In Sickness and in Health: In our hospitals, privacy has a very flexible meaning

Earlier this year, Rebecca’s husband Nick was hit by a car and seriously injured. Here, in one of a series of columns, she writes about the aftermath of his accident.

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Privacy is an elastic thing in hospital. There’s no need for a loved one to suffer life-changing injuries in order for anyone to find this out, although it’s given me ample opportunity to think about it.

Visit a decent-size hospital for a blood test or an X-ray and there’s likely to be at least a couple of people in flimsy surgical gowns and slippers puffing on cigarettes next to a no-smoking sign, their ankles starkly pale in the autumn sunshine. In the corridors, patients wield their drips like wheeled sceptres but look impossibly vulnerable. Breathe in! Bed-bound unconscious person coming through (with the help of an orderly at the headboard). Or perhaps they’re not unconscious, perhaps they’re squeezing their eyes shut so that they don’t have to see all the blood-test tourists peering at them as they make their progress to theatre.

When it takes two healthcare assistants to wash and change you, in a room that you share with three other people, normal notions of privacy are thrown out with the bathwater. But that’s not to say that the hospital doesn’t try.

Each bed has curtains around it that can be closed. Each curtain has its laminated sign warning that there could be a procedure going on inside to prevent anyone barging straight in.

The closed curtains and the laminated signs result in something that I find incredibly endearing. When a doctor, nurse or polo-shirt-clad healthcare assistant wants to enter the tented confines of a curtained bed, they say “knock knock”. Not “excuse me, can I come in?”; no  – the curtains magically become a door to which they “knock” to gain entry.

Of course, curtains aren’t doors, and they are a terrible substitute for walls. I can draw them around Nick’s bed (skewering any gaps with a safety pin left there for the purpose) and climb under the bedcovers with him. We can have some time alone, some time where normality, if I squint, doesn’t seem quite so far away. Then another patient will start shouting, or the drug trolley will rattle outside, or an entire family will arrive to visit someone else and the illusion of privacy is revealed to be just that.

We, the visitors, attempt to keep up the pretence, not just for the dignity of the people who we’ve come to see but for our own sanity. This week I sat on the floor by Nick’s bed, watching him sleep, with the curtains drawn. Someone had come to see the person in the bed next to him and as I sat silently, I could hear the other visitor chat, sing, and murmur. Then the tears came. Theirs as well as mine. I pretended that I wasn’t there, that the curtains had become the walls I wished for, before eventually parting them to get some tissues for me and for the other visitor. Then I ducked back behind the curtain to give them some privacy. Of a sort.