Part of the work I am doing for the Breast cancer: a creative intervention project is to have a presence on the ward and attend, where possible, operations. My first visit to Anwen ward at Llandough hospital here in Cardiff was over two days last week.
I arrived early on the ward. It had been arranged that I should visit on Tuesday and Wednesday (the busiest days of the week) and indeed when I arrived the consultations between patients and anesthetists were in full flow. I discreetly absented myself to the hospital cafe so as not to intrude too much on my first visit. Something I hadn’t realised is that Anwen is directly opposite the Delyth ward where I began visiting patients with gyneacological cancer at the beginning of the Drawing Women’s Cancer project back in 2012. The familiarity, along with a shot of strong coffee, boosted my confidence for the day ahead, because, unusually, I was feeling not as ‘in control’ of my thoughts and emotions as I have learned to be in previous similar situations. I think that this was because for this project the nature of my presence on the ward is a little different. I am not there to visit specific individuals but rather to simply ‘be’ there hoping to have spontaneous conversations with patients and make drawings and notes of what I see and hear.(Recognising my own discomfort makes the whole underlying concept behind all of the work I do – ie expressing my own experience of the experience of the ‘other’ – comes to the fore. It is something I continue to wok with.)
I was also very aware through listening to women’s experiences that most remember their time on the wards very well – as intensively as the experience itself was intensive – and the memories are not always good! For many women, although the overall experience has been positive for them, there are sometimes painful memories of small things that have upset them at a time when emotions were running high. Often just an ill-considered remark or an action that unwittingly engendered a sense of lack of respect remains in the overall memory, marring the narrative like a ink blot on a page. I wanted not to become the source of one of these memories…I wanted not to say or do anything ‘inappropriate’.
My fears were unfounded. As soon as I walked onto the ward I fell into conversation with a patient there who was happy to talk and share every moment of her experience with breast cancer as it affected her life in general. She was waiting to have her operation that afternoon – a mastectomy – and she talked about her decision to have a reconstruction. It struck me then, as it has done ever since I began the work on breast cancer, that the level of autonomous decision making in this particular area is far higher than for patients with gynaecological conditions. This again is something that I need to work more with in terms of expression and articulation.
My first encounter set the tone for the rest of the day and indeed for the following day too. All the patients who came and went on the ward were interested in the project and generous in their willingness to be involved. All dutifully read the formal information sheet and filled out the mandatory consent forms before we were then able to have very ‘informal’ conversations.
The humour and camaraderie between the ladies themselves was uplifting. There were of course feelings of worry and even fear mixed up with the pragmatism and confidence in medical science but the strong sense of what I can only describe – perhaps a bit lamely – as ‘sisterhood’ kept, in general, trepidation just below the surface. I was accepted and it felt genuine…and warm. On the second day I attended an operation on a lady I had got to know on the ward. She was having a mastectomy and sentinel node biopsy. I will write more about this together with an account of a second operation I will be attending today, in a separate post. For now, here are some image of drawings I made on Anwen ward.