Michael Falzon opinion: In this printed with the early run of this newspaper (Friday March 17 2006), Michael Falzon makes reference to his sick father. He passed away on Saturday March 18 2006. MaltaToday expresses its deepest sympathies to Mr Falzon and his family
I am writing this piece on my laptop in a cubicle of a ward in St Luke’s Hospital where the life of my 92-year old father is slowly fading away.
Born on the eve of the First World War and five and a half years before the Sette Guigno uprising, my father’s life spanned almost a century that saw Europe twice rent asunder in two world wars besides the rise and fall of Nazism and of Soviet communism. Of poor but hardworking and staunch Catholic stock who also valued education long before sending children to school was a legal obligation, his mother was the daughter of a Gozitan manual worker who ‘emigrated’ to Malta where he could get a weekly wage that was half a farthing more than in his native island; and his father was a lowly paid seafarer in the merchant navy – my father is a self-made man who raised his (and his family’s) status from the relatively poor pre-war days to the vibrant Maltese middle class of the last quarter of the twentieth century. In his heyday, he was an ethical businessman and a respected employer.
The very hospital where he is doomed to end his life was not even built when he was born. The huge stone blocks that make up this edifice were carried in the early thirties on mule-drawn carts all the way from Mqabba to Gwardamangia. According to a story I was once told, the founder of what is now an established quarry owning Mqabba family business, had a contract to supply four cartloads of stone a day to the hospital building site. One day as the cart arrived on the outskirts of Hamrun the mule fell dead on the spot, probably the result of a heart attack. His owner simply left the dead mule on the wayside and pushed the cart to the hospital site himself, picking up the mule’s body on his way back to Mqabba! And he continued to deliver four cartloads of stone pushed by his bare hands – with the help of his brother – for some days until he found another mule. A commitment was a commitment: no questions asked, no excuses accepted. The insufferable practice of seeking a needed favour – deserved or not – from a political patron had not yet set in.
Such was the world of the hardworking part of the population, those who gave this country the backbone that has now been somewhat eroded by the spoilt brats that have been spawned thanks to the wasteful practices introduced as a result of short-sighted political patronage.
St Luke’s is also doomed to end its life as a general hospital. Having spent an unusual number of hours in St Luke’s during the last few days, it is now much more obvious to me that the migration to the new Mater Dei Hospital presents a huge logistical problem. In St Luke’s the basic masonry structure is still as strong as the mules that carried the stone blocks that were cut manually from living rock by quarrymen, and then trimmed manually on site by skilled stone dressers and put in place manually by master masons. But other aspects of the hospital show the toll of time, and they seem to be tangible evidence that even the very life of St Luke’s Hospital is slowly fading away. The original timber openings are shabby and sorely lack maintenance. One particular window I have seen cannot be closed properly and someone used a bandage to keep it in place! In contrast to other windows, its panes are somewhat dirty on the exterior side – the cleaners dare not undo the bandage, presumably because that is a nurse’s job. Luckily, it overlooks what is practically an internal court that is protected from the cold windy weather that this year has madly lingered up to the ides of March.
The architects responsible for St Luke’s had wisely specified solid blocks of Carrara marble for the floors and stairs. Although the marble surfaces need a good dose of polishing, the percentage of slabs that are broken is surprisingly low after all these years and the material is almost as good as new. I suppose the marble blocks were carried by mules from the Carrara quarry to the steamer that carried them all the way to Malta. They certainly could not do without mules in those times!
The result is that the floors can easily be kept clean but they look a monotonous drab and dreary grey. Drabness imbues all the interior décor in the hospital. Colour schemes are noticeable by their absence and a bright spot is as impossible to come by as much as it is impossible to find a cosy warm corner in an arctic blizzard. The atmosphere and the environment certainly do not help to raise one’s spirits – more so when the hospital is overflowing with patients, some of whom have to be accommodated in the ward corridors. The plumbing, and – believe it or not – the antiquated central heating system, at least, work.
The nursing and medical staff do their best even though they are overstretched. If there are human resources problems in St Luke’s today, I wonder how much these will be exacerbated at Mater Dei. It is perhaps only after a direct experience such as my current one that one appreciates the quantum quality leap that the switch to Mater Dei represents.
Who knows whether Mater Dei will be the place where my life will fade away! In that case, it will certainly be a much better place than my father’s… yet another confirmation that this country, despite its shortcomings, despite all the idiosyncrasies that drive me and so many others constantly mad, is going ahead and moving forward, come what may.
Which is why we should strive to emulate our forefathers who pushed their luck and their strength over the limit and improved their lot and that of their descendants!