Geriatric wards aren’t the type of place that one might usually describe as ‘buzzy’, observed the new consultant, Doctor Felix Armstrong, looking over his glasses at the scene unfolding from the nurse’s station. He was perched on a swivel chair cranked up a little too high and trying hard to concentrate on the patient notes in his hands. A junior doctor and the ward sister stood by, anxiously awaiting his instruction, which was somewhat tardy in being forthcoming. Unusual levels of activity that substituted for the usual tortoise pace were proving rather distracting for him. Ward C7 just wasn’t like any normal geriatric ward though. It had a Gloria.
Somewhere down off the main corridor a peal of laughter spilled out from a side room. Dr Armstrong sighed as Sister Green smiled. He buried himself back into the notes. Seconds later the melodic sounds of lustful singing filled the air. He frowned. “A few dementia patients in I see.” he commented.
“No, that’s Gloria.” Sister corrected quietly.
The singing continued, much to the consultant’s consternation. The owner of the jovial vocal betrayed a preference towards musicals. Dr Armstrong was definitely more La Traviata than Saturday Night Fever and he was beginning to get irked. He had picked out a few eager choruses from Oliver and The Sound of Music, punctuated by the occasional shriek and cackle. The sounds drifted from different angles as the singer moved around.
“Have you got patients wandering the ward, for god sake?” He was finding it hard to concentrate.
The ward rounds began at the opposite and quieter end of C7. Somewhere between Beryl in bed 9 and Mary in bed 12 the consultant and his team were intercepted by one of the wards’ smiling trainees, who popped the lid of a vast orange Tupperware box under Dr Armstrong’s nose. In just a matter of seconds the spicy aroma from the cooked chicken pervaded his nostrils and the consultant sneezed so violently that his glasses flew off and bounced neatly against his chin. The junior looked aghast as Dr Armstrong struggled to find his hankie and the trainee now had his own nose in the box, inhaling happily.
From the doorway of the room, a bellow of laughter erupted from the healthy lungs of Gloria Brown, a ward nurse on C7.
“So Mr New Consultant, sir,” Gloria called out, spent, her mirth draining away, “ Did you get a piece of me Jerk Chicken just yet?”
Dutifully, the trainee held out the offending orange box again, poised to peel back the lid.
Dr Armstrong dabbed his nose, hissing “Get that food off the ward this instant.”
The trainee scurried away and Gloria came striding into the room. Of the old school, she wasn’t the sort to be intimidated by any new consultants lording it over her ward. Gloria would lay on her usual welcome. From the bottom to the top, everyone deserved her warmth in equal measure. Things were a little different in C7, he would get used to it.
First generation Jamaican, Gloria’s deep brown skin still glowed with vitality, despite the fact that the last thirty two years had been spent underneath the typically grey skies of Manchester. People who knew her often wondered whether it might be down to the sunshine that emanated from her soul. Her smile, now aimed exclusively at Dr Armstrong began with two rows of bright white teeth, framed by shimmery, crimson lips and crept all over her round face. Her black eyes grinned in merriment and her nose stud glinted under harsh ward lighting.
Gloria reached and gripped Dr Armstrong’s long fingered left hand in both of hers and squeezed. He was stunned for a second, confused by the unexpected familiarity. Gloria’s large breasts, kept in check within her starched blue tunic ensured there was little in the way of personal space left between them. Her exorbitant smile seemed to swallow the whole room. Felix pulled his hand away and cleared his throat, looking over at the sister, a little embarrassed. She looked unfazed.
“I bid you welcome,” declared Gloria. “I will make sure they save you a piece of me chicken, it be in the fridge waitin’ for ya. Warm ya belly up.”
At that, she winked at Sister Green, called a greeting to the junior and padded out of the room waving and nodding at the residents who weren’t dozing. A huge mass of tiny corkscrew curls pouring from a pony tail behind her hat didn’t bounce with her rhythmic gait. It was odd, thought Felix, as he watched her leave.
“Sister Green!” He gathered himself. “That really isn’t very appropriate.”
“She’s a very good nurse, gets an amazing response from the patients,” Sister replied, “Part of the furniture. She means well and you’d definitely want her in a crisis.”
