Cynthia is sitting in her dressing gown on the edge of a luxurious, scallop-backed, aquamarine and corn yellow armchair, anxiously knitting and un-knitting her withered fingers. On every surface and every level around her, on bookcases, display cases, the mantelpiece, low tables, high shelves and deep window ledges, hundreds of porcelain Twenties figurines, every one a debutante, every one throwing the same coquettish backward glance over her right shoulder.
‘I’ve got tummy ache,’ she says.
‘How long has that been going on for?’
‘Does your doctor know about it?’
‘And what does he say?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘No idea what it might be, what you should do about it?’
She shakes her head.
‘Okay. Can you describe this pain for me?’
She untangles her fingers, then shakily moves her hands right and left over the lower part of her.
‘And what’s this pain like?’
‘I can’t put up with it anymore. I’m scared.’
‘Okay. Well let’s have a think about what to do.’
Frank gets back up off the sofa. ‘I’ll look for the folder,’ he says.
‘Do you have any help, Cynthia? Does anyone come in to help you with stuff?’
‘No. Not really. No.’
‘What about your family?’
‘He’s in Australia.’
‘My husband died. I miss him.’
There’s a small framed photo on a space of wall to her left, the only real picture amongst a spread of Aubrey Beardsley posters, Art Deco mirrors and old adverts for Cartier and Coco Chanel. In the photo, a young couple: the man in a tweed suit and tie, leaning back from the camera, looking away, as if he had something more important to be doing, or was embarrassed; the young woman, holding on to his arm, leaning in to the lens, a strangely intent look on her face, as if it wasn’t exactly a photo she was expecting from this but something else, something altogether more illuminating.
‘Let’s do your blood pressure and whatnot, and take it from there. Have you had the ambulance out before?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Do you have any medical problems? What do you suffer with?’
‘I’m supposed to be going to a group at the hospital.’
‘Oh? What’s that for?’
‘Okay. Well – you’re blood pressure’s absolutely fine. You don’t have a temperature or anything. So that’s good.’
Frank comes back in.
‘No folder,’ he says. ‘I found the meds, though.’
He hands me a faded plastic bag with something for AF and a couple of psych meds. In the bag is a scrap of paper – a worn kind of list, half shopping, half general notes. It’s been added to over time, in different coloured pen, starting out with patterned toilet paper, oven gloves, cake cases, then degenerating into a diffuse scattering of spidery capital letters – Ghana misspelled three times and then crossed out; Wembley, nr London, and in black and white underlined. Beneath that, a jumble of incoherent words and letters.
‘Someone’s been breaking in and leaving me presents,’ she says. ‘Things I like.’
‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before. A man.’
‘What’s he been doing?’
‘He left me a bar of chocolate. With some writing on the wrapper. I love you.’
And a shudder passes through her, from the top of her head to her feet. Her left foot stays planted on the carpet, but the right one starts to move – a curiously independent little dance, backwards and forwards along the fringed line of the armchair, toe / heel, toe / heel, toe / heel, and then back again: heel / toe, heel / toe, heel / toe. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, whilst Cynthia knits her fingers in her lap, stares at me, and waits.
Lonely lady Spence?Or do you think it could be a bit more serious (dementia,alzheimers etc).
Very sad though.
Disturbing. What can you do?
One of the loneliest cases I've come across so far, JoB. It was eerie, being surrounded by so many statues of people, and yet the flat so quiet & isolated. No idea about the hallucinations, whether it was incipient dementia, or simply the result of sensory deprivation. The flat was well kept, though, so I don't know whether she got more help - or any - than she was telling us.
Hi Tpals. We took her to hospital - not for the abdo pain, but more for the hallucinations aspect. Sometimes they can have physiological causes, so it needed looking at. Plus, she was upset, and needed someone to talk to. Hospital's not the best place, of course - but they do have an on-call psych team. Maybe more social than anything else, though. Poor woman.
Cheers for the comments.
Fantastic post as always Spence. Hope you are well-rested after your holiday. Can I just be a bit dim and as what AF means?
