My Incomplete Memories

I have PTA – post-traumatic amnesia – from the moment when Robbie Laws, Guy Disney and other casualties were taken away on a Chinook until nearly three weeks later. Some memories are confusing and incomplete, weakened by the injury. Some are vague. A few are clear and solid in my mind, yet have been corrected by Melissa and others.

I lay in a neurological ward of four beds. I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable with my weakness on show. I did not like this ward. I wanted privacy. I wanted to be alone, away from the look, attention or sympathy of others.

I glanced at the other patients and their visitors when they came into the ward. I kept to myself. Talking, especially to people I did not know, was exhausting, as was staying awake in bed. I had the energy to sit upright, with the help of the bed control, but could only manage this for a few minutes before pain and dizziness overwhelmed me.

I felt paranoid and nervous with the Middle Eastern, perhaps Asian, patient directly opposite. I avoided his look. Why are you watching me? Do you want to kill me? Are you an insurgent? I don’t want you in the same room, opposite me, watching me. Why don’t you and your family fuck off? You shouldn’t be in this ward with me. Why do you want to kill me? Simultaneously, I reasoned he was not a threat to my life, as I was in a UK hospital. But I still questioned why he was there. Maybe he’s a covert operative.

…….…

Shove Gilby and Phil Kimber visited after attending Robbie Laws’ funeral, ten days after my admittance.

Shove brought a soft toy rabbit for me, to give to Olivia. Kay, his wife, felt it would comfort Olivia if I gave her a gift. The rabbit was named Elizabeth, after the hospital, and it has been placed with affection next to Olivia’s pillow ever since.

Phil and I first met when we attended the two-year Advanced Command and Staff Course. He is an officer who is always trying to keep his dark hair as long as he can.

Both are extremely down to earth with their friends and soldiers. There is no pretentiousness about them, a fault common amongst many officers. I hold them in high regard.

I began to remember I had commanded B Company, 2 Mercian. Yet I was not able to conjure up the names of those most dear to me in the Army – my Second-in-Command, Company Sergeant Major, my Platoon Commanders and Platoon Sergeants.

‘How are they? Are they ok? How are you Phil? Have they reached Compound 57 yet? Are you still playing rugby, Phil? Have they taken Babaji? Shove, how are the children? How’s my Sergeant Major, is he ok?’ There was no sequencing to my questions.

I was upset and disheartened that I could not name those for whom I had such respect and unbounded affection. These men were closer to me than my family a few weeks before. Now my damaged brain could not even conjure up their names. Shove knew the guys in Company B, and I asked him to name them.

‘I can picture his face…he’s Irish…ginger hair…my 2IC.’

‘Aaron Browne.’

‘Is he ok? How is he?’

I drummed my fingers together. ‘The Sergeant Major…big lad…what’s his bloody name?’

I smiled with recognition as I heard, ‘Paul Muckle.’ I remember. His chubby face dominated my mind.

‘How is he? Who’s helping him? Who’s taken over from me?’

‘Simon Boyle. They’re all doing well.’

‘The dark-haired platoon sergeant…smoked a lot…used to be in Mortars…a nightmare on the piss.’

‘Sergeant Townsend?’ Yes, another name.

My brain worked hard to put names to the images I had in my head, always an image of the person wearing a uniform, never any other clothing. I think Shove and Phil found it amusing to watch me struggling. They spent their entire visit mocking my ‘jim-jams’, deep vein thrombosis socks, bandaged head and painful catheter: typical army humour. Yet I appreciated it; I took comfort from it; and I felt normal. Their visit left me exhausted, weakened at having to use my memory and by the effort of simply trying to have a conversation. Melissa, however, on returning to the ward, immediately remarked upon a glimmer of brightness in my eyes. Their visit, like others following, became essential to my subsequent mood and general recovery.

An unpleasant, but all too vivid, memory was my second catheter being removed. This was the second time one had been pulled out (I had no recollection of the first, which had been removed at my insistence when I was in Critical Care; I was then unable to urinate so had another inserted). The reward for this pain meant I would be able to walk as far as the WC on my own.

