A stay in hospital.
I’ve always been blessed with rude good health, which means I unthinkingly relied on it or in other words abused it. I’d never had a cramp until I was over fifty and I’ve never had a headache in my life. Sure, I’ve had the occasional bout of flu, a skin cancer souvenir of warmer climes removed from my face, and a brush with shingles – a curse I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy – but that’s about it in terms of a medical history.
I was delivered at home old style with the aid of a midwife, and apart from the occasional visit to a sick friend in hospital, that was the extent of my experience with hospitals. The last time I took a pill was probably an aspirin as a child, but like all my siblings that wasn’t because we were being tough. Basically, as a family we’ve a high tolerance to pain killers so you have to use enough to tranquilise an elephant, by which time we’re shuffling around like zombies in a daze. It’s that or we’re obliged to take our aches and pains neat.
It would be nice to put that good fortune down to a clean living lifestyle but to be honest I smoked and drank most of my life, but gave up smoking a few years back. I perhaps drank a bit more heavily as I got older, again probably because I have the good fortune not to suffer from hangovers.
For my generation and in my profession that lifestyle wouldn’t be unusual in any respect, since I and my colleagues in our younger days lived on coffee and cigarettes through many a long working day and de-stressed using booze in the evenings until the particular job we were working on was complete. The form was you never turned up drunk for work the next day, nor drank in work time, a habit I never lost.
It was an unhealthy but commonly accepted work culture at the time which fortunately appears to have died out, though occasionally I miss the intensity of it, simply because it seemed to bring out the best in me professionally. You were committed to your chosen profession or you were a nine to fiver. There was nothing much in between.
The Saturday before last, I felt a bout of flu coming on; aches and pains all over with that hollow shivery feeling you get. Having gone through it a few times before, I knew I was in for an uncomfortable 24 hours followed by feeling weak as a kitten for the next 24 and then I’d be back to normal again. The pattern is I lose my appetite, stay off the booze but drink lots of water to prevent dehydration and I’ll be okay.
After little or nothing in the way of sleep, Sunday morning found me with all the same symptoms, except that they were more severe. That night, I slept fitfully on the living room couch because I was simply too weak to make the stairs up to our bedroom. By the time Monday arrived, I could no longer stand and the symptoms were even worse.
After some debate and no sign of me getting better but actually getting worse, one of my sons called for medical assistance. A paramedic arrived rather quickly and after a quick but thorough examination, called for an ambulance to get me into hospital.
When it arrived, I was wheel chaired out of the house and transferred to a stretcher in it. It takes a while to get strapped in and secured in an ambulance and all the while my wife and two of my sons watched anxiously in through the open back doors. I was feeling more than a bit concerned myself but knew if I showed it, it’d distress them further, so I played it Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected and tried to look at ease with the whole situation.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend at a time when everyone around us was having the obligatory mid-life crisis and we weren’t. We came to the conclusion we were so busy looking after other people, we simply didn’t have the time to squeeze in our very own little crisis. I smiled at the memory and they caught and misinterpreted it, but it assuaged their concern a bit.
When I was properly secured, my wife and one of my sons climbed into the ambulance and we set off for the hospital. It wasn’t an all lights flashing effort but the driver didn’t hang about either. On arrival the family went to the emergency lounge to await news and I got wheeled into the innards of the hospital.
The first ward I arrived in was triage. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s a term that came from the military originally when dealing with a masscas or mass casualty event. You had to make an immediate snap judgement as to which of three categories the wounded man fell into, because in a masscas situation there’s never enough doctors to treat them all at once.
The first was those who could be saved if operated on immediately, the second was those whose injuries could wait a while before being treated and the third were the ones for whom nothing could be done; they were going to die whatever you did, so you shot them up with something, made them as comfortable as possible and let nature take its course. Sometimes when they realised they were at the back of the queue, they’d ask the medic to go a bit heavy on the morphine to help them on their way.
