Hospitals abound with stories. Some gory, some sad and others filled with gallows humour. Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards knows all about these stories, and shares one of his personal accounts with us.
Five or so years ago, I was in an intensive care unit (ICU), as a patient in a coma. When I came to, I became aware that once the imminent threat of death dissipates, everybody switches their attention to brain function. The fluctuations in mental state, which are often alarming, are normal.
My family was counselled about the effects of drugs, anxiety, lack of circadian rhythms, and depression. Infections, a stroke, and renal failure, as far as they were concerned, were manageable if I didn’t get ICU psychosis. From then, out of all the information about my prognosis, that single factor became the lodestone to them. My long recovery began, although mostly lucid, my tracheostomy (an incision in the windpipe made to relieve an obstruction to breathing) rendered me mute. All my communication was via a combination of facial expressions and charades.
In the chaos of my heart attack, the hospital rumour mill was working at full tilt. One of the nurses was sitting on the bus, detailing it to another how I had had a heart attack…a bank clerk on the same bus, who also knew me, overheard. She arrived at the office declaring me dead. In a classic broken telephone situation, the bank froze my accounts.
As is often the case with impaired patients, everybody spoke over me. What I wanted to say was that there was a file, labelled Cirrus, at my office. It had the details for them to pay salaries and payments from another account. At that time, I could not remember the name of the man who arranged it. I thought using a cloud reference would work. A new charade began. I looked up, to indicate the sky. My sister tried to find the correct word I was trying to convey: ceiling, Johannesburg, Milpark, and even the obscure satellite was tried. Eventually, we found each other at cloud. The same process linked office and file. We were in business.
At the office, files were opened, pieces of paper examined as if they were a treasure map. All to no avail. Back to ICU, she tried over and over. In her defence, I was trying to explain that there was a fax copy of the details of a financial advisor that I had used, his company was the illusive Cirrus. After some time, she asked me if I thought she was too thick to get it. To my embarrassment, I nodded.
Then her eureka moment, it wasn’t her that was too stupid, the problem lay with me. I had contracted the dreaded ICU psychosis. There was a reason why I was so difficult; I was ‘looney tunes’. Everybody’s attitude towards me took a 180° turn. Thereafter, no matter what I tried to say I was soothed, “Of course.” They all said yes to everything I tried to say, placating me as if I were essentially lobotomized. Realising I had failed, I stopped trying.
A few months later, we were all at a meeting with the accountant, he asked if I wanted to see the advisor to discuss the Cirrus file…as they say the defence rests.
I learnt a valuable lesson. The thing all South Africans seem to have an abundance of, is the ability to look at ourselves and laugh at oddities. We laugh with each other and at ourselves. It is done with a compassion born by the knowledge it is a very South African thing. From Trevor Noah with his trilingual sharpness attracting an international audience to the IsiZulu kasi comedian Mondli Usher, who like the Afrikaans Marion Holm, uses vernacular to convey his humour.
We love to poke fun at ourselves. All we have to do is say ‘Windie Windie’ to reconnect with our favourite petrol attendant’s (Desmond Dube) joy and pride of being a South African sports supporter. We have an inclusive version which can be later distilled into a single word or a look. How many times have you been irritated by something trivial like a slow-moving queue, only to catch someone’s eye and then hear ‘Eish’? In seconds, the commonality of the experience changes the mood.
In the sombre environment of the medical world, often beset with doom and gloom, we must use that to lift our spirits. Please make jokes about bedpans, share the horrors of hospital food, take back dignity by recalling awkward moments with recalcitrant hospital gowns, or anything that can give yourself and your visitors a moment to change their spaniel faces into a semblance of a smile. Nothing crass or medically dangerous like the can-can (remember the gown), just a bit of humanity to reset the mood.
If nothing works, as was the case with me, you can be reassured that whether it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should (Desiderata). Try to find each cloud’s silver lining – even in my case, the delinquent Cirrus.
MEET OUR EXPERT – Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards
Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital – Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister.
He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.