Read no further if you are squeamish, read on if you are going to have an operation or look after an operatee.
Torrential rain immediately after my operation meant helpers did not have to water the garden and I wasn’t missing much in the outside world. I wasn’t as incapacitated as I expected, but for nearly two weeks I was attached to a long tube which led to the wound drainage bottle – a contraption the district nurse said she hadn’t seen before, patients often have bags that are changed daily. A green concertina device showed if the vacuum was still intact, the same principle as syphoning petrol.
In the days when people spent a good few days in hospital after an operation they would be attached to all sorts of tubes putting fluids in and taking other fluids out; people who managed to avoid hospitals would know little about such mysteries. One of the the district nurse’s daily tasks was to measure output and replace a bottle if the suction went. Carrying this bottle, even with the handy bag sewn by a kind patient who had invented them, was like never being able to put your shopping bag down. I was also constantly forgetting it was attached. If I had known that the amount of tube inside me was about a foot long I would not have worried so much about pulling it out. Family and visitors wondered what was going into the bottle to make the ‘strawberry smoothie’ – some blood plus a lot of lymph fluid that wasn’t sure where to go after all the lymph nodes were removed. We all know about blood circulating and kidneys etc, but the lymphatic system is unfairly ignored by most of us!
This long attachment precluded any serious attempt to get dressed or try on the surgical bra and foam falsie, but haven’t half of us lived in our dressing gowns since Covid started? So what to do except sit and receive visitors, cards and flowers? I soon got bored with resting; thank goodness for the back garden, I could sneak out and do some dead heading when the rain stopped. I tried to avoid the kitchen; family were great with meals and coffee and tea for visitors, but there was a relaxed attitude to washing up and tidying the kitchen!
The wound was sewn up with dissolvable stitches, sealed with ‘superglue’ and a hundred steri strips and to my relief the dressing stayed put for the required two weeks. The super glue allowed showering, though soaking in the bath was not recommended. The whole area stayed numb for ages and I felt like a first stage Cyborg, half my rib cage replaced by a steel plate. There are exercises to do from day one, then more after the drain is taken out and continued for ever… Lifting is forbidden to start with and reaching up for things catches you out.
I was glad to get out for walks once the bottle had gone, now there was another week to wait before going back to the hospital for pathology results.
When I woke up there was a strange man in blue standing by my bed, then I remembered I was not at home. He spoke.
‘The operation went well.’
I felt a sensation of total relaxation, the sort of calm people spend hours doing yoga or meditation to achieve. I looked at the clock, it was 5.45pm. I had not woken up during the operation and it was all over, a quick feel revealed that the right side had been operated on. Now I need do nothing except lie there and relax.
It’s only now that my writer’s mind brings forth alternative scenarios, what might be said to you when you wake up…
‘I’m very sorry, the operation went wrong…’
‘You’re in hospital, you had a massive stroke when you were in the operating theatre six months ago…’
‘Do you understand, you have dreamt the past thirty years, you are not a writer, you are in a high security mental institution…’
Fortunately it was still Friday evening and I was soon down/along/up? on the surgical ward. The four bed bay was devoid of other patients, I was not by the dusty window, but sitting up had a view of the harbour. Dinner was not an option. I had been amused when my friend told me she managed to eat quarter of an egg sandwich over three hours after her operation and the walk to the bathroom made her sick. A cup of tea and a nibble of ham sandwich was welcome. Getting out of bed is encouraged, a relief not to be involved with bed pans, but the walk to the bathroom did make me sick.
In the lead up to the hospital visit there had been much discussion on what I would take in with me. There were numerous leaflets written pre and post Covid and pre and post our three local hospitals suddenly deciding to call themselves University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust and changing the phone numbers.
The main message seemed to be Don’t bring too much stuff, Don’t bring valuables. I was certainly not going to bring my brand new iPhone, which according to my younger son who looked it up after my older son bought it for me is very expensive! And I had managed to lose WiFi on it. I had brought my old phone which still had its sim card, but I couldn’t log in to NHS Wi-Fi in the pre op waiting room, because you had to confirm when they sent you an email and I didn’t get the email as I didn’t have any Wi-Fi… Nor was I going to bring any bank cards to log in to the bedside television, wifi etc which I was sure I would not be able to work; the leaflet said just bring small change. My Kindle would be enough entertainment, though it would be a shame to miss Gardener’s World...
