A Day On the Wards
The day started with Phil Harris coming into the break room where everyone was drinking tea and chatting. He interrupted the fray by asking with a gamely smile, “Anyone have time for an asshole?” He stood there patiently, waiting for people to clock what he was asking, crossing his arms in front of him with a certain sort of glee.
I waved my hand with a responsive grin and began to walk towards the equipment room to pick up a 35MM camera along with a roll of Kodachrome film. Phil followed me in and handed me a purchase order. I could see my destination was on a surgical floor. From there, I’d have to find out first-hand what this “asshole” was all about. Such is the life of a medical photographer working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
As I got into scrubs and washed my hands, the surgeon involved talked me through what I would need to do: get on a ladder and shoot straight into the anus of a man who was having a tumor removed. The patient was already anesthetized and prepped, but the surgeon wanted a before and after record of what was an historically unique tumor.
Together, we entered the surgery and I climbed the ladder. Staring down at the man’s back, I wanted to make sure there was no chance myself or my camera would fall on top of him, especially considering the angle from which I was precariously hanging. That anxiety made me flush and as a result, I moved slowly, much to the dismay of the cocky surgeon. As I brought the camera to my face, I felt a sudden wash of security: now I was removed emotionally from what was in front of me, as if taking a pill to forget all details that weren't strictly visual.
The surgeon pointed with a pen light to the regions I needed to photograph. In the back of my mind, I was mentally recording the man’s body and all its fascinating aberrations to contemplate later. When I completed the photos, it was time to commence surgery and I would return when it was over. For now, I was requested in a patient room located across the entire expanse of the hospital - two city blocks.
The Glasgow Royal Infirmary was originally opened as a teaching hospital in 1794 over ground that used to belong to Glasgow's original medieval castle from the 12th century - one that had fallen into disrepair almost one hundred years before. A total of eight wards and an operating theater were situated over four floors above ground and an apothecary, kitchen and a lab were located in the basement. Various buildings were added on until 1910, when the entire hospital was knocked down and replaced, with the exception of an 1804 wing for the blind, the facade for which can still be seen today.
When the hospital was re-opened in 1914, once again, newer wards were erected until 1933 and again in 1974. The various wings meant that entry and exit between wards became maze-like, with one ward linking to another by a specific floor or the need to jog up and down stairs in order to remain on the same floor in the next ward. Whereas the surgical floors were in the newest portion, the patient I needed to see was in a ward from the 1930s.
The rooms there were a little dingy, with bottles of Irn Bru and Lucozade uniformly lining the patients' tables, brought in by family members who had a notion these sugar-filled soft drinks were curative (Irn Bru's advertising implied it had the ingredients of iron girders in it...). Behind the curtain of the room I entered was a petit woman who looked in her 50s but most likely was in her late 30s. Her blonde hair was showing dark roots and her long fingernails were stained by cigarette tar. There were no soft drinks on her table.
She greeted me shyly as I managed my warmest smile. Then I realized I could smell necrosis. Looking at the message I received from the medical photography unit - while holding my breath - I was supposed to photograph her left breast. Once again, I wanted to move slowly but for a different reason: something was deeply wrong with this woman and she knew it. I didn't want to traumatize her any more than she already was.
I asked her about her day and she noted my American accent. Hers was very broad Glaswegian, meaning she had probably come up through one of the tougher and poorer areas of Glasgow. She asked where I was from and I told her a few anecdotes about Chicago. A smile began to peek out from her hardened face as we joked about the similarities of Glasgow and Chicago. My pager went off with my next call and I told her I would have to get her photographed before I moved on.
She breathed in and simply said, "I just didn't know..." as she tentatively pulled away her green, cotton gown to reveal a black hole in her chest that used to be a breast. "You didn't know you had cancer?" I said in a quietly circumspect way, bringing the camera to my eye, quelling my own terrible sense that this woman wasn't long for this world. Like a salve, the camera gave me enough emotional distance so I could operate effortlessly. My mind focused on making sure I had the right camera angles, as well as a reference point of healthy flesh compared to that which had so frighteningly decayed.
"I know I waited too long." Her lip quivered and her eyes welled up.
My mind wandered: where was this woman's family? I put the camera down and walked back to her. "Can I give you a cuddle?" With tears streaming down her face, she shook her head up and down. I leaned in and the smell of necrosis was stronger than ever but instead of letting her go, I held her and stroked the back of her hair gently. "They're going to take good care of you." I tried to reassure her, but just sitting up in bed was cumbersome. Her eyes fell closed and her countenance became less strained, tears now resting on the precipice of her chin. I picked up my camera, leaving quietly, a dire feeling plaguing my mind.
The next stop was in a special ward that was in the 1914 building and required running up or down a flight of stairs to transition into it - I couldn't readily figure out which one. After asking at a nurses' station, I was pointed in the direction of stairs that looked ancient and disused. As I descended the stairs, I could see below the ward looked fairly modern. I finally found the room and entered into a dimly lit environment where the doctor was standing over his patient with concern.
When the two of them clocked me coming in, I finally processed what I was seeing in front of me: the patient was completely hairless...and purple in almost every region of her body. I greeted them and asked what I was supposed to photograph, as it wasn't specified from my call with Phil Harris.
The doctor explained the patient had an allergic reaction to a medication that was so extreme, 90% of her body suffered a subcutaneous hematoma, otherwise known as bruising. Thankfully, the patient was the first to make a joke about how bizarre the outcome was. It was already months that she'd been in this situation.
The doctor wanted the entire body documented, however, the patient was not in a position to be moved, as it caused her excruciating pain. We would have to work together to get as much as possible.
