In the last few weeks, I have had lots of time to contemplate freedom, or rather the loss of it; so I appreciated last week's thoughtful article on the theme of freedom by Anthony Seaton
. My current loss of personal freedom is only partially related to the pandemic.
In April, I fell in our home, fracturing my pelvis, though I didn't realise the extent of the damage at the time. In the brief second before you hit the ground – the hackneyed phrase is 'your life flashes in front of you' – so, yes, in the brief moment after my toe struck the threshold and my body thumped down onto the hard tiles of our bathroom floor, in that moment, my life would, I am sure, have flashed before me, had I not been preoccupied with stretching out wildly for something much more interesting which might postpone the thump and its frustrating consequences.
There will be many stroke survivors (I am fortunate to be one of those) who will understand that previous sentence horribly well. The work you have put into recovery, those balance and strengthening exercises, the hours on the treadmill, the endless exhortations of physiotherapists to keep active, all put in jeopardy by that one careless moment with your eyes fixed on nothing, when you should have remembered that your left foot could betray you at any time. Excruciating pain and an undignified supported stagger to bed followed along with false hope that when I woke up the pain would be gone.
The next morning – a glorious sunny Deeside day – but not for me: first freedom gone. No sunshine and birdsong. For me, the telephone wrestle with NHS 24 and its tortuous journey through the 'If you have…' menu, the inevitable Covid questions, the human who needs to know your symptoms, but doesn't have a clue where you are geographically, her colleague who asks the same questions, then passes the details to the local health board, who phone me back and tell me to dial 999 and call an ambulance, which I do, painfully exasperated that I should just have started with that option and why couldn't they have done that for me, and, and... But, of course, it's much worse in India, and worse in much of the world, though the pain of injury is identical wherever you are.
Sunday morning, therefore, is spent in an ambulance. An hour's journey and a 90-minute wait till we are admitted to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (Covid again), the ambulance crew courteous throughout, though I'm sure they could be doing better things with their time than waiting stationary outside a hospital with a patient who may have suffered nothing worse than a sore backside. The same courtesy when we are finally admitted, despite all staff being occupied continuously and masked to the hilt. Bloods taken, blood pressure measured, canula inserted for liquid paracetamol. Huh! This pain laughs at paracetamol. More questions. Finally, an X-ray to be arranged.
Another hour passes. The pain increases with time and immobility. X-ray completed and – great joy – they can find no fracture. It's 'soft tissue damage'. So how to get home? I can't stand; I can't walk; but I can sit – and wait. The staff are endlessly patient, so I should be too. Behind the scenes, discussion. They struggle to find a bed, but by 9pm I am in a ward. I am finally assessed by a doctor at 11pm and briefly awakened at 1am by a nurse wishing to know my height.
In the following days I am scanned, the 'soft tissue damage' is re-diagnosed as a fractured pelvis. The remedy? Rest, gentle exercise, painkillers and we hope not to see you here again. A mutual feeling, despite everybody's kindness, professionalism and willingness to carry on as normal but behind a mask. Thus, the beginning of at least six weeks' – more likely three months' – further loss of freedom, enforced house arrest, and, also for my wife, now carer, the same punishment, for to begin with I can do nothing for myself. It is a cruel irony that just as I am confined to quarters, the fine weather begins at last. I lean on my zimmer at the open front door with its three inaccessible steps, and gaze powerlessly at it.
Reflecting on 'freedom from want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness', the five giants in Anthony Seaton's article, I cannot help but think that, while those are indeed the big picture freedoms, lockdown has damaged a lot of very simple freedoms which are critical to our day-to-day wellbeing. You will have your own list. My wife and I railed against the lack of support immediately after my discharge from hospital. This was partly due to the pandemic. Normally, I would have had some rehabilitation in our excellent community hospital – closed because of Covid.
Ours is only a temporary restriction of freedom, a limited inconvenience. I will mend in time. Meanwhile, across the UK there are thousands of disabled and vulnerable people and their family carers who have during lockdown lost for a year all the support they had from health and social care. What has happened to their – always limited – freedoms over the last 12 months? Are there long-term consequences of this for them and their families, which we have yet to fully discover?
As I lean on my zimmer, gazing at the sunshine, I think: in order to appreciate the 'giants' of freedom, you first need to have some 'little' freedoms in place, they are, in a sense, subsumed within those giants. I'd give anything now to walk down the three steps into the garden. I think of people who will never be able to do even that independently. If, indeed, we are to 'build back better' and prepare sensibly for any future pandemic, these very basic 'little' freedoms and a kinder society must be at the heart of that work.
Eric Sinclair is a charity volunteer, former NHS Grampian non-executive director and a postgraduate student with the Open University