The Accident

7th May, 1976, was an ordinary day.  In the morning Zyg and I did some work in the garden and I went to work after an early lunch.  I had no premonition, everything was normal and pleasant.  As it was a Friday, we made quite sure to leave the office on the dot of five.  There was a bit of drizzle but not much.  I crossed the street (as it was empty for a few hundred yards) noticing only a green car waiting to turn from Franklin Street.  When I was standing with one foot on the nature-strip which divided the highway, I felt being hit hard.  I somersaulted and landed with a bang on the street.  My first thought was – that must have been an accident; my next thought – how silly for a granny to do a somersault!  The next thought – get up, it is silly to lie on the ground during a drizzle.  I tried to get up but could not.  I noticed the green car still stationary before the crossing and started wondering what could have hit me; there were no cars nearby. 

There were people around me but I could not see them clearly as my vision became blurred and a wave of pain struck me from the waist down.  The pain increased very quickly.  People wanted to help me but I asked them not to lift me as I was afraid that I might have injured my back.  The pain kept increasing but my vision cleared and I could recognize the people around me and saw that my boss, Bob, was holding my hand.  I asked him to bring Zyg and he promised to do so.  There was also a young dark-haired man who was very kind and seemed concerned for me.  He even took off his jacket and put it under my head.  When Zyg came he heard me asking:  “Where is my husband?” – a question I was asking much too often as it would take about ten minutes to bring Zyg to me.  It was such a relief to see Zyg.  Now he would look after me; he would know where they would take me, and I could tell him where the presents for our mothers were hidden (waiting for Sunday, Mother’s Day) which I did straight away so as not to forget as the pain seemed to blot out everything.  Bob moved away and Zyg was holding my hand.  The young dark-haired man was shaking hands with Zyg and saying that it did not seem serious.  We did not know that he was the man who had hit me, but I still think that he was a nice, kind person who felt really sorry for me.  The intensity of the pain had increased but I could not cry or yell in front of my mates, so kept quiet.  I saw the police and the tow truck and we were all waiting for the ambulance.  It seemed a long wait but Zyg told me that it was not much more than half an hour. 

I was glad to see the ambulance men who lifted me (gently) into the ambulance, but I was very disappointed when they refused to give me an injection for the pain and only gave me a gadget from which I was supposed to sniff – this did no good at all.  It seemed impossible, but the pain became worse.  I tried not to moan as it would upset Zyg even more, so I held his hand and asked innumerable times if it would take much longer to reach the hospital. Zyg told me that the ambulance men did all they could.  They tried the Dandenong Hospital but were told that there were no vacancies available, so they had to turn back and go to Box Hill Hospital.  To me, the time we travelled seemed very long, as we arrived about 7:00 pm and I was hit at 5 minutes past 5.  My recollections from the hospital are vague.  I know that I was moaning although I tried not to, I remember signing my name on a paper cup where somebody had put my diamond ring and my watch, I remember that someone tried to take off my clothing, gently, but it still hurt very much so I asked them to cut it off, which they did.  I remember the probing fingers and hands of the surgeon.  I knew that he had to do it but I kept pleading with him to hurry up and give me an injection; I felt that I had reached my limit and might start yelling and crying, and hurt their feelings.  I knew that they were doing what should be done, what was necessary and good for me.  There was a clock on the wall but it seemed to stand still.  Zyg told me afterwards that I was taken to the casualty ward, X-rayed, and about midnight Zyg was told to go home as they would operate on me.  Zyg asked how badly I was hurt and was told that in three months time I would be home. 

The time I spent in the intensive care unit is a void in my memory, only occasionally do I remember Zyg and vaguely, George, Adrienne and (I think) Roman.  My first recollection after a week or so was that I was on a bed and someone with beautiful hair was bending over me – and I recognized Adrienne – and then I saw Zyg who was still holding my hand, and I stopped being afraid because if Zyg was there, everything would be all right.  Next recollection:  I was still in a bed but the room had changed; there were more beds around but Zyg was still there, still holding my hand. 

