By Frederic Friedel
When I was studying — philosophy, at Hamburg University — I was supporting myself. University cost essentially nothing, but you gotta eat and live somewhere. I financed this mainly by working in a hospital, doing what in German is called “Intensivwache”, intensive patient care. I worked only in children’s sections, in two departments, cardiology and surgery, of the Hamburg University hospital in Eppendorf. I had 12-hour shifts and tended to choose the ones at night. From 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. it was my job to keep some child alive. More about all this in separate articles. Here I just want to give you an impression of what my work in the hospital was like.
At some stage I got Timo. This was a plump lad of fourteen, from a rural farming area. He had been in a terrible car accident that killed both his parents, and he had suffered horrendous internal injuries. When they first opened him up in surgery they found hardly any discernible organs — everything was a huge lump of tissue debris, destroyed by the accident and by acid from his stomach. They stitched him up again and put him on life support while they tried to figure out what to do. My job was to look after the machines and infusions, to keep him alive from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.
For weeks Timo was opened and closed every few days, with the surgeons slowly clearing the organ debris. Initially they had given up on him, but now there was a small degree of optimism. They saved a little bit of stomach, sewed it to a little bit of intestine, attached little bits of other organs. Would he pull through and be able to live a somewhat normal life after all?
Some weeks after I first took up his care Timo woke up. It was deeply moving to suddenly be able to talk to this boy, who had been given up for dead. He became stronger, and we became friends.
Occasionally Timo’s grandparents would visit, retired farmers who would just sit there and grieve. They would also smuggle in hearty rye bread sandwiches and marzipan bars, which they would hide near his bed. I caught Timo taking a bite from a giant ham sandwich, which I immediately confiscated. After a month Timo, who was now half the weight he had been when I first saw him, was telling his grandparents very firmly: “No, I mustn’t eat anything like that. It would kill me.” He continued to improve.
While I was looking after Timo a girl was brought into the department, a beautiful thirteen-year-old with heavily bandaged legs. She was a city girl, fully lucid and smart, and I’d chat with her when I had time. One day I heard the surgeons discussing her case and using the word “amputation”. I rushed in and said: “You cannot amputate Regina’s legs! That would be an unimaginable catastrophe.”
The next day the head surgeon came over to me and said: “We are going to dress her legs now. Would you like to assist?” They removed the little tent over the bottom half of her body, and the gauze and bandages off her legs. I saw the full extent of the damage. Regina, too, had been in a car accident, and the emergency treatment (in a different hospital) with splints and plaster had cut off circulation. The legs had essentially died before they noticed the problem. What I saw — the naked bone and necrotic tissue — was so horrifying that I later said to the surgeon “what are you waiting for, you have to cut them off!”
Regina’s legs were duly amputated, above the knee, and slowly she began recovering from the septic poisoning and the physical trauma of the accident. She was of course deeply distressed and cried a lot. I would use any opportunity I had to talk with her, share stories and distract her from her plight. After some weeks she started moving around the ward in her gleaming new wheelchair, and her demeanor improved considerably.
Timo was improving as well, and one day I said to him: “I’m bringing Regina to visit you.” He had seen the girl pass by on her wheelchair on occasion and knew who I was talking about. While I cleared away some stuff in the room I saw Timo, from the corner of my eye, prepare for the visit. He laboriously got hold of a hand mirror in his drawer, and a comb, and tidied up his hair. And he pulled up his sheet to cover his operation scars, which were still pretty frightening. At some stage I said: “Ready?” and went to fetch Regina.
I wheeled her in, positioned her next to Timo’s bed and made introductions. Then I moved to the other side of the room and pretended to be busy with other things. There was a long silence, and just as I was about to return to them to help kick things off, I heard Timo, the young man, initiate conversation. “Was magst du?” was his opening line.
I must explain: in German that means “what do you like?”, but it phonetically it is very close to “what do you do?” (“was machst du?”), which is what Regnia understood. “I am a student at …” she said, naming her school. “Nein, was magst du?” Timo insisted. She understood the verb: “I like science and music,” answered Regina, “and history.” “No, what do you like??” I had to intervene and explain: “He means what do you like to eat, Regina.” Timo expected answers like “sausage” or “pork chops”, not science and history.
It was an encounter between a sophisticated city girl and a farmer boy, a mismatch that did not make for spirited conversation. It didn’t go too well, but Regina came around again, and again, and soon it was a daily visit lasting an hour. I saw Timo’s level of discourse rise, his interest in things outside farm life grow. They became affectionate companions, and after Timo had one of his many operations Regina sat by the bed of her unconscious friend, simply worrying.
Regina was discharged much before Timo, and she came to visit him a couple of times. He became stronger and sleeker, a nice slim boy, who had terrible scars under his new clothes, and would probably never eat anything better than mush and slurry. He gave me a long hug when it was his time to leave. I never saw him again, but I believe and hope he stayed in touch with Regina. And I still imagine I might meet a healthy, successful man someday and say to him: “Wait a minute, aren’t you Timo?” Or maybe a couple with a healthy child they named Frederic?