Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 6 - Saint George and the Dragon

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AT the most active corner of the most active lung of the great metropolis stands a large building, more remarkable for its size than its classic beauty. Its vast monotonous white flank, exposed to the full roar of Picadilly, gives no sign of life or animation; and if it were not for the inscription on its frieze, — " Supported by Voluntary Contributions, " — it might be taken for a workhouse, or for one of Nash's palaces. Will the reader be conducted through the labyrinths of Saint George's Hospital, and see something of the eternal fight that every day beholds between the good Saint George and the undying Dragon of Disease?
    But let him not enter with the idea that there is anything repulsive in the contemplation of this congregation of human sufferers; but rather with a sense of the beneficence of an institution which snatches poor helpless creatures from the depressing influences of noisome alleys, or the fever-jungles of pestilential courts, and opens to them here —  in the free air, where a palace might be proud to plant itself —  a home, with Benevolence and Charity as their friends and servitors. Neither must he look with a half-averted glance upon the scenes we have to show him ; [-60-] for their aim is to render the anguish of one sufferer subservient to the future ease of some succeeding sufferer; to make great Death himself pay tribute to the living.
    As we enter and proceed into the fine vestibule, a crowd of students are seen hanging about the board-room door. It is one o'clock, and "High Change" at the hospital. Dotted about, among the living mass, are some who carry little wooden trays filled with lint and surgical instruments. These are "dressers," waiting for the surgeons to make their daily round of the wards. Others have long green books tucked under their arms: these are the clerks of the physicians, whose duty it is to post up, day by day, the progress of the patients, until "dead" or "recovered" closes the account. They are all looking into the boardroom, and expecting the advent of the big medicine-men. The younger men regard this room with awe; for to them it is a sealed book; and they wonder if the time will ever come when they will lounge carelessly in and out of it, or have their portraits hung upon the walls, or their busts placed upon brackets.
    Now, the board-room door opens: a surgeon comes out, wheels to the right, strides down the passage, and off goes one of the trays and a broil of students. A physician follows, and turns to the left: with him flies a green book and another ring of satellites. Surgeons and physicians follow, one after another, each taking up his little crowd of followers, green books, and trays; and the noisy vestibule is at once deserted. Let us follow the last batch up the stairs.
    This is a physician's ward. At this hour all the patients are in bed to await their doctor's visit. The cluster of [-61-] students follow the physician, and settle for a few minutes here and there upon particular beds, as they proceed down the long vista of sufferers. The patients are quiet enough whilst the physicians are present; but we will just look in half-an-hour hence, and see what a change there will be. At the end of each ward is a room for the nurse. See how she has contrived to make it look like home ; — the bit of carpet, the canary, the pictures round the walls, all express an individuality strongly in contrast with the bare monotonous aspect of the open ward. Meanwhile the swarm of black bees is pitching upon a distant bed. Before we can reach it, however, a little bell rings, and all the patients' eyes turn towards a particular part of the wall. There we see a large dial, like that of a barometer, with a hand in the centre. Round it are the names of the medical officers, nurses, and the words accident, operation, chapel, &c. There is one of these dials in every ward, and all are worked by a series of iron rods which communicate with each other, the impulse being given by the porter below in the hall. By this means, anything that is going on in the hospital is known simultaneously at every part of it. The bell that has just rung is part of the apparatus, and draws attention to the movements of the hand. It stops at "operation;" and in a minute afterwards a long line of students are seen winding up the stairs, the surgeon at their head. He looks calm; but, depend upon it, he bears an anxious mind; for life and reputation wait upon his skill. Let us follow the crowd: a new spirit has come over the students; the jolliest and most careless walk up steadily and silently. It is to be a tremendous operation, —  one great arteries, deep [-62-] down in the pelvis, has to be tied, and no one knows how it may terminate.
    Steadily and quietly the Operating Theatre is overflowed from the top benches, and the spectator looks down upon a hollow cone of human heads. The focus of this living mass is the operating table, on which, covered with a sheet, lies the anxious patient; and every now and then he sweeps with an anxious glance the sea of heads which surrounds him. Close to him is the surgeon, his white cuffs lightly turned up, examining carelessly a gleaming knife, and talking in whispers to his colleagues and his assistants.
    Slowly the bewildered countenance of the patient relaxes; his eyes close; he breathes peacefully; he sleeps under the beneficent influence of chloroform like a two years' old child. The sheet is removed; and there lies a motionless,  helpless, nerve-numbed life: an assistant pushes back the eyelid, and the fixed eye stares vacantly at the roof.
    The student below us clutches the bars in front of him. It is his first operation; and he wishes he were far away, and wonders how the porters can stand so calmly by, waiting with the sponges.
    There is a sudden movement forward of every head, and then a dead silence. The surgeon has broken into the bloody house of life, and every eye converges towards his hands ;— those hands that manipulate so calmly; those fingers that see, as it were, where vision cannot penetrate, and which single out unerringly, amid the tangled network of the frame, the life-duct that they want. For a moment there is a painful pause; an instrument has to be changed, and the operator whispers to his assistant. [-63-] "Something is going wrong," flashes in a moment through every mind. No! the fingers proceed with a precision that reassures; the artery is tied; and the life that trembled upon the verge of eternity is called back, and secured by a loop of whipcord!
