture unnerving. Before a ward round the atmosphere became frantic as nurses rushed to get the patients ready. The ward sister must be seen to be running a tight ship. Consultants were venerated. Patients and medical staff spoke when spoken to. The ward round was intimidating. Rarely did I say anything more than hello. I was an exhibit to be observed and discussed. My input was not required or expected.
Two ward rounds were particularly memorable.
I’d been receiving iron supplements via a hypodermic syringe into my thigh every day. It was incredibly painful. Not so much the needle going in. Although that was unpleasant because the nurses had to stab quite hard to penetrate the flesh. The pain came when the liquid was discharged into the muscle. It was a deep, intense pain. I dreaded it. At the ward round when Mr King asked if I was OK I said ‘yes I’m OK but there’s one thing I’m finding really hard. These daily iron injections are getting me down’. He frowned. ‘What do you mean? What seems to be the problem?’ When I explained that they were very painful he said ‘Oh. You should have told me. We can give you iron supplements in tablet form instead. Not an issue. Is that all?’ I was speechless. Why had I been enduring painful injections when a pill was an option?
On a ward round following the surgery on my femur, Mr king explained to the group that traction hadn’t been successful so I’d had surgery to attach a metal plate to the bone. He lifted the bed sheet to show the group the relevant area. He pulled the sheet back in such a way that my genitals were on display to the group (a mix of male and female doctors). I glanced up at their faces not knowing what to do. Most hadn’t even noticed but I could see some had detected my discomfort. I pulled the sheet down as Mr King talked. One of many dehumanising experiences. I felt angry. Angry with Mr King, but more angry with the driver that put me here.
After a few weeks I was moved again. From the room shared with one other person to a public ward shared with 11 men. This would be my world for the next ten weeks. The ward was a mixture of long term patients, like me, and those there for just a few days or weeks. I was the youngest and the most seriously injured.
The loudest character on the ward was Paul. A 19 year old motorcycle accident victim. He called out a friendly ‘hello’ when I arrived. He was perpetually cheerful, joked with the nurses and flirted with the female patients behind the partition (we could hear the female patients but not see them). He was fun. His banter mostly brought humour to the long tedious days. Other times I wished he’d shut up.
Paul had a broken femur too, his only injury. His recovery would be relatively straightforward. 3 months in traction before being discharged. Then hydrotherapy until his leg was strong enough to be weightbearing. Unfortunately for Paul there was to be a cruel twist to his story.
Before being discharged, broken femur patients are warned about the risk of re-fracturing the femur. At that stage the repaired bone it is strong enough for the patient to move around, but not strong enough to hold their body weight. They must be non-weightbearing for a few months.
Naturally Paul was excited about being discharged. He was even more exuberant than usual. He joked about spending ‘alone time’ with his girlfriend. The nurses warned him. Be careful. Don’t take any risks. Re-fracture was a real danger.
Paul was overjoyed the day he left. We were happy for him. We had watched him slide out of bed for the first time and encouraged him as he took his first steps using crutches. We cheered as he finally manoeuvred his way out of the ward, his family carrying his belongings.
As usual I didn’t sleep well that night. With both legs and my arm immobilised I could only sleep on my back, which I found difficult. Sometime after midnight a hospital porter wheeled in a new patient on a stretcher, flanked by 2 nurses. The patient was crying. I recognised him straight away. It was was Paul. He had re-fractured his femur. I felt sick. He was put back in the same bed he’d left earlier that day. For 2 days he didn’t speak. He looked out of the window crying. 3 more months in hospital.
I’d been moved to this ward because I no longer required intensive care. The pain was under control. The bones in my legs and arm now just needed time to repair. For the damaged nerves in my shoulder it was a waiting game. To see if the nerves managed to repair themselves.
So far I’d only been well enough for visits by close family. Now I could receive more visitors. On the public ward visiting times were restricted to a 4 hour slot in the afternoon and 2 hours in the evening. When the ward doors were opened visitors streamed into the ward glancing around looking for their family member, friend, workmate or schoolmate. I began to recognise the demeanour of visitors as they walked by. Visitors smiling broadly were usually there to see a short-stay patient. Or a long-term patient at the end of their treatment, going home soon. For a patient in a more serious condition, facing a long stay and an uncertain outcome, the facial expression was different. A brave, forced smile through pursed lips. Sadness in the eyes betraying their true emotions.
Confinement and restricted visiting times weren’t the only parallels with prison. The ward was a closed community, with peer groups, short and long term inmates, mixed socioeconomic groups and a social hierarchy. Each patient found a way to slot in, or consciously isolated themselves. As a shy 16 year old, I was poorly equipped to cope with this as well as my own personal trauma. It was overwhelming.
