This happened last year.
The pain? It’s truly indescribable so I’m not even going to try. And if that’s not enough, I have never felt so frigging ill in my whole life. If this is Karma and I’m paying for past transgressions then many earlier versions of me are now debt free.
I’m on the floor, clutching at the pattern on the carpet and banging my forehead against the chair leg. The razor-sharp wire wrapped around my chest is tightening like a garrote, and if my eyeballs could sweat, they’d sweat blood.
In as calm a manner as I can muster (because ironically I don’t want him thinking I’m ill) I suggest that Mark “calls someone.”
“Call the fucking ambulance.”
He recounts my symptoms to the emergency service until the call-handler interrupts to ask vital questions. His replies are quick and concise.
“Yes, she’s breathing. Yes, she’s conscious. Lying on the floor. No, not blue. Like this for some time.”
When he repeats “She has stage 4 breast cancer” the questions halt abruptly.
“The ambulance is on its way.”
Those relief of those words cut through the wire like a sword through butter. I grasp and gasp the offered breath. By the time the ambulance parks in front of the house, blue flashing light reflecting though the windows, the resounding pain in my chest and back has dulled to an acute ache. I hear the medics carry their cumbersome equipment up the stairs. Colour rises in my cheeks, am I being a Drama Queen?
The two medics look about twelve years old. They work efficiently and in an instant, I’m plugged in to machines monitoring every vital organ.
Reading the print-out they say in unison “it doesn’t look like a heart attack but you’re going to need more tests, bloods, observation, and with your history I don’t think we should take chances. Hospital for you.”
We agree the pain is no joke and its intensity not subsiding, so the medic suggests I take two paracetamol for the journey.
I look at Mark trying not to look at me, and nod.
“Can you walk down the stairs?”
“Yes I think so.”
“I’ll wait in the hall while you gather some things. Does your husband want to come with, or follow in the car?”
“I’ll follow,” says Mark.
I can’t think of what to take with me, so I put on some clean undies and hope for the best.
The ambulance is cold, the ultra-thin blanket sparse but surprisingly warm. We bump slowly along the rough track that we call our driveway before lurching onto the potholed country lane. Without being able to see the route I try to calm myself by guessing where we are, and as soon as the bumping stops, I feel we’re on the main road. The driver takes a circuitous route suggested by satnav, and by way of explanation the medic says “the driver’s from New Zealand.” We smile conspiratorially; two locals bumping along together in the back of an ambulance.
At the hospital, I’m unloaded into the chill evening air and the winter breeze dances on my face. In the busy corridor, I’m transferred to a trolley and parked under a bright overhead light, next to a radiator. The ambulance staff write-up their notes electronically, wish me luck and hand me over to the nursing staff. Then they’re gone.
I’m well illuminated, sweatily warm, and very uncomfortable- the paracetamol hasn’t even touched the sides of the pain. There’s a queue of trolleys ahead of me, and at the end of our destination ward signs say Critical, Resuscitation and Majors. I start to feel very scared.
I’m lying on my own trying to breathe slowly, when a young girl comes marching along the corridor. She’s wearing leopardskin print leggings and gold gladiator sandals which make me smile because of their sheer audacity.
“Are you Elaine?” she asks brightly, stopping at my trolley.
“Yes” I reply meekly. I know doctors are getting younger, but . . .
“I’m Sarah from reception” she says, “and I’m pleased to meet you! I have your friend Julie at the front desk. When no one’s looking I’ll smuggle her through. They don’t like people out here but you look a bit lonely”
I nod. I think I’m going to cry. Sarah touches my shoulder, and I cry.
Julie perches on the end of my trolley. We hold hands and giggle and when it turns to tears, we just hold hands. We’ve been together thirty years, together through absolutely everything.
“Mark phoned me before he left home and told me what happened,” she says, rubbing my hands with hers. “I was just sitting down for the evening with a glass of sherry, John offered to drink it for me but I poured it back in the bottle.”
I apologise for the call-out, it’s not like it’s the first time and we giggle again. We agree how useful it is she lives near the hospital. I tell her I’m scared (again, not for the first time) and she says she knows I am, and we laugh-cry-giggle for a few indulgent minutes in our own little world, letting the reality of the situation pass us by.
I’m feeling less scared by the time Sarah appears again, this time with Mark. She tactfully suggests a visitor swap. As Julie and I hug and say our good-byes and our love-yous, a nurse comes to admit me to Majors. Julie and Sarah walk back down the corridor and as they turn to wave, we go our separate ways and I’m wheeled into the bustling Majors Ward.
My trolley is parked in a bay by the doctor’s desk, and the curtains drawn around me. Beyond the curtains is a cacophony of bleeping machines, phone ring-tones, trolleys wheeling to-and-fro, and many-accented voices.
