Friday, 21 September 2012

Origins 5: Death in Charwood

Part 5 of an occasional series about my early years as a social worker in the 1970’s.

Within a few months of starting as an unqualified social worker in Charwood Area Social Services Department it was decided that I could take part in the Area on call rota.

Charwood provided a local out of hours emergency service. Every social worker in the team had to be on the rota. This meant that about once a fortnight I was on call during a week night. About every three months I had to cover a whole weekend, from the end of the day on Friday until the following Monday morning. Being the late 1970’s, there was no such thing as a mobile phone or even a pager, so your home number was placed on the office answer phone and you could not leave home as long as you were on duty – unless, of course, you had to respond to an emergency.

I was on call one cold February Saturday when Robina phoned.

Robina was an elderly woman who was well known to Charwood Social Services Dept. When her husband died, she fell to pieces and her behaviour became disinhibited and erratic. She developed a somewhat cavalier attitude to continence, and was frequently incontinent of urine and faeces. I had on one occasion had to visit her at home, and discovered that, if she was taken short while in bed, she would simply scoop up the excrement and place it on the windowsill. The windowsill consequently contained a neat line of turds in varying stages of decomposition.

Robina lived in a village a few miles out of Charwood, and liked to go to Charwood market on a Saturday. However, she was banned from using the local bus because of her incontinence. Her solution to this was to hitchhike into Charwood. She had a unique method of doing this, which consisted of lying in the middle of the road with her voluminous dress over her head. When a concerned driver stopped to investigate, she would leap up and ask for a lift into town.

When I look back at what I have just written, it seems apparent to me that if a social services department was confronted with this situation in the present day, Robina would probably end up either being detained under the Mental Health Act, or being placed in residential care using the Mental Capacity Act.

However, back then, it seemed quite natural to tolerate this sort of behaviour, and although Charwood SSD was involved with her, intervention was focused on keeping her in the cottage in which she had lived for the previous 50 years, and she had a home help who would keep an eye on her and ensure that she had regular meals.

Charwood SSD had a number of clients, especially in the outlying villages, who could probably best be described as eccentric, but who were generally tolerated within their community. The main object of intervention was to preserve them in their own homes for as long as was feasible.

“Hello, it’s Robina here. I’ve just been to see Cyril. He’s awful ill. I don’t know what to do.” Robina went on to tell me that Cyril lived in Charwood. He was an elderly man who lived alone. I decided that I would have to go out and investigate. Robina couldn’t be left to handle this on her own.

I found Cyril’s address. It was at the end of a terrace of ancient cottages in the older part of Charwood. The door wasn’t locked so I went straight in. It was like walking into a Dickens novel. The cottage was quite literally a “2 up, 2 down”. The front door opened directly into what might have been a living room, except that it had no furniture. The only things in the room was a wooden stump with an axe, and a pile of split logs. A rickety staircase led up from the corner of the room.

I went through into the next room, which was a kitchen/parlour. This contained a stone sink with a cold tap above it. Beside it was the back door into the small garden. There was an ancient Victorian kitchen range which appeared to provide the only source of heating and cooking for the cottage. It had gone out, and the room was bitterly cold. In a corner was a small table with a wooden chair on which Robina was sitting.

It was very dim in the room, but when I looked around for a light switch, I realised that Cyril had no electricity in the house, and never had had. I could not even find a candle or an oil lamp.

The only other furniture in the room was a battered armchair in which Cyril was slumped. He was only partially clothed. It was apparent to me from a single glance that he was in a bad way. He appeared to be conscious, with his eyes staring, and was breathing shallowly. However, he was quite unable to respond to any questions.

I looked around for something to cover him up with. There was nothing in the kitchen, so I went upstairs. There was no furniture at all in the landing bedroom. In what must be Cyril’s bedroom there was only an old brass bedstead with a bare mattress, which was piled high with old coats. I took one of the coats and attempted to cover him up with it.

“Is he all right?” Robina asked me.

“No, he isn’t, Robina. I’ll call the doctor and get him to have a look at him. You wait here while I go to a phone box.”

I went down to the nearest phone box and rang the on call doctor, who was one of the surgery’s GP’s. This was back in the days when GP practices covered their own patients with a rota of GP’s attached to the practice. He said he’d come right out.

I returned to Cyril’s house and told Robina what I had done. Then I waited for the GP, confident that he would examine him and then probably arrange for an ambulance to admit him to hospital.

The doctor arrived, looking rather grumpy. He gave Cyril a very cursory examination, which did not even appear to include checking his pulse, heart or temperature.

Then he stood up and said to me, “There’s nothing much wrong with this chap. He just needs feeding up in the local old people’s home.”

I was aghast. Cyril was clearly immobile, and to my eyes appeared to have had a stroke or some similar serious health crisis. No care home would have him in this condition. I told the GP this.

“That’s not my problem,” the GP replied when I pointed this out. “There are no hospital beds, and he can’t stay here, can he? With that, he left.

“What’s going to happen now?” Robina asked me.

“I don’t know, Robina. I don’t know. I’m going to have to leave now and try and sort something out. Can you keep an eye on him?”

This was way out of my experience zone. I went to the local authority old people’s home in Charwood and spoke to the manager. She confirmed that Cyril was in no condition to be admitted to them. I used their phone to ring my own manager. She did her best to reassure me, and said she make a few calls and get it sorted.

I waited at the home for half an hour or so until my manager rang me back.

“I’ve spoken to a doctor on the geriatric ward at Charwood Hospital and he’s happy to admit him. I’ve called an ambulance and they’ll be there any minute.”

Much relieved, I returned to Cyril’s house.

Robina was still sitting beside Cyril with his hand in hers.

“Hello, Robina, it’s all sorted out. Cyril’s going to hospital. The ambulance will be here any minute. How is he?”

She looked up at me.

“I think he’s dead,” she said.

I had a close look at Cyril. His eyes were staring sightlessly. He was not breathing. She was right.

The ambulance arrived.

The crew took one look at Cyril.

“He’s dead,” one of them said.

“I know that,” I replied.

“He’s not one for us,” he said. “I’ll call the police and let them know.” They left.

Everyone was leaving.

I went back to the phone box and called the GP again.

“Oh, it’s you again, is it?” he said. “What is it now?”

“You know that old man who you said just needed feeding up in an old people’s home?”

“Yes, what about him?”

“Well, he’s dead.”

There was a brief silence. Then: “Oh shit,” the doctor said. “I’ll come straight out.”

 When I got back to Cyril’s house, the police and a police hearse had arrived. The GP came soon after and formally certified Cyril as dead. He studiously avoided eye contact with me and left rather quickly.

As the hearse crew zipped Cyril into a body bag and carried him out to the hearse, I comforted Robina, who was crying.

“He was a good friend, Cyril was,” she said. Then she looked around the room, Spying a box of eggs on the table, she took a few out of the box and put them into her shopping bag.

“Cyril won’t miss these, will he?” she asked me.

“No, he won’t, Robina. You may as well have them.”

She saw a pile of split logs ready to go on the fire, and slipped a few of them into her shopping bag too, with predictable results.

“Let me take you home,” I said.

“A lift, oh good, with such a nice young man,” Robina replied, and smiled at me.

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