Reading Angie and Me, a story about a young girl being treated for Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis in hospital, I found myself thinking back to all the time I spent in hospital growing up. I would spend weeks at a time on the same ward (in the same room even) at Booth Hall in Manchester; often with the same kids. It really was my second home.
I can remember my first night there as clear as if it were yesterday. It wasn’t my first stay in hospital but it was the first time I had to stay without my parents and I was terrified. I was 14 and not only very poorly but totally self-conscious too. The individual rooms were walled with curtained windows, but even though they were closed, I wouldn’t change into pyjamas and slept in my clothes instead. I say slept but I didn’t really sleep at all; instead I lay listening to my Walkman, while the nurses came in every hour to check my obs. I had a TV but didn’t know what the rules were and was scared I’d get in trouble for disturbing the rest of the ward if I switched it on. I was desperate for the toilet but this meant a painful walk down the unfamiliar corridor, so instead I held it in. I wouldn’t even press the call button for pain relief, despite being in agony. It seemed to take an eternity for the dark sky outside to pale into morning. Needless to say, there were plenty of tears.
The next day I was eating lunch in the little dining room they had on the ward. Being a children’s hospital, the furniture was all child-sized, but I sat there on a tiny wooden chair with my knees under my chin, surrounded by snot-tastic five and six year olds and feeling totally miserable. Then a boy of about nine or ten came in with his empty plate and laughed at me. He told me that the older kids were allowed to take their food into their rooms and, when I refused, he carried my tray down the hall to my room, climbed onto a chair to switch the TV on and sat with me, telling jokes in an attempt to cheer me up, while I finished eating.
The boy’s name was James Holland and he was actually twelve and a half; he just looked a lot younger because he had Cystic Fibrosis. We quickly became best friends while in hospital and there was hardly an admission over the next five years that James wasn’t on the ward too. The hospital soon felt like a second home and we actually had some fun times and got into mischief along the way. James would race me round the corridors in a wheelchair or we’d hijack one of the cleaners electric buffers to ride on – get two and you could send them for a race. Another favourite was filling the doctors’ rubber gloves (boxed outside each room) with water and tying them like water balloons then lobbing them out of the window into the car park below to see who could reach the furthest.
In fact, I think we started to cause so much mischief that the playworkers realised they needed to provide some extra activities to keep us occupied and out of trouble; so when we weren’t down at the hydrotherapy pool or schoolroom together or with our medical teams, we were soon baking cornflake cakes, learning how to make beaded friendship bracelets, watching 15 rated films smuggled in by one of the nurses or playing on the old SEGA one of them had donated. We were pretty inseparable; a double act, and I started to miss him when I wasn’t in hospital – he understood what it was like to be sick and at the same time, he made me feel normal.
James saw how much pain I was in and knew my limitations; he could soon help me with things before I even knew I couldn’t do them. He didn’t laugh at my swollen, deformed joints or find it weird that I couldn’t chop up my own food. At the same time, I saw how painful it was to endure chest physio four times plus a day and would try and distract him when he was hooked up to his nebulizers during a bad flare up, filled with panic because he couldn’t breathe. Especially in the middle of the night, when things felt scariest for him with no family around.
It all made the frequent hospital stays much more bearable.
Then one day I needed to be admitted urgently, but at 19 was deemed to old for the Children’s hospital and transferred to nearby General hospital instead. I eventually tried sending letters to James at Booth Hall (as I had done before) but never heard back and never saw him again. Years later, I realised just how poorly he had been and why he was always there at the same time as me – he was rarely out of hospital in those later years. Yet he never let on or complained.
I’ve always wondered if his CF got too much, if the worst did happen and he died. I remember how small and fragile he was; how it was suddenly me pushing him in the wheelchair and how his lips would turn blue just from talking too much… unfortunately, there was never any way of finding out. But just like Jenna in the book, I’ll never forget the friendship we had; in fact, I still have one of the bracelets he made for me. And the support and example he gave me, even though we were only children at the time, can still get me through a tough day.