The pain was very strong and a sister came and gave me an injection, and Zyg explained that I was in a hospital, that I was looked after and now I would begin to get better.  He told me that both mothers got their presents on Mother’s Day and liked their dressing gowns and felt happy about it.  Next recollection:  (Many days later, but I didn’t know it).  Zyg was still there, still holding my hand, but the room had changed again.  There were more beds and some women were in the beds.  I saw some tubes attached to both my hands, something was attached to my bladder, my leg was hanging – suspended on a queer-looking gadget – and the other leg felt so heavy that I was unable to move it.  I wanted to sit up but could not and felt scared. 

Zyg explained that one leg was in plaster and the other was hanging on a pin which was pushed through my leg like that through a chicken on a rotisserie; that the bags hanging above attached to my arms were very similar to the ones he had had when he was in Bethlehem Hospital, and we both grinned and it was easier to bear.  He also told me that the doctor who operated on me told him that I would be in hospital for three months.  It seemed such a long time.  We both thought that I had just normal fractures which would take time to heal but that later on I would be all right.  I had to put up with it and stay three months in the hospital as here everyone cared for me, giving me the proper attention.  Most of the time I was semi-conscious, but every time I could see and feel, Zyg was there, holding my hand.  However, one day when I was just dozing, he was not there.  I heard the curtains being drawn and more than one or two nurses were around my bed, but I felt too drowsy to open my eyes.  I heard a mature male voice and some young voices.  I heard the following:

“Left leg – multiple fractures, cut nerves, cut ligaments just where the join ……, cut and  …… muscles ......, shattered knee cap on the right leg, …… pelvis, but the bladder might be all right, …… squashed (?) stomach, …… glands ……  Amputation of both legs above the knee might …… indicated …… but …… loss of blood …… can be done later if needed ……”.

There were some questions and some answers which I could not understand except the one statement:  “The spine has not been damaged.”  Only when I heard the curtains being drawn again and the receding footsteps, did I open my eyes to make sure that I was not dreaming.  I was (and still am) very ignorant about the human body but not so ignorant that I did not realize that my injuries were not just simple multiple fractures (which seemed bad enough at the time).  I realized that it was really bad and that I would never be the same again.  Never, never. 

I remember clearly my thoughts and feelings after the group had left me.  First thought:  Do not let anyone know that I heard how badly I was hurt.  I felt trapped and frustrated and later came a sort of apathy which did not last long.  Later on came a wave of hatred; if it was destined that I should be hit by a car, why couldn’t he hit me properly and kill me instantly instead of turning me into a cripple who depended all the time on sisters and nurses?  I hated the thought of being dependent upon the help of others for the rest of my life; why should Zyg be chained to a cripple – probably a double amputee?  There would be money trouble as well with the nurses giving me bedpans, injections, etc., and we had no money.  The future seemed dreadful.  I could not even kill myself here in hospital.  I could not even sit up so how could I cut my wrists, and with what?  I should have died long ago; Zyg would be free, the boys would not have a crippled mother, my mother also should have died long ago so as not to suffer my sufferings.  Thank God – at least Father was dead. 

I was certain that Zyg did not know how badly I was hurt.  I had to prepare him slowly.  I was not certain about George and Adrienne as they both looked too concerned.  Roman?  I did not know.  Maybe he was too detached to show compassion – or he might not have known.  My main concern was Zyg.  How could I spare him the suffering?  Suicide in a hospital was out, and I was not going to mess it up a second time.  I decided to prepare them slowly and not to show them how I really felt – and I succeeded.  After a few days I came out of the depression.  I must thank the staff of the hospital, all of them, for their kindness and understanding, especially Sister Bennett (the sister in charge) who even gave me her shoulder to cry on.  The staff did more than their duty; they had time to talk with me or just give a friendly smile, or sneak in and have a cigarette with me which was very pleasant.  Friends also helped a lot.  Some were praying for me although they knew that I was an agnostic, others just popped in to say “hello” – just to show that they had not forgotten me.  The priest was also a great help as he did not try to bring me back to the fold, he just came for a chat, sometimes about books, and told me that he would pray for me. 

