On Turning Eighty in a Hospital Bed

By Madeline Gray Glass

Nandi Vileika, my beloved daughter, on my cancer journey you are with me at every stage. You sleep over, bring your work along, borrow books for me, accompany me to every hospital admission and oncologist appointment, and you invited me to sleep in your bedroom for three months, while you and Bill moved to the lounge.

Not everyone gets to turn 80. Even fewer spend the day in a hospital bed, with a mushy mind and medication for company.

During my first two-week stay in a major teaching hospital in November 2022, a building is being renovated outside my room. I hear the thick plastic sheets flap in the wind, which tempts my eyes to stare. Behind it, a red light on a pole winks without let. It signals a helicopter platform below. Across the canal lies my forest, the Årsta woods, where I regularly walk. My flat is below a ridge, behind the trees.

My birthday occurs during my second hospital admission. This time the large teaching hospital doesn’t have space for me. I’m rescued by Dr Johan, who arranges an ambulance transfer for me to the corridor where his team works, on the top floor of a small hospital in Dalen. I’m at the other end of the corridor, in the section for geriatric and terminally ill patients.

For the first few days of my stay in Dalen I have a single room. From my bed I have a good view of the sky and the passing cold and dark of mid-winter in Stockholm. When I stand at the window, I see a school yard and blocks of flats and, in the right corner, a large open public park, its edges lined by trees. My daughter and her family live along this park, a five or ten minute walk away.

As, during the previous hospitalisation, I’m the most mobile patient, once or twice every day I take a Zimmer frame loaded with an oxygen canister for a walk. I cover from 700 to over 1000 metres, according to my iPhone. Up and down the corridors, to their very ends. It’s amusing to leave the bed and greet nursing staff along the way. In this environment, carefully shuffling one foot in front of the other, over and over, is a tiny victory that makes me feel healthier. Staff nod approvingly. 

I don’t understand why a few days later, I’m moved to a three-bed ward, nor why a man is wheeled into this room, in a bed that stands less than two metres from mine. The room is large, with space for four beds, two on each side, opposite each other. They can be visually privatised by white curtains that hang from rails from the ceiling. A shower and toilet are adjacent in a space with a light blue plastic floor that’s easy to swab.

I can’t say that I envisioned spending my 80th birthday in a hospital bed, sharing a room with Mateus, who cries out every few minutes: Aj, jaj, jaj! (Ai, yai, yai in more phonetic English). He is heavy-muscled and blond and has a deep-seated cough, which clearly is painful. I don’t understand why he’s so noisy. He interferes with my thoughts. A few days later he’s suddenly rushed out, as fast as though the devil were chasing the team. Covid? Is that the rush? Reminds me of the stable-door saga. Surely it’s far too late to prevent Mateus from infecting me?

I’m alone for a few hours and then another man is wheeled in. His cough is milder and he doesn’t cry out much. My South African self finds it weird to share a hospital room with men. Ingrid, my ex-sister-in-law is a medical doctor. She realises I’m uncomfortable with sharing a room with a strange man, though I say nothing. She tells me it’s common in rational Sweden.

Why am I not surprised when I’m diagnosed with covid on 21st December? Have I avoided this plague all these many months, only to be infected in the geriatric section of Dalen Hospital, a tiny hospice ward for those with no future? 

Timing is the worst part - as Granddaddy Bertil and Brother Samuel can no longer join us on Christmas Eve. Bertil’s been battling cancer for nearly 20 years and has had a relapse, so it feels extra sad that we can’t spend this family evening together. Son-in-law Bill organises a compromise: A Zoom link is set up between Samuel and Bertil in Samuel’s flat, and the four Vileikas and me in their lounge. Battery-powered candles shed a festive glow. Thus we virtually share the Christmas feast prepared by Samuel and Bill and mutually enjoy the opening of presents. I’m still so ill that I sit three-to-four-metres from the family and wear the extra oxygen feed throughout. Nandi, Bill, Alex and Kirie cuddle together on the couch on the other side of the room.

Early on my birthday in the geriatric ward, a nurse turns up to wish me Happy Birthday. It’s a simple message that has a calming, soothing effect – someone has noticed. I note that the other staff, who check my vitals and bring me breakfast, do not mention it. I enjoy the first glad greeting and my mushy mind replays it at intervals.

My friends do not forget me, which makes me happy. I receive phone calls, messages, and even brief visits from gift-bearing friends I’ve known for decades.

Christina smuggles in a box of South African red wine from herself and Prudence. We conceal it behind my boots near my bed, at the bottom of a tall cupboard, where my coat hangs. Some evenings, during the rest of my stay, I will climb out of bed, look out of the window, and enjoy sipping from a small paper cup of wine, after the night staff has done their rounds.

Paula offers to organise a microwave oven as a gift for me. We don’t yet realise how vital it will be, when I’m later forbidden to use the gas stove and oven in my flat, as long as I’m reliant on a machine that feeds me extra oxygen, just like in the hospital. Why? There’s a risk of explosion if one lights a naked flame in the presence of extra oxygen. So I invest in battery-driven candles to lighten the long dark nights. Cosier than electric lights, though we don’t have load shedding here.

A highlight, mid-afternoon, is the visit of two hospital clowns, at the suggestion of a nurse. Maybe she’s the one who earlier congratulated me on my birthday. The Medical Clowns’ act is amusing and we start to talk. Did they know it was my birthday? No, so ‘Toto’ and ‘Robban’ sing happy birthday songs in two languages. Do they know Clowns without Borders? Maybe even my daughter, Nandi, who joined this troupe years ago on a trip to the refugee camps of Western Sahara. Oh yes. ‘Clown Robban’ is Peter in civvies, and our families’ children are friends and neighbours.

Ingrid turns up in the late afternoon of December 13th, bearing an amaryllis that will flower later. It does start blooming at Nandi’s, round Christmas and the second stalk starts flowering round New Year. Late February, Nandi cuts it down and hides the plant in the dark.

Largely forgotten is the birthday visit by Nandi, Bill, Alex, Kirie and Bengt. I do recall thinking it felt late, as it’s dark outside, but then darkness settles in at 2.30 in the afternoon in December.

Nandi reminds me that the family created a birthday celebration dinner with cooperation from the staff, in a room adjacent to the ward. With all the effort and affection that my family and Bengt put into making my birthday special, it feels strange to not have remembered it ‘til Nandi reminded me. After so many months of outpourings of love not being accessible in my memory, I feel cheated.

Bengt’s presence also slipped through my mushy mind. It’s first in April, when I go through my bank accounts that I discover that Bengt made a deposit in December and when I phone to say thank you, he reminds me of his hospital visit. A vague memory stirs. How much more is missing?

Despite all the warmth, I recall my birthday as longing for a party, bubbly and a big celebration. Yet it’s silly. Thanks to gifts from generous friends, I buy a flexible air fryer instead of a microwave, and have a mini-celebration every day it’s in use. In South Africa, when I’m well enough to return, friends are planning a WOW of a party! And I do believe I’ll get permission to fly when I see an oncologist in September!