I’ve returned from my whirlwind trip to Tasmania and the Alzheimer’s Australia National Conference filled with nostalgia for the state that was my home for the first thirty-three years of my life: its beautiful people, its undulating countryside, and its lush food. I even loved the slow trickle of the rain, which I called drizzle when I lived there. Sitting in the lobby of the Grand Chancellor as the rain coursed slowly, drop-by-drop, down the window, watching the fishing punts moored at the quay, and looking out to where the low, grey sky met the steel-coloured water, I couldn’t understand how it could dampen anyone’s mood! (Yes, I had my rose-coloured glasses on.)
Mid-morning on Friday, I walked around the corner from the hotel and up wide, near-empty Campbell Street – no traffic congestion at this time of day – past the Theatre Royal Hotel, where I’d first met my husband, to Liverpool Street and the Main Entrance of the Royal Hobart Hospital. The hospital still has its semicircular driveway, the only difference being a café and a covered walkway outside the entrance. Apart from that, it’s the same — smaller-looking, but things always seems to shrink when you haven’t seen them for many years. Its art deco style and three stories appeared quaint and picturesque — rows of windows, each with their own balcony. I visited my sister in one of those rooms in 1986 when she was on the orthopaedic ward. She’d fractured her ankle and needed surgery to screw her tibia and fibula together. I won’t say how she fractured it, except that the incident involved alcohol and an inability to maintain balance. Luckily, the alcohol was in sufficient quantities to act as anaesthetic and the pain wasn’t too bad until the next morning.
I headed down Argyle Street, then, past the car park and the Queen Alex, which is now Hobart Private Hospital, and into Collins Street, towards the Clinical School. Nothing much has changed on the outside and it felt so familiar, like I’d walked the route last week, not eighteen years ago. I stood on the other side of the street, smiling at the square, grey building with the words ‘Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine, University of Tasmania’ still on its wall, and taking photos while people gawked at me like I was weird.
I’d walked up and down those stairs every day for four years on my way to lectures and exams. I remembered the late afternoon lectures in a darkened theatre, slide after boring slide, my lids heavy and closing, the voice up the front droning on with increasing distance, until I’d start listing to one side and the person next to me would prod me upright. I remembered the creative tangents, completely unrelated to the topic, that the Professor of Medicine could run with for hours, while we were prisoners in his theatre with no hope of escape. I remembered the fear of being asked a question in front of the class, or, even worse, the terror of being picked to examine a patient in front of colleagues, when I’d look at the floor, at my feet, around the room, anywhere but at the doctor, hoping I wouldn’t be called. If I was summoned, I’d fix the doctor with my eyes, just for a moment, a quick plea of mercy from a doomed student. I remembered the fear of failing that always, always hovered over me, hanging around my neck and chest, its fingers sometimes gripping so tightly that I felt I couldn’t breathe. I remembered doubting whether I could do it, and wanting to give it all up when it seemed too overwhelming.
All of that is in the past now, so far in the past that it’s tiny, like a spindly tree on a distant horizon. Even standing outside the Clinical School the other day and remembering it again, the fear and the anxiety no longer seemed important. All I felt was a warmth and fondness for the place where I’d learned a trade that had given me a springboard to a better life, where I’d had fun and bonded with classmates. Together, we’d survived the unremitting pressure of study and the fear of failing. We’d dealt with the god-like complexes of some of the doctors. We’d tolerated being kicked around as the lowest rung of the hospital hierarchy. Within those walls, we’d learnt about the body and how badly it can go wrong. We’d seen people dying, often for the first time. We’d witnessed grief, sadness and horror. We’d met road accidents, cancer, child abuse, drug addiction, and psychosis.
This was where I’d made friends for life and where my husband and I had begun our romance twenty-two years ago, and that was what I most remembered. Happy memories reawakened.
What a beautiful piece. I remember those buildings too, although I only made it through one year (without passing). I also remember the ever-present fear of failing that seemed to afflict med students more than anyone else – and the complete grip that the faculty had upon all of you.
And I laughed at remembering visiting your sister when she broke her ankle – and how she broke it, and what it looked like that morning when we were trying to get her out of bed to go to lectures and telling her it couldn’t be that bad……until Walshie sat on her bed and, inadvertently, the ankle. I can picture pulling back the doona to see the swollen mess, as clear as it was yesterday. I also remember that her absence from college meant that my sister could stay in her room while she was visiting – and that it was census night. So many details of a few days that I haven’t thought about for so many years. Thank you for reminding me through sharing your memories.
I remember Walshie inadvertently sitting on Fran’s ankle, too — poor Fran! Walshie was mortified. He’d been up north, and didn’t know she’d fallen. I’d forgotten about your sister using her room and that it was census night. Well-remembered!
I agree about the dread of failing. I thought it was maybe because I had failed previously, but it was the same for others, no matter how good their results. I don’t want to overplay how hard it was, and it may not have been the same for everyone, but I feel like it’s a kind of survivor thing — like we lived through that ordeal together — the workload and the pressure — and came out the other side, so there’s always a bond between you and your classmates, like there is with any group of survivors, and it lasts beyond the end of the ordeal.
I suspect that you are quite right about the bond between survivors. Sharing a house with medical students (including my sister) allowed me to watch from the outside a bit, and all these years later those bonds still exist.
Great post. Now I want to go (back) to Tassie more than ever.
Tassie is a great place to visit, but I’m biased — it’ll forever hold my heart.
Memories are so precious and you express yours with love and beauty. Thanks for letting me share in your life. I love reading these.
Thanks, Betty. I love reading your memories, too. We all have a story to tell.