The bed numbers go clockwise around the ward, with the first patient resting at 9 o’clock on the left as you walk through the doors. I step in. Stripped of my innate ability to fade into any given background by the white wash of the ward. My eyes revolve around the linoleum face until they come to rest at 3 o’clock. My feet track straight down the minute hand towards it, trying to reach the patient before I lose my nerve and time moves on.
As I approach, a visitor folds away her paper and pats her perm into shape. My clipboard and stethoscope are too cumbersome to hide. I bare an unfortunate resemblance to a doctor.
The patient does not stir.
Time and I stop next to the immaculate visitor. She listens to who I am and consents to answer my questions. As I tug the curtains closed, she gets up from the bariatric chair in which she was resting. Standing to attention, she rehearses their story to me across the bedside table. I look down and see she is standing on tiptoe to show her shoulders over a table laden with everything her husband could need, but does not want.
She recites that this is not the husband she knew. That she had not thought he would die until she had been asked. How the nurses tried to explain that the doctors were doing their best, but everything was not okay.
Frustration seeps through the cracks in her lipstick and the lines of her face. Her husband has fallen where he should be safe. He is tired, angry and sad. Every day she drives to the hospital, sees no change and drives home alone.
She purses her lips and taps a hand against her leg to punctuate each burden. I listen for the soft jingling of gold bangles on my Nan’s wrist with every tap.
Instead, I hear the patient stir.
I look him in the eyes and explain who I am with a smile. He does not feel well. He is not up to talking. I am desperate to ask as many of the important questions as I can think of. He has no pain. He has not walked today. He has not drunk today. His visibly laboured breathing does not bother him. He is not coughing anything up.
I don’t know if that is enough.
While he catches his breath I take his pulse and place the cold ridge of the stethoscope down on the front of his chest. His breaths are coarse as the air scrapes through his chest. I flatten one of my hands against his shoulder blade and he grasps the other, to pull him forward. His wife and I prop the frail and disgruntled patient up between us, so I can listen to the lung bases.
They ask how it sounds. I cannot tell them.
They ask about his antibiotics. I ask if they think the treatment working. They are certain that this single treatment can kick anything into touch.
As we talk, the second hand of the clock ticks around the room. I don’t know that these antibiotics will work. I don’t know the blood results. I don’t know the name of the pathogen that has colonised the airways. I am not convinced it is just the antibiotics that are helping, but I cannot think what else to ask. So I offer them my thanks.
The visitor reaches out for my hand and I hold it. Her skin has slackened and softened with time, but her warm hands are dry and still. I drop my eyes to the floor to stop myself from examining her further and force all the comfort I can through my cold, rough fingers.
I have listened. I have let them question and provided the best answers I could. I have stayed to talk and understood what has not been said. I had to accept their kindness, but guilt gushes down my back as I turn and let go.
I was no doctor.