the biology & ecology of the asteroidea

Mr Woollens mobilises slowly and with great precision, inching his way along the great mass of textbooks on the book shelves; along the backs of chairs and cabinets covered with fossils and specimens in jars and ethnic carvings; tentatively feeling his way along the walls hung with diplomas and certificates and photographs of awards ceremonies and antique taxonomic prints; moving hand by foot by hand, securing each purchase and only then transferring his weight, as slowly and meticulously pinpoint as a giant starfish moving over a span of uneven coral – ironic, given that starfish were his speciality.
‘Yes,’ he pants, pushing his wild white hair over to one side, exposing the great tangle of his eyebrows and the partially paralysed slant of his mouth. ‘I spent years looking at the damned things.’
I ask if there’s anything I can get him, some water perhaps, a cup of tea?
‘There is one thing,’ he says. ‘You can get me a package of something to enable my own destruction.’
Those great eyebrows tremble as he studies my response.
‘No?’ he says. ‘Thought not. In which I suppose I shall just have to settle for a cup of tea.’

the plan

Stress is like bad weather. You could draw isobars on a map. Arrows indicating direction of flow. Cloud banks. Lightning.

The Out of Hours team had taken a stormy call from Graham first thing that morning. He said his mum Sara had effectively been fly-tipped back home, and the promised follow-up from our community health team scheduled for the next day was completely unacceptable.

I didn’t know anything about it, so before I picked up the phone to call Graham back I scrolled through the extensive notes on the system. They described how Sara had been admitted to hospital by ambulance with an infection, then subsequently found to have suffered an ischemic stroke. Unfortunately she still had marked problems with balance and coordination even after thrombolysis, and her speech, memory and mood were also affected. Various treatments and therapies had been started, but Sara had become distressed and unhappy on the ward. Graham attended a multi-disciplinary meeting to weigh-up the benefits of keeping Sara in hospital with the risks of sending her home. Everyone had been in agreement: the plan was to discharge on the understanding it would be bed care only for 48 hours until the community health team could assess and organise the necessary moving and handling equipment. Carers had been arranged to come in four times a day to help with all of this.

A substantial set of notes, but one that demonstrated the lengths the hospital was prepared to go to get Sara back home as safely as possible.

When finally I manage to speak to him, Graham is as cross as the Out of Hours operator had described.

‘I’m not stupid’ he snaps. ‘I know what they’re really worried about. They just want the bed. They couldn’t care less. But what they don’t seem to understand is how much my mum used to do for herself. She was an independent lady. She couldn’t bear to lie around all day. I can’t just leave her there, soiling herself in those pads. I mean – there’s nothing here for her. If I can help her to the commode I will…’

He races on barely pausing to breathe, mixing in the horrors of his mum’s current situation with anecdotes about the bridge club she went to twice a week, the dog, the twins’ birthday coming up, the state of the garden and so on. If I didn’t have the MDT summary in front of me I would never have guessed that Graham had been there at all.

As gently as I can I try to go over the plan as described in the notes. Bed care only, until the community health team can go in the next day to assess all transfers and order up the necessary equipment.
‘It’ll go in as urgent,’ I tell him. ‘We’ll work as quickly as we can.’
‘She’s an active person!’ says Graham.
‘Yes, but then – of course – she’s had this stroke…’
‘All this lying around isn’t good for anybody. She’ll get bed sores. She’ll go mad.’
‘I think the plan is to go steady and build your mum’s strength up gradually. The last thing you want is for her to fall, break something, and go straight back to hospital. It didn’t sound as if she was very happy there.’
‘She wasn’t happy.’
‘No. So look. We’ve got to take things steady and give them time to work. The carers will be coming in through the day and evening. We can organise someone in the middle of the night if that would help, too. We’ll get a therapist in to assess all the manual handling angles, see about a hospital bed and take it from there. How does that sound?’
‘I think if my mum wants to get out of bed I’m not going to sit there and do nothing. I know you don’t like it, but there you are. I’m just being honest. I know what I can and can’t do. And what I can’t do is simply sit there and put my fingers in my ears when she cries out.’

As sympathetically but as clearly as I can I go over the plan again. Graham is too stressed to take it in, though. After I put the phone down I talk it over with my colleagues. We look at the schedule but there’s nothing we can do to bring the manual handling assessment forward. The best we can do is send a nurse in to do a quick review of obs, pressure areas and a welfare check.

I give the nurse a heads-up on the situation; she thanks me with an ironic smile.
‘Why d’you always give me the difficult ones?’ she says.

*

When I see the nurse at the end of the shift I ask her how the review went.
‘Easy,’ she says.
‘Oh? Really? Wow! I’m amazed. Graham was so incredibly stressed on the phone.’
‘Well I wouldn’t know about that,’ says the nurse. ‘There was no-one in. Turns out his mum fell. She’s back in the hospital.’