Charlie Swinbourne: My friend’s experience taught me how hospitals are hard places to hear in

Posted on April 9, 2015

It all happened in the blink of an eye.

A friend of mine came to stay with us two weeks ago, along with his wife and daughter. He arrived in at 2.30pm, and by 4.30pm, we were on our way to hospital.

A few moments earlier, he was walking through a tunnel under a bridge when he playfully jumped up to try and touch the ceiling.

Having taken a few steps for a run-up, with his whole body weight on his left foot, he slipped on damp ground. His wrist, thrown out instinctively to break his fall, took the whole impact.

At first, he staggered to a wall. Then we tried to walk him to a bench. In between, he fainted.

The rest of the weekend was a blur of waiting in A & E, sitting in on medical examinations and x-rays, and then visiting him in the ward.

Naturally, our concern throughout the weekend was for my friend’s welfare, but what also struck me in hospital was how little I could make out what people were saying.

From the first male nurse my friend (who is hearing) saw – a rather brusque Yorkshireman who kept muttering and kept looking away while speaking – to the other patients on his ward who convened in the TV room, I couldn’t make anything out. At all.

I spent the whole time asking my friend and his wife what was going on.

I think hospitals are a bit like libraries – people speak in hushed voices, perhaps for fear of bothering anyone who is in pain. It seemed like everyone was whispering all the time, while also looking away – at computer screens, charts, or TVs.

Plus, all the spaces we were in were often large rooms with shiny surfaces – such as wards, reception areas, corridors, where noise tends to travel and echo.

Maybe it would have been different if I’d been the patient – I’d have asked people to speak up, and look at me, which I couldn’t really do as a visitor.

My friend stayed in hospital for two nights, and when I picked him up after his operation, he told me he’d had a kind of Yorkshire education, meeting local staff, and getting to know the three other men on his ward.

He knew where each came from, and exactly what had happened to them. He’d spent time talking to them, and had been there when their relatives visited. He’d got to know them so well, he planned to send them a letter, wishing them well in their own recoveries.

I couldn’t help but wonder what my experience would have been like, had I been in his shoes.

Would I have been able to get to know them, to pick up on what was going on? Or would I have felt even more bored than a typical patient in hospital, unable to break the monotony of ward life by having conversations and sharing experiences?

What I took from it was that hospitals are hard places for anyone with any kind of deafness to be. Needless to say, for a variety of reasons, I’m not planning to jump up and try and touch any ceilings in tunnels any time soon.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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