Saturday 17th October.
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.)
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.
A police road block is in progress.
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...