I came to love my Danish country hospital and its reassuring routines; now it is being closed downby Sally Laird / July 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
I suffer from an illness called erysipelas. It attacks once or twice a year: I get a high fever, then a fiery red patch starts spreading down my leg. These days I know what to do. As soon as my teeth start chattering, I set off for Grenaa Centralsygehus (central hospital). The drive, down country lanes, takes about half an hour. If the hospital isn’t too busy, I will be wheeled within an hour into one of the medical wards on the ground floor. There I will spend the next week hooked up to a penicillin drip, until the fever subsides and the doctors declare I am ready to go home.
My home for the past ten years has been in Ebeltoft, a small town on the east coast of Jutland, but I come from London. It is a peculiar experience for a foreigner to spend a week in a Danish country hospital.The first time I stayed in Grenaa, I experienced its most innocent procedures as an assault on my person. I resented being identified by my social security number instead of my name, and being made to wear underwear stamped Aarhus Amt (county). I did not like having a thermometer poked up my arse and I wanted curtains around my bed, like we have in England. I felt as if my body had been nationalised by the Danish state, which was now free to display it, or insert things into it, just as it wished. And I refused point blank to eat øllebrød for breakfast. It’s a porridge made from rye bread (featured in the film Babette’s Feast) and seemed to me to have the colour and consistency of fresh liquid manure.
But an odd thing happened to me on my most recent visit to Grenaa. When I entered the main doors, I saw a handwritten notice was stuck to the glass: “Long Live Grenaa Centralsygehus!” I felt an unexpected pang. In an economy measure by Aarhus Amt, Grenaa is soon to be “amalgamated” with Randers hospital 60 miles away. Most of its own wards will be scrapped. Perhaps this would be my last visit to the hospital. I found myself hoping that I would stay in one of the wards I liked best, with the tall windows overlooking the trees. I realised then that the hospital had ceased to be a strange Danish institution; it had become my “local.” Now that its days were numbered, I felt like writing an elegy for a country hospital-a klagesang for Grenaa Sygehus.
The hospital was built in 1922, and many of its patients are about the same age. Some are townspeople who once worked at the port, in the fisheries, or at the now defunct textile factory. Others come from opland: from the villages and farms up and down the coast and in the rolling countryside behind. They are people like my friend’s father, Gerhard Nielsen, who lived all his life on the farm at Kobbergaard, south of Grenaa, and is now buried in the village churchyard at Draby. Grenaa was the capital of Gerhard’s world. Randers would have seemed to him a strange place to be cared for or to die.
On my first visit to the hospital I shared a room with an old lady, roughly Gerhard’s age, who had lost all track of time and place. She thought she was at home in the 1930s. Father was at work all day at the tanning factory, while Fru Hansen herself-she must have had a different name then-had just finished realskole, and was embarking on a typing course. Her brothers Sven and Erik, who had something to do with the sea, were thought to be somewhere about the house-possibly hiding under my bed. Fru Hansen also had a little sister called Aase, and it soon transpired that Aase was, in fact, me.
I didn’t mind being Aase. In a way, I was touched that Fru Hansen considered me up to the part. It made no difference to her that I was English, or that we were decades apart in age. We spent hours poring over the television listings in Se og Hør (a popular weekly), where, Fru Hansen believed, we would eventually find the phone numbers of our dead relatives.
I only got truly fed up with her when she tried to climb into bed with me, or stole my dressing gown.
“Look here, Fru Hansen, this is my dressing gown and that one’s yours, OK? The reason they look so similar is that they belong to the hospital. You are in hospital, Fru Hansen,” I rubbed it in unkindly.
“Am I?” she asked, gazing about her in bewilderment. Then her face cleared: “What about you, Aase?” she asked shrewdly. “Are you in hospital too?”
