100 Years: A Poem by Molly Case

I wake up.
It’s New Year; the roads are clear z-lined streets warm with beer
from the night before long the hospital appears.
First case: open-heart surgery. My job? To watch and observe,
haven’t seen one before. The nurse in charge gives me a tour
of the room. Soon the patient is with us
and everyone is quiet as snowfall.
A blue drape separates anesthetist from surgeon’s cut.
I am able to peer over the top. All of a sudden I feel dizzy, the shock
of feeling my own heart about to stop. For there,
below the drape, a landscape,
not a patient, begins to take shape. “Brussels, 1914,” the nurse in charge
whispers in my ear. “Look,” she says and waves her hand below
at the scene cavalry, infantry, as if this might be a dream,
all of them resting against their packs in the street. Where once a patient used to be
she now nods her head towards soldiers resting their feet.
And beside the road are rows of nurses waiting to pass –
hundreds of them – trained volunteers, awaiting the chance
to serve on the frontline. In the operating room the patient is prepared.
The ECG is given to me and on it, not heart rhythms and squiggly
lines but a letter, handwritten and signed,
by Matron Sarah Swift, stating the need for trained quality nurses
after the experiences of wartime. I peer over again and see the sternum is now
cut through, the pericardium glistening like dew
drops on the grass at Cavendish Square. And wait, I know I’ve
been there but not at this time,
as I stare into the cavity and what is presented to me,
is not a heart pumping with blood but a room full of books.
1945 – heads down, nurses studying buddying up in the Royal College’s new
Library of Nursing. The monitor bleeps,
a health care assistant wraps the patient’s feet in gauze,
they are worn and hard-soled. 1981: November was cold and wet with little
sunshine. 400,000 NHS workers were living
with salaries below the poverty line. But a siege of voices
and hundreds of feet on the ground found the Government increasing pay by 12%.
I take a seat. The operation is complete
and I can feel my upturned palms are buzzing with some strange heat.
I look down and see an electrical grid pulsating across the lines in my skin.
The nurse in charge catches my eye, gives me a grin.
It’s as if everything we’ve learnt today is now held here within
my hands, sitting here with this
hot white ball of energy cleverly twisting and changing shape,
capable of moving forward at great speed but never slipping through my fingers,
it lingers here with me. Even when the light begins to disappear,
I feel the warmth of thousands of members. 100 years.

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