Friday, May 13, 2011


Richard’s daughter Melanie opens the front door.
‘I found him on the bathroom floor,’ she says. ‘I’m worried he’s had a stroke.’
‘What does your father suffer with?’
‘Parkinson’s – that’s pretty much it.’
Ropes of thick greying hair hang down over the shoulders of her flowery waistcoat. She has a rubbed and faded look, like a boho teenager who took forty years to make it back from Woodstock.
She turns and walks ahead of us through her father’s perfectly ordered flat. The sunlight lays in through the windows, illuminating shelves of history and travel books neatly arranged in height order, ceramics, masks, wooden totems, and a selection of family photographs in simple gilt frames. We pass a South American figure meticulously lit in a recess – a strange sculpture, something like an ancient, terracotta astronaut, his eyes closed but his mouth sagging open, his crooked arms and feet transforming into snakes.
Melanie stops, gestures to the bathroom door, then moves off to the side and starts chewing a fingernail.
I knock.
‘Richard? It’s the ambulance.’
I manage to push the bathroom door open enough to put my head round.
Richard is lying on his left side with his legs drawn in, tangled up in a toilet surround and a high washing seat.
‘Are you in pain?’
He shakes his head.
‘Okay. Let me just – get – in and I’ll say hello properly. Blimey, it’s a squeeze.’
To cheat a couple more inches of clearance I unclip the radio from my belt and hand it back to Melanie, then begin threading myself in through the chaos. Finally I put myself in a position where I can start freeing him up. I put the toilet stand in the bath, right the chair and put it in the one square of available space left in the bathroom, then squat down to have a better look at the patient.
‘How did you end up on the floor like this?’
Richard is naked, his wrinkled skin dusted with a fine, white scurf. There is an unwholesome tackiness to the air, a cloying mixture of soap and sweat and the insipid, honey-sweet odour of the sick.
‘How long have you been on the floor?’
His answer is thin and indistinct.
‘Okay. Let’s get you out to the ambulance, Richard. I’ll just slide your legs in a bit – like this.’
I cheat enough room for Frank to squeeze in through the door. He passes me some oxygen, and after I’ve got that running, we consider our options.
As always, there’s a trade-off to be made. Richard is poorly. It doesn’t seem as if he has hurt himself in the fall, but his blood pressure is low, and it would be better to take him out as flat as possible. There’s no room to get a trolley into the house, let alone the bathroom. We could spend some time taking the door off, but even if we managed it quickly, and had the trolley waiting by the front door, we’d still struggle to keep Richard flat as we negotiated the narrow hallway.
‘If we stand him up, sit him on the high chair, you could get the carry chair in and we could run him out to the ambulance.’
‘Okay. Let’s do it.’
Between us we manage to stand him up. I hang on to Richard, one hand on his chest and the other on his belly. Frank manoeuvres the high chair into position behind him. When Frank goes back outside to bring in the carry chair, Richard stops breathing.
‘Richard? Richard!’
No pulse at his neck. He voids his bladder, the urine jumping and splashing around me.
I thump him in the middle of his chest and call out for Frank to bring the defibrillator in. I hear him say to Melanie: ‘Just a moment…’
The thump seems to have worked, though. His pulse returns, and he makes a reasonable effort at breathing. We attach the defib pads in case he goes again, then Frank fetches in the chair. We lower Richard into it, wrapping him up in a blanket and strapping his legs. I tip him right back, Frank opens the door as far as it will go and together we lift, bump and angle the chair out into the hall. Melanie is there, clutching my radio in one hand, the other to her mouth, her eyes wide and glittering.
‘I’m afraid Richard’s heart stopped working for a moment in there,’ I say. ‘Could you get together all his medications and whatnot and meet us in the ambulance?’
She nods, but says nothing.
‘If you could stand just a little off to the side – great. Thanks.’
We hurry him out through the hallway. I glance to my right, and in the blur of passing I could swear the terracotta figure was now more snake than man.


allie said...

oh how scary. what a pair those two sound like- so opposite from each other.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Allie. It's funny how this piece has ended up with a much scarier vibe than I originally intended, though. It's that damn terracota figure (and the effects of working long hours, I suppose). Actually the daughter visited a lot, and obviously cared for her father a great deal.

jacksofbuxton said...

Poor Melanie.She's stared death in the face there.Thank goodness that death blinked first.

Parkinsons is a shitty illness.I do a house call on a chap who has it.George is a cheery soul.Always asking about my girls,how's the wife plenty of chit chat.Yet the effort of trying to keep his head reasonably still for 10 minutes or so knackers him out.

Marvellous piece of writing as always Spence.

Spence Kennedy said...

A dreadful situation for the whole family, no question. Those degenerative CNS diseases are up there with the worst.

Good that you make it out to George like that, though, JoB. It makes a big difference to how you feel, being well-groomed (he said, sitting here in dog-walking jeans, with a bad case of bed-hair)

Wren said...

"Ropes of thick greying hair hang down over the shoulders of her flowery waistcoat. She has arubbed and faded look, like a boho teenager who took forty years to make it back from Woodstock."

Fabulous, Spence. This made me chuckle--you could be describing me. What an eye and an imagination you have! The story is perfect.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much, Wren. You & me both! (Although I cut my hair short a few years ago). Hope you're well. :0) x

Anonymous said...

I hope he was ok in the end. My grandfather had Parkinsons and died in similar circumstances, so this story felt especially emotional to me.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Anon

Very sorry to hear about your grandfather. I have to say I don't know how things worked out for Richard in this piece. He was very unwell, for sure, and the prognosis can't have been all that good. I think his daughter found him just in the nick of time.

Thanks for the comment.

Unknown said...

It is an awful disease, it's a cruel one to. We have a chap in the nursing home with it and he keeps having falls as his feet don't do as their told n trip him up. I often ask him why he's chucking himself on the floor but he just grins at me. He looks battered and abused with his injuries bless him.

Spence Kennedy said...

Any of those progressive motor neurone diseases are straight out of hell. I hope one day with stem cell advances they'll put an end to it. Until then - carers like you are a huge support & go some way to making the whole thing bearable. x

Unknown said...

I'm a fan of the stem cell processes, hopefully it will help a lot of ppl with mnd`s fingers crossed! Thank you for the kind comment spence, I try my best to make life easier for the residents but maintaining their independence as well. Very difficult to find the balance. They can get very frustrated and aggressive sometimes but they don't mean it, you just gotta learn to duck or move quickly.

Spence Kennedy said...

All power to your elbow, Carla (and your swerve...) :)