We don’t talk much in the wards about who we are or what we’ve done in life. Now and then, when I sense that my Danish sounds particularly idiotic, I feel tempted to tell my wardmates, and the doctors and nurses, that I am really a woman of education and accomplishment. I speak Russian; I play Beethoven sonatas; my name has appeared in print. Under the circumstances, though, none of this seems to count for much. Instead we talk about the weather and what’s for lunch; about our lungs and hearts and legs; about our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. Sometimes we watch the news on television, but-whether from indifference, or for fear of offending one another-we don’t discuss out loud what we think of George W Bush or lesbian motherhood.
It was a different matter, though, when we heard that Queen Margrethe was in hospital having an operation. Suddenly the ward became quite animated. We speculated on how many rooms the Queen and her retinue occupied, and whether Her Majesty was allowed to smoke in bed. Obviously she did not wear her tiara in hospital, but did she have to wear an official nightie? Although we did not say so, I think we were all imagining the Queen’s naked back and the surgeon’s knife going in. There was nothing disrespectful in these musings. On the contrary, we felt great empathy for the Queen in her pain-all the more so because she lay revealed as a “poor, bare, forked animal” just like us.
There is something restful-even self-affirming-about discarding one’s customary identity for a while. Perhaps the Queen also feels this. To be in hospital is akin to attending a jury or going to church. You are there in your capacity as a human being, or as one of God’s creatures and, in the right mood, you can feel a special kind of pride in this.
“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?” When I was first asked this question, I tried conscientiously to measure my suffering against that of torture victims, or people with legs blown off by mines and in these terms I thought it ranked very low: one, perhaps two at the most. Later, I understood a more subjective measure was intended: how close was I to screaming? I upped my score to seven, even eight, and thus entered the morphine zone.
Morphine acts upon one somewhat like love: it induces a paradisical sense of benevolence. I looked at the doctor-how clever and handsome. The nurse-a saint. As for the curtains in the window, they called up a special tenderness. What thoughtful person had chosen this gentle fabric with its cheering, sunny stripes? After the morphine wore off, the fate of the curtains began to trouble me. What would happen to them when they closed the hospital? All these things about me-the trolley with the vases, the candle holders on the windowsills-were the result of thought and investment. Were they going to throw them all away?
We patients keep farmers’ hours. They wake us soon after 5am, as if to milk the cows. Breakfast follows two hours later. The stuegang-the doctors’ rounds, focal point of the day-takes place mid-morning, by which time the patients should be washed, combed and in their beds. Lunch is at 11.30am; later, we’re supposed to take a nap. Around 2pm, the trolley arrives with coffee and cake, and we get the first round of visitors. Dinner is at 5.30pm; then the evening guests, a little snack around 8pm, and lights out at 10pm.
It is, in many ways, an ideal regime. There is plenty of time to read, listen to music, or just look at the sky. At the same time, there is always, even at night, a sense of help at hand, a distant bustle, the chink of things on trolleys. You learn to recognise the different sounds approaching: the women in green with their needles, straps and tubes; the cleaning ladies with feather dusters; the welcome rattle of the telephone on wheels. And then come the unexpected friends, people you haven’t seen for months. No matter how stressed their own lives may be, they shower attention on you, they bring chocolates and flowers, and you do not have to cook for them.
Meanwhile, you are being cooked for. To women patients especially, this means a great deal. Some patients have only the vaguest notion of what their treatment consists of; what gives them the sense of being cared for is the nursing-the washing, the wheeling, and above all the food. The dishes are homely and consoling. We get vegetable soups, skipperlabskovs (skipper’s stew), risengrød (rice pudding), havregrød (oatmeal) and of course ollenbrød.In the slow death of the hospital, it is said that the kitchen will be the first organ to go. I am shocked by this news. I know how quickly, once the cooking has stopped, a house turns sour, loveless, dead.
