The kindness of strangers
One moment you’re cycling (on a nice, broad cycle path) and the next moment you look with baffled horror at a giant wheel under which your leg has disappeared. You scream and scream, at the top of your lungs.
Then you find yourself sitting on the ground in the pouring rain, with your left hand supporting a foot that is lying there in a bizarre 90° angle to your leg. There are people around you.
A woman is holding my hand, urging me to look into her eyes, speaking in a soothing voice each time I start panicking again (“but ma’am, do you see my foot? I’m going to lose my foot! I’m going to lose my foot! ”). A man holds me by the shoulders so can I sit up straight. Another bystander takes care of my bicycle and locks it. Yet another man shows up, explaining he has seen the whole accident happening from behind his window.
And all those people are waiting patiently in the rain for the ambulance to arrive, consoling and supporting me. All those people acting out of sheer concern... I don’t have their names (though perhaps the witness may show up in the police report) so I can only thank them, anonymously, here on this blog.
A hospitable hospital
After 20 minutes or so the ambulance arrived and they shoved me into it after having carefully wrapped my leg in a protective cylinder. The ambulance man did his best to cheer me up, allaying the worst of my fears. In the mean time I had also managed to contact C. and to alert my employer.
Now I shan’t recount every single step of the subsequent hospital procedure and medical treatment, but in any case, all along I was impressed and moved by how I was being “processed” with both swift efficiency and much, much kindness.
In a neon-lit emergency room they first did some preliminary checks and administrated pain killers via an intravenous drip. Then I was wheeled through endless corridors and lifts to a cavernous room for a radiography (“awful fracture” , the operator whistled admiringly) . After that I was wheeled back again to the emergency room with the doctor already consulting the picture of my leg’s bones on a screen and announcing peremptorily “this has to be operated, tomorrow at the latest”.
While laying dizzily, feeling slightly nauseous, on a bed, the door opened and I was over-happy to see dear C. coming in. Next a police officer arrived (busy places, these emergency rooms) to take my declaration (she looked definitely smug, saying “I’ve got two witnesses, and they’re telling the same thing too!”). Then my mobile buzzed again with my sister calling worriedly. And meanwhile the hospital’s administration had been churning on efficiently: they had already booked a surgeon, an anaesthetist and a surgery crew for an orthopaedic operation, all that on the very same Friday night.
C. had to leave, taking all my belongings with her (hospital personnel had advised not to keep mobile or any other valuables on me) and then yet another orderly wheeled me through corridors and lifts again , this time to the antechamber of the operating room. And there I lay for about two hours, alone, tired&thirsty , but oddly contented (that painkiller drip?), clutching a piece of paper with C’s phone number, watching my surroundings.
Ah, to the right a wall full with old pictures of kids, childhood pictures of the operating team members? ( yes indeed, a passing nurse confirmed). To the left another room, with an old woman sleeping in a bed, and a nurse waking. And every once in a while, some doctors and nurses passed, removing caps and aprons, chatting. Looking forward to the weekend no doubt. The anaesthetist dropped by, she looked into my dossier and reassured me I was still to be operated on tonight.
At last I was rolled into the operating room –the anaesthetist was telling a funny story to the nurse while approaching me with a big cylinder-needle.
A hospital bed with a view: rooftops, clouds, co-patients, nurses, doctors and dear visitors.
“did everything go alright? “ I asked, when opening my eyes again. It was 10 PM and I was in a regular bed in a hospital room with a nurse arranging a pillow under my foot. She gently touched my sole, (“do you feel this? “yes, I do!) ” and asked me to wriggle my toes (which proved harder). I was still clutching the paper with C’s phone-number and the nurse was kind enough to give her a reassuring call. My room-mate (with an impressive bandage on her nose) peeked around the curtain to inspect the new arrival and we briefly exchanged the state of our respective pains and ills.
It was a night of tossing and turning, for both my room-mate and me. I often woke with a start, looking out of the window at a dark cloudy sky, rooftops, and far off some buildings with Xmas-lights. At 6AM the nurse checked again upon me and then gradually the hospital came to life with the day’s procedures being launched: checking temperature & blood pressure; washing; changing IV drip & bandages & bed clothes; feeding etc etc.
The ward doctor and a trainee doctor came by and looked at my wounds (looks good!), the surgeon came by and looked at my leg (looks good!). The physiotherapist came by and took note of my worry that I couldn’t move around my foot. Later yet another ward doctor came by and made me move my foot (I couldn’t ) and duly added this fact to my file.
In the afternoon, while still being condemned to bed, I found myself again in the rare position of being the centre of attention , this time of my dear visitors laden with fruit and periodicals.
In the evening my room-mate moved out, leaving silence behind her - a flamboyant woman she was, with a dashing allure making one all but forget the huge bandage on her face. She had been speaking a mixture of beautiful French and rapid Arabic with her visitors and had been equipped with the latest of (very audible!) visual & audio electronic gadgets.
The next room-mate came in only on Monday morning . An elderly woman wearing a scarf and accompanied by worried relatives. She didn’t speak French and looked initially quite frightened, seeming to find solace only in her string of prayer beads. She did revive when an Arabic speaking nurse came in or when chatting on the phone and when her daughter and son in law (both looking quite hip and entrepreneurial) came over during their lunch hour. (Daughter & son came also kindly to my rescue with a plastic teaspoon when I enthusiastically tried to attack a smuggled in yoghurt without the necessary equipment).
Meditations on crutches
How relieved I was when I finally received a couple of crutches and a 10 minutes’ course of “walking on crutches”. At last a modicum of mobility and autonomy again, be it hobbling and limping.
While sitting in a chair by the window, waiting for dear C. to bring me home again, I gazed outside – over the rooftops, to the rapid clouds in the sky and then down, to a man doing some paintwork on his balcony, a woman cleaning the windows, a cyclist passing by in the street below. How peaceful and reassuring it all looked.
I had been having regular flashbacks of that horrendous wheel on my leg, I couldn’t yet move my foot, was still in some pain, felt slightly feverish and very tired. But I also felt calm and thankful, definitely thankful, yes. And much less of a pessimist misanthrope than I usually am. Because indeed, so much care and kindness had been bestowed on me ... belying so many of my gloomy views.
Brussels a tough city full of indifferent people? What about those accidental bystanders then, who promptly helped me and then patiently waited in the rain for the ambulance to arrive...?
Belgium a society crumbling under inefficiency and lack of social cohesion? What about the smooth functioning of ambulance+ police+ hospital then? ( and I had ‘merely’ been receiving standard treatment). What then about the amazing diversity of people (a startling range of colours and native languages) at that hospital, all getting along and doing their bit? As a citizen I’m often fretting about how all these different strands are to merge into a coherent whole, as a patient I have now only seen collaboration.
However, one injustice remains glaring. Hospital nurses are truly to be admired – their work is hard, with irregular shifts and is both physically & emotionally demanding . Their care means so much for anyone who is ill, helpless or in pain. And yet they’re underpaid, earning much less than selfish self-important bankers...