When I was asked to review Bed 12 by Alison Murdoch, I wasn’t sure whether to say yes. The blurb said:
What do you do when the most important person in your life is about to die?
It doesn’t exactly sound upbeat, does it? I agreed to review it because it did sound interesting – and I’m really glad I did. What seems at first to be a rather miserable book about a worrying time spent beside a hospital bed somehow manages to actually be uplifting and inspiring.
This is a memoir of an illness – but it’s so much more than that. Alison Murdoch’s husband contracted viral encephalitis and quickly became seriously ill, ending up in a coma in Bed 12 of the Intensive Care ward. Immediately their busy London lives were put on hold. This book is a memoir of how Murdoch’s life became a daily cycle ride to the hospital, a daily vigil at her husband’s bedside. Over the course of the book she becomes familiar with all of the nurses, gets to know the doctors and all of the medical terms, makes the hospital and the streets surrounding it her home from home.
Despite recounting what was no doubt a very traumatic time for Murdoch, this book is strangely uplifting. She is a Buddhist and talks a lot about using her religion to help her through the experience.
Before my dad died in 2004 he spent some time in intensive care. Many of the procedures Murdoch describes in this book – in the early stages at least – are ones with which I am unfortunately familiar – just as I am with the fact that what we see on TV of “person in a coma” is far from the thrashing, wriggling, struggling reality. I found parts of this book hard to read because they so accurately described something I have fought to avoid thinking about for more than a decade.
As well as talking about Buddhism and the medical aspect of the illness, this book is a shining beacon of just how magnificent our NHS really is. We see how kind and selfless the nurses are, how over worked and under paid; the fact that the staff of this London hospital often have a long commute on either end of a stressful and draining shift – because on NHS wages they can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work. This book made me appreciate the NHS in a way I had not before.
There was one part of this book which really struck me, and it’s something I’ve remembered every day since. Murdoch talks a lot about the people around her; her friends set up a Facebook group whose members span the globe and all offer support. She has friends meeting her for lunch at the hospital, and others who come to sit by her husband’s bedside with her. She says:
It soon becomes evident that the people who are the most helpful to have around are those who’ve done the most work on themselves. They’re neither needy nor demanding, and are flexible to whatever the situation requires. I can cancel or change arrangements without upsetting their feelings, and they’re completely reliable
This passage was some sort of light bulb moment for me and has kept me meditating daily, in the hope of becoming more helpful to others who may need my assistance from time to time. Of course Murdoch is right; when you’re in that sort of crisis, a person who turns up when they say they will, but also doesn’t mind at all if you cancel at the last minute or keep putting them off, is an absolute gem. So many of us end up caught up in our own problems, our fragile egos taking precedence over the needs of others; this was a timely reminder of how I think we should all aim to be.
I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone. I read it in about 2 days – when most books take me well over a week. I just could not put it down and was inspired by reading it.