The nurse clears the detritus from the previous occupant, sprays everything with disinfectant and lays fresh linen on the bed before asking me if I can move myself from the trolley. I nod, and slide over. The nurse raises the bed-head higher, and places pillows behind me.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he says, disappearing through the gap in the curtains.
Mark sits in the single adjacent chair and we look glumly at each other.
“I fed the cats before I left home,” he says.
“What time is it now?”
“Seven forty-five. The ambulance man said they’d do some blood tests and we should be home by midnight.”
In the midst of trying to smile more-brightly-than-we-feel, a high-pitched voice from the patient in the opposite bay drifts through the curtains.
“I’m a transvestite you know! I wish I’d worn my feminine attire, this outfit isn’t very flattering is it?”
“Each to their own” is the reply from the nurse, followed by a deep sigh.
No amount of pain can stop me wanting to laugh. It’s going to be a long night, but things are looking up.
The nurse returns, with a doctor and an intern and I’m plugged back in to the monitors, recite my list of current drugs (lengthy) and medical history (even lengthier). They need to take blood. My veins collapsed after much chemo and I had a portacath inserted under my collarbone to make needling easier. The medics look confused when I show them, and after a lengthy confab they call another doctor.
She examines the portacath and says “what size needle do you use?”
“I don’t know I’ve never asked” I reply. “They just put the needle in. I didn’t know there were different sizes.”
She peers closely at my arms and hands hoping to find a vein to use as an alternative, but finds none. She sighs before exiting through the curtains.
“I’m in an awful lot of pain” I say to the nurse. “Can I have something?”
He nods, and while he’s gone to find pain-relief, the doctor re-appears with a student nurse and shows him how to take blood from the portacath.
“What size needle did you choose?” I ask
“The smallest. Best to start small and work upwards” she replies.
The first nurse arrives back with codeine.
“I’m sorry, I can’t take it” I say, recalling my past out-of-head-and-body experiences.
“Ok” I’ll be back.
The second offering is Oramorph, together with pills for anti-sickness and gastro-guard medication. I swallow the pills with water and empty the phial of sickly-sweet morphine directly into my mouth.The pain recedes, my face reddens, and for the second time that night, things begin to look up.
“When do you think I’ll be discharged?” I ask Mark.
“Oh”, he says wearily “midnight-ish?”
“Uh huh, sounds good. The pain’s gone, I feel fine now.”
He looks weary and doesn’t share my optimism.
“I think I need to pay more attention to my food,” I say brightly.
I jabber away happily in my drug-induced gaiety; food, decorating styles, hairdressers, all random subjects that suddenly seem interesting. I distinctly, and embarrassingly, remember asking his opinion on constipation and piles.
Through the now opened curtains, I watch as the transvestite straightens her unflattering clothes and leaves the ward in a flurry of flounces and showboating. A new occupant is wheeled into the vacant bay. “You’ll be sure to tell my husband I’m here won’t you,” she asks the nurse earnestly. “He’s watching television and won’t know where I am.”
The nurse nods.
“And my handbag- I’ve left my handbag somewhere”
The nurse gives a cursory glance over the bed, floor and bedside locker.
“No handbag here, darling.”
“Oh, it’ll be with my slippers then, or my husband might have it. Now, I need to brush my teeth . . .” She struggles to get out of bed.
“No, you need to stay in bed darling.”
“But my teeth.”
“Never mind your teeth, you need to stay in bed.”
She wriggles down the bed, dangling her legs and feet over the end, just as a nurse wheels another patient along the narrow central aisle. He slams his trolley to a halt precariously jolting his patient, and shouts something in a foreign language. A swearword still sounds like a swearword in any language. Together, the two nurses move the two patients back up their beds.
An assessment doctor arrives and shines a torch deep into the woman’s eyes before checking her neck brace and head bandage dressing. The patient knows her own name, can count backwards from ten, and knows she’s in Poole Hospital because ‘she’s been there for the past three days’. The doctor asks her to remember the address 42 West Street, which she promptly forgets, but does remember she fell while walking her dog. Then she says “No, I don’t have a dog. Why?”
A new nurse, arrives at my bed with another doctor. “Hello darling” he says, “I’m Ghio. Could I get you a cup of tea?” He has a kind way and a gentle voice.
“I could murder a cup of tea” I say. “And biscuits?”
“I’ll see what I can do, darling.” He turns to Mark, “tea for you?” (For a moment I think he’s gong to call him darling). Mark shakes his head.
“Have you had an ECG?” asks the doctor.
“Yes, I had one when I arrived.”
“Did, you? I don’t have a record of that.” She scans her notes. “They must’ve lost it, I’ll get the machine and we’ll do another”.
The sticky tabs are stuck back on my skin and I’m plugged in again.
“We also need to do another blood test.”
“I had one of those.”
“Yes, but it needed a longer time lag, it was done too soon after you arrived.”