The hospital food was truly awful. In a strongly contested field the worst dish was a gelatinous, tasteless creation they called Chicken Fricassee. This dish formed part of the scale I used to rate all other dishes. The ranking was from OK (the high end) to as bad as the Chicken Fricassee (the low end). The food was so bad my mother began bringing meals for me in the evening. Usually chicken or tuna salad. To supplement my iron supplements with even more iron she also brought a can of Mackeson Stout (‘your grandad swears by it’).
Outside the hospital life continued. Excitement and relief at school as my friends completed their exams and therefore their secondary education. Some would never go to school again. Others would to stay on into 6th Form for 2 years for advanced level study. It was surreal to imagine this happening when my life had been dramatically upended.
I was part-way through my secondary school exams (O Levels). The culmination of 2 years of study. These exams would determine my future academic and employment prospects. That was all gone. Survival then recovery were my challenges now. Exams were no longer on my radar. Fortunately my school teachers were proactive on my behalf.
For some subjects I’d sat only 1 of 2 exams. Other subjects I missed entirely. My teachers notified the examining boards of my situation. They proposed that the result for 1 exam be used as my overall grade for that subject. Exceptionally, the examining boards agreed. On that basis I was awarded 4 O Levels. Not a lot but at least something had been salvaged. It was a relief I had Mathematics and English, crucial for my next steps. Whatever the hell they might be.
My friends mostly did well. No disasters. They could graduate to sixth form to study Advanced Level subjects as planned. For now they could relax and enjoy the summer.
My dad was proactive on my behalf too. He successfully applied for legal aid and found a solicitor. My case for compensation should be relatively straightforward – the driver hit me when he was on the wrong side of the road. Not so. I didn’t know it then but I would have to wait 5 years until the case was finally settled.
I had lots of visitors. My hospital bed was festooned with get well cards. I looked forward to visiting time, although the conversation could sometimes be a little strained. To fill an awkward silence I’d often say ‘do you want to see my scars?’ The hesitant, fearful reply was usually ‘not really…’. I’d show them any way. Shocking them wasn’t my intention, although my surgery scars would have been confronting. I’d become desensitised to surgery, sutures, blood, dressings and medical paraphernalia. Only a few weeks earlier I had no experience of these things.
Generally my pain was under control. I was no longer taking pain killers but I was experiencing phantom pain in my arm. More commonly associated with amputees, this affects patients with damaged nerves or spinal injuries too. The intense prickling pain came in waves, seemingly from my lower arm and hand. To try to manage this I was given a small electrical device with a dial on the front and 2 long wires to attach to my shoulder. Short electrical pulses, that felt like gentle taps on the shoulder, were supposed to block the pain. It felt weird and did nothing to help. I persevered for a week then gave it back.
My left leg had a hairline fracture below the knee. It was encased in a full length cast for 6 weeks. To remove it the nurse cut along the side with sharp knife, then lifted the top half, like the lid of a coffin. The muscle wasting was shocking. The thick dressing inside the cast had retained the original shape of my leg. There was now a gap of about 3cm all around the new skinny version of my leg. I yelped in pain when I tried to bend it. The knee had seized up entirely. The leg wouldn’t bend. It would take several weeks of gentle pressure to get full movement back.
2 months earlier, as a 16th birthday gift, my friend Gary had given me a Condom Tree. A small twig in a plant pot with individual condoms attached to its branches. I’d hidden this inside my wardrobe so my dad wouldn’t see it. This became an unexpected problem. We were on the brink of moving house – my dad had a new partner with children of her own so we needed a house with more bedrooms. While I was in hospital the purchase of the new house was confirmed. My dad would need to pack all of my belongings himself… including the condom tree. Strangely, given my other concerns, this made me anxious. My mother asked what was bothering me. I told her my dad was about to find a twig in my wardrobe adorned with prophylactics. She thought this was hilarious, impressed that Gary had come up with something so creative. ‘Is that all?’ She said. ‘I’ll warn your dad’.
Confinement to a hospital bed brings its own set of problems. It’s taboo of course but flatulence becomes a serious issue. When the body is immobilised gases can’t pass through it in the usual way. The resulting blockages are incredibly painful. The traditional remedy, peppermint oil, brings only limited relief. To fart is a rare opportunity. Most of my visitors weren’t exposed to this but my close family – as if they didn’t have enough to cope with – were not so lucky. Occasionally I’d let out a one man salute during visiting time. Sitting on chairs at eye level to my mattress, it would hit them like fog rolling in off the ocean. Once again they were collateral damage.
