I once read a letter to a woman’s magazine, in which a mother described an incident that occurred with her child in a greengrocer’s (back in the day when we still had them). The greengrocer had given her child a treat – a lovely juicy orange from the display – and the mother had said, ‘Oh that’s lovely! What do you say, Matthew?’. The child considered this for a second then held the orange back up to the greengrocer, ‘Peel it,’ he said.
I felt a little like that child yesterday. It was my first visit to a hospital as a patient and one I was going to do alone. Given that they were going to stick cameras and hooks and scissors into my knee joint, I found it difficult to shake myself of the feeling that it was really all about me and no one else. But then life, as it usually does, taps you gently on the shoulder and reminds you there are any number of other people either in similar or worse situations and a load of people doing what they do everyday, but working hard to be sympathetic to the fact that their normal it is a totally alien and confusing environment for many of those they deal with.
I was seen promptly and taken into the ward, where a nurse spent a good twenty minutes getting a load of details off me. One of the questions I was asked was if I had any big cuts or bruises. I thought this was about infection control, but it turned out that actually it was to protect the hospital from me trying to sue them for damage I had already managed to inflict on myself. The nurse asking the questions was young, and apparently even more hungry than me, despite my having to fast – her stomach rumbled noisily throughout our conversation. In a cubicle next door someone was being offered a hot pack.
‘I wish I had a hot pack,’ I told her, ‘I slept really awkwardly the other night and have a bad cramp in my shoulder.’
If I had been that nurse, my response would have been to say that the pain my knee was about to be in would soon take my mind off my shoulder, but she didn’t.
‘Do you want a hot pack?’ She said, ‘I can get you one if you like.’
Really? Was that allowed? I was only paying for my knee. Apparently it was and she turned up with one minutes later.
The ward was cold. The aircon, cranked up in expectation of the aussie summer, was way over the top for the unusual cool weather. This suited me just fine – I will always choose being cold over being hot, for the simple reason that you can always add another layer, but you can only get as naked as naked, and nobody wants to see that anyway. Amazingly, unbidden, a nurse appeared and offered me a second blanket – straight out of the dryer and lovely and warm. This was getting to be more like a spa than a hospital, apart from the whole jamming metal rods into my body thing.
I was second into surgery – I thought I was lucky, but on reflection, I think they may have only been two of us going in so I was technically last. When it was time for me to go a young man in greens arrived to take me. I had assumed I would be interviewed by the surgeon and anaesthetist first, but no.
Not knowing the geography of the place, I asked him, ‘Is it a long way?’
‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘It is a ten hour shift and I am only half way through it. I started at five.’
Fortunately we arrived at our destination soon after.
This was a smaller room – a pre op holding ward, apparently designed solely so they could ask me the same questions again, check the leg to be operated on (earlier, they had made me draw an arrow pointing to it with my initials on my leg in permanent marker – talk about signing your own death warrant), and to place a funny blue hat on my head, like a cloth shower cap. Even though I was the last of the blue hats to arrive, I was immediately wheeled out again and placed in a small room next to the theatre. I say room, but really, it was a walk-in cupboard and apparently the busiest place in the building. I lost count of the number of people in scrubs who came in, nodded and said hello and then pulled any number of items from various cupboards. One of the cupboards had a sign about the different colours so they could tell the difference between general and recreational analgesia. Except it was not recreational, that was just me beginning to lose it, it was regional. I realised this halfway through my conversation with the anaesthetist, which explains why I had to make him repeat the second half of what he said as my panicked mind loomed off at a tangent.
They like to get the patient involved in things, which is good, because I almost missed out on needing anaesthetic completely. Moving myself on instruction from my bed to the operating table, I nearly brained myself on the overhead light, which was great as it really helped to take my mind off the arm rest where I needed to place my arm for the jab, which looked eerily like the ones in execution chambers for death by lethal injection. This was not panning out as I had expected, based on my extensive viewing of ER episodes in the eighties.
He told me I would feel light-headed and then wake up. I don’t really remember feeling light-headed but the next minute I was awake with a head that was crystal clear. I have woken up after a night’s drinking feeling a bit fuzzy, but this was nothing like that, I was wide awake immediately – and shaking uncontrollably.
I was not cold, but my legs and lower half of my body were shaking violently. Apparently some people react to anaesthetic like this and generally get over it with no complications.
They asked me how my pain was and I gave it a score of two – then immediately regretted my bravery as I became increasingly aware of the soreness.
‘What are you doing?’ The nurse asked
‘I need to sit up,’ I said – I am always telling my dad to sit up so he can breathe better and here I was flat on my back. I did not like that.
‘It’s a three now, no a four – maybe a five.’ Blow it, I was paying for the drugs, might as well use them. I figured it was like when you choose the breakfast buffet option, no point in leaving the little jams untasted (unless they are the marmalade ones which are the work of the devil and must be destroyed).
‘Patient very anxious and confused,’ I read on my notes – clearly they had not met many anxious people before – this was nothing, I could be much more anxious than this. And I was not confused, I was very aware of what was going on and I was shaking.
They gave me pain relief immediately – probably hoping it would knock me out again, but I was determined to stay awake. I guess I must have been like those heroin addicts who overdose and are given an antidote which reverses the narcotic effect- apparently they wake up furious. I did not pass out, but it did relieve the soreness and had the added benefit of stopping the shaking.
Half an hour later I was back on the ward. The nurse brought me cold sandwiches and tea – in a tiny mug.
‘Ask for another one,’ the mate who was picking me up advised by text. As a fellow Brit, she understood immediately the importance of a lot of tea.
But before I could ask, the man in the cubicle next to me called for the nurse. I had heard his pre op discussion with the surgeon – the urologist who had seen my father a couple of weeks before – whatever he was have being done, it wasn’t on his knee, that is for sure. I heard apologies, the word catheter, and something about it falling out and cleaning it up. Poor sod. Now was hardly the time to ask for more tea, was it?
I looked down at my leg, swathed in a thick bandage, the exposed ends beetroot-coloured with antiseptic.
I rang the bell for more tea.