The femur (thigh bone) is the largest bone in the human body. It takes 3 months for a broken femur shaft to repair itself. So, regardless of my other injuries, I’d spend 3 months in a hospital bed.
This was unimaginable. I thought of 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. There was nothing she could do.
My consultant, Mr King, made his ward rounds at the same time each week. An entourage of 8 or so clipboard carrying medics shuffled along behind him. They 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 intimidating. Before a ward round the atmosphere became frantic. Nurses rushed to get the patients ready. The ward sister should be seen to be running a tight ship. Consultants were venerated. Patients and nurses spoke when spoken to. Rarely did I say anything more than hello. I was an exhibit, to be observed and discussed. My input not required or expected.
Two ward rounds were particularly memorable.
I’d been receiving daily iron supplements, via a hypodermic syringe into my thigh. It was incredibly painful. Not the needle going in. Although that was unpleasant because the nurses had to stab quite hard to penetrate the flesh. The intense pain came as the thick liquid was discharged into the muscle. 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 the 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 the ward round following the surgery on my femur, Mr King explained to the group that traction hadn’t been successful. Instead, I’d had surgery to attach a metal plate, to align 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 looked up at their faces not knowing what to do. Most hadn’t even noticed but I could see some 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 an orthopaedic 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 admitted for 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 high 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 weight bearing. Unfortunately for him, 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-weight bearing for a few months.
Naturally Paul was excited about going home. 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.
The day he left he was overjoyed. We were happy for him. A week earlier, we’d watched him carefully slide out of bed for the first time. Encouraging him as he took his first steps using crutches. We cheered as he finally manoeuvred his way out of the ward, his family around him, carrying his belongings.
As usual, I didn’t sleep well that night. With both legs and my arm immobilised I could only lie on my back. Sleeping was 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 Paul. He’d re-fractured his femur. He was put 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 the hospital.
I’d been moved to this ward because I no longer needed intensive care. My pain was under control. The bones in my legs and arm just needed time to repair. For the damaged nerves in my shoulder it was a waiting game. To see if the nerves repaired themselves. Or not.
So far I’d only been well enough for visits by close family. I was ready to receive more visitors. On the public wards, visiting time was 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 body language of the different types of visitor. Those smiling broadly were usually there to see a short-stay patient. Or a perhaps 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 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.
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 a sliding scale I used to rate all other dishes. 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 in the evening. Usually chicken or tuna salad. To supplement my iron supplements with even more iron she brought cans 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 stay on into 6th Form for 2 years. It was surreal to imagine this happening when my life had been dramatically upended.
Read Part 5: ‘Do you want to see my scars?’