    There is a buzz, and a general movement in the theatre ; the huge hollow cone of heads turns round, and becomes a cloud of white faces, no longer anxious. Some students vault over the backs of the seats; others swing up by the force of their arms: the whole human cone boils over the top benches, and pours out at the doors. Brown pulls Jones's hair playfully; whereupon Jones "bonnets" Robinson; and there is a universal "scrimmage" on the stairs. Can these be the same silent, grave-looking students we saw half an hour since? Certainly! Who expects medical students to keep grave more than half an hour?
    As we pass down-stairs towards the basement, we see the wards opening out on either hand. These are the surgeons' wards; and you look upon long vistas of "fractures," and of convalescent operation cases. The "dressers" are at work, and trays now come into full play.
    A stranger's preconceived ideas of the suffering in an hospital are not at all borne out by the appearance of the patients generally. Many of them are quietly reading the better-class cheap literature of the day; others are conversing round the ample fire. The little child, with its leg in a splint, is as merry as possible, with its bed covered with playthings. Everything that humanity can dictate, or to which art can minister, is supplied. The most eminent medical men — whose attendance sometimes the rich cannot. [-64-] purchase — watch the patient with all due art and skill; whilst carefully-trained nurses are at hand, day and night, to ease the tired limb, or to soothe his racking pain.
    Below again is the floor devoted to medical cases; which we have already passed through: but it does not look like the same ward. See how that Rheumatism case has struck up an acquaintance with the Chronic Bronchitis; and how confidentially the Dropsy is whispering to the St. Vitus's Dance. The fair-haired girl, with the large lustrous eyes, is making up a bonnet for the coming spring —  poor girl! before ,that time comes, the dark screen will, in all probability, be drawn round her bed, and then all the ward will know what has happened.
    Anything to get rid of ennui in the hospital. As we pass the men's ward, that rough navigator washes up his own tea-things; that convalescent cabman smooths the little child's pillow; and farther on the poor shattered tailor helps his fellow in misfortune to walk with the inverted sweeping-brush as a crutch! The tenderness and sympathy you see rough fellows show in hospitals is very touching.
    The basement floor is mostly given up to the purposes of the medical school and the students. The library is there ;  its windows look out upon a sickly garden (why should hospitals have sickly gardens, when covered glass conservatories, affording an equable temperature, might be so easily and cheaply constructed?). Where books do not prevail, the walls are covered with full-length plates of the human form, dressed in light suits of blue and red piping. In the corner sits a young anchorite mournfully contemplating a skull; — he is only a first-year's man having a [-65-]  "grind at the bones." Two or three more are in close consultation with that "rough sketch of man," suspended by a cord from the ceiling; they are articulating his joints, and rubbing up their own brains for an examination. Another group by the fire-place is holding a black inquest upon some proceeding of the big medicine-men up-stairs : young students are so very critical. In a few years these seemingly thoughtless young fellows will be spread the wide world over; some, in the golden East; some, skirting the pestilential shores of Africa; some, in the new Australian world; some, in remote hamlets; some, in the fever-stricken depth of cities — all bent upon the mission of warring with the grim Dragon — disease.
    But we must pass on, as we have yet much to see. This is the lecture-room. How well the students know that hideous cast over the glass-case, with the notch and swelling in its neck; their chief point of view in many a long lecture. Through the lecture-room is the Pathological Museum, surrounded by armies of cold shiny bottles. These contain contributions from the dead to the living — of disease to health. It seems wonderful how the poor human frame manages to rub on at all; subject, as we here see it is, to such innumerable maladies. But it does contrive; and many of these "specimens" are the triumphs of the surgeon's skill over the destroyer. Scores of men walk about well and hearty who could recognize their own peculiar property among these bottles, and who remember with gratitude the successful burglary committed upon their own bodies, when mortal pain was stolen from them as they sweetly slept.
    There is the representation of a woman who seems to [-66-] have been devoted from her youth up to the nourishment of that huge, pale pumpkin growing from her neck; there are casts of hands sprouting with supernumerary fingers. Here are models of fearful faces in wax, which call to mind Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. Next comes a skeleton almost tied up into a knot by disease ; above our head is a shelf devoted to a whole infant population, not constituted exactly according to pattern. "But what is all this boiled tripe for?" says the visitor. Boiled tripe, my visitor! These are the real valuables of the Museum, and each bottle has its separate and absorbing history posted on that great blood-red ledger.
    The mere curiosities of the place are to be found in this glass-case. There you see the half-sovereign that stuck in Mr. Brunel's windpipe : a present from its late proprietor, who was doubtless as glad to get rid of it as we, the public, were to learn that he had done so. There is a long tube filled with the very best Japan ink (for so it seems), taken out of a tumour. Pence that have lain perdu for months in the stomach, and knives that have made the grand tour without inconvenience, lie side by side ; and here is a packet of needles that came out simultaneously all over a young lady's body. Do you see that hide? Take off your hat, for you owe it some reverence; the pretty girl you love, but for the late occupant of that skin, might have been a loathsome fright. That is the hide of the sacred cow from which Jenner took the first vaccine matter.
