One day when I was seventeen I woke up in a hospital. The ward was long and echoey. Far away, I saw a nurse’s station with a couple of figures moving behind its glass. Mine was the last bed in a row of identical beds, next to a window. It was a windy, cloudy day. The last thing I remembered it had been evening, and I was at home.
My head was sore and weighty. I closed my eyes. Rather, my eyes closed. The next time I woke it was to my mother’s voice. I heard fear in it despite her attempt at humour. “Oh Susan,” she said, “how could you have an accident in those awful dungarees?”
I had been cycling down Ngaio Gorge, she explained, when the dynamo for my bike’s headlight came loose and jammed in the spokes of the front wheel. I flew over the handlebars, landing on my head on the road, the handlebar in my mouth.
This certainly accounted for the headache and the thick numbness of my mouth when I tried to speak. But it felt like someone else’s story. So far as I was concerned the last thing I was doing before I woke up was listening to LPs in my bedroom: Street Legal, Tapestry, The Last Waltz. I concentrated on filling the gap, but a black slab had fallen on my memory the way a rockfall obliterates a section of a path. On the ‘before’ side of the slab, I was in my bedroom getting ready for bed. On the other side of the slab, well, here I was, in hospital. Those awful dungarees, they would be my very comfortable favourite boiler dungarees. I wasn’t wearing them now. I was wearing a new nightie. This was obviously not my mother’s first visit to my hospital bed.
Someone brought a mirror and drew the curtains around my bed. The rattle of the brass hooks on the metal rail was astonishingly loud and painful, like a knife scraping the inside of my skull. There was some debate around my bed as to whether or not I should be allowed to see myself yet. I was having a faint memory from the nothing zone: a similarly loud scraping … clicks and whirrs from machinery which had been positioned near my head. Voices murmuring around me. I’d had an x-ray? I held out my hand for the mirror.
The left side of my face was swollen and bruised. In the days to come it would turn a fascinating range of shades from black through the purples to mustard yellow. I had lost two teeth. Clearly the story I’d been told about my accident was true. I was discharged that afternoon with instructions to return if my headache worsened. (There was no follow-up, and none of the warnings now routinely given about post-concussion syndrome. ) Over the succeeding weeks my memory began to return. It came back gradually, in image fragments like jigsaw pieces. Eventually I could remember speeding down the hill, enjoying the purr of the wheels and the rhythm of taking the corners on the steep, winding gorge road. I remembered a faint click-click-click coming from the front wheel. I remembered that the click-click-click became louder and more rapid. I remembered thinking Oh shit!
Between Oh shit and waking up in Wellington Public Hospital I have only two memories. One is the still-vague recollection of machinery and voices from when I was being given an x-ray. In the other memory I am lying on something hard that keeps jolting. Each jolt clangs my entire body, as if my skeleton is made of metal and is being hit with iron bars. But someone is holding my hand, and a man is speaking to me. He has a North American accent. “It’s going to be all right,” he says. “You’re going to be okay.”
Four years later I’m a final year physiotherapy student doing my clinical training in neurological rehabilitation. I’m kneeling between the parallel bars, about to help a stroke patient place his hypertonic right foot squarely on the floor in readiness for weight-bearing. Behind me someone says something quietly encouraging in a North American accent. I have the strangest sensation of auditory déjà vu. I help my patient to sit. I turn towards the voice. He’s a paramedic. Some of our patients are brought in by ambulance so as to accommodate wheelchairs.
I walk over to the paramedic and I ask, “Do you remember a cycle accident in the Ngaio Gorge four years ago? Someone had gone over the handlebars. She was wearing awful dungarees.”
“It’s you!” he says. “That was my very first day in an ambulance. I was only seeing if it was a job I wanted to do.”
It’s now nearly forty years since I heard his voice in the dark. I can still feel the steady reassurance of his grip, can still hear his voice administering confidence and calm in all that confusion. Medicine, it comes in many packages.
Sue Wootton: Poet and novelist Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.