Dame Margaret Drabble and the Knickerbocker (Harlem) Hospitalby Lesley Sudders
Two a.m. I awoke to find my husband on the bathroom floor, nearly passed out when he wasn’t vomiting into the commode. It was the early ‘70s. We were young and healthy, and I was scared. I called 911. Appendicitis?
I had experience with New York City hospitals. Taking a suicidal roommate to Bellevue on a Saturday midnight, hoping they could pump out her stomach before the tranquilizer overdose ended her life (the doctors were successful). A fast ride in an ambulance to Roosevelt after a pervert on the subway ruined my new pants suit and undergarments with a really sharp blade. Several stitches made sitting uncomfortable for a while.
Roosevelt is a nice hospital near Lincoln Center. When I made that 2 a.m. 911 call, I thought it was nearest to our apartment and would be our destination. Instead, the ambulance sped left on Broadway and deposited us at a decrepit old building known informally as Harlem Hospital. Its real name at the time: Knickerbocker.
They put my guy on a gurney and wheeled him past the double doors with the big “No Admittance” sign. The waiting room’s dingy yellow paint and threadbare seats of indeterminate color echoed the decay the building’s exterior had promised. I joined a few other denizens. The police dragged in a woman bound in a straight-jacket, screaming obscenities. They all disappeared behind the double doors, but the officers left as soon as they could. An old man sat in a corner, maybe escaping the cold for a moment. To pull himself up, he grasped the mouthpiece of the old-fashioned drinking fountain beside him with his hand.
Don’t drink from there.
No front desk, but an admittance clerk showed up, and I provided information. Then I waited.
Someone pushed through the swinging double doors. I was dismayed to catch a glimpse of Ed, lying unattended on the gurney in the hallway under a bare light bulb.
This was where Margaret Drabble entered the picture.
Dame Margaret Drabble, an esteemed English novelist and literary critic, is perhaps not well known to American readers. In the mid-1960s, she had recently finished her studies at Cambridge and “came down” to London. I had stumbled upon one of her early books, The Millstone.
The protagonist, a young career woman, found herself pregnant following a one-night stand. She decided to keep the child instead of aborting it. Later, the baby became ill, and she took it to a hospital.
I’m not providing an analysis of how medical practice has changed or of Britain’s socialized medical system then and now. But at that time, apparently things weren’t so great, at least for the book’s protagonist. The (fictional) nurse took the baby from her arms and disappeared into the hospital, denying in rude terms the mother’s right to be with her child.
Counter to centuries of British tradition of the well-bred, stiff-upper-lip class, the protagonist made a row and demanded to see and comfort her baby. The nurses finally acceded. Yea!
Also taught to obey the rules, I nonetheless rose and nudged open the foreboding double doors a crack. Ms. Drabble perched on my shoulder, urging me on. The sight of my husband, still on the gurney with a bare bulb dangling above him, outraged me. The staff members didn’t eject me, but neither did they do so much as put him in a room or tell me what was going on, other than “waiting for lab tests.” He was too dazed by pain to notice.
As the night wore on, I was glad I was there to advocate for a person too ill to help himself and especially to challenge staff who were incredibly uncaring. The highlight was the nurse who called my husband’s name from her office. I went to see what she wanted, whereupon she informed me that if he would walk to her office, she would finally give him an injection for pain.
“No, no,” Ms. Drabble whispered. “You know what to do.”
I pitched a fit. That nearly resulted in my being tossed out, but the nurse did go to him as she should have done in the first place. A doctor then showed up, assured me they would take care of him, and told me to go home and come back later.
I did go home and arranged to move Ed within a few hours to a better hospital, where he was treated for kidney stones. I learned from him later that the “care” the doctor mentioned involved more time on the gurney, but in the hallway upstairs.
We hope, as writers, that in our best moments we not only entertain, but we may shed light on some dark place in a way that reaches the mind and soul of someone who needs to hear our message. That we describe action others can emulate when needed, and when they didn’t think they had the strength or courage or right.
Dame Margaret is still with us, and I plan to find a way to write her to let her know that whatever her intention, her words and the intention behind them changed me. With any luck, they changed the nurse and orderly as well, although I’m not as hopeful of that.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.