I couldn’t imagine they expected every patient, however old or unconscious, to leap out of bed and rummage around in the locker for their smart phone to contact their family as soon as they arrived on the ward. Patient notes have next of kin and a phone number and you only want two messages sent to someone responsible‘still alive after operation’ and ‘come and fetch me.’
It turned out they did try and ring the hospital but there was confusion over phone numbers and they weren’t to know how late I had gone down to the operating theatre…
The nurse did ring my daughter so I sat back and relaxed for an evening of blood pressure and pain tablets, each time asked my date of birth, presumably to check I was still alive or still the same patient. One more patient arrived in the opposite bed. The nurse said she would be back at 11.30pm with the anti blood clotting injection so I didn’t bother turning off the light or tying to sleep. At 12.30am she still had not arrived and I wondered at what time my blood would start clotting.
At 1am I had the injection and presumably went to sleep because a cheery voice said ‘Good Morning’ and checked my blood pressure. I was looking forward to breakfast, but it looked very dark for a summer morning. When I asked the time the nurse said quarter to four! After a wander to the bathroom I asked the nursing assistant what time breakfast was – 8am. Then asked if I would like a cup of tea and a biscuit. YES
Custard creams, yuk, bourbon, no.. or digestives. Yes please. When the mug of tea arrived there was a packet of three Crawfords digestives, I refrained from saying ‘Haven’t you got Macvities? and it turned out to be the best tea and biscuits ever.
Breakfast was a nice bowl of porridge and toast, all I could imagine facing when I ordered it the evening before. The elderly lady opposite was bed bound and mouthed something, I realised she was whispering I’ve had half my bowel removed. I got out of bed and searched for her lost pen unsuccessfully, then lent her mine so she could fill in her menu. Also I had a good look through the dusty window at the views and took photos, my old phone had come in handy for something.
A doctor came round and said I could go home after lunch, so I went and had a wash, dispensed with the hospital gown and put on my new nightie. Any moving around involved lugging the wound drain bottle and the long length of tube I would be attached to for the next week or so.
I had just got back into bed and a different doctor came by and said I could go home right now. The nurse asked if I wanted to ring home. I tried to explain the phone situation and asked if she could ring. A sensible request as she knew the system and I didn’t. Getting from a ward to the ground floor and then endless corridors to the multi storey car park had seemed a logistical nightmare, but my daughter was told to park in one of the few bays near the main entrance and ring the moment she arrived and the nurse would wheel me down. A better exit than my arrival in my son’s builder’s van. On the way from the ward we passed the machine for purchasing access to the television which had remained perched up by the ceiling above my bed. I hadn’t even needed the small change as in Covid times no one comes round with trolleys and newspapers etc
My departure was exactly 24 hours since we had arrived thirty minutes early the day before and about 21 hours since I had gone to the theatre. Sunday would bring the district nurse on the first of the daily visits...
So this was it, what I had always dreaded; this was what it felt like to be paralysed, trapped in a useless body completely at the mercy of others. I wanted to say ‘Well I’ll be off then‘, but I was going nowhere. I could move my head and arms, I could speak, but I was flat on my back and the rest of my body felt like a trussed oven-ready chicken. No amount of concentration could make my leg move or my body lean over. How dreadful for those left totally paralysed or struck down by a stroke; unable to speak, left to listen fully aware while doctors discuss whether you are a vegetable, alive or dead. I tried to cast these dark thoughts from my mind and concentrate on my own predicament. I had such plans for this year, only this morning I had been strolling in the sunshine, but after tonight my life would never be the same.
I breathed slowly, taking it all in; bright lights, murmuring voices, figures in green moving calmly around, equipment with buttons and red numbers. Perhaps I was experiencing the ultimate human nightmare; the figures all wore masks, everything felt unreal – I could be on an alien spaceship. Had I lost minutes, hours, days of my life?
One of the figures was talking to me. ‘Can you feel that?’
‘Feel what?’ I replied, relieved that he sounded human.
He turned to speak to another figure. ‘No sensation in lower body, blood pressure okay.’ He turned back to me. ‘This is Doctor Campbell, we’re ready to proceed, how are you feeling?’