The biggest help was George and, of course, Zyg, whom (later on) I called my “Lifeline”.  Adrienne and George took Mother to their home as Zyg was unable to look after her.  Every day he came to visit me, spending hours travelling by public transport.  Mother became ill with pneumonia and was also admitted to the Box Hill Hospital.  She never quite recovered and became partly senile, with only occasional clear moments.  It was hard to see Mother losing contact with reality – especially because it was caused by my accident.  She never returned home and from Box Hill went to a private hospital for old people. 

Poor Mother who, all of her life, dreaded hospitalization.  I had promised her a long time ago that I would never let her go to a hospital as long as I could look after her.  Now I could not look after her and that was that.  Altogether I spent eighteen months in hospitals.  It was a difficult time.  It was not easy to be in constant pain.  Sometimes the pain was agonizing, sometimes just severe and, occasionally there were just aches, but never (not even for a second) was I free of pain. 

The worst memories are of the nights which seemed very long as I was unable to sleep, even with strong sleeping tablets and alcohol (which the hospital let me have).  Some sisters let me keep my bedside light turned on as when the curtains were drawn, it did not disturb the other patients – but other sisters went by the rules and I had to switch it off which meant that I was unable to read, unable to watch TV, unable to play a game of solitaire.  I did not complain as it would not help anyway and only cause trouble.  I disliked the bedpan which was chucked under one, even when one did not want it, but quite often (when one was really needed) I had to wait quite a while until someone had time to attend to me.  I missed having my hair washed as it was full of grit from the street for over five months, I missed having a shower as I could only have a sponge wash which did not do much cleaning, and I developed a rash which I called a dirt rash although it had a long Latin name.  I realized fairly early that I could not change anything and that I had to adapt to it, that I should neither complain nor feel too frustrated.  Somehow I managed to do it during the eighteen months but only thanks to the family, friends and mainly to Zyg who visited me every day.  My general impression of hospitals:  Five out of six were good; good medical care, kind nursing staff (including those on night shift), very efficient and good clean meals.  Most of the staff did show a lot of consideration and compassion. 

Only one hospital was bad – KINGSTON CENTRE.  Already, the first day was very hard to take.  After breakfast I was put into a wheelchair and kept there until evening which caused me additional pain as only a week before I had been allowed out of bed for only half an hour to sit on a comfortable chair, and now my back simply could not take the strain.  One was addressed as “Duckie” or “Dearie”; on every front one was made conscious that one was not a subject but an object.  I saw a lot of crying; not only amongst the patients but also the nurses, sisters, cleaning women and offsiders of the physiotherapists.  Only one doctor was nice and spoke in a friendly manner.  The library on wheels was appalling – the books were dirty, smelly, with pages missing – and there was hardly any choice.  Many of the patients were stroke cases (I think) and had lost their personality; some were giggling all the time, others were crying and shouting.  There were also many cripples, many amputees, many with contorted movements, many with great speech difficulties. 

It was a sad lot; humans who did not behave as normal humans but maybe suffered just the same.  The food was often cold and unappetizing – the inmates had trouble eating it and often the food fell to the floor without reaching the mouth.  I stopped eating and tried to avoid going to the dining room.  I was unable to swallow anything except coffee (which Zyg had to provide).  Smoking was allowed only in the passage where I sat all day long.  The only happy thing that happened to me there was my first shower – after eight months!  We were not even looked after properly and here I developed bedsores which troubled me for many months.  The worst was that I did not receive physiotherapy although that was the main reason for being in this hospital.  During the month I was there, I had only a few hours of exercises because either the physiotherapist was ill or there was not time for newcomers, or they did not know what to do with me. 

