Terry O'Connor

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Lying awake in the small hours of the morning, I found myself thinking about Wilma Flintstone, wife of the egregious Fred in the 1960s cartoon series depicting the “modern Stone-Age family”. Wilma was the archetype of the patient, sensible wife-in-the-background who has become such an essential of TV drama series, managing her boisterous man-child husband with amused affection. Her legacy is obvious: Tom and Joyce Barnaby of Midsomer Murders are Fred and Wilma in live-action form, with DS Jones as a slightly taller Barney Rubble. What is less obvious, perhaps, is that Joyce Barnaby is the most prolific yet undetected mass-murderer in history, which shows the importance of being ordinary. Wilma would have understood that perfectly.

What brought Wilma Flintstone to mind was a recent stay in hospital during which I was on a ward commanded (there is no better word for it) by a nurse named Wilma. This particular Wilma had the appearance and accent of someone from the Philippines rather than the Stone Age, and ran a tight ship without ever appearing to nag or bully. In fact, my experience of Airedale General was difficult to equate with the media accounts of crowded hospitals close to collapse. I do not doubt that those accounts are factually accurate, and Airedale General may be as stretched as any other NHS facility, but Wilma and her team gave no hint of it. Nonetheless, time spent on a hospital ward is always somewhat disorienting, especially when the effects of general anaesthesia are still whiffling around in the cognitive centres. Do I want some tea? Yes please. Do I take milk and sugar? Ummm can’t remember. It is only too easy to understand how elderly patients sometimes find hospital a confusing or even frightening experience. The frail and very old farmer in the bed opposite me was clearly having a problem with reality. What’s them? They’re your false teeth, you need to put them in. Them? In me mouth? Oh no! Then quite out of the blue he caught my attention with unwavering eye-contact. Going home today? Yes, I hope so. Aye, home’s best place. And with that, his eyes unfocussed and he lay back, his moment of lucidity gone. I hope he recouped sufficient marbles to be allowed home himself. And remembered his dentures.

To be allowed to recover at home following surgery is clearly to the benefit of crowded hospitals and, one suspects, of the patients too. I had to assure staff that all major input and output routines were nominal and that appropriate pain-killers were available at home in order to be released. The downside is the necessity of nursing one’s own recuperation, finding that happy balance between being restfully sedentary and sufficiently active to avoid going completely mad with cabin fever. I am not a good patient and would have made an even worse nurse. That knowledge makes me all the more respectful of healthcare professionals such as Wilma and her team. It also makes me think that sensible, patient Wilma Flintstone may have missed her vocation.


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