The first time that I visited a neuro-rehab ward had nothing to do with Nick and his traumatic brain injury. Instead, I was doing the rounds with a different gorgeous, fair-haired creature.
Her name was Billie-Jean and she was a Pets As Therapy dog who I was trailing on her rounds at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in Putney, South-west London.
I was there to write an article about her work. It was interesting and inspiring to see this impeccably behaved dog giving patients and staff some respite from the rigours of their days, hearing her elicit responses from people whose conditions had, in some cases, left them barely able to communicate.
Billie-Jean’s owner was overjoyed when one girl who she’d never heard speak answered a question about how her own dogs at home. They were “all right”. Cue gasps of delight all round.
There was a 50/50 chance that Nick would end up in Putney for the next stage of his recovery. It’s a grand place that was glorious in the sunshine on the day that I spent there six years ago. While waiting to hear if he would be going there, I was sent a glossy welcome pack that was pretty damn slick. However, Nick was sent to another unit, one that, thank God, is slightly easier to get to and that’s very near where his daughter lives.
Before he arrived, I went for an unannounced recce to check the place out. The hospital it’s situated in is certainly grand, if hulking concrete brutalism is your thing. Inside, though, things were bright and spacious. The ward he was destined for was sunny and calm. Wheelchairs were neatly lined up, and patients’ paintings decorated the walls. There was no brochure to speak of, but the therapeutic atmosphere said plenty.
My first full day with Nick in there, though, was somewhat less serene. Actually, I pretty much thought that I’d gone insane. Nick was in a room with three other chaps, only one of whom was there when I arrived. He was reading a book and, on a hot May day, wearing a Santa hat. This threw me a bit. Perhaps he needed to keep his head warm as part of his treatment. Then I spotted a pirate hat on another bed. Maybe you didn’t have to wear a hat here. Perhaps it just helped.
While getting my bearings on the ward, I saw a lady wearing a knitted hat that looked like a chicken. Another wore a garland of flowers in her hair. I began to wonder if I was seeing things. Hat-shaped things. The ward sister approached. Wearing a tiny, Mad Hatter-style topper. I’d definitely lost it.
Some hours of doubting my eyes later, I went to leave. And spotted a poster on the wall saying “Hats for Headway Day!”. Headway is the leading brain-injury charity and it was raising funds by encouraging staff and patients to wear titfers. Ah ha! It was a bit of jollity for a good cause.
I knew for sure then that this place was going to be good for Nick. Which it has turned out to be. Because while I’ve yet to procure a Pets As Therapy dog to come and give my husband some love, and while he missed out on the hat-based fun, he has astounded me and his carers. After months of silence, after months of wondering if I’d ever hear Nick’s voice again, he has started talking. All right? It’s so much better than that.