Don's diary

August 15, 1997


Work has been pretty heavy for the past few weeks, so it feels self-indulgent to leave at 5pm, but we have a football match against civil engineering, which kicks off at 5.30. With a minute of the first half left, I mistime a tackle and go down heavily on my left knee. It does not take a medical genius to work out that some reorganisation of its constituent parts has taken place. I am whisked by ambulance to the Bradford Royal Infirmary, accompanied by our goalie (or academic secretary), whose presence and support I appreciate all the more as the evening wears on. It transpires that I have ruptured a tendon securing my kneecap. I spend my first night in hospital since the age of four.


I start to acclimatise to institutional living. Given my professional life it is odd that it feels so alien. I begin to get a flavour of the view of universities. "Where do you work?" "The university." "Oh really - what do you teach?" (in quite positive tones). "I'm an administrator." "Oh" (in tones of indifference or incomprehension tinged with, well, wariness, to put it mildly). The bluntest comment comes from a nurse who, on learning my wife is also an administrator, says: "You must be rich - why haven't you gone private?" They operate (successfully) on Thursday afternoon. My wife comes in, and is much more tolerant of the idiocy that has landed me here than I am. I do not enjoy the nights. The darkness magnifies the sense of being surrounded by anguish. Jim, in the bed next to me, is in pain, which he deals with by whispering "Oh dear", or, if it gets really bad, "Oh dear, oh dear dear dear, oh dear dear dear dear". This verbalisation is rare - generally the sounds could be dubbed onto a film about jungle life.


I am told I will start physiotherapy today and be discharged on Monday. I am introduced to my crutches shortly afterwards. Friday lunch is my first A-grade protein since Wednesday lunch. The food is fine, and the tea that I drink throughout my stay is much better than the university's. I receive my first visit from colleagues. It's nice to see them, and reassuring to deal with the couple of bits of work they have brought. Things must be improving.


I complete the mental stock-taking of what I can and cannot do with dismay. I have always said that in considering mobility difficulties, we tend to think of the permanently wheel-chair bound, whereas in fact any one of us may suffer such a problem temporarily or permanently. Yet all my arrangements assume that I am able-bodied. The sense of the disruption of plans and the consequent imposition on everyone else, particularly my wife (alias registrar and secretary at Huddersfield), is much worse than the physical discomfort.


It is interesting to compare the NHS with the system we work in. Like universities, hospitals depend hugely on goodwill. The patience and equanimity of the nurses are admirable. Some things we do markedly better - in particular getting information to and from our "customers". The hospital's attitude to patients is in some ways comparable to the ambivalence of our relations with students. I witness a nurse encouraging a patient to make a complaint, when the issue could be (and subsequently is) quite readily resolved without more ado. Another nurse ticks off a patient for smoking in the lavatory: he denies it hotly, citing as evidence his lack of a lighter. I make my way to the adjacent empty cubicle, on the floor of which lies a cigarette lighter. It is like being back at school.


Robert, in the bed to my right, has to make the choice of treatment for a shattered ankle. He feels, rightly, that he has not been given enough information on which to base the decision, and we work out some questions for him to put to a helpful physio and to the less informative doctor who comes back later with the consent form. As the afternoon wears on, I am told that the physios may not get back for the session I need before I am discharged, and I will probably be in for another night. This seems as daft to the hospital economically as it is to me personally. After a bit of negotiation, the physios appear, I am passed competent on my crutches, and am discharged. It is wonderful to be at home and to have a (relatively) good night's sleep.


The phone line between home and the university is kept busy dealing with various work issues and sorting out how to handle the next few weeks. I begin to get a sense of how, with lifts to and from the university, and a fax and laptop at home, I should be able to maintain a reasonable level of work. The head of public relations delivers some work to me on her way home: another proxy for normality. By the day's end I am pretty tired and my knee is complaining quietly. I remind myself not to overdo things. My family laughs hollowly.


I return to the fray tomorrow, so I shift a few bits of work and try to gather a bit of stamina. At 6pm, I reflect with a frisson that exactly a week ago I was lying on the football pitch clasping my knee. The consequences will be with me, and, regrettably, others, for a fair while yet.

Nick Andrew is registrar and secretary, University of Bradford.

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