I was given plenty of tranquillisers and anti-depressants but went down rapidly – my weight dropped to just barely five stone.  I became resigned, I did not complain.  I was just waiting for death.  Even Zyg (who still visited me every day) was unable to lift the depression.  I sat quietly all day long in a wheelchair which had a board attached for my leg, and the pain was constant.  My family noticed that I was unhappy there and one day our local doctor called to say “hello”, asking me how I felt.  My reply was the usual:  “I am fine.”  When he asked me again how I really felt, I told him: “Just give me a razor-blade so that I can cut my throat this coming night, otherwise leave me alone, I am fine.”  A few days later I was transferred to another hospital and started to improve rapidly, having physiotherapy every day and friendly staff to look after me.  I was told that I would have to undergo further surgery as my right knee (which was shattered) would not mend. 

I knew that it would be serious surgery and a lengthy operation for the surgeon, but I did not mind as there was hope that sometime I might be able to walk, somehow.  Once again I was transferred to another hospital where I spent over five months, again with great pain, again with various bags hanging over my bed, with blood transfusions for a long time.  I smelled terrible and everyone who came to visit wrinkled their noses.  For a few weeks I was not feeling well at all.  George helped me a lot; he kept me going just as much as did Zyg.  He came every lunchtime.  We did not talk much but I knew that he was there, I knew that I was not forgotten, I knew that he cared.  I am unable to explain how much those visits meant to me.  I only know that they kept me sane and kept me from sliding into deep depression because of all the pain and discomfort, and the uncertainty of the outcome of the surgery.  I was able to hope for some bearable future. 

When I started to feel better, George brought me games with which to occupy myself.  There was a good library but he and friends also brought me books.  I read more than ever, two to three books per day.  To start with, only crime stories; but slowly I was able to absorb other writings.  Irene and Geordie brought Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man” and Zyg brought me Alex Haley’s “Roots”.  Reading these books I was, occasionally, able to forget my own misery.  I progressed, but slowly, the reason being my age – I was 61 and at this age bones do not knit easily – my inability to eat properly or to sleep at night, not even with many sleeping tablets.  Although I was never keen on TV, now I watched it for hours.  Sometimes at night I had interesting talks either with a sister or with the sister in charge (who was a very interesting personality).  My other occupation at night was counting my blessings such as:   The accident occurred when I was already sixty and not, say, sixteen and therefore I was able to live a full life which was never a boring one.  I had Zyg who cared, who came every day through all the year and who would keep coming.  I now called him my “Lifeline” although we even quarrelled in the hospitals.  I had had a good childhood with loving parents; I was fortunate in having many caring friends who came to see me; I was lucky being in hospitals with so many friendly and compassionate nursing staff; I was lucky that I always liked reading and that there were so many interesting things to find out; I was exceptionally fortunate in having such sons; I was lucky to be able to occupy myself for hours and not be constantly bored, etc. etc. 

I thought a lot about Zyg.  He was alone for almost a year until our friend, Irene, came to live with us.  He looked after himself and also had to do some washing for me, he came every day by public transport and he never complained, never cursed our fate - although this must have been hard for him especially as his heart often misbehaved and he had trouble breathing.  He told me many times that we would manage, crippled or not crippled; for better or for worse, we would manage somehow, just as we had managed during the war, just as we had managed during all these years.  He visited my mother sometimes and even, a few times, brought Mother to see me at the hospital; she looked well and cared for. 