A doctor barraged me with questions, since I didn’t exist in any medical records on their national computer system. For some reason, they did have a telephone number for me, but one that was a few decades out of date. While he worked away, a nurse took blood samples, installed a cannula in my arm and started sticking monitoring pads all over me with wires running back to various mysterious machines. I coughed on demand and deep breathed in and out as requested.
The diagnosis was yes, I did have a dose of flu and a particularly bad one, but I was also suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The latter came as a bit of a shock as I wouldn’t consider myself to be a particularly heavy drinker.
The questions took a different path; No, I didn’t see things that weren’t there; Yes, I did know the date, month, year and where I was; No, I don’t get headaches; I could do mental arithmetic better than him and the only voices I could hear were his, the nurse’s and the moans from the drug addict in the bed on the other side of the room.
I popped the assortment of pills I was asked to pop, a selection of bags and bottles were rigged on a stand beside me and drip fed into my blood stream various liquids after being connected to my freshly-installed cannula. Now that I’d been sorted out, I was wheeled together with my drips to the observation ward because I’d be staying overnight.
The observation ward was particularly well named for me, since I didn’t have my reading glasses with me or my beloved kindle, so I ended up staring at the ceiling or observing people, interrupted only by the occasional agonising cramps I was getting in my calves. There were three other people in it; two elderly gentlemen somewhere in their eighties and the third I’d guess being of a younger vintage but I never saw him because he was permanently hidden behind drawn curtains around his bed.
One of the gents, whom I shall call Jim, greeted me with ‘Welcome to Stalag Luft III’, to which I replied ‘How far are we from the Swiss border?’
‘Too bloody far’ was the reply. With the social amenities safely out of the way, we chatted on and off in a sporadic fashion through the evening. My family visited and I asked them to bring my glasses, kindle and the charger on their visit tomorrow.
I didn’t sleep much that night because the pain in my legs was pretty bad. Jim woke up in the middle of it, obviously in the grip of dementia. He wanted to go downstairs, he wanted to go home. He kept getting out of bed and shuffling for the door. The two nurses on duty did a marvellous job of reassuring him and shepherding him back into bed several times. You rarely see such gentle patience.
Next morning, the nurses took turns playing cards with him which he obviously loved to do. His daughter turned up to visit him which made him very happy. Shortly afterwards, I was moved out of the observation ward and with a stroke of inexplicable good fortune into a single room.
I had my reading glasses and my kindle but as soon as I turned it on, it said it needed charging and of course they’d brought the wrong charger. A visiting doctor agreed to charge it up for me and dropped it back a few hours later juiced up. He’d obviously been curious about what I was reading and had a peek.
We had an interesting discussion about formal logic before we got back to the serious business of determining if I knew the date, month and year as well as where I was. The latter answer I varied every time we went through the routine; the Mayo Clinic, the Betty Ford Clinic, Walter Reed or the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. I think he would have liked to keep me around, if only to peel off a few layers of my psyche.
That night, I got a decent night’s sleep because the pain in my legs was easing off. I woke up early at dawn and tried to sit up in bed but simply didn’t have the strength. I suppose that was because of a combination of the drugs and laying on my back for so long. I’d be damned if I’d be beaten. Some problems have high level solutions, some have very low level, very detailed technical solutions that have to be thought out step by step and this one was the latter type, and it was going to be a personal battle.
Rolling onto my right hand side, I reached across my body and grabbed the side rail with my left hand. Using that as an anchor, I pulled with it and pushed off with my right hand to get myself upright. After some determination, I was sitting upright and used the side rail to twist through 90 degrees so my feet were finally on a floor after days on my back. I’d won my silent battle, but I was breathless, totally exhausted and thinking is this as good as it’s going to get from now on?
That was the lowest point.
I’ve known people who struggled all their lives with illness or handicaps without asking for any particular favours. They adapted and overcame and just got on with it, accepting help only when it was absolutely necessary but never pity. I’ve also known people hitherto very healthy whose reaction to their first serious injury or illness was to give up and crumple into a ball of self-pity.
I was about to find out which category I fell into.
