You can learn a lot from being in hospital - in any capacity or incapacity. They’re strange places, housing and concentrating an enormous spectrum of experiences and emotions. Extremes are common. I want to write about something quite simple.

On my first day as a clinical student I spoke to a patient on the wards, let’s call her Mrs J. She was ready to go home after what had been a prolonged and difficult admission. Mrs J was in her late 80s and had advanced kidney disease. The details aren’t important. As students, we’d not yet had much actual medical training – we were there just to get used to talking to patients and to being in hospital. So we chatted.

Despite her age and her medical problems, Mrs J was extremely lucid – she was bright-eyed and articulate. She told me about being in hospital, how it wasn’t much fun. About needles and tubes, taps and drains, tablets and injections, machines that cleaned her blood. Making friends with other patients in the ward. The terror of awakening in the middle of the night and watching CPR being performed on one of her new friends. Watching the bed wheeled away and the bay left empty until the morning when the bed was wheeled back with fresh sheets and a new face lying on it.

Despite all this, Mrs J was cheerful. She told me about her husband – not well himself – coming in every morning on the bus with fresh flowers and newspapers for her. Her children and grandchildren visiting her. An outpouring of love. Mrs J had no complaints about the staff – the doctors or the nurses or the porters or the cleaners. They were angels she said, she was grateful to them.

Mrs J had recovered well, now she was looking forward to going home. In a full medical history you are supposed to assess the ability of a patient to look after themselves on discharge. I asked a little about how she felt about going home, not having the doctors and nurses around. Coping on her own. She told me she couldn’t wait.

Then her eyes sparkled and she told me something really special. She said she was going to go home and take up piano lessons. That she’d put it off long enough. I couldn’t quite believe it. Taking up the piano in your late 80s with end-stage renal failure. I was amazed. I told her that I’d thought of taking up music lessons but I thought – there was no other way of saying it – that it was too late, that I was a bit old for that now. Mrs J somehow managed to laugh and be furious and jab me with her finger all at the same time. Too late?! You’re a child! You don’t have to be Glenn Gould you know. You should do things you enjoy! Make the most of your time. Make {jab} the {jab} most {jab} of {jab} now {jab}.


Now is what you’re holding in your hand. A few days after seeing Mrs J, I bought a Spanish guitar. I am not a natural or fantastic player. I am no Barrios or Segovia or Paco de Lucia but I do enjoy playing now and again and I appreciate music more.

I’m not even at the beginning of my career; I’m at the threshold but even in these few years I feel like I’ve seen a lot, in hospitals and out of them. I’ve seen some pretty terrible things and some wonderful things. There’s one image I return to, particularly when things are bad. I see Mrs J playing the piano, enjoying the moment, enjoying the now.

Sometimes you see things most clearly from an alien perspective. Looking with the eyes of the very old or the very young or those of another culture. Saying things in another language. The French word for now is maintenant - from ‘main’ meaning hand and ‘tenir’ meaning to hold or to grasp. Now is what you’re holding in your hand. Now is what you grasp.

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