Healing in Colour

By Ted, 73. Warnbro, WA

After major surgery, I spent six weeks immobilised in bed. Before the days of motorised hospital beds, I was laid horizontal on a flat bed, drugged and weak, making it hard to move my own muscles. Every six hours, a team of six people would rotate my body 90 degrees: six hours on my left side, six hours on my back, six hours on my right side and six hours prone.

For the first few days and nights, I drifted in and out of consciousness. Only my parents could visit — although I was flattered to learn later that many others came to the hospital to see me but were turned away.

I was moved from Royal Perth Hospital to its annex at Shenton Park to begin rehabilitation. Transfer by ambulance was painful. I registered every bump en route. The six-hourly rotations continued. Shenton Park rostered too few staff on nights to manage the midnight turn, so a seven-foot-high black giant in an orderly’s uniform arrived and lifted me single-handed to my new position. 

The staff all wore coloured uniforms. Those who brought meals and cleaned the wards were in lime green. Nursing aides made up most of the workforce and they wore lilac pink. I learned to spot the occasional general nurse in training by her cobalt blue uniform and starched white cap. A trained nurse for each shift, Sister we called her, was the ward’s chief. She wore a pristine white skirt with a starched veil. All male nurses, whether in training or a ‘Mister Sister’, sported a uniform of white trousers and shirt. No caps for them. 

Apart from the moving colours of the staff, the wards were stark: cream walls with brown vinyl floors. In fact, I was not afforded the sight of colours for much of the time. I could see the white sheet and the brown floor when on my front, and the white ceiling when supine.

When my broken and fused new spine started to heal, the day for being cast in plaster arrived. A wheelchair conveyed me to a treatment room, with white walls, white ceilings and the omnipresent brown floor.  A steel bedframe dominated the room. The frame held no mattress. Instead, a one-inch-wide webbing strap stretched down the middle of the bed frame. 

The room was crowded. Nurses, doctors and technicians were needed for this procedure. My gown was removed. I was now uncomfortably naked. A singlet was then painfully threaded onto my chest and back. 

With people holding my naked arms and ready to catch me, I stepped into the bedframe and then lay on the centre strap. I gingerly supported myself by holding the sides of the bed. The distinct dry perfume of the plaster of Paris mixture filled the room as the cool slush was spatula-ed onto my neck, back and front and hips. The hardening glop from my chin to the bottom of my stomach immobilised me and imprisoned me. 

Four people were needed to lift my thin body in its thick jacket onto the wheelchair, then thankfully, breathlessly, they laid me back on my bed and covered my stark white torso and naked lower parts with a sheet. 

The plan, I think, was that the plaster-cast would stabilise my back and I would no longer needed to be rotated. The reality, however, was that I could not move at all — my muscles were wasted after weeks in bed. Even breathing was a challenge. Would I wait 24 hours to see whether I could tolerate the cast? Sister asked.

Instead, my throat started to sting. Every swallow felt like cut glass in my throat. Sister Humphrey connected the pain to the daily penicillin injection I had received on my upper thigh every day since the operation. 

“The pain will get better,” Sister opined, “or it will get worse. Seriously worse.” 

Even with two Mogadon, I passed an uncomfortable night. Next morning, the cut glass felt far worse. It hurt to talk, but I couldn’t stop talking. I knew I was talking nonsense, but control of my own body was slipping away from me.

Sister Humphrey sat by my bed. It was 8.30 a.m. When I again became conscious, dark was closing in. Sister Humphrey was still sitting by my bed. 

“You’re alive,” she said. “Stay awake now. If you go back to sleep, it could be permanent. I don’t want to be your death watch. Fight!” she commanded.  

I fought. 

Next morning, I was wheeled back to the treatment room where the plaster was chipped away until I was left with only the singlet. The relief was huge. 

To this day I remember the anaphylactic reaction to penicillin triggered by being encased in plaster. My thigh still has an area of painful numbness from the daily needles.

Technicians were able to use the chipped plaster-cast as a mould to fashion a light-weight plastic restraint with adjustable buckles. This became my undergarment for the next six months.

In the days while this corset was being fabricated, they continued to turn me on my side, on my back, on my side, on my front: prone, left, supine, right side. Until one day I settled onto my right side facing the ward window. For a change, the blind was pulled up, and there I saw the garden. The colour hit me like a splash of cold water. There were vivid red geraniums and vibrant yellow daffodils all set in luxuriant jade and emerald leaves and foliage. Plants were reaching for the sun, standing upright, determined to bloom. Further afield, a lush olive-green lawn spread out in the sun.

Gazing for six-hours a day on that hospital garden healed me. Plainly the garden was one of many healing factors, but somehow when I began to drink in the lush sight of the garden, I knew I would get better.

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Pam Massey
Pam Massey
11 months ago

Wow that’s a powerful and painful read!
So glad there was light at the end of the tunnel! The view you suddenly got through the window hit me both physically & emotionally, as it would have done with you 1000-fold!
So well done for conveying your painfully emotional journey so well, & I’m glad you lived to tell the tale!