The monotonous grind of a long stay in hospital was tough. I desperately wanted to go home. The same routine began at 7am every day. Bowls of warm water to wash, breakfast, the drugs trolley, changing bed sheets, fluffing pillows, bed pans, emptying urine bottles, lunch, unconvincing smiles for visitors, word searches, radio, trashy magazines. Trying to come to terms with my injuries without privacy felt like a cruel experiment. I needed time alone. When the nurses rang the bell to signify the end of visiting time I’d often be sobbing. Crying for myself but for my parents’ suffering too. The emotional strain was overwhelming.
I learned the identity of the driver of the car while still in hospital. A 19 year old former pupil of my school. The same age as my brother Mark, so they knew of each other. My mother worried there could be an altercation if Mark bumped into him somewhere. This was an unlikely scenario. Mark was away at university most of the time and, to my knowledge, had never been in a fight (apart from a time he and his friends were set upon in nearby Beverley… but that’s another story). There were no handbags at dawn.
Several years later at a party, a friend of Mark’s came over to talk to me. The driver, he said, was sorry for what had happened that night. That it still troubled him. He was a nice bloke. I should feel sympathy for him apparently. I was incredulous (as were my friends). The driver’s feelings were of no interest to me. ‘Is that so?’ I said rhetorically, and walked away. I didn’t feel anger towards the driver, but I didn’t forgive him either. He was a feckless, selfish idiot. I’ve since heard his name only one other time – when I was told he’d appeared in court accused of reckless driving. He received a few points on his licence.
Although my right leg was no longer in traction, the pin to pull the leg downwards was still in place – like a steel bolt from a crossbow through my shin. After 2 months it was removed, along with the cast on my ankle. For this I was wheeled into the treatment room, just outside the entrance to the ward. Sue, one of my favourite nurses, was to perform the procedure.
Chatting to Sue beforehand, she told me she wouldn’t be using an anaesthetic when she removed the pin. I thought this was a joke. Surely she wouldn’t really pull out a 5mm diameter pin from my leg without numbing the area?
The cast on my ankle was cut open using a Cast Saw. The circular blade looked scary but it actually only vibrated, it didn’t spin. Sue switched it on and held it against my arm to demonstrate it was harmless. In less than 10 minutes the cast was gone. It was a relief to be able scratch the itches that had been driving me nuts for weeks. The pin through my shin, now fully visible with the cast removed, was a grisly sight. I dreaded what was coming next.
I was still sure Sue was teasing me about the anaesthetic. Only when she said ‘look away while I do this. I know what you’re like’ did I truly believe she wasn’t joking. ‘I’ll be as quick as I can’ she said.
The pin would be unscrewed inside my shin bone then pulled out. Sue grasped the tool like a corkscrew. A thin metal rod poked out between her fingers with a kind of Allen Key socket on the end to fit around the pin. I looked away as she leaned in to get a good grip. I gritted my teeth, groaning quietly as she began turning. This wasn’t nursing. This was carpentry.
The pain was bad but I’d had worse. The sensation was a weird throbbing inside the bone, pulsating with each turn. Breathlessly, with a smile, she said ‘All done!’ The pin was in her hand. Slightly bent with traces of blood along one end. The holes were left behind in my leg looked like stigmata.
She cleaned the area them applied a dressing.I was allowed to keep the pin but only after cotton wool was taped over its sharp end so I didn’t accidentally stab someone. Over 30 years later I still have the scars on my shin showing the entry and exit points of the pin.
Hospital could be dehumanising but there was kindness and warmth too. Among the characters on the ward was an adorable Irish cleaner in her 50s with huge thick glasses. She’d chat to each of us as she cleaned around our beds. Cheerful and caring, She had time for all of us. Even chatting to our families if she were around during visiting time.
One day I received a well intentioned but unexpected reprimand from a nurse. When the shift on the ward changed the incoming nurses received a briefing from those about to leave. Patients were discussed. I was very down at the time. Depressed probably. I must have been discussed at the briefing. A nurse I knew well came over to my bed and drew the curtain. ‘What’s going on with you?’ She said. I looked at her, confused. ‘You need to pull yourself together. There are people that have it much worse than you. Look at you. Your young. You’re bright. You’re a good looking lad. You need to stop this right now.’
My 16 year old self was speechless. I wondered what response she’d expected? ‘Wow… you’re absolutely right. How did I not see it. I’ll be sure to be happier tomorrow’? I seethed. Did she seriously think a few stern words and absurd flattery were going to help? I regret not challenging her but I was stunned, and conscious only a curtain separated us from the other patients and nurses. There was no privacy. I was crushed. I didn’t want sympathy but I did want understanding. The only conversations I’d had with medical staff were about my injuries, treatment and prognosis. No one at the hospital had spoken to me about the emotional impact of this life altering event. The conversation with this nurse was the only time. Ironically the effect was the opposite of that intended. Pull yourself together son. Don’t you know how lucky you are?