Trilogy of a beautiful Princess

In an unprecedented move, as of summer 2016, the British Royal Family website carries a number of stories about people living with HIV.  HRH The Prince Harry recently delivered an inspirational speech at the Worlds AIDS Conference, in Durban, South Africa, in which he said:

“We cannot lose a sense of urgency, because despite all the progress we have made, HIV remains among the most pressing and urgent of global challenges.”

It is great to see Harry carrying on a cause that his late Mother championed so well.  Of course,  Diana wasn’t the only Royal to visit and get involved with people living with HIV, but she was the most visible, the most iconic, and therefore the one with the greatest international ‘clout’ for raising HIV awareness, and challenging both HIV and AIDS-related stigmas.

I recount a trilogy of fond memories that I have, of seeing Her Late Royal Highness, Diana, Princess of Wales, starting in Canterbury.  Diana was there to open an Old People’s Home, in about 1982.  The other stories are of meeting her when I worked on HIV wards, at two major hospitals in London.  I’ll tell you more …

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Diana was flying in to Canterbury to open a home for old people.  She was coming by helicopter to the local helipad, in school grounds near the main approach road into the city.  There’s always a great view of the cathedral from that road, and the tannery that used to be there has now been replaced with some posh new homes.  But when Diana visited – as with Pope John Paul II, in 1982 – the tannery would be closed and sealed up for days, so that important dignitaries would not have to smell the stench the rest of us coped with – especially on hot days – from the processing of pig flesh!  I can see now why people of past generations sniffed perfumed handkies in the streets!

I had lectures at University that morning, but I knew I could make it to the helipad field in time to see the Princess leave.  So, as soon as class ended, I ran like crazy down through the fields, from the top of the University hill, and towards the school roundabout.  I was wearing a Franciscan habit, with shorts on underneath, and sandals on my feet.  As I ran through the fields, the grass was long, so I had to hitch up the habit, to stop me from tripping.  We didn’t ‘do’ “selfies” in those days, but I must have looked like Maria von Trapp, from the Sound of Music!  As I ran, the red, Royal, helicopter flew directly over me.  There I was, running: one hand holding the habit up, revealing my bare legs underneath, and skipping over tall grasses, and the other hand waving frantically into the sky, in case the Royal visitor was looking out at this “mad monk” (friar, actually) below.

Would you believe it … Diana wasn’t in the helicopter: she was already at the Home she was officially opening!  By the time I got to the roundabout, her car was heading towards me.  Take a look at the police officer in the front of the car.  Diana smiled and waved, but he just glared at me: this friar, in habit, pouring sweat, waving with the one hand, and taking photos with the other.

Haha!  Fun days.

The next occasion was 1 December, 1989: World AIDS Day.  Diana was coming to officially open the purpose-built HIV ward I was working on as a staff nurse, at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.  When she some years earlier opened Broderip Ward, at the Middlesex Hospital (where I was linked to, next), the whole world knew “Broderip is the AIDS ward!”, as the media broadcast it far and wide.  The stigma and the media hounding of people admitted to, and working on, Broderip and similar units was horrendous.

Anyway, St Marys.  The ward had 20 beds, with 4 of them kept for general medical patients, so that if those evil people in the press phoned the hospital and asked “which ward is your AIDS ward?” we could honestly say that this particular ward was a “medical ward”.  In fact, not all people on the ward had an acutal AIDS-defining illness, although they would have had HIV infection.

Each of us nurses were allocated a patient to be with, when the Princes made her visit.  I was with an old lady – let’s call her “Mary” – who only had a few weeks left to live, due to cancer.  Mary was SO excited at the thought of meeting Diana, and it was really and truly her greatest “bucket-list” dream come true.  I finished work on 30th November, and – you should know what a Royalist I am – I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of the next day’s VVIP (Very Very Important Person)’s visit.  Mary and I wished each other good night, with a promise of “see you tomorrow”.

The ward was full to capacity, and later that night, a real troubled soul of a person came in through A&E.  He was living with HIV and was dependant on illicit drugs.  The ward policy was that taking drugs on the premises / whilst an in-patient would mean instant discharge – everyone knew this.

When I got to work the next morning, all the hospital lifts were non-operational and security guards, police and sniffer dogs everywhere.  I went to Mary’s room – and it was empty!  Mary had been transferred to another medical ward, during the night, because the bed was needed for this new admission.  I didn’t know who he was or how ill he was, but he ‘shot up’ on the ward and was asked to leave: Mary’s room was empty.

When I tracked her down on another ward, she was sitting slumped and crying on a commode, behind the screens.  When I told her the room was hers, and we had to act fast, she was adamant she didn’t want to go back with me.  She felt SO let down; she was convinced that “we” didn’t want her.

She took quite some persuading – I’m good at that, so I’ve been told – but I managed to get Mary to agree to come back to her old room.  As the lifts around the hospital were all closed, for security reasons, a few of us blokies had to carry Mary, either in a wheel chair or the commode, I don’t remember, up and down loads of flights of stairs, dozens upon dozens of steps, and from one part of the rambling – but beautiful – old building to another.

We eventually got Mary back in to her room.  Time was moving on, and I helped wash her, prepare her and put her brand new nightie on, for the Princess’ visit.  Just as I am going out of Mary’s room, both of us bursting with excited anticipation at the visit, she puked all down her best nightie – I rapidly changed it!

