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I received life-saving care on a female-only ward. Don’t transgender women deserve the same?

I received life-saving care on a female-only ward. Don't transgender women deserve the same?

Patients need care, not culture wars.

As the debate about transgender patients on same-sex hospital wards rages on, GLAMOUR's Purpose Editor, Lucy Morgan, reflects on her own stay on a female-only hospital ward after surviving a life-threatening car accident. Transgender people, she writes, were the last thing on her mind.

I'm lying in a hospital bed, paper-thin sheets between my legs, wearing the same clothes I crashed my car in 16 hours earlier.

My once-stretchy leggings are hard with dried blood, and the remains of my work t-shirt hang off my body in rags. I'm conscious that I stink, but the rest of my awareness is flooded with newfound pain.

“I can't breathe!” I scream at the nurse on duty. “You can breathe,” she tells me, well-practised in her patience, “It just hurts.”

Eight years on, it's still hard for me to think about the accident – and my subsequent hospital stay. But in the months since the government started floating proposals to ban transgender patients from same-sex wards, my thoughts often wander back to the ward.

Earlier this week, the government announced plans to limit the number of transgender people receiving care on same-sex wards.

The proposed changes to the NHS Constitution for England could mean that trans people are treated in rooms on their own if other patients request to be on single-sex wards. Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has backed the proposals, citing that his views on gender issues “start with biology”.

These politicians are weaponising patient care in the hopes of winning vacuous culture wars. I wonder, have any of them ever been on a hospital ward, same-sex or otherwise?

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” When I was 21, I accidentally pulled out in front of a lorry on my way to work. It takes a split second (and a combined 120 mph impact) for me to leave the kingdom of the well.

I only remember small details from the scene. I am dimly aware of the smoke billowing out of the car bonnet. A motorcyclist asks me where it hurts, and I say that my feet are cold. He puts his heavy jacket over my legs. When the paramedics start cutting off my seatbelt, he panics, thinking they're going to chop up his jacket. I think the car might blow up.

The shock protects me through the first few hours, through the ambulance ride to the nearest trauma hospital, and through the MRI scan, where I throw up on myself. When it dissipates, I'm lurched into my first real experience of pain. I spend every waking moment thinking about it, taking constant inventory of how much it hurts.

A nurse is carefully sewing up a wound on my left leg while a junior-looking doctor struggles to fit a plastic tube through the right side of my chest. He says I have what's called a ‘traumatic pneumothorax’: the impact of the accident caused some of my ribs to break, puncturing each of my lungs in the process. The tube will drain all the excess air from my lungs.

In the aftermath of my accident, I shared a ward with three other women, all elderly, all in volatile states of discomfort. Two of them, Norma and Merle, had been on the ward together for a few weeks. They took turns telling me I was too young to be on the same ward as “two old ladies”.

Age aside, their pain is more evolved than mine; they seem better at bearing it. Where I am rowdy and indignant, they are restrained. The word ‘long-suffering’ comes to mind.

I spend my first night on the ward coming to terms with all the new ways my body is hurting. I'm not thinking about Norma or Merle when I start howling at 3am. It doesn't occur to me that interrupting their sleep in this way might be upsetting, not to mention tiresome. When the curtains are drawn the next morning, I feel a glimmer of shame. Norma smiles, “I'm sorry you had such a hard night, petal.”

My parents visited later that day, bringing chocolate brownies, magazines, a pad of paper and some colouring pencils. I drew Norma an elephant; and for Merle, a lobster.

As I settle into hospital life, I move into a new paradigm of pain. I'm less affronted (but still plenty aggrieved) by it.

My blue hospital gown both ages and infantilises me; I act accordingly. I want morphine. I want my catheter taken out. I want a shower. I want a change of clothes. I want my mum. I want a fucking yoghurt. Do you know what literally never occurs to me? Whether Norma and Merle were assigned female at birth. Even thinking about it now feels like the height of rudeness.

I certainly doubt they were preoccupied with my gender identity while I was screaming the ward down.

I want morphine. I want my catheter taken out. I want a shower. I want a change of clothes. I want my mum. I want a fucking yoghurt. Do you know what literally never occurs to me? Whether Norma and Merle were assigned female at birth.

Some hospital bosses have accused the government of dragging the NHS “into a pre-election culture wars debate” and ignoring issues that actually matter, such as long waiting times, decrepit facilities, and overworked staff.

I reject the idea that pain is a great leveller – after all, people with access to private healthcare are afforded a level of comfort that the NHS, stretched as it is, cannot hope to provide anytime soon. But when you share a ward with someone, more often than not, you share in each other's pain.

When I first arrived on the ward, it was me, Norma, and Merle. After two nights, we were joined by Lesley; a woman in her sixties with yellowing skin and a skeletal frame. She doesn't scream, she moans; a low-frequency thrum that seeps into my nightmares. I am familiar with her pain; her catheter hurts, she wants her mum, she wants a yoghurt.

I don't know what it's like to work on an NHS hospital ward (from what I've heard from friends, it's diabolical), but I do know what it's like to be a patient. I guarantee you this:

If you're ever in the same hospital ward as a transgender person, you're more likely to care about the logistics of your care (not to mention the acuteness of your pain) rather than whoever's lying in bed next to you. The fact that you're even on the same ward strongly suggests that you have more in common than either of you could ever have envisioned.

And that's something to be embraced, not feared.

For more from Glamour UK's Lucy Morgan, follow her on Instagram @lucyalexxandra.