Overlapping sheets of greenish glass forming geometric shapes

This glass is part of an arty bannister arrangement in the new building at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. I photographed it earlier this week while I was a patient there.

It’s tempting to say that the experience of being in hospital is monochromatic. It’s certainly monotonous. From the institutional blandness of the wards and the food, to the endless waiting — for doctors, decisions, procedures, pain relief, visitors, mealtimes, improved bodily functioning, and, eventually, the discharge paperwork — hospitalisation is a crash course in monotony.

crumpled white cotton sheets and pillow

But there’s actually a lot going on, and pinned to the bed, with nothing much to do, you notice hospital is a world of huge, constant stimulations. The monotony is pierced by splashes of colour and flurries of movement. Someone could write a musical score based on the pinging of dysfunctional drips, the clattering of medical trolleys, and the midnight snores of a room full of people forced to sleep on their backs.

Yellow rose partly hidden by white lilies.

The fragrance of roses and freesias drifts at the edge of my senses even before I have the energy to sit up and look at them.

Noisy doctors burst into the ward at 7.00am, invading my endone haze. Caffeinated and brisk, they remind me of the flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos that swirl from tree to tree along the Cooks River. They descend for a few moments, check out the scene, dispense their opinions, then beat their collective wings and lift off.

Quieter, but no less intense, are the soft conversations behind the curtains that divide the ward into our almost private personal zones. Low voices recount stories of cancer, chronic infection, dog bites or accidents to friends, counsellors, specialists, and other patients. Briefly, an informal support group coalesced around a woman with cancer, only to dissipate as the other patients were one-by-one discharged.

Her husband had gone back to their country home to keep life going while she started chemo, so it was up to the rest of us to fill the ward with extended families and friends during visiting hours. It was a bit like the noise of the doctors, only longer-lasting, more multilingual, and often at the other end of the day — usually when all I wanted was darkness and earplugs. My own family came halfway through an afternoon, surprising me after a doctor’s consult by appearing, one by one, through the curtains around my bed.

Pink freesias

Pain is not monochrome.

Nor were the red and cream non-slip socks I was given to wear once I was back on my feet. I posted on Facebook: ‘Not in Kansas any more’. Perhaps I should have written, ‘Not in Oz anymore’, because of course in the movie, Oz is vibrant but Kansas (home) is drained of colour. Kind of the reverse of my experience. Still, the phrase captured my feelings of unreality and disorientation after an abrupt transportation from one world to another.


The hospital population is not monochrome. Coming home just as the Australian Prime Minister was ousted from office, I noticed afresh how monochrome our political system is: white male after white male had to have their say about the spill. But in the hospital, I was cared for by people of myriad ethnic backgrounds, from the woman who swept and washed the ward’s floors, over and over, all day, to the multiracial surgical team that operated on me.

I’m lucky that I was only in hospital for six nights, and only for something trivial in the bigger picture of threats to health: acute appendicitis, successfully treated. I came home on Monday sore, tired, and prone to bursting into all the tears the painkillers had been keeping at bay.

Now I’m slowly recovering my strength and emotional resilience. Although it’s fading, I feel the hospital experience has slowed me down, heightened my awareness of detail, created a kind of stillness. I wander in the gardens and stop to listen to the bees, smell the spring flowers. I’m absorbed by the flow of paperbark. I’m home.

paperbark-2015-09-16 12.04.41

This post inspired, as it so often is, by the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. This week the theme is: Monochromatic


6 thoughts on “Monochrome

  1. Very sorry to hear about your episode of acute appendicitis, Mammej. It doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience at all – horrific actually – but glad that you took away something from it. It must have been heartwarming to have your family visit, and knowing that you have their support. I bet noticing the little things around you in the hospital was interesting. It’s not everyday you get to be in a hospital and it’s a completely new environment to what you’re used to.

    What a great interpretation of this week’s theme. Hospitals are certainly monotonous but I suppose that goes towards establishing a sense of order to those who are patients there, many patients who may feel that their lives are out of control. And very clever of you to tie the theme into Australia’s current political climate – our government could certainly use a bit more diversity and let more voices be heard on the national stage.

    • Thanks Mabel, it was pretty awful but I had lots of support and of course the photo challenge to think about – it just seemed perfect for sharing my experience. I think if you were in for weeks it would become very hard to handle the monotony though.

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