I was not prepared for the agony. The nurse, thankfully male, said, ‘This may hurt a little,’ the standard throwaway line given so often by well-meaning nurses and accepted, albeit foolishly, at face value by their patients. Even injured, I was not exactly weak. My clutch on his arm intensified as the tube was pulled. I debated to myself whether it would be better to have it pulled tentatively, little by little, or man up, take the greatest pain and have it pulled it out forcibly in one go. I sensed every millimetre of the catheter’s journey right up to the joy of its moment of withdrawal. Fuck me, that hurt, but wow, such relief.

I had broken my wrist and arm before, torn an ankle ligament and suffered rugby injuries, but nothing compared to the excruciating pain caused by this thin piece of rubber. I am not alone in remembering such an event; Richard Hammond describes a similar painful experience in his memoir.

……….

My occupational therapist recorded on 24th July, Hill can orientate himself to time and person but he struggles to identify where he is.

‘It’s 2009, I’m Stewart Hill and…I think I’m in hospital.’

‘What’s the last thing you remember?’

‘I remember a few days ago. Shove and Phil, erm, Kimber came to visit.’

‘No, the last thing about your injury.’

‘I don’t remember the day. Except what I’ve been told.’

‘What have you been told?’

‘We were clearing some Taliban when one of my soldiers got killed. We had to medevac him and…then…I…’ I could not recall any more.

……….

I started walking shortly thereafter. There was a significant improvement in my mobility within a few days. I was getting stronger and less clumsy on my feet. I continued to walk warily, but always with the left side of my head lowered to my shoulder. This position eased the pain ever so slightly on my injured left side. I would move close to any wall on my left-hand side and brush against it as I made my way around the ward. I started to regain confidence in my body as I walked increasingly further without assistance. Stairs were still proving difficult, though, and I held the railing tightly whenever I ventured this far from the ward. I was always accompanied whenever I left the ward, and by the time I was eventually discharged I had negotiated three flights of stairs.

Twenty-three days after the IED exploded, Occupational Therapy recorded I was now out of PTA. I knew who I was, what year it was and where I was. Three days before, I could not be sure of this. This proved to be an important moment. Family or friends could walk with me without a nurse in attendance. As with any fitness programme, I had to build up my endurance, but for being out of bed and hospital instead of for building muscle. Several pieces of shrapnel had deleted three weeks of memory, but now I could start rebooting. I could now be considered for graded leave.

……….

The artificial warmth of the hospital ward, the monotonous feel of the poly-cotton bedspread and the blue, viscose armchair by my bed affected my mood. I did not create that bed space – I was forced into it. I was sad and angry.

I spent many hours sitting, pondering and waiting in my solitude. Waiting for what? For sleep; for my next visitor to offset the boredom; to get better; to get back to normality; to leave; to know what was going to happen to me next. I slept often. Seven p.m. was a late night, and then I was woken at seven a.m. for breakfast. Any semblance of escape through sleep was intruded upon by nurses, which annoyed me.

I moaned to Melissa often about what I considered as staff discourtesy. ‘All they want me to do in this place is eat and rest. Bloody ridiculous. Won’t even let go to the gym.’ This amused Melissa, as I was unable to walk without support. ‘How awful for you that the hospital staff want you to eat, rest and recover’: always a gentle reminder from her of why I was in hospital.

I insisted on being moved out of the four-man ward for some privacy. I disliked being in a public ward. This ward was not secure. Anyone could walk in. I was the only military patient here. I was a cantankerous patient, and being on show exacerbated my behaviour.

I angered Melissa too. I had been let loose on a welfare laptop brought to my bed.

‘What on earth do you think you are doing? How did you get onto the Internet? How dare you belittle your condition and what we have just gone through by posting stupid comments about your health on Facebook. Do you realise how many people have been praying for you and are worried sick?’

Facebook comment by Stewart Hill 26th July 2009:

Thanks for all your good wishes, took a bit of a bang to the head but all good now.’

My dismissive remark had thrown away three weeks of pain and trauma and belittled the devastation that had arrived at Melissa’s doorstep. I was told, directly, to delete it.

……….

Four weeks after Melissa received the knock at her door, I convinced her and the hospital staff to allow me a weekend away before being discharged. Melissa was frightened of us being on our own, away from medical care, and was reluctant for me to go home.

