It’s September 1983. I’m a patient in ward 3X. 3X is a surgical ward. I’ve been admitted by consultant neurosurgeon Mr Nuseibeh. He is going to operate on my bladder, cut the sphincter muscle and remove part of the prostate gland. Many people with spinal injuries require this kind of surgery. It makes it easier to pee and decreases the risk of infection. I am nervous. Never had an operation before. I broke my neck two years ago. This is the first time I’ve been back in hospital since I was discharged in December 1981.
The spinal unit is a collection of prefabricated Nissen huts, linked via corridors to the main hospital. They were originally built to treat World War II military casualties, then established as a national spinal injuries centre in 1944. Ward 3X has a large table at the end where patients gather to eat their meals, play board games and cards. It’s walls and roof are thin and the insulation poor. It gets unbearably hot during the summer and freezing cold in the winter. We accept it. This is it — it’s all we know.
Outside a new spinal unit is being built. Jimmy Savile with his many charitable fund-making projects is providing the cash. Without him the hospital would not exist. His campervan is parked in the parking area. He has an office and overnight quarters in the unit. Jimmy wanders around the hospital greeting patients and relatives, kissing ladies’ hands whilst holding a fat cigar and surrounded by an entourage of admirers and staff. He wears tracksuit’s, a heavy gold bracelet, thick gold pendant and diamond encrusted rings. Some people think he is creepy, some people admire him. We all think he is weirdly eccentric.
I am in the second bed from the end. Next to me and tucked away in the corner is a chap called Malcolm Ball. He has long hair and doesn’t seem to worry or care about anything. We quickly get to know each other. I learn that his locker is filled with cans of John Smith’s bitter. He takes fifteen milligrams of Valium a day. With a combination of alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs, it’s no wonder he doesn’t care or worry. I like him a lot. We seem to gel, hit it off from the word go. Yes, I like Malcolm a lot.
Malcolm has nicknames for everyone. For example he calls the guy opposite: “The MP”, on account of a letter he repeatedly reads out. It is from Francis Pym, a Governmental Minister, and relates to spinal injuries and the health service. Every new patient gets a recital. “This is what my MP has written, blah, blah, blah …” Malcolm and I chuckle as he babbles on.
Three nurses stand out from the rest. They are Ann, Cheryl and Jo. They can take a joke.
“Jo, if I give you some cannabis and cigarette papers would you roll us a joint?”
“You’ll get me shot,” she says. “Come on then, give it to me.”
I tell her it is in my locker. “Take some yourself.” She goes outside, finds a quiet place, heats the Moroccan resin in a silver wrap, then crumbles it into a thin line of tobacco. Sneaking the joint back onto the ward, she cautiously passes it to Malcolm.
“Push our beds closer, please Jo … I can’t hold the joint without Malcolm’s help.” She takes the brakes off and moves my bed sideways towards his. The joint is already burning. He takes a couple of drags and then holds it out so I can drag on it, too. There’s me, my arm through the monkey pole and leaning over as far as I can go. Feels good to draw on the joint. I take three or four deep slugs and then fall back onto my pillow, close my eyes and quietly mellow away.
Malcolm and I get nicely high. Munchies high, giggling high, unfazed high.
We get nicely high. Munchies high, giggling high, unfazed high.
Smoking is not prohibited in the ward. No oxygen pipes at the head of the bed. Little to catch fire. The staff turn a blind eye to patients who smoke cannabis. There we are, me and Malcolm, tucked away at the far end of the ward with wide grins on our faces and happy as sandboys, the pungent scent of cannabis wafting around our beds.
Yes, nurses and doctors turn a blind eye to patients who smoke cannabis. Just so long as you’re discrete. Mr Nuseibeh would make a fuss if he witnessed it. “Exercise extreme caution in all things”. But if it makes us feel good, then why not. Anything to escape the horrors of spinal injury.