BY KEITH NEWTON
Copyright is held by the author.
RECENTLY, I had a hip replacement and found myself recuperating in what I quickly named “Tent City.” It was a large room divided into individual units by long curtains suspended from metal runners in the ceiling. They say that all the world’s a stage but for me, for six days, Tent City was the stage on which a daily (and nightly) drama played out. I watched and listened to this unique theatre. I encountered some memorable characters and witnessed some amusing scenes.
Among the cast of principal characters Nurse George had a distinctly patrician mien: chiseled features, steely hair and rimless glasses. He had the impeccable manners and polite concern of a Southern gentleman. Efficient, too: where others hustled and bustled he seemed to glide. When he noticed that I was somewhat taken aback by the unceasing crashing of bedframes, the movement of stretchers, the strident ringing of IV machines and the frequent PA announcements he offered this advice: “steel yourself; you’ll get used to it.” (Well, I never did, and was mightily relieved when I was moved to the relative tranquility of the Rehab Centre, but that was to come later.)
Brett and Nell worked different shifts but both looked like they’d arrived on a powerful motorcycle: black on black, leather, studs, tattoos, and rings in various places. Young, energetic, irrepressibly good-humoured, they would touch down in Tent City like cheerful tornadoes. Nell appeared once brandishing her weapon of choice. “Not another bloody donation,” I croaked.
“Dead right dear,” she replied. “They call me The Vampire, you know.”
Another principal character was my next-door neighbour, whom I could not see, because of the curtain; but, boy, could I hear him. I soon dubbed him “The Perpetual Patient.” Once installed, he loudly introduced himself and then proceeded to regale us with a long and detailed history of his many and varied ailments, including bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, diabetes, septicemia, anemia and a couple of broken limbs. In each case he explained the method of treatment, including the pharmaceutical names of all the meds and the dosages. But what I took as a lamentable history of bad luck and bad health he clearly regarded as a laudable series of accomplishments. I marvelled at the tone of pride in his voice as he rattled off the well-rehearsed litany. Soon he was snagging the attention of passing nurses or orderlies, many of whom were too kind to tear themselves away. It was clear that he was carving out for himself a starring role in the Tent City drama and he wouldn’t be relinquishing it any time soon.
I soon realized that Tent City had its own little culture. Its own language for example: more or less based on English (and sometimes French) and more-or-less understandable, but loaded with pharmaspeak. ( How the hell would I know the difference between a metachlorobicinalin pill and a Smartie?) It was a microcosm with a rather non-representative sample of the general population, but all the merrier for that. Most importantly it had a set of rules, protocols and procedures—judiciously skirted on occasion—within which the highly-skilled staff went about their work with infinite patience and good humour.
Paradoxically, one event during my stay in Tent City required me to exercise patience and good humour as well. The curtains defining our units were also supposed to afford us some privacy from our neighbours and from the dozens of people passing by the open door. Well, Katerina—another of the main characters in the Tent City Theatre—was not big on curtains. Being short, she had difficulty closing them and would offer a few words of Tagalog in remonstrance before giving up and dismissing them with a wave of her hand.
On one occasion, having administered my afternoon painkillers she decided to have a look at the incision occasioned by my hip-swap. I was asked to present the area for her inspection. I tried in vain to convince her that drawing the curtains might give us a bit more privacy. “No worry,” she said, “nobody see your face.” She rrripped off the dressing and must have decided that the wound required the application of some special ointment appropriate to the moment. She scurried off leaving my innocent elevated bum as a beacon to the world. About 10 minutes later she arrived in triumph and anointed the wound with clucking noises of self-approval. She was rapturous about that incision. “Such a beautiful fine line”, she enthused, “and no staples. That boy is a genius.” (I assumed she was referring to Dr. Dante, my surgeon.) Oh well; all part of the daily drama I supposed, but not quite the particular cameo appearance I would have chosen for myself.
One final little scenario arose because of my inability to pee right after my operation. I’d had a spinal but was more generally groggy when a team of medics assembled to assess my ‘vitals’. Among them was my young surgeon, Arturo Dante. He grinned boyishly and gave me ‘thumbs up’. Then one of the nurses informed me, among other things, that I had a full bladder and was urged to empty it. Couldn’t. “No worries”, one of the nurses said gleefully, “we’ll catheterize you.” Ugh.
Next day I had occasion to use one of those handy little plastic urinals that hang so gaily on your bed rail. I remarked on the dark brown colour of my offering. “Normal,” I was told cheerfully, “we catheterized you yesterday; it’s just blood. The colour will get lighter in time.” It did, slowly but surely, over the next few days. I was able to identify a mini-spectrum of pee-colours that ran from bear-brown through tawny, jaune and, finally, straw.
One night as my nurse was about to kindly remove my latest ‘contribution’ I remarked that she must have seen hundreds of colours and tints during her career. “Thousands.” she said. I jokingly suggested that she might write a book of anecdotes about her work and call it Fifty Shades of Yellow. “Yes,” she said with a grin. “Good idea. I don’t know about the contents, but the cover would be beautiful.”
So I leave with no remaining shreds of dignity but with a great appreciation of what to me was a brave new little world whose stage plays around the clock. I am privileged to have encountered some of its wonderful thespians in the Tent City Theatre.