I show her the portacath with the canula still attached for when it’s needed again.
“There’s no-one available who can use that” she says, “we’ll use a vein.”
“I don’t think you’ll get one.”
She examines my arm and shakes her head doubtfully. “Can we go in your hand?”
“It blows up like a balloon,” I say, trying to avoid hunt-the-vein scenarios played out so often in the past. “That’s why I had the portacath fitted. . .”
Ghio takes my hand, moving his thumb lightly over the skin.
“I was a phlebotomist in Mexico,” he says gently. “If you trust me darling, I can get a vein no problem.”
“One try only” I reply.
“It’s all I need darling.”
I don’t feel him insert the needle; it’s the sweetest blood test I’ve ever had, and he hits bullseye first time. His skill, his tea and his packet of biscuits merit eternal gratitude. Being called darling is a bonus.
To my left, two daughters are comforting their elderly mother, who has a suspected hip fracture. All she wants to do is pee but she can’t be moved to use the bedpan, so the nurse tells her to wet the bed.
One sister is the Carer. The other looks like the Bankroller and is obviously feeling completely out of her depth, witnessing the grim reality of her mother’s situation.
“Mum, just pee in the bed, we’ll change sheets soon” coos the Carer, while the Bankroller turns her head and inspects the wall.
The assessment doctor shines her torch and ascertains the patient knows her own name and location, and can count backwards from ten. She also remembers the address 42 West Street, and when asked her date of birth recites today’s date, proudly stating it’s her ninety-ninth birthday.
With touching spontaneity, everyone in earshot smiles and shouts “Happy Birthday!”
She continues to pee in the bed which begins to overflow. The awkward daughter has a panic attack and faints, and the nurses lift her onto a trolley next to her mother. The Caring daughter catches my eye, shrugs, and smiles.
A man with a continuous nosebleed is admitted. He’s covered head-to-toe in blood and leaves a red trail along the ward to his bed. He is trying to make a phonecall, but has so many pads and towels wrapped around his face, all that comes out is a muffled “hhhmmmmmmnnpppppfff.”
A young doctor comes to ask my medical history and the events leading to my admission. I give an abbreviated version of both. She says the blood tests show I have elevated liver function, and they’re trying to find out why. A nurse takes my blood pressure, and the next moment I’m transferred to a wheelchair and wheeled along the corridor for a chest x-ray. The midnight discharge time has passed. Mark and I re-assess our guess, saying 2a.m sounds more likely. We are both wide-awake and over-awed by the horrific yet mesmerising drama around us, which is still unfolding.
And we are part of it.
Mark gets up and goes to the toilet along the corridor, and comes back to say all hell has broken loose. Nurses are rushing victims of a car accident into the Emergency Ward and the corridor is full of police officers and screaming relatives. En masse, all our doctors disappear into the Emergency Room.
For a few moments, a sense of calm descends over our ward as the nurses quietly bustle from one patient to the next, checking dressings and giving drugs. Their trainers making little or no noise on the floor. The nosebleed is slowing, the woman opposite has her neck brace removed (all the while asking about her husband and handbag), and the fainting daughter in the next bay recovers enough to move from trolley to chair.
A piercing scream shatters the silence. An elderly lady in the end bed, brought in from her care home with a bladder infection, is resisting an injection.
“Now, Mary, this won’t take a minute,” says the nurse patiently.
“Fuck OFF” screams Mary. “And don’t call me Mary.”
“What shall I call you?”
“Mrs Scrivener. My name is Mrs Scrivener. M I S S US”
“Ok Mrs Scrivener, I need to give you this injection.”
“But Mary . . . Mrs Scrivener . . .”
The nurse retreats and fetches Ghio who approaches the bed with a bright smile.
“Hi Mary darling, I’m just going to give you something for the pain. OK?”
“Yes” she replies, “that’s okay.”
At four o’clock Mark and I laugh about our 2a.m expectations, and at five o’clock I ask if he could go across the road to the all-night petrol station and fetch a pack of peppermints. While he’s away, a doctor pulls the curtains around my bay, and asks me my medical details once again. Slowly I repeat the same answers to the same questions, and ask if there are further blood tests results.
“We’re still trying to find the reason for the elevated levels,” she says “so we’re going to admit you to a ward for further tests and observation.”
My heart drops. I want to go home.
“How long will I be in?”
“It depends on what they find.”
When Mark returns I ask if he could go home and fetch my cancer meds, and some sweat pants and tees for a hospital stay. He looks as crestfallen as I’m feeling.
Together we’ve weathered this night – no, not just weathered, but been part of a parallel universe that must occur in every hospital, 24/7. The way the nurses work as a team and the doctors seamlessly change from one patient to another is awesome, and it doesn’t matter what the political funding and resources debate says, it’s the people that make the situation bearable. It was emotional. And the scan showed I have gallstones. I was home by teatime.