In April 2013 my sixty-three year old husband, Arthur, had a massive brain haemorrhage due to warfarin given for a heart condition post stent-insertion. My local hospital advised me not to keep him alive, and queried whether I could look after a disabled person.
‘Aquatherapy is not for Arthur,’ pronounced the grey-haired professor in a North London Hospital. ‘ And no, he shouldn’t go home. It’s Nursing Home for him.’
But when you arrived at Putney Royal Hospital, they were taking you ‘swimming’ every third week in their specially hot octagonal pool at the back end of the campus.
I asked Anna, the physiotherapist, if she wasn’t afraid of you sinking with just a waist support on:
‘Some people are natural floaters and he’s one of them’.
You were the father who would never take your children swimming and who claimed you couldn’t swim! It was me that dragged three and a half year old Paul to the nearest pool on Sunday afternoons and put his little sister in a playpen at the poolside. On the way home, tired Paul, walking, said,
’When is Daddy coming home?’ (You, Daddy, were in Brazil).
The bathroom has been made. You are home. NHS local unit has provided specialist equipment and back-up, and an agency to change you and put you to bed. I have employed a team of personal assistants for weekday activities. You are wearing a pad, have to be dressed and fed, but enjoy life, going around people-and place-watching as before.
I am still passionate about getting you into water. I dare to ask our GP over the phone if she will make a referral to the local hospital therapy pool.
A week later a letter plops through the rusty letter-box. ‘There must be specific goals to work on’. You count as ‘maintenance, not rehab’ now.
We have six different attempts to find a suitable pool. There’s the public pool only five minutes from our house. The telephonist assures me, ‘Yes, we’ve got a hoist. Our pool is 31 degrees’.
But it’s not a hoist. It’s a chairlift for someone who can’t climb down the rungs into the water. Disappointed, we end up in the café.
And so it goes on.
We try the massive steel pyramid local beach pool, temperature 32 degrees, which has a disabled changing room. Groan, its hoist is temporarily broken.
October begins to cool down. Despondent, we leave the matter till the following spring.
The sun is out. You have started stretching your whole body two or three times after waking up. You’re also raising your left arm a little at dressing time – to help push it through your sleeve! This is great news.
Encouraged, we ask you ‘Do you want to go swimming?’
‘Yes,’ you reply huskily.
I order plastic swim pants online. The ‘Considerate Care Workers’ put them on, followed by boxer shorts and your trousers over the top for warmth. ‘Saint’ Angela – the perfect caring eighteen year old, her Dad: two of my personal assistants – and I venture back to the beach pool, where the hoist has been mended.
I drive, we park, and Saint Angela wheels you over the concrete into the great red doors. Once we’ve paid our dues, the barrier is opened and we get into the sour chlorine-smelling changing area. There’s the tiny disabled changing room with its ceiling hoist and bench. We hoist you, manoeuvre off your trousers, slip off your pad, your shirt and jumper. The pool’s bath chair is broken, so it’s an ordinary Red Cross type, cloth-bottomed chair they’ve provided for us today.
We’ve put a waist strap that Angela brought from home. The changing room is hot as a sauna, and for me, draining of energy. Her Dad, Sid, stuffs your gear, including bulky elbow splints that we’ve just taken off, into the lockers outside or on top of them. Angela parks the hefty wheelchair out of the way of traffic at the end of the corridor. All of this has taken fifteen minutes, but it seems more like an hour! There are three of us, and we needthree – to be safe pushing you in this flimsy chair on the rubber matting to the shallow entry point.
‘Angela, you push. Sid, make sure Arthur’s shoulder doesn’t slip to the left, and I’ll walk backwards and check his purple feet don’t fall off the footrest.’
The pool is dotted with calm little kids – at the beginning of their lives – wearing multi-coloured waist supports or water wings – and their Mums, chattering away, occasionally laughing; and other disabled people who take not one jot of notice of us.
It’s easy to walk in; splash, splash, splash, without us asking, we are passed a flexible yellow waist support by the lifeguard who’s on the other side.
‘You’re welcome. Go a little deeper to allow him to float off the chair.’ We end up in about two and a half feet of water just before a red’ No non-swimmers’ cord.
Angela holds your right shoulder firm; I support your bottom. Her Dad flaps your legs sploshily and pulls you along.
You make loud cries, almost wailings. In Putney Royal Hospital I used to tell you that I was glad you weren’t one of the patients who did that.
‘What’s the matter?’ Surprisingly, it’s pleasure, not pain or cold.
‘Tickles’, you whisper hoarsely, attempting a hint of a smile.
‘Sh-, sh-, sh-. You’ll frighten the babies’, I plea, but you can’t, or won’t, stop. I am embarrassed and tense my shoulders up, but your noises go unheeded. We’re in there about twenty minutes – you’re enjoying staring at the people. It’s almost like the people-spotting you did when ‘plying round on buses’ years ago.
Do you remember I came here with the children – a Paul 13, Rosie, 9, Sam, 5, every Monday night after work? I was teaching French in a not very easy comprehensive school. Paul did crawl round the circular channel outside against the current. Then we tumbled upstairs into the café and had unhealthy Burger and chips for our evening meal. By the time we got home, you had arrived from London and it was bedtime. Once Sam went with Paul in the deep end beyond the non-swimmers red cord and I got into trouble, ‘Where’s your parent?‘ he was asked.
You even came here to the café with me once on a Saturday morning because it’s on the east side of B and we were going out in the car afterwards to a museum in Cambridgshire. You never went in the water.
I have a soft waterproof ball. I’ve massaged your left elbow till it’s loose, and I hold your wrist and get you to keep pushing it.
‘Well done, Arthur.’
‘Blaa-aah’ goes the alarm’. That’s a wave warning. The sloshing swinging wave effect happens once every half hour.
‘Quick! Let’s get out,’ I worry. Sid brings the chair back in the water and we hurry to float you into it. We have to manually bend you at the hips, one of us on each side of you, to pull you back in it properly – that’s the hardest part. We must fasten the waist strap, then push you to the side and out.
We retrace our precarious way along the poolside. We get into the changing room just before another much younger disabled person. Thank goodness! If we hadn’t, you could have got pneumonia again. We do the hoisting, dry you and dress you, which takes half an hour. You are patient and silent.
‘I’m not putting those heavy elbow splints back on – Can you carry them please, Sid, while I push?’
Outside, going to the van, there’s a cold April squall, but you ‘re protected by your waterproof wheelchair cape. I drive across the town and we’re back home fifteen minutes before the agency workers arrive to put you on to your bed for your afternoon nap, but two of us do it ourselves. You’re worn out and your eyes keep closing.
‘You take the right side body support off the chair and I’ll take the left’, says Saint Angela.
‘I’ll swing the hoist round, ‘ say I. ‘You get his drink. What do you want to drink, Arthur?
I’m shattered. It’s Monday and I should be at work. I’m going now and will stay till 7.00. Once in the train, I muse: The professor was wrong. You were wrong too when you wouldn’t go in the pool with the kids. Swimming is for you. Then I fall asleep.
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