My surroundings closed in on me. A screen went up, there was only my head which the masked face was talking to, my arms which he was poking things into and a machine above me with its bleeping and flashing numbers. I tried to make intelligent replies, hoping to be seen as an individual not a lump of meat strapped to the table.
The murmurs beyond the screen were getting louder and more excited. Another masked face spoke to me ‘Nearly there now.’
There was a general sigh of relief and satisfaction. ‘Here we are, it’s a Boy!’
Read more flash fiction and longer stories of all sorts in SOMEONE SOMEWHERE essential for your coffee break reading, on Kindle or in paperback.
If you are purposely going into hospital for an operation, perhaps purposefully, elective, not elected… you will probably be filtered through the system with all the operations for that morning, afternoon or day; so make sure you get the right operation and don’t assume the time on your letter has anything to do with the actual time you meet your doom go to the theatre.
The basic procedures are much the same for all of us and after our many lockdowns and isolations at least we get to talk to lots of people and answer lots of questions, again, from nurses, anaesthetists and surgeons. This is your opportunity to remind the surgeon which side they are doing. You can also mention to the anaesthetist that documentary you saw thirty years ago about patients who wake up during their operation, but can’t alert anyone because their eyes are taped over and they are paralysed. Point out this is in the notes on general anaesthetic under Rare Risks AWARENESS, just above Very Rare Risks – DEATH. Anaesthetist reassures you that there is only a very slight possibility of waking up, just wave your arm if you do. You have more chance of being involved in a road accident on the way home… reminding you of something else to worry about. Of course, there is also a very good chance of waking up at the right time in the recovery room.
In this long corridor of waiting rooms and little consulting rooms and long waits, at some stage you will have to change into a hospital gown, tight black stockings which are hard to pull on ( ladies, you needn’t have worried about shaving your legs after all ) and your dressing gown and slippers, which hopefully you haven’t forgotten to bring. Then you realise the overnight bag you brought isn’t big enough for all your street clothes.
When I went for my interview with the breast care nurse the week before, she produced the consent form for me to sign and it said mastectomy left hand side ‘NOoo, it’s the Right side’
‘That’s funny, only the second time that’s happened to me in twenty years, I’ll do a new form.’
Because I was slotted in at an earlier date I hadn’t met the surgeon who was going to do my operation. He asked if I was happy for him to examine me or did I want a nurse present. I thoughthmm, not worried about being molested at my age,but I just said ‘No, that’s fine.’ I was tempted to add ‘well you will certainly be the last chap to play with that breast… ‘ I did add ‘…as long as you know which is the right side, which is the right side…’ He did some drawing with his felt tip pen, saying don’t worry, it will come off.
The worst part was being back in the waiting room in the middle of the afternoon with no food since 7.30am and no water since 11am and more waiting; there were not many patients, but they all seemed to go before me...
Then at last yet another nurse comes to collect me, my bags are confiscated secured and tagged. Now the long walk to the theatre, the walk down long corridors, this is why you bring your slippers. It was a relief to get moving and stretch my legs and interesting seeing all the secret parts of the hospital. Everything is blue; corridors, doors, uniforms, scrubs…
These days patients wear masks as well as the medical staff, so naturally I was wearing my favourite mask to get Brownie points. My last general anaesthetic was in 1978 and most of those involved tonsils or teeth. I had all my caesareans with epidurals and some hand surgery under local anaesthetic, so I didn’t miss out on what was going on…
Destination anaesthetic room, next door to Theatre Number One; the nurse let me peer through the porthole where people in blue scrubs were getting everything ready; all that just for me! My elderly neighbour who had the same operation a year ago had reassured me that being an anaesthetist is an actual job, an important job and my friend who watches all the hospital programmes said they look after you all the way through the operation!
Everyone who has an operation will tell you that they put the canula in, put an oxygen mask on and tell you to take some deep breaths, next thing you know you wake up in the recovery room. I kept taking the deep breaths and I was still wide awake, it wasn’t working! Then the anaesthetist said ‘Okay, I’m going to start putting the drugs in now, first the pain killer, tell me when you feel funny.’
