Monday, 26 October 2009

The Belfast trip

Matthew has improved, doesn't need to be hospitalised any more and will, from now, be an outpatient at the cardiac unit.

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Saturday 17th October.

After arriving at Belfast International Airport, I go to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. The same hospital where my son Colm fought for his life 28 years ago.

The taxi leaves me off at the entrance to the hospital. It is at the opposite side of the building to the old entrance I had used so often while Colm was resident there. The doorway leads into a recently constructed extension to the hospital. There is long, wide lobby decorated with pictures and sculptures presumably aimed at a juvenile public. Perhaps they are meant to give the impression that this is a fun place to visit? In the centre of the floor is a large display of toy animals under thick glass, with long, curved fluorescent tubes to to make an impressive visual impression. Unfortunately the fluorescent tubes don't work...

The lobby leads into a narrower, brighter corridor with glass walls. Outside the walls I get an unobstructed view of untended patio areas and the brightness highlights the fact that the corridor needs cleaning. A wall sign at the end of the corridor indicates that the intensive care unit is up a gloomy flight of stairs. Then another dusty corridor and a couple of sets of self-opening doors lead into the much cleaner lobby of the intensive care unit and operating theatres. A relatives' room is off the lobby, and Jenna and husband Colin are waiting for me here. Matthew is in the operating theatre.

The hospital is on an elevated site and the waiting room has good views of the wide valley which encompasses Belfast.
I get a good view of the twin spires of St Peter's cathedral overshadowed by the ugly, dominant tower of Belfast City Hospital and lots of grey buildings framed by a grey sky. In the foreground is one of Belfast's many gable wall tribal murals. (Click on the images if you want to see them enlarged.)
It's depressing.

Let's have a cup of tea, suggests Jenna.

We go into the old Children's Hospital building and proceed through a dirty corridor with a cracked floor and turn into a dimly-lit, filthy corridor lined with black refuse sacks. Soon the smell of burned fat offends my nostrils. Here is the café.

The café is bright and cheerful and clean, but the smell of burned fat pervades. The cooked food on offer consists of refried, pre-fried, fat-laden potato bread, sausages and some dried-up, brittle bacon. It occurs to me that there should be health warning here. The chatty staff operate at a snail's pace. Fortunately the tea is palatable.

There is no craic. Conversation is forced, leaden; everyone is worried about baby Matthew, now being carved up on the operating table.

We go back to the relatives' room. I realise that I need to go to the toilet. It turns out that the public toilets are far away, in the entrance lobby. Luckily my need is not urgent. When I get to the toilets - there are only two to service the entire children's hospital! - I discover that one of these has no light. Someone has, I'm guessing, tried to use it anyway and the nice urine puddle on the floor is testament to the fact that they had aimed badly. The other toilet is smelly, but serviceable.

On my return to the relatives' room, we receive the welcome news that Matthew is back in the intensive care unit. The operation has gone well. We can see him. Jenna and Colin are elated.

Matthew is motionless, his tiny, yellow, jaundiced body attached to several banks of electronic equipment. He cannot breathe unaided and his heart cannot function unassisted. It is simultaneously incredibly sad and happy - sad that he should should be here like this, and happy that he survived the operation.

The staff in the intensive care unit are extremely friendly, tactful, helpful and informative.
The ward is spotlessly clean. It's a shame that the rest of the hospital isn't like that.

Over the next few days, travelling to and fro the hospital, I get a chance to see how Belfast has changed since I left, 15 years ago. As in many other cities, modern development has robbed entire areas of their identity. The security situation has improved, but Belfast is still a very troubled and divided city and tribal symbols (flags, graffiti and murals) are still strategically placed to indicate which tribe rules which area. Police are still equipped with flak jackets and guns. This isn't exactly conducive to anxiety free ambling in the quieter areas. The economic recession seems to be biting hard here and about 25% of the city's shops appear to be vacant or up for sale. There are a surprising number of boarded-up derelict buildings.

The hospital is situated on the west side of Belfast in what was always a “dodgy” area. It's still a dodgy area. It is Sunday morning, and the main road to the hospital is closed due to suspected terrorist activity. We have to get there by a different route.There are lots of bomb scares, the taxi driver tells me. On the way back, there is a police road block. It is still there on Monday.
The heavily fortified building is a police station.
A police road block is in progress.
Here is the road block from the opposite direction.

In case anyone is in any doubt, I really did not enjoy my time in Belfast. This gives me conflicting emotions since it is my home town and I feel that I'm being disloyal to it. The situation has improved since I left Ireland's shores 15 years ago, but I'm sad that things haven't improved more.

I'm going back to Belfast tomorrow morning. Joseph, Orla and my granddaughter Shannon are accompanying me this time. Since Matthew isn't so ill now, my visit will be much less stressful. Perhaps I'll like the city this time. Or even dislike it less. We'll see...


diver said...

That was such an evocative post Robert, a quite amazing tale of a little soul clinging to life in a cracked and filthy environment. It sure had me gritting my teeth yet nodding in appreciation at those ICU staff. Fascinating insights about the tribalism in that part of the world too.

Good luck with this next trip and best wishes for baby Matthew's continued improvement.

rosiero said...

Just catching up with your stories while I have been away. So sorry to hear about your baby grandson's fight for life and so glad they have identified the problem (what a chance that midwife came to visit) and that he is recovering. Your descriptions of Belfast show that things have not moved on greatly recently despite the lack of news emanating from that quarter these days. I had hoped things might have improved. Glad too that Marie has found a fall-back position for her agorophobia/monophobia in your absences. Often necessity makes us have to cope with new or altered situations.

Robert said...

diver & rosiero -

I hope that on my forthcoming trip to Belfast (at stupid o'clock early in the morning!) Belfast will emerge in a better light. At least I'll be able to spend some time with a concious grandson! And with my little children accompanying me, I can't avoid enjoying myself!

Lynn said...

Have a good time on your return trip Robert. About the book. I wouldnt say its aimed at only women at all. I actually first heard of it on Richard and Judys book club thing and if i remember correctly Richard raved about it.

Gary said...

Your descriptive of the hospital is, sadly, an all too familiar tale. Despite millions being spent on extensions and public artwork, none of them seem able to employ a decent cleaning staff. Our experience of the maternity ward at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough was, to say the least, horrific.

Glad to hear that Matthew is continuing to improve. Hope your trip goes well / better this time.

Nechtan said...

Hi Robert,

I hope the young 'uns enjoy the trip with you. I'm sure under better circumstances Belfast will be a bit better on the eye this time. It is good that things have improved but I would imagine for any larger change it will take generations of a different mindset- something equally true on a smaller scale in central Scotland.

I hope you enjoy some quality time with your new grandson and the rest of the family.

All the best


Casdok said...

Really pleased to hear Matthew continues to improve and you hopefully will beable to enjoy this next visit more.

Kit Courteney said...

Goodness... Matthew sounds like a little star... good genes...?

Let's hope future visits... with whoever... will have a much more exciting feeling!

Very best wishes x

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maz said...

Hi Robert, it's true, I find, when we are feeling down or stressed it does kinda colour things into a horrid grey place!
I hope this trip proves to be a bit more of a happy colour!

maz x

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Very difficult to envisage living in a place with an undercurrent like Belfast in the 21st century