Glimpses of a cruel world
The local Health Officer met me outside the house. ‘She’s a widow living alone … a recluse … she’s boarded up all the windows and locked herself in … hasn’t paid gas, electricity or water bills for months and so all those services have been stopped … the folk next door sell her water for 50 cents a bucket,’ he paused. ‘Bit of a health hazard now.’
He produced a key and a powerful torch and led the way. Inside it was as dark as the tomb. He forced the shutters open and suddenly daylight flooded into the living room, which presented an extraordinary sight. Furniture was piled and stacked so that you could barely move, with new bird cages and an ironing board propped against a grand piano. And everywhere giant black cobwebs. ‘She’s a compulsive spender … here she comes.’
A fantastic sight met our eyes. Two very white human legs wriggled in mid-air in the beam of his torch. Then the feet found their way to the floor. An adult torso now started to worm its way backwards out to the waist-high tunnel. Eventually a woman dressed in black stood up. ‘Good afternoon,’ she said, in an exquisitely modulated English voice.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Digby’, said my companion. ‘She lives down there,’ he said. He shone the torch down the tunnel, which proved to be constructed of furniture and roughly floored with cushions. ‘There’s a kitchen at the far end,’ and I could see a mongrel-looking dog tethered to the gas stove.
‘There’s a back door leading to the yard’, he said. ‘They both use it!’
‘And how are you, Mrs Digby?’
‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have had the kettle on,’ she said demurely.
‘She’s not pregnant, Doctor’
She lay back wanly against the pillows, a white-faced married woman aged 30. I was doing a short-term stint at a small town hospital. She admitted to few symptoms.
‘I just feel exhausted’, she murmured softly. She was breathing quickly, but heart and lungs seemed normal to my examination.
‘I’ll just check your tummy’, I said.
Some instinct made me lift the sheet. Between her legs was a severed umbilical cord.
‘You’ve just had a baby’, I announced naively.
‘Oh no, Doctor’, she replied. ‘I’m not pregnant.’ Further questioning elicited further denials.
Her husband would have been forty-ish, and looked grey and tired. ‘Oh no, Doctor, she’s not pregnant’, he maintained. And then added, by way of oblique explanation, ‘I work nights, you see, and she’s on days.’
‘Has she perhaps been in another hospital?’ My tone must have sounded dumbfounded.
‘No—she’s just been at home with me.’
The woman police constable seated at the bedside looked incongruous in the little hospital ward. At home, in a suitcase, the bodies of twin boys had been found, their heads showing signs of severe contusion where they had struck the tiled floor of the bathroom.
I attended the post-mortem on the babies, done by a well-known forensic pathologist. ‘One of the more heart-rending crimes, I always think’, he said. ‘Infanticide—and you wonder why it isn’t commoner than it is.’
I was on casualty duty in the same hospital. An elderly man had just walked in.
‘I was just trying to catch the bus’, he said forlornly. He held out a hand. At first glance the thumb appeared to have been almost severed. In fact some skin and, mercifully, a core of tendon and connective tissue were still holding it on. This was well before the days of microsurgery. As I bent over to infiltrate, I noticed that his pain responses seemed satisfactorily dulled. He had a bland, facile grin on his face, and it was the face of a man in his late 60s.
‘I was running behind and tried to jump on,’ he explained. As I worked on I noticed that he seemed insensitive to pain, even in areas where I had not injected local. I had been qualified for all of eight weeks, and my mind wrestled with a diagnosis. I finished my needle-work and stood up.
‘I want you to come back tomorrow for a fresh dressing,’ I said, putting what I hoped was a friendly reassuring hand on his left upper arm as I did so. To my dismay his left humerus ‘clunked’ with an extraordinary display of crepitus and was clearly broken. Yet he did not even wince!
‘I think you’d better sit down again,’ I said. I wrote a letter referring him to the nearest public hospital. An ambulance could take him at once.
A further emergency had just come in, and Sister was tugging at my arm. I ended my letter with the words ‘… I have not checked his femurs’.
You’ve guessed it. He had a fractured femur as well. And the cause of his anaesthesia? I never discovered.
DISCUSSIONS AND LESSONS LEARNED
Although we lead varied lives, there are certainly moments when we seem to be caught up in a dull routine. Then the veil may suddenly lift and we are face to face with a startling glimpse of a cruel world normally beyond our ken, in which ordinary folk are battling with mental confusion, grievous personal loss, pain and deprivation. And they need our respect and understanding as much as, if not more than, the conventionally ill.