Hospital memories: Death pays a visit

My memories of hospital visits are scarce. Some I recall in quite vivid detail and they cast a giant shadow over my life, perhaps a lot more than  I realised until recently. They fit into a different chapter in this story and will be amplified later in the right context.

At some stage during one of many trips to Dr Steevens Hospital in Dublin I had a brush with death. The ward I was in was mixed, with adults and young boys side by side in their beds. Sometimes the adults were nice, other times they were a right pain. Us younger lads, if we weren’t incapacitated, became friendly, sharing comics or sweets if we had them, or reading quietly together. Those were the better moments.

There was one boy in an adjoining ward who never got out of bed. His head was swathed in bandages, with just slits for eyes, nose and mouth. I asked him what had happened. It seemed he had knocked over a kettle of boiling water while reaching for something close to the cooker and the contents landed on his head. The effects of boiling water were a mystery to me then, so other than the sight of him covered in bandages I couldn’t guess at his condition.

One day I went over to his bedside with a bunch of comics. I took a seat by his bed and we read away. After a few minutes a nurse strolled by, took one look at him and suddenly shooed me away. I looked back and he appeared to be asleep. Minutes later I saw a trolley being rushed in the direction of his ward and it later returned, this time with a body. I know it was a body rather than a patient because the blanket covered it from head to toe. Shocked, I tried to puzzle out why he had died, for dead he certainly was. And later, just to be sure, I checked his bed. It was empty. He never returned, of course and I’m sorry I never knew his name. Death had paid a visit and I had barely noticed.

Dr Steevens was also the place where serious burns or accident victims in need of reconstruction came back in the 1950s and 1960s when I made regular visits for skin grafts and plastic surgery. I can’t date it exactly, but I do remember a commotion once when families of Travellers descended rather noisily on the hospital. They stalked the corridors for a week following a fire in which several children were severely burned. Over the next few days some of those children died. The wailing was shocking painful to hear and those sounds haunt me to this day.

I realised my accident could have had a more serious, perhaps fatal consequence. I was lucky, although often in the years ahead I forgot that.

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