Anna Wylie and Melissa greeted me and showed me to Anna’s car. I was frightened to sit in the front, so I sagged onto the rear seat behind Melissa. I felt exhilarated as we drove away from the hospital.

I admired the leafy cedar trees lining the brow of the hill, which led to the mini roundabout on Pritchatts and Farquhar Road. I had an idea Anna’s driving was not the best when we seemed to narrowly miss an oncoming car on this first roundabout. The whole experience was alarming and not solely down to Anna’s questionable driving ability. My perception had changed.

The problem was that every movement in and around the car seemed to be magnified in speed, size and proximity. I tensed, expecting every passing vehicle to career into me. I moved ever closer into a foetal posture, focusing on the rubber foot mat, fighting the restraint of the seatbelt. Should a journey be this worrying? What’s wrong with me? Melissa reached back and held my left hand, providing some comfort.

I continue to be amazed at how comforting and soothing such a simple act can be – even for a thirty-eight-year-old man. Melissa and others had held my hands many times over the preceding few weeks. It was like reverting to childhood, the simplicity of accepting protection from another person. I adopted the foetal position numerous times, from when I was found after my injury to the numerous occasions I was in considerable pain or fear afterwards. (I am sure Freud would have made comment.)

……….

 

Anna left and I asked Melissa if I could taste a small glass of alcohol later in the evening. Melissa put a hand on my shoulder, placed her right hand on my back and guided me to one of the six wooden chairs at the breakfast table. ‘I’ve got a nice surprise for you’, she smiled as she walked to the fridge. She took out a chilled bottle of white wine. ‘Your favourite, Sancerre.’ My mouth salivated as I watched her fill the glass up. I took a much longed-for sip and was horrified – it was incredibly insipid.

The blandness was worrying. I could not tell if my ability to taste was impaired or if the wine was off. I hoped Melissa would confirm the lack of taste was due to a dubious bottle.

‘That’s lovely.’ Bugger. I had wanted this moment – fantasised about it, even – for months, but now I could not abide the taste of wine. All during the tour of Afghanistan we had been ‘dry’ and, as a senior officer, I had of course led by example.

But it was more. During those grim days in hospital, the thought of a civilised glass of wine had somehow seemed the height of normality, a sign I was ‘myself’ again. But I was denied even this simple pleasure. It just did not seem fair. I wanted to cry.

‘Is there are any other booze in the fridge?’

Melissa found a solitary bottle of Becks. Please, please let my taste buds be all right. They were not; the German beer was akin to stagnant water. I was offered a consolatory bath.

We stumbled at the bottom of our dark and narrow staircase, trying to decide on the best way to tackle the steep climb ahead of us. I had ascended nothing greater than gentle, well-lit steps for the past few weeks.

Finally, we plumped for a three-legged effort of Melissa’s five-foot-two-inch petite frame supporting my six-foot-four-inch, now slender build. We stopped every few steps to regain balance and take breath. I was so exhausted I could barely contemplate enjoying the soothing bath ahead.

Melissa held me as my right calf brushed the top of the cold cast-iron tub. She took greater weight as the rest of my body followed.

Once I was settled, Melissa left me to relax on my own. She later told me that soon after, she could hear me crying. ‘Stewart, what’s wrong?’ She was quickly by my side. I was crying with a bottle of shampoo in my hand. ‘I don’t know how to wash my hair.’

‘It’s ok, it’s ok, I’ll wash your hair, I’ll do it.’ She began washing my hair gently. Her hands were shaking. She tried to avoid the tender scar of my surgery whilst trying to make light of the position she found herself in – bathing her thirty-eight-year-old husband in the same way she had bathed Olivia as a baby.

Unsurprisingly, we had a sedentary weekend. Melissa was exhausted from catering to my every demand and need. On Monday morning, I travelled back to hospital to be discharged. A quick turnaround and spending as little time in Headley Court as possible was my plan. 

I felt as intelligent as I had ever been, however good or bad that was. There was nothing wrong with my brain – and how dare anyone try to tell me otherwise. Descartes was right: I could think and therefore I was alive. For me as for him, ‘this truth was so solid and secure that the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics could not overthrow it’. [1]

[1] René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637).