How basic literacy helped to ward off a few hospital woes

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
Chance meeting with a former pupil and a reminder of the consolations of a great read

I was in hospital recently. I arrived in the general ward to find two former pupils. The ward orderly took one look at me and barked, "Ah ken you, Mr Wood, taught me at Craigie." Then the big grin erupted: "Dinnae worry. You were OK. I'll no poison your tea."

The second was a patient, to whose every visitor I was pointed out. "Look, it's Mr Wood. Remember? Taught me Craigie!" Worse things to have been than a teacher. The ward had three other patients, two older men, friendly and communicative, and one young man, Jim, who wasn't. He had a nasal gastric tube, a catheter, a saline drip and was being fed by tube.

He played endless computer games centred on motorbikes, danger, aggression, and fantasy females. Jim never completed a sentence (except to doctors) without the f-word. He cursed staff, particularly nurses, for "trying to tell me what I can do" and cursed every aspect of hospital life, from the food to the lack of privacy. If he didn't achieve what he wanted (an escort for a fag, another drink of fizzy juice for which he had an insatiable appetite) from one member of staff, he awaited the next and asked again, less courteously, and by the end of my first day in the ward he had thoroughly scunnered me.

On the second day, my former pupil, who sometimes escorted Jim for a fag, told me some of the background. Jim was 19. He had spent five weeks in hospital after serious surgery. (I was sorry for myself being hospitalised for a week to a fortnight.) He had few visitors, had no solid food for five weeks, had already lost several stone and his bowels were not functioning. He might require further surgery and would still be in hospital at Christmas.

It was time for some humility. At 61, a week or two in hospital was a grim prospect. How would I have reacted at 19 and keen to be alive and kicking? Try a nasal gastric tube. I had one for 12 hours. Five weeks would have driven me crazy.

The following day my rethink was completed. The WRVS library trolley toured the wards. Everyone in the ward, bar Jim, had a stack of reading. We politely declined. Jim struggled: "Aye, but no auld folks' books!" That afternoon Jim was peacefully, profoundly silent, engrossed in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Our angry young man had become the boy he had perhaps never properly been. The power of the narrative carried him through the succeeding days.

I reached three conclusions. Don't rush to critical judgement. Three cheers for the teacher who taught Jim to read: she saved his sanity and mine. The value of literature is beyond reckoning. (The good news is that his health improved, the nasal tube was removed and he got home for Christmas.)

Alex Wood is a former headteacher

Alex Wood, Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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