    But what are they doing in that little room beyond? — opening Goldner's canisters? No, no; there sit the curator and his assistant putting up "preparations." Why [-67-] is he interested so much about that bit of cartilage? Why does he so carefully put away that piece of fractured bone? What mystery lies in that little soft gray mass, that he should scrutinize it so narrowly with the microscope, adjusting and re-adjusting the screws with such nervous eagerness?  These are the hieroglyphics which must be deciphered ere the great hidden language of disease can be discovered; these are the painstaking labours by which science creeps on from point to point.
    The next door leads to the Bluebeard's chamber of the establishment, which we will not explore. Another step takes us into the Post Mortem Theatre. There, upon that cold slab underneath the sheet, you trace that dread mysterious outline, which appals more than the uncovered truth. It has been brought from the ward above to answer some enigma, which has baffled the questioning of the physician for months; and here, in the face of his class, his judgment and skill will speedily be tested, and the knife will show us what has brought to a stand-still the curious and delicate machinery of life. Think not, however, that nature yields up her secrets without, sometimes, exacting a terrible retribution upon those who would pry into them. The faintest puncture upon the surgeon's hand, the least abrasion of the cuticle with the knife that has drank the venom of the body, has been known to kill as surely as the most subtly-concocted poison ever administered by Italian revenge.
    But let us return to the ground-floor wards. These wards, right and left, are consigned to the surgeons: you [-68-] see, as you pass, the long perspective of "accidents," to which the ground-floor is mainly devoted, on account of its proximity to the street.
    But that room filled with such decent-looking persons — what are they doing there, ranged round the wall? These are the out-patients; the sickly troop that flocks day by day for relief. Do you wish to know how terrible the sufferings, how fearful the struggles, of "respectable poverty?" Go, then, and listen to the questions the physician puts to them one by one, and you will come out saddened and astonished. There is one disease which haunts that room to which he cannot minister, one quiver from which issue unseen the arrows of death, which he cannot avert. Listen whilst he questions that neatly-dressed young woman: "How have you been living?" She hangs her head, fences with the query, and is silent; pressed kindly, she confesses, a little tea and bread. have been her only nourishment for months. Wait a few minutes until the men are called in, and you shall hear that wasted giant, in the adjoining room, make still the same reply; "tea and bread for months" have dragged his herculean frame to the ground. They do not complain: they take it as a matter of course.
    As we leave the hospital the clock strikes three, the "seeing hour" of the poor patients in the wards; the crowd of visitors who have been waiting outside the doors press in, and throng up the vestibule. The burly porter, however, posts himself in front, and dodges about like a boy who heads a flock of bolting sheep. Now he pounces upon an old fishwoman who tries to rush past him. What [-69-] is he about? Flat pick-pocketing, by all that is sacred! Is he going to. rob the woman of her seed-cake? Scarcely is she past, than he dives into the capacious pocket of the second, and comes up with half-a.-dozen oranges; a. third is eased of an eight-ounce bottle of gin; a fourth, in evident trepidation, gives up a pound of sugar; a. fifth — to her he gives a low bow, and she passes on in "maiden meditation, fancy free." She, be sure, is one of the "Governors." This momentary suspension of his power . makes him a very tiger after "trash and messes;" a fresh onslaught is commenced, scarce a person but is mulcted of some article, and his eye rests upon the table covered with the spoils with the complacency of a man who has done his duty. This stern janitor is the percolator of the establishment, through whom the visitors are strained of the deleterious ingredients they would smuggle to their friends.
    Let us take one more peep into the wards before we go. Who would think he was in an hospital, and that he was surrounded by disease? Each bed is a divan, and each patient gives audience to a host of friends. A thousand kind greetings are heard on every hand, and the lines that pain has long been graving in the countenance, joy and affection for a moment efface. Did we say each bed was thronged with friends? Ah, no! not at all! Here and there we see a gap in the chain of human sympathy — a poor sufferer, by whose lonely bed no friend waits.
    Let us come forth once more into the air.
    The fresh breeze of the park seems sweet after the close atmosphere of St. George's; yet sweeter seem the actions of the merciful. As we pass the corner of the hospital, [-70-] the eye catches an inscription upon a porcelain slab let into the wall. The words are simple :-
    "In aid of those patients who leave this Hospital homeless and in need."
     Below, is an opening for the reception of gifts, so that the poorest and most friendless go not uncared for. This little arrangement is "the corner-stone of faith" of one of  the benevolent physicians. He imagined that a constantly open hand — for the wounded — held out at this thronged comer, might not be without its effect, and his confidence in the good side of human nature was not ill-placed. As much as twelve pounds have been taken from the box in one week —  glittering gold and silver mixed with pence and farthings, attesting that human sympathy is not of class or degree. In the full light of day, whilst the tide of life has been swiftly flowing past, many a rough hand has dropped its contribution; and in the silent night, when the bright stars above have been the only witnesses, many a rich gift has been deposited, together with the good wishes of compassionate and sympathizing human hearts.