The team continued through the ward and into the next room where Gloria was busy fastening a blood pressure cuff to the arm of a rather lethargic looking old man, who was chuckling at her quips despite himself. A crucifix dangling from her neck tapped gently against the top of Mr Johnson’s head as she reached a stethoscope, he didn’t seem to notice. Dr Armstrong and the team were in the far corner when Gloria burst into song.
Felix swung round. Gloria was leaning over the elderly patient and pumping up the blood pressure cuff in time to the words from….what was it? Jungle Book! Mr Johnson was laughing soundlessly. Gloria was singing about the simple bear necessities and wiggling her hips as she worked. Felix wasn’t happy, but tried to ignore her. A short while later, from inside a drawn curtain, Gloria was tunefully telling a patient having a bed bath to ‘don’t worry love, about a thing. ‘Cos every little thing’s gonna be alright.’
For his part, Felix breathed in the relative peace of the Gloria-free areas, save for the odd groan of a patient or hacking cough, usual sounds for a ward like C7. In any room that Gloria was there was constant noise! Songs, never sung all the way through that started going round in a loop in Felix’s mind. Hoots of laughter, hollering and calling between the staff. Patients seemed to join in, he noted. It was hardly a space for restful recuperation, more like a zoo. No, this would never do.
Before leaving C7 just before lunchtime, Dr Armstrong encountered Gloria at the nurse’s station. Sister Green had asked him to hold off for a few days, get to know the effect Gloria had on the ward and its’ patients and staff alike, but he felt he’d seen enough and here she was, leaning over the counter trying to write something upside down on a clipboard on the desk below.
“Nurse Brown.” He started, “I’m concerned about some of professionalism towards the patients on this ward that I’ve seen from you today.”
The phone rang beside them.
Gloria stuck her lower lip forwards and placed a hand on her curvy hip. She lowered her lids and looked intently at him.
The phone continued to ring.
“If you talkin’ about me singin’ you just gotta ask any one of ya patients out there whether they’m wantin’ their nurse to sing to them or to stick a needle in them arm in total silence.”
“Will you get that phone!” Dr Armstrong demanded of a passing nurse.
“It’s distracting for staff and for patients. Some patients need their rest.” He continued to argue as the ringing ceased.
Their exchange continued, peppered with tuts and rolled eyes from Gloria, protesting about how it made patients feel better. They were interrupted. The call was for Dr Armstrong. Urgent.
Gloria glared at his back as he took the phone, preparing her next round of ammunition. His frame paused and became more taut with each passing second. He was listening, but Gloria could only just about hear his voice, which replied to the call in barely a whisper. Felix’s shoulders seemed to collapse inwards and he supported himself with a hand on the counter. She’d seen it a million times before. Bad news, really bad news.
When the conversation ended, Felix held the receiver limply. In a seamless movement, Gloria scooped him into her engulfing presence and sat him into a chair. He barely noticed how much he was shaking until he saw Gloria’s warm hand trembling in unison as she tried to still and soothe.
“ My son,” he stammered, “There’s been an accident. In theatre now. Several cardiac arrests already….”
Gloria pursed her lips and took control. Felix barely registered the instructions and messages she fired off at one of the other nurses. The next thing he knew he was being led across the hospital with a fleshy arm tight around his back, allowing the soft murmurs of her comfort to wash over him.
“You got ya wife comin’?” she asked.
“No…..died some years ago. Just me and Tom.”
Felix’s eyes were glassy, his skin paler than ever against his white coat. They cut a strange sight as they pressed through the corridors.
Finally in the family room, Gloria tackled the kettle, winking at him as he held a miniature whisky bottle aloft from the depths of her handbag. He smiled at her, half hearted. In the awful moments to follow each minute passed like a lifetime but she sang her way softly through them as they sipped on instant coffee spiked with her liquor. Felix needed a caring touch more than he’d ever needed until that moment that threatened to define the rest of his life as he knew it. Her softly sung hymns spoke of faith and hope. Although he wasn’t a religious man, through the fog of his fear his subconscious was alert. He would later acknowledge that Gloria’s music was indeed a medicine.