Whilst at Prince Henry’s, I took part (as a patient) in a ceremony when an Opportunity Shop donated a hospital bed.  I was amazed at the amount of money that the ladies were able to raise.  It was in the thousands – and it was not only the bed as such but also for the upkeep of a patient.  The plaque was put over my bed and unveiled during one of the speeches.  The voluntary workers at those Op. Shops were doing a marvellous job and at the same time helping the people who could not afford new things.  I decided that from then on I would donate my things to them, and I did.  At Prince Henry’s (as at the other hospitals), I got friendly with some of the nurses and sisters.  They were all hard-working girls, most of them having their own problems, and still they were able to give the patients their full attention.  Some of them had money troubles, some had love troubles, some who were not Australians had their own personal problems.  I was lucky that we could talk and communicate, sometimes I was like “Dorothy Dix”, other times I just listened and learned.  It was good for us to talk to each other as they could unburden their sorrows, their troubles and, listening to them, I could forget my own troubles.  Some of them had really great troubles but still they were able to do their work and not lose patience with some of the patients who were too demanding, who complained constantly.  I don’t know how they did it; I know that I could not do what they did. 

It was a great pleasure for me being able to help the girls solve their problems, in some cases, simply by listening to them.  Some of them visited me for the next few years at hospitals, and later on at home.  For the little that I gave them, they repaid me a hundred times more than I deserved.  I would like to tell other patients to forget their own problems for a little time and to think about the staff and their problems.  Once or twice a week two ladies (who were voluntary workers) came.  They had a basketful of flowers which they had grown in their own garden.  They came just to cheer us up and left a bunch of flowers.  I felt deeply touched by their gesture.  When the day came for me to leave Prince Henry’s, the staff made a lot of fuss, trying to help me and to reassure me that they cared for me.  The girls started to come early in the morning to say “hello”, to give me a kiss, or a small present.  When the ambulance men arrived to take me (still a stretcher case) there were many of them around my bed and later on in the passage, even those who were on duty in other wards, even the girls from the kitchen and the cleaning women.  The ambulance men were unable to wheel me out as the passage was full of people giving me hugs and kisses, promising to visit me in the new hospital.  In the lift there were more hugs and kisses from the orderlies and from the first year nurses, and again on the ground floor where the social worker and some girls wished me all the best.  In the ambulance the men and I chatted.  They asked what nationality I was and I told them “Bloody New Australia from Poland”.  One of the men was Australian and the other was from England and I called him a “Bloody Pom”; they were friendly men.  When they heard how long I had been in the hospital and that I had not been home for such a long time, they asked where I lived and when I gave them my address, they whispered between themselves, and told me that they also would give me a farewell surprise. 

They gave me a fantastic surprise.  They pulled up in front of our house and took me down on the stretcher.  Zyg was standing near the front gate, Flip went berserk and jumped onto the stretcher, licking me all over and the two men brought me (with Flip) into the house, put the stretcher on the living room floor – and I felt like crying, being so happy.  There are many kind and friendly people who are understanding and compassionate.  We stayed only for a few minutes but that was the nicest present they could have given me. 

Afterwards I was transferred to Hampton Hospital to be taught how to stand and, maybe, even walk – as I was still a stretcher case.  I was afraid of the new hospital, dreading that it might be another Kingston Centre.  However, it was just one of the nicest hospitals.  The atmosphere was a friendly one, we were well looked after, we were treated as people, not as cases.  The age group ranged between 16 and 70, all were crippled or at least handicapped; everyone wanted to get better and we were encouraged to work hard and to try to improve.  There were many physiotherapy sessions during the day, the therapists worked really hard with us and everything was well organized.  The doctor in charge was friendly and gave each one of us his full attention.  He did not mind being asked questions which he answered truthfully and sympathetically and when in doubt, referred us to a specialist.  He gave the impression that nothing was too much trouble and, in addition, he spoke such nice English that it was pure pleasure listening to him.  In this hospital I met some patients whom I knew from previous hospitals, and we all thought it was the best hospital for us.  It did not take very long before I was able to take a few steps whilst supported by a frame. 

I learned to use the wheelchair which could have the board removed for short periods, otherwise it had a small narrow board.  Soon afterwards I was told that I could become an outpatient which meant that I would go home for all weekends (sleeping those nights at home) and come to the hospital only from Monday to Friday.  A taxi would pick me up from home at 8:30 am and from the hospital at 4:40 pm.  It was hard to imagine that at last (after eighteen months in hospital) I could live at home.  It seemed unbelievable. 