It was clear the young woman had been through enough to appreciate herself as an object of scientific interest. Compared to the modesty of the woman before her, she had no compunction about being photographed naked. As I pulled the camera up to my eye, my brain took in her velvety canvas that, for all intents and purposes, looked like the skin of a grape. It was beautiful, in a macabre fashion.
When I left the room, my pager went off again. This time I was headed to the emergency room. Once again, navigation took me back into the 1914 building which was distressingly complicated. Knowing I was going to emergency made me all the more frustrated. When I finally arrived, I wasn't ready for what I saw.
A man sat on a gurney as if he were simply passing time, with the Dali-like irony of a machete sticking out of the top of his head. Blood ran down his hair but not in the quantity you would think. That's because, the way the machete was lodged, it acted as something of a dam. In fact, the bigger problem wasn't that the knife was in this man's skull: it was going to be taking it out and potentially having the dam "break".
Standing around the corner was the man's wife and two policemen. She was a tiny wisp of a thing in a house coat and admittedly responsible for the violence. She had really done a number on this guy and I couldn't even imagine the justification. The heat of passion? Jealousy? One-upmanship? She had definitely caught him at a vulnerable moment, as the machete went in during one foul swoop. No small accomplishment for an act of domestic violence where people tend to be in constant motion.
Getting closer to the wound and putting the camera up to my eye, I could see it was deep enough to have split the skull and most likely hit a small corner of his brain. As I swung around to take a photograph of his face, he was still conscious and seemingly content, if only a little ashamed at his bad luck. His eyes stared through the lens directly into mine, the brown circles vacant and penetrating from trauma. When I finished, a surgeon walked in with an entire team, converging to whisk the man away. In moments, the room was empty, as if the surreal scene had never taken place. I knew I recorded it and the proof was in my camera but I had no remaining context, save for blood spatter on the floor.
I returned to the medical photography unit after finding my way back in something of a stupor. Every day of seeing the war wounded, the disfigured, the abused and the sick gave a view into the human condition that I found both fascinating and heart-rending.
Before the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, I worked as a medical photographer and printer during college at The University of Iowa, another teaching hospital. I can still clearly see the man who couldn't die by shooting a portion of his head off; the woman who had the expanse of her body cut open like the zipper on a suit; the premature baby who didn't look human but lived two agonizing days without limbs or a mouth; the vagina of a young girl ripped apart by a much older uncle. All of these images were created pragmatically and during a brisk, unceremonious stop, one in a long parade of the human condition in extremis.
In a quick pivot, it was time to go back to surgery and revisit the "asshole". The tumor had been completely cleaned out and the wound neatly cut - the only clue of something previously amiss. On my way back to the unit for afternoon tea, I stopped inside an obscure hallway of the 1914 building. This was where William Hunter's 18th century pathological specimens were kept: my guilty pleasure. Hunter was a meticulous anatomist and doctor who copiously documented his process and his patients. He advanced the science of medicine exponentially from where it had been before his work and 200 years later, here it sat.
In row after row of glass jars filled with alcohol were aborted fetuses - some conjoined twins and others free floating singles - their jaundiced faces looking more like sock puppets. Next were carcinomas, melanomas, feet with extra toes, uteruses, blackened lungs, sclerotic and fatty hearts, infected livers and accordion-like intestines. Each specimen had an unknown story of a human life, woven through the flesh. My imagination ran wild for the 15 minutes I allowed my mind respite.
Arriving back at the unit, it was all smiles and laughter as we sought to break free from the heaviness of our days. Along the wall were a variety of cheerful tea cups, milk in a glass container, sugar and an electric kettle with steam pouring upwards from it. Phil Harris couldn't wait to make haggis jokes for my benefit - something about going out and shooting some this weekend, as if the intestine filled with offal and spice was, instead, a bird. I gave him a ribbing in return and the conversation drifted into talk of the upcoming weekend. The tea cup in my hands and the camaraderie gave me a warmth I cherished and I took a deep breath - somewhere in between a sigh of relief and an affirmation - to center myself.
Another call came in, once again from surgery. Wending my way through and finding the operating room, this time I was greeted with a lead apron. The patient was being given a spinal examination and everyone in the room required protection. I put the apron on and used the Velcro fasteners, striding in at my regular pace. The minute I stood still over the patient, it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. The only sound coming from this elderly man was an almost imperceptible groaning. I could not see his face, but for some reason, I internalized the low sound of his anguish.
No camera could relieve me of the weight - both of the lead apron and the emotional tidal wave I was caught in. I put the camera up to my eye but a wave of sickness overwhelmed me and as I tried to catch a breath, the room started spinning. The awkward wavelength of the man's voice - gravel-like, deeply felt - echoed unstoppably in my ear. I snapped several shots in quick succession and went running for the door, pulling off the apron as I crossed the transom. I loathed myself for being unprofessional, bending over pathetically, trying to catch my breath, cold sweat covering my face. I walked back to the medical photography unit immune to everything around me.
Once my work day was over and goodbyes said, I was relieved to step out into the chill of the street. I could see the orange, double decker Strathclyde Transport bus hurdling towards my stop and a long line of people waiting to board. Recognizing the driver, I gave her a smile as she said, "'Ello, Hen." I ran up the stairs to see if I could get a seat at the front and watch the city pass by on the way home.
As I looked around at the top of the stairs, I filed past so many generic faces of people leaving work, getting ready for the night, some half-drunk already. They had no concept of their wholeness: it made them oblivious to their vulnerability and the notion their lives could change forever, in seconds.
I took a seat next to a teenage school girl, dressed in her navy blue uniform, her face dewy and blank: I knew that face was like a canvas, soon to be painted by the unpredictable events of her life.