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U3A Writing: A Crater Full Of Grime

Ellie Pemberton, recalling her nursing days, tells of a most unusual patient.

The ward was bustling with operation day preparations, and my allotted task as student nurse in this hospital in the Potteries was to prep the patients.

I approached a little old lady who was to have an abdominal operation and placed the screens around the bed. She lay, bedecked in white turban, gown and socks, frightened brown eyes seeking mine.

Fifty-four years ago operation sites were washed in soapy water, cleaned with ether-meth, then painted with methiolate or iodine (whatever the surgeon's preference). Then came a sterile towel to cover, with a special many-tailed bandage to hold it in place.

After explaining what I was about to do, I lifted her gown. In the middle of her crepe-skinned abdomen, just where her umbilicus should have been was a crater full of grime, enough to fill a pit-shaft!

Trying to put her at ease, I made general conversation, but she was very tense, answering in monosyllables. Washing the surrounding clean area first, I stealthily approached the foreign body. But before I could lay a finger on it a shriek rent the air. "Yer munna tuch me belly-button, yer munna tuch me belly-button!"

I looked in amazement at her horrified face and again stressed the importance of the skin preparation.

"Yer conna tuch me belly-button, goo away," was her instant reply, pushing my hands away.

"But why?" I asked.

"Ah brathe thro theer, dunt Ah. Yer munna tuch it, Ah'll day."

Now how to get round this one? Somewhere along the line this old lady's reasoning had mixed up the foetus's dependence on the umbilical cord and an independent breathing pattern, or maybe it was some remote folk lore passed down from one generation to the next. Her navel had obviously not seen soap and water for many a long day - if at all.

I gave her a two-minute crash course on the respiratory system. She was not convinced. Now what? I could hardly do a striptease in the middle of the Ward to give her a flash of my nice clean navel!

I drew the screens to one side and whispered a few words to the lady in the next bed, who obligingly exposed her spotlessly clean umbilicus to the old lady with the words, "See a clean belly-button and I'm still breathing, you'll be all right."

Finally she agreed to part with her crater of dirt. It took me quite a time to dig out a lifetime's grime, sweat and grease with the owner muttering all the time, "Yer shoudna tuch yer belly-button."

At last she was finished, her navel very pink, and I'm sure, very sore.

She survived the operation, both this and the subsequent Theatre one. I often wondered if her concept of breathing changed, or whether her belly-button wanna tuched agin.


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