I choked with emotion when I came home for the first time.  It was a wonderful homecoming.  Zyg wheeled me around the house, showing all the improvements he had done for me.  Everything looked beautiful.  There were fresh flowers everywhere; new books at my bedside table; and the house was shining like after the best spring cleaning.  I was certain that Irene had worked for hours on end.  At last I was home.  I was deeply touched and very happy.  Zyg hired a good wheelchair and. as I still could not go to a normal toilet, he hired a commode and I did not have to use the hated bedpan.  Zyg adjusted the floor for my legs; most rooms he repainted; he also modernized the kitchen benches, etc. etc.  I was home not more than half an hour when kids from next door came to see me and to show me their new puppy and kittens.  I was in bed, next to me was our dog Flip, then there were a few puppies and a few kittens and a few kids.  It was lovely (although probably unhygienic) but a real homely atmosphere with five animals and four kids sharing my bed – until one of the puppies started to leak on the bed and our Flip lifted his leg against my sticking out cast! 

The bed became wet and sheets had to be changed and Zyg told the kids to go home for a while.  I felt that at last I was home, at last I was allowed to enjoy even that which was not desirable but very pleasant.  My first meal at home was also a pleasure.  Not only was I able to swallow it, but I even enjoyed it – although it was not one prescribed by a dietician.  I had herring, dark rye bread, caviar, sour cucumbers and other delicatessen foods – and with it came a bottle of champagne.  I doubt that even a queen could have had a better welcome.  Zyg never once hinted that having me at home would be a great burden to him. 

Family and friends treated me with love and tried to make life worthwhile, showing that they still loved me even the way I was.  I was extremely fortunate as many of my mates had had bad experiences when coming home.  They were told that having a handicapped person around the house was unbearable to them; many marriages broke up; many lost their friends.  It must have been unbearable for them to be constantly reminded that they were now a burden.  How did they cope?  I do not know.  I think that I would have gone to pieces without the love shown me by family and friends.  I attended Hampton Hospital for a few months.  There were bad days when I thought that I was not making any progress, and there were many good days. 

The best day was when I was able to use the toilet by myself, just walking without a frame but with two sticks only, and I was able to use the toilet without help.  I promised myself that from now on I would never complain as this was something which I wanted more than anything else.  However, soon there came the time when I took the toilet for granted and now I wanted to be able to get dressed by myself, I wanted to be able to get out of bed by myself, I wanted to be able to go outside to our backyard by myself, etc. etc. 

There was some improvement but so gradual that I felt frustrated and, only thanks to Zyg who pushed me to keep trying, did I make progress.  I had one aim – to be independent of human help.  I did not mind, at least not much, all the gadgets which I still needed, but I wanted to be independent of people’s assistance.  I felt frustrated.  One day I was told at Hampton Hospital that I should be discharged as nothing more could be done for me and that I should start a normal life!  This was one of the most depressing days – nothing more could be done for me and the irony of it was that I should lead a normal life.  Every night I cried myself to sleep and was not good company to family or friends.  Whilst I was still in hospital, Zyg’s mother died of pneumonia and a few months later, my mother also died of pneumonia and old age.  Roman and I were with her during her dying hours.  Occasionally she recognized us and gave us a smile, but most of the time she was semi-conscious wearing an oxygen mask, foam on her lips.  I thought it cruel to keep her alive until the arrival of the doctor, but such are the rules and regulations:  Only the doctor is allowed to disconnect the oxygen.  I was glad that we were there at the time of her death as I think that our being there made dying a little easier for her.  I was told that I would need another operation to restore part of my circulation as my legs were not good at all.  It was nothing serious and I spent only ten days in hospital, but later on I had very great pain for seven weeks, needing morphine injections and many painkillers; it was a bad time.

 


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