Whether you consider it started at the twelfth stroke of midnight, first of January 2020, or a year later, I think we can all agree the third decade of the Twenty First Century has not started well. But even if we have lost loved ones, friends or fellow bloggers, life inevitably goes on, though ‘normal life’ still seems a long way off. My life took an unexpected turn a few weeks ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer; treatable and curable, so at my age ( not that I’m that old… ) can’t complain! It IS tragic when young mothers get the more aggressive forms of breast cancer, it is tragic when any young person or child has cancer, life is not fair and none of us know the rules of the game…
In the space of a few weeks I have entered the system, had all sorts of tests and my operation brought forward. The NHS has come up trumps, but it is true that breast cancer has had a lot more attention and research devoted to it than other cancers. It is also true that if you have other undiagnosed chronic conditions you are not funnelled so swiftly and kindly onto a pathway.
Many of us have tests of various sorts over the years with all the wonderful magic waves, magnetism, ultra sound that exist these days, then feel a bit guilty when it turns out nothing is wrong, you were just anaemic or it was just a pain, nothing serious. Then one day the atomic super scanner does find something; to say it’s unexpected is not true. I have lived with cancer all my life, brought up on the stories of my grandmother, who died of bowel cancer at 56 when I was little; the only grandchild she would get to meet. My grandfather had died suddenly the year before, also 56. A short time before, he had been saying how good life was, with lovely little me and my grandmother returning from hospital after a ‘successful’ operation. Family legend has it that Grandma ‘gave up’ after losing her husband; the reality was that there was no cure for bowel cancer then. But it is true that my mother walked into her mother’s bedroom one day when she was undressing and saw lumps on her body. She was shocked that her mother had not told them or gone back to the doctor. I seem to have always known this story with its vivid image of cancer bursting out all over the place.
Few modern women can be unaware of cancer, expecting or fearing our wombs, ovaries or breasts to be invaded at any moment, not to mention all the other parts of our bodies. I am not a doctor or scientist, but the simplest explanation I have read is that it would be a surprise if people and other creatures did not get cancer; our bodies are a mass of living cells designed to constantly reproduce, sometimes they go awry. When my aunt in her seventies sailed through her mastectomy I said I would never be afraid of having one; my mother had a mastectomy in her nineties and took it in her stride, living long enough to die of old age. With my father dying of leukaemia and my sister surviving cancer a long time ago I have glibly assumed it was just a matter of when, not if I would get cancer. Humans are living long enough to increase our chances of succumbing; there are no magic bullets because there are a multitude of cancers, lots of people get better or have a long remission, others don’t. I have no more right to survival than anyone else, only to not cause my family any more stress after losing their father nine months ago. The Game of Life is strange; a local friend has just had a mastectomy and my old school friend was having breast surgery the day before I got my diagnosis, I am certainly not alone.
Warning Cancer Joke
Doctor: ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you the tumour is malignant.’
Patient: ‘Oh thank goodness, I was worried it was cancer.’
And more irreverent thoughts…
Daughter on phone trying to sort out my iPhone account… Me: ‘Just tell him I can’t sort out my phone cos I’m a widow and I’ve got cancer’– Yay, now I have two reasons for not doing things…
Yes there are plenty of positives. I can’t go to the camera club AGM as I’m isolating ready to go into hospital on Friday – oh hang on, roadmap delayed, AGM will be on Zoom, I can go…
Our family has a tradition of feeling guilty, about pretty much everything and now a weight of guilt has been lifted off my shoulders. I can hold my head up high and look others in the eye. No longer feeling guilty for going around being healthy while others have so many medical burdens to bear.
How lucky that my younger son and his fiancée have given up their rented home and are moving in with me this week as part of their plan to be in a better situation to buy their own place. Their planned seaside break next week has turned into being carers, not so lucky for them…
My NHS daughter will be organising her brothers and the NHS as she did last year; as she is a physiotherapist she will make sure I do my exercises.
It has rained a great deal, summer solstice was a wash out, but at least my garden won’t need watering for a little while because…
As I am having lymph nodes taken out as well there will be lots of things I can’t do with my right side like gardening, cooking, housework… More importantly maybe I won’t be able to type much – good excuse for blogging being erratic, though perhaps I’ll post lots of pictures.
To go with my garden pictures here’s my favourite happy garden tune ‘English Country Gardens’, an old folk song arranged for the piano by Australian Percy Grainger and played with gusto in this original recording.