It’s Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of a heatwave, and I’ve been waiting for over an hour in the stifling, overcrowded prefab otherwise known as the Oncology Outpatients’ Clinic at St George’s Hospital, Tooting.
The wait has not been without incident: I have been weighed, and asked to fill in yet another questionnaire, this time officially, by ‘my’ nurse. More interesting has been the arrival of an elderly gent in panama hat, perfectly pressed fawn trousers, gleaming brown shoes and blue blazer bearing the badge of the Fleet Air Arm and a raft of medals.
Standing straight-backed among a sea of lolling tee shirts and shorts, he announces that as a disabled veteran of the Second World War he should be allowed to jump the queue.
The jobsworth at reception, to do her justice, explains with commendable tact that there are a lot of other people waiting whose appointment times are before his.
A ‘march out’ in the Cancer War
Shortly after, he marches out, about 3 minutes before his name is called and only 15 minutes after his appointment time.
I’m eventually seen by big chief Benepal himself, in shorts, who tells me that the Hospital prefab is to be replaced in the autumn by a brand new ‘all singing, all dancing’ unit.
He and the nurse are fascinated by my account of the worst chemo side effect – the left hand and arm waking me up in the middle of the night painful, prickling and burning, pacifiable only by my getting out of bed and giving it a cup of tea downstairs.
This week my chemo appointent is an hour later – 10am – and the TV in the dayroom has the sound full on.
Since the only other person present is a small man attached to an enormous oxygen cylinder, who is actually watching the programme, I feel loth even to suggest any adjustments.
The temperature is rocketing and the hospital has responded by installing a fan – totally ineffective – and putting a jug of tepid water and a bottle of cheap orange squash on the table. Fortunately I am soon called in.
Blood at last
In the far corner of the room is a man previously unknown to me who sits treatment-less throughout the morning and is then hitched up to a litre of blood.
Things are more amusing for me: trusted by the nurse to put the thermometer under my tongue all by myself I succeed in accidentally pressing a button which detonates the tube and sends it flying to the floor. Giggles, replacement, try again. Lesson learnt.
After lunch, for which the admirable James has once more procured me a brown bread tuna sandwich, I am approached by a burly chap I have seen on other occasions massaging women’s feet. (Never men’s, which gives one pause for thought.)
He tries to persuade me to accept his services. He works for a charity, he explains, which is supported by the hospital. Massage is free, but donations – surprise – welcome.
I decline. For one thing I am hopelessly ticklish, for another I have to trundle off to the loo every10 minutes, and, furthermore, something which probably doesn’t reflect well on me, I am innately suspicious of therapeutic massage.
Anyway, he gives me a snazzy mauve and turquoise leaflet, which I duly read and which confirms my worst suspicions, being full of quotations from beneficiaries using words like ‘supportive’ and ‘empowered.’
On my way out, just after 3pm, much earlier than I feared, I pass Oncology Outpatients. The queue from the desk stretches out of the door and along the corridor. There but for the grace of God…