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Beyond belief

  • 15 December 2023
When I emerged from four weeks in St Vincent’s public hospital in Melbourne earlier this year, a friend congratulated me on ‘surviving another health scare’. ‘Sure did,’ I smiled weakly, ‘but one day there’ll be a health setback I don't survive. So it's great to be back in the world.’ For someone who’s been a wheelchair user for over three decades, I’ve been in robust health almost that entire period, and can count my hospital visits on the fingers of one hand, with a thumb left over.

This last one followed an atypical episode: rushing to reach a tight editing deadline, I’d gone without meals and sleep to a dangerous extent, inducing a fever and nausea that kept me bedridden for two days. And, when I finally felt it possible to transfer from bed to chair, I was so debilitated that I hung perilously in mid-air for a couple of seconds too long, tearing knee tissue and rendering myself unable to get back into bed (the mattress being centimetres higher than my chair) because of the agony.

When you can’t spend all day and night out of bed and it’s too painful to launch oneself into it, there is no alternative to a stay in hospital.

Of those hometown public hospitals where I have spent time as a patient — the Austin, the Alfred and now St Vincent’s — I have found that the Catholic-endowed institution is, to quote the Bible in another context, ‘of these three, the greatest’.

The staff — by far the majority, anyway — were friendly, solicitous and thorough. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the catering department offers a comprehensive menu and doesn’t pressure you to make only ‘healthy’ choices. As a confirmed carnivore, I found it easy to order roast beef and gravy three times a week and still sample nutritious items from all five major food groups — four more than I usually allow myself.

My only criticism is one not confined to St Vincent’s. By definition, a prolonged hospital stay involves so many hours of enforced bed rest that you inevitably feel weak and listless, and more vulnerable to picking up infections than a Covid-careful person would be in the outside world.

This is a statement of experience, not mere theory: during my first days on a general ward I was diagnosed with golden staph in my lower left leg, which called for the administration of an experimental rota