When I’d got my breath back, I stood up very carefully, keeping a hold on the bed’s side rail. About four foot away from me was a visitor’s chair which as one would expect was facing the bed. Three small shuffly steps and I’d reached it. The next task was to turn around and aim my bum at the seat. If I missed, I’d be hitting the hard floor, and that I feared in my weakened state. I made touch down safely without falling off the chair, and that was me out of business for the next five minutes or so.
The return journey was just as carefully considered; stand up slowly, wait until you’re sure you’ve got your balance, three shuffly steps towards the bed, turn slowly and plant bum carefully on the side of it. I’d made it. Up and down the north face of the Eiger, but I was exhausted. It took a full ten minutes to get my breath and pulse back under some sort of control, and then I repeated the whole exercise.
Throughout the day, I kept at it and at some point the miracle occurred – I could stand up, walk a few feet and sit down with some measure of confidence. I moved the visitor’s chair a few feet further away and could reach it without too much trouble. My body remembered how to do it, all it needed was some determined prodding to get back into action.
By the next day, I could swing out of bed relatively easily and was walking from one side of the room to the other. Walk across it, touch the wall, turn, walk towards the other one, touch it, turn and repeat, gradually building up the number of traversals I could make.
By Thursday, I was deemed fit enough to be discharged, though I was still weak. It was a wheelchair job to get through the long hospital corridors and to my son’s car in the car park but we made it. It’s difficult to describe the simple pleasure of sleeping in your own bed again and not alone.
The best bit of therapy occurred on Friday; sitting down in my study and writing an article from scratch. It was on Angela Merkel and her destruction of the EU. Shot full of typos, a bit wandering but still a decent piece.
In the week I’ve been home, I’ve been working on building up my stamina and my pedometer app on my phone tells me I walked 8 kilometres yesterday, so that’s pretty much back to normal I’m relieved to say. That’s my story, my experience of hospital and there are some specific observations I’d like to make, but I’d like to preface them with a couple of general points.
The first is that no society with pretensions to being civilised can allow members of it to suffer or die from simple treatable conditions just because they don’t have the money to pay. Some sort of common pot has to be established from which people can draw to cover the required treatment. Certainly in Britain, the way it’s organised is equitable and works.
On the other hand, it can be an organised robbery like Obama care which seems to have been carefully designed to rob what little money the lower paid earn for precious little in return.
The second point is it’s only natural to be very grateful if not gushing about people who nurse you through illness. I’m fully aware of this phenomenon and would like to state that it doesn’t in any way colour the opinions that follow.
As I said above, I’ve always been fortunate in terms of health. The thought of turning up at a doctors or hospital with something as trivial as a pain in my little finger, which would chew up their valuable time that would be better utilised treating people with serious medical problems, is anathema to me.
On the other hand, I’ll freely admit that at the prospect of going into a National Health Service (NHS) hospital, I was gritting my teeth and preparing to tough my way through a pretty bruising experience. It seems to be a fixation of the mainstream media to represent it as an organisation of Dickensian charnel houses who routinely kill people off through sheer indifference or incompetence.
My daughter-in-law is a doctor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and smoulders with rage when she reads such stories in the newspaper or watches them on the BBC, and now having seen the NHS in action first hand, I can see why. As a result of the drip drip of propaganda, I subconsciously expected a third rate service but what I experienced was first class.
From the moment the paramedic arrived at our house, to when I was discharged, there was an unbroken chain of care and monitoring of my health. Everybody, from the cleaning staff keeping staph infections at bay, the catering staff cooking good wholesome food, the nurses and auxiliaries, the doctors and the consultants were unfailingly professional, committed, polite and friendly. If I asked a question, I got a human understandable reply.
I never saw a single instance of anyone doing something sloppily or not being bothered to do it right, and believe you me I pick up on stuff like that. It is a profession for those who truly care and I recognised from personal experience that in the commercial world, they’d probably be earning a lot more money than in the NHS but they stick with it and seemed a very happy crew.
I can only express my heartfelt thanks to you all for getting me back to health and hope this article may in some way counter what at times seems to be a non-stop tirade of negative propaganda about an organisation which has just gained a big fan.
Thank you once again.
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