My dear friend Jon Whelan, shown below in this photo, was one of the clinical nurse specialists on the community HIV team.  He loved rubbing my nose in it that HE got in a photo with The Princess of Wales, but I never did.  We later taught together at the famous NWTRHA AIDS Education Unit, Charing Cross Hospital (later moving in to Thames Valley University), and the poor love died suddenly of a heart attack aged 51.

Princess Diana on Rodney Porter Ward WAD 1990

 Princess Diana on Rodney Porter Ward, World AIDS Day 1989

Jon Whelan is the person standing in the middle, with Prof Anthony Pinching on his right

 Anyway … Mary and I were on a section of the ward funded by the HIV organisation “Crusaid”.  We were at the end of the corridor, and saw the Princess arrive on the unit and chat to all those in the line of inspection.  Diana unveiled a plaque, too, and was given an amazing bouquet of flowers by Heather Wicherly, the ward Sister.  By the time the Princess approached Mary’s room, she and I were both truly excited!   Mary sat up in the bed, I stood by the top of it.

When Diana came in, she sat on the bed chatting with Mary, her wonderful blue eyes clearly meeting Mary’s, person to person.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that this meeting was genuinely and holistically therapeutic for Mary.  Diana held Mary’s hand, saw the bruising caused by needles and ‘drips’, and gently smoothed her hand, saying how brave Mary was, jokingly, for how she put up with us nasty people sticking her with needles.

When Diana left the room, she went to the patient next door who was sleeping.  Diana came out, went to her Lady in Waiting and whispered something.  The Lady in Waiting then gave the Princess the bouquet of flowers the ward had presented to her.  Diana then marched straight for Mary’s room, came over and gave her the flowers.  She said – and I remember to this day – “Mary, I can see you haven’t got any flowers; please have mine!”  The tears of joy were not just rolling down my cheeks, they were squirting out, I am sure!  I can remember blubbing, “Oh, Your Royal Highness: You have made our day!”

Mary died three weeks later.  She told EVERYONE who visited her, over and over again, about her meeting with this beautiful Princess.

The final part of this Royal trilogy happened in my next job.  The staff nurse’s post at St Mary’s had been my first full time nursing job in 10 years.  When I took the ten year career break from nursing to study for, and work as, a Catholic priest (1979-89), St Mary’s put me on a middle “D” grade, a newly qualified staff nurse’s salary.  Little did I think that only 7 months after working on this ward I would jump from a D to an H grade, never having done the middle bits of senior staff nurse ( E&F) and ward manager (G-grade), before being on a Nursing Officer’s scale.

My first teaching post started on 6 April 1990, as a lecturer-practitioner in HIV and AIDS.  This was at the Bloomsbury and Islington College of Nursing and Midwifery, covering the HIV services at the Middlesex Hospital and University College Hospital London.

The two HIV in patient services were Broderip, famous because it was the first “AIDS ward” opened by a Royal (Diana), and the newly built Charles Bell Ward.  On the day of Diana’s visit, again, each member of staff stood by a patient’s bed.  The press were being their usual story-grabbing selves, and even tried scaling the drain pipes of the building outside, to get a sneak picture inside.

I was standing at a patient’s bed, with another patient not so far away who was gradually slipping away.  He was in a coma, the screens mostly drawn, and his rabbi saying prayers at his bedside.  When Diana got by his bed, she was told this man was in a coma, unresponsive and dying.  That didn’t stop her!  She sat on his bed, held his hand and smoothed it – just as she had Mary’s, a of year before – and whispered into his ear.  She told him she was Diana, The Princess of Wales.  She said other things to him, too, before turning and speaking to his rabbi.

In fact, Diana spent as long holding this man’s hand and talking to him as she did to any conscious patient!  She didn’t have to.  It wasn’t a stunt.  She was being genuine, as one human being to another.  I felt that then, and I still believe it now!

Princess Di on Rodney Porter ward

Princess Diana on the Crusaid wing of the ward 1 December 1989.  Notice the man’s totally visible Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS, an AIDS defining illness) on his legs, and notice Diana without any gloves!  The press, righlty, on this occasion, made large of such occurances.  Diana broked down so many barriers, errected by fears of contagion around HIV and AIDS, especially for human touch of one person to another.

A final reminiscence which has just popped into my mid as I write this … Sometime after Diana’s visit to Rodney Porter Ward, we received a huge, formal, signed and framed photo of the Princess.  As people came out of the lift, to access the ward, one would turn to face the ward entrance and immediately see a large U-shaped nurses’ station, slap bang in the middle.  It had a sort of canopy, and over this, visible from the lift lobby, was a clock.

Every time I was on night duty, I would swap the clock for Diana’s portrait.  When staff came on shift in the morning, exiting the lifts, who would be looking over them,smiling at them?  The Princess of Wales!  Some of my less Royalist colleagues on day shifts would replace the portrait with that dreadfully utilitarian clock face, but just wait untill I got back on nights 🙂

The Jewish existentialist Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) coined in a new word in German: Vergegnung, a ‘mis-meeting’.  He had been abandoned by his mother, as a baby, and didn’t see her again until his late 30s.  He later wrote that their eyes looked at each other but there was a Vergegnung, a mis-meeting, between them.  Whatever the opposite of a Vergegnung is: Diana was!

I count myself privileged to have had these encounters in life.

26 August 2016

Princess Diana - Kindess


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