Narrative Ark


A cancer day treatment ward is an odd place. A collection of people is thrown together who have, like, say, atheists, women called Shirley (yes, apparently!), twins festivals (yes, afraid so), only one thing in common – cancer and its treatment. A more disparate bunch of people it would be hard to find, but there we are, all in the same chairs hooked up to the same machines.

Odd too because on the one hand most of us are intensely private, contemplating the narratives of our individual stories and circumstances, undergoing our individual ordeals, mostly in isolation from the person sitting on the next chair less than a metre away. We sit there reading our crime novels, ipads, fashion magazines, newspapers, looking up only to interact with nurses bustling to attend to our needs.

Conversely, the room is the setting for extraordinary lack of privacy. The use of name and birthdate to cross-check medications (“Date of birth John?” “1/1/39, that’s correct?”) is just the start. There is, in a small room, constant discussion between nurses and each patient as they arrive, narratives of their daily lives as they are now, about symptoms, treatment, haemoglobin levels, bowel movements, what the doctor said, whether someone is taking you home, and so on. All punctuated by necessarily public visits, carefully but unspokenly orchestrated, to the toilet in the corner of the room. The awkwardness of unplugging, gathering up cords and tubes to avoid painfully catching them on something, trying to steer the stand, as clumsy as a vertical shopping trolley, one-handed, through the small area past other patients, visitors, nurses, and trying to somewhat noisily manage the activities inside the toilet, also one-handed and trolley-bound, makes every visit (and you usually need at least two with the big volume of fluid being pumped in to you) a very public affair. In spite of that, or perhaps because of this, your efforts are studiously ignored by the others, heads down in golfing magazines, or Proust (nah, just kidding), except that at least one will be planning their own moves as soon as you vacate the toilet.

So a strange mix of intense privacy and unavoidable public sharing of your bodily functions. All in a room which isolates this little world of personal dramas and interactions from the “real” world outside. As does the lack of windows. My previous ward had only high windows no one could see out of. This one has relatively low windows but only those seated next to them (“my spot” except when someone beats me to it) can see out, and even then only though a screen of trees to the car park. Might as well be in a submarine, or a spaceship.

It all reminds me of that Dr Who episode “The ark in space”. The narrative was of a space ship heading off to a new world a long way away, the colonists necessarily in suspended animation, each isolated in their own little cubicle, supplied with life support through tubes. So far pretty good analogy, but it gets better. A “space wasp” manages to get into the space ship, and, like its counterparts on Earth, proceeds to lay eggs in the handily already immobilised colonists in their individual cells. The eggs will hatch of course and consume the bodies (of spiders or caterpillars on Earth, humans here) before pupating and developing into new wasps. Well, you get the idea. There we are, colonists on a space ship, all incubating unwelcome visitors. Easy for Dr Who to fix (the creatures turn out to be vulnerable to electricity), not so easy for chemotherapy doctors and nurses, unfortunately.

Anyway, that’s another session in the space ship completed for me. Fifteen now, but who’s counting. Wonder what and where my next session will be and whether my lovely oncologist (Dr What, How, When, Where) will find that an electric wand can magic away my parasites.

Now that will be a story to tell you.