Any chance she buys herself the chocolate bars and forgets? Not really split personality. More like a part of her dementia. Maybe it's schizophrenia, but that doesn't explain the actual chocolate bar. Maybe she does have someone visiting and forgets. Weird though.
Can she be put in a home? Should she be put in a home? I guess those are two different questions and more in the realm of social workers.
Thanks Crimson. Very well rested thanks & back to work.
AF is atrial fibrillation - an irregular heartbeat quite common in the elderly. :)
I didn't get the impression that the visitor was real, but don't know what was causing the hallucination. I did seem very real to her, though. It's a fascinating area. The closest I've ever come to it myself was a lucid dream, or sometimes waking from a dream and being utterly confused between reality and fantasy for a while.
I think Cynthia just needs more support both at home and in the community. I'm not sure she's quite ready to quit the flat and go into a care facility yet. As I say, it was all quite neat and cared for, and she seemed to be taking care of washing &c. It's sad that she'd got to this incredibly isolated state. Hopefully the trip to the hospital and the handover we gave will be the start of a recovery for her.
Thanks for the comments!
Another beautifully depicted story. I always feel like I rode along with you and met these folks.
Thanks v much Shopgirl. Really appreciate you taking the time to read the blog and comment.
I used to live in a block of flats, a couple of doors down from a reclusive and dotty old lady. I once ran into her on the stairs and she was clutching a shopping bag packed with Violet Crumble bars (an Aussie chocolate). I chatted with her and it emerged they were her favourite chocolates, but she didn't like going out so she'd stock up hugely on them. After that, I used to pop a Violet Crumble in her letter box most days. Some months on, she had to be taken away by ambulance and the crew were bemused by her story that the chocolate fairy had been looking after her. He had. :D
Your Cynthia might have had a similar fairy looking after her.
Brilliant story, Stonehead! I love the sound of Violet Crumble bars - very Roald Dahl. I must admit I'd not thought of that angle - maybe she did have a chocolate fairy of her own. Certainly hope so. Cheers for that!
Facinating literary snapshots. Is this really your night? No drunks to pick up? But I gather from your descriptions elsewhere no hydrolic geureys either.
Is the EMT the guest in the intimacy of our life, the evaluator of the pieces or both? And most perplexing, why do so many people call 999 with ease, with almost anticipation? Why will strangers do it, and some police but not many resturants, or cinemas - what is the pattern in who calls?
Thanks very much, Elizabeth. And yep - these anecdotes pretty much give a taste of our workload. Unavoidably slewed, though - I'll tend to write about the jobs that have an 'angle' - some detail that stands out.
I used to have a little widget on the side of the blog that reflected the frequency of certain subjects. I think 'alcohol' and 'elderly' came out on top. So yes - we have a large no. of drunks to pick up (esp. on w/ends). Wish it were otherwise.
We do have electric trolleys btw - and tail lifts. So the manual handling aspect has improved. (Still have to carry people up and down stairs / retrieve them from various predicaments - so still feeling the stresses and strains!)
Not sure what you mean about the EMT being the 'evaluator of the pieces'. But I suppose there's an aspect to the descriptions where I'm acting as a kind of 'witness' - aside from the obvious practicalities of the job description. Not emotionally detached though (I hope).
As far as the calls go, they fall within a sliding scale where one end is the person who calls for trivial reasons, way up to the person who fights against calling despite the obvious distress they're in. Here in the UK a lack of understanding of the function of the ambulance is an important factor, but that's a big topic!
The police operate according to their guidelines when they get the ambulance involved. We work closely with them, and it's a good relationship.
There are patterns of callers, but I don't really reflect that in the blog. It's quite narrow in its scope, in a way. I just write about some of the jobs that interest me. For example, on a recent shift, we had a disproportionate no. of 'put back to beds' - elderly patients who'd fallen out of bed without injury &c. Actually our bread & butter - but not a riveting read!
Thanks again for your comment, Elizabeth, and for reading the blog. :)
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