One day I was taken down to the radiology department for a scan of my heart. I lay on my side on the examination couch, facing a computer screen and while the radiologist slid his cold instrument over me, leaving a trail of jelly round my breast, I watched my heart on the screen. There, lodged in its chambers, sat what looked like a small grey homunculus, a creature out of Gogol, obsessively rocking back and forth as if striking, over and over, the same one letter on his typewriter. Who was this ardent, faithful clerk, and what letter had he been practising these 46 years? The room he inhabited looked dingy and cobwebbed, full of strange, clinging fibres like seaweed on an old wreck, but I was amazed by the vigour and precision of his movement: boom-swish! boom-swish! boom-swish! he went. I felt privileged to have been offered this glimpse of my heart. If everyone could see the astonishing machinery inside them, might they begin to treat it more kindly, as they treat the engines of their boats or blades of their drills?
The regime here is liberal. The lady opposite me, who is suffering from pneumonia, alternates between sessions on the oxygen machine and visits to what I call the gas chamber-the sitting room for smokers. It operates as a public memento mori. Here sit the skeletal and obese, the slumped figures in wheelchairs, the shuffling spectres clutching their drips. Through the corridor windows it is hard to tell whether the patients inside are laughing uproariously at the television, or bent double from coughing. A notice enjoins us to keep the door closed so none of the smoke can escape.
Once, I overheard a doctor suggesting to my wardmate that she might try giving up. “It’s my only comfort,” she told him. They left it at that. There is a great solicitude in the way the nurses prepare patients for the gas chamber, propping a pillow behind their backs, and placing their coffee and pack of cigarettes neatly on the table of the wheelchair.
When my daughter comes to visit, she usually keeps her jacket on. I have noticed this in the other teenage visitors. They are still at the immortal stage of development, where it is inconceivable that they should ever run aground like us, or indeed belong to the same species. So they sit at the edge of the big family groups, examining their nails in strenuous denial.
Sometimes the grown-up sons look uncomfortable too, standing hunched at the end of their mothers’ beds. It falls to the daughters-in-law to keep up the conversation. When the group is large-two or three generations seated round the bed on a Sunday afternoon-the talk may stray to inappropriate themes, like the flaekesteg (roast pork) that the family has just had for lunch. The patient, talked over, looks exhausted. But later on she enjoys regaling us with who was who, and how they are all related.
Especially touching are the withered old husbands, many as frail as the wives they have come to see. Most live nearby; it is hard to imagine them making the journey to Randers. Some bring little gifts-a magazine, tangerines-but don’t know what to do with them; it has never been their lot to arrange things on tables, in cupboards. So they lay these offerings on the bedspread, as if on a grave; and then sit speechlessly holding their wives’ hands.
The information that 30 nurses and assistants were quitting the hospital was on the local evening news. We heard it in the lull after dinner. None of us made any comment, but a peculiar silence ensued. Then there was a slow gathering of sounds. The old man in the ward next to ours, who grunted monotonously all day, seemed to be banging his head against a wall. I heard footsteps running far off, and something crashing to the floor. Nobody came our way, apart from a demented old lady who had lost her shoes.
I registered then that I had skipped one dose of penicillin today. Perhaps this was it. The staff were giving up. Surreptitiously they would put on their coats, turn off the lights, and softly lock the doors behind them. It would be up to us, the more mobile patients, to take charge. I stayed with this vision for an hour or two, while my wardmates fell into their customary snores. Then, just a little later than usual, came the rattle of the trolley down the corridor: tea, coffee, and cheese sandwiches for supper. “Du forkaeler os” (you spoil us), I meant to say to the nurse, but it came out wrong. “Du kvaleer os” (you strangle us), I said. She nodded and smiled as she always did.
I was discharged the next day. In the late morning, still wearing my hospital stigmata-the hole in my hand for the drip, the Aarhus Amt knickers-I went for a walk through the woods to the river that gives the town its name. It was a mild morning; men were fishing from the towpath. On the other side of the river was the main road, then the meadows stretching away. Behind me stood the stricken hospital, with its 400 employees, its 35,000 cases a year, its chapel, kitchen, files, systems, scanners, test tubes, curtains.
“I hope we won’t be seeing you here again,” said the nurse kindly when I shook her hand.
And I don’t suppose they will.