By Edward Usher
I have changed all names of staff and patients.
Wednesday 11:40 pm – Ferndene Road, Camberwell
I sit on the kerb and call myself an ambulance. I think I’ve broken my arm, I tell them. I’ve hit a lamppost. Okay, they say, after I’ve tried and failed to spell the name of the road I’m on. (Don’t they have some sort of sensor thing?) Okay, sit tight. An ambulance should be with you within two hours. Two hours? I say? There’s one just pulled up now. Oh, they reply. You lucky thing. Get in it then, the woman starts to say, but it’s too late, I’ve hung up.
You’re lucky we were right round the corner, John says, or you’d have been right down the bottom of the list. I agree. They’re training a junior paramedic and they make her recite the five stage checklist for giving me morphine. You nailed it, I say, when I’ve had the shot and I didn’t die. She laughs. Pain seems to make me cheeky.
11:57 pm – Kings College Hospital, Emergency entrance
Chris chains my bike up outside, reminds me not to forget it when I get out, and wheels me inside whistling. I smile lopsidedly at the people I pass. They don’t seem pleased to see me.
Thursday – 12:36 am
Edward? an Irish woman says. Just keep breathing on the tube. Don’t stop. You can’t have too much. I look at her dubiously. She’s sticking a needle into my upper arm, and she doesn’t seem to be having much of a laugh while doing it. There is a tube in my elbow and my entire body is convulsing spasmodically. On the other side, a guy is pushing my wrist back in line with my elbow and poking the lump back down with two fingers. Just keep breathing on the tube, he says. I later find out that he was working a 24-hour shift. I didn’t catch his name.
A junior medic of about 21 is calmly explaining to a man in the cubicle next to me that if he tilts his head back and stops blowing his nose so hard, it will stop bleeding. The man doesn’t believe him. You have a nosebleed, he is told again. Nothing else I’m afraid.
The porter leaves me in the corridor outside the X-ray room and wanders off. He was a cool guy. While I wait, in a surge of opiate-induced creativity, I write a haiku on Twitter and wait for the retweets to roll in. I count the syllables on my good hand. I get two favourites. I’m happy with that.
06:04 am, Kings College Hospital, Ward A
The doctor asks me how much sleep I get on average per night. I tell him and he rolls his eyes. He is 31 but looks 25. God, I wish I got that, he says. He has a large checklist to go through. How much pain are you in out of ten? he asks. This is not the first time I have been asked this, and it certainly won’t be the last. I don’t know how to answer that, I say, but if I arbitrarily assign childbirth a ten, then I’d go with a seven. Pain seems to make me pedantic. He laughs, and tells me I should have surgery tomorrow and can’t eat or drink anything. At all. If my mouth gets dry, I can sponge it off with a damp cotton swab on a stick.
A little later another doctor walks in and tells me I have fractured my radius in my right arm, but the rest of me is fine. Do you have any questions? he asks me. Just one, I say. Will I ever walk again? Pain seems to make me hilarious.
A team of surgeons waft in. Hello, they say. We’ll be operating on you today. We’re going to make an incision on the inside of your forearm, reach in and move your muscles around, and then manoeuvre your broken bone back in line and screw it in place with a metal plate. Then they disappear. Surgeons come in and out like this because they are very important. Everyone in hospitals is very polite, quiet, and careful with their words. Surgeons are not, because they do not give a fuck. They are surgeons.
My neighbour in the ward is called Kenneth. He is about seventy-five years old. Kenneth broke his wrist four months ago, and has been here ever since. This ward is not designed for long stays. When Kenneth is in a good mood, he stares into space and sings Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole under his breath, softly and utterly tunelessly. When he is not in a good mood, he physically and racially abuses the staff, tries to wander out of the ward, locks himself in the bathroom and shits himself in silent protest. Kenneth’s wrist has long since healed, and with it the hospital’s excuse to keep him there. But he has nowhere to go. The nurse tells me there are several people passing the buck on him. No-one wants to take responsibility for Kenneth, so for now he goes for periodic x-rays which I suspect have the sole purpose of creating the paperwork required to keep him in the hospital until someone can decide what to do with him.
Sarah starts her shift at 7:30 am and finishes at 8.15 pm. She has been a healthcare worker for two weeks. Her job is to sit with Kenneth all day, trying to put him in a good mood. When she succeeds, he smiles and leers at her and says that she is as hot as a pile of burning books. When she does not succeed, he says he has never succeeded at anything in life and he is nothing but a failure. Sometimes he seems to think he is in prison. The only thing he says to me in our whole time together is I look like a bike racer because of my face. When Kenneth is out of the room I tell Sarah that she is a hero and she looks happy. She wears Nikes under her nurse’s outfit and is going out tonight.
My housemate comes to visit. She brings me my glasses, some clothes, deodorant and two books: one called Bad Pharma about how fucked up the medicine industry is, and one about living life to the full. I don’t read Bad Pharma, but I do read half the other one. During her visit, a nurse I’ve never seen before comes and tells me that she has good news and bad news. My operation has been cancelled, she says, but on the plus side I can eat and drink again. My housemate is sent out immediately for a Chicken Legend meal.
A new patient has arrived in our ward. He is about fifty-five years old, podgy, and when his family leaves he starts crying to a nurse. His daughter had a miscarriage a few weeks ago, he says. This is the last thing his family needs. I’m so sorry, says the nurse, but someone else needs this bed. We’re going to move you to a gurney. But don’t worry, you won’t be there long. There are rules about how long we can keep people on gurneys. Okay, he sniffs.
Kenneth is up and down a lot in the night. He throws tea at Janet, who’s been watching him through the night. He doesn’t seem to like Janet, presumably because she’s black and not Sarah.
I ask three different nurses if they have any earplugs and they all seem to forget. I can understand why. Eventually I get up and go to reception to get them myself. They help to block out Kenneth a bit.
Friday – 8:00 am
In terms of mood, this is the lowest I’ve been so far. I don’t know if I’ll get into surgery today, the best of my drugs have worn off during the night and I’ve just had another load of blood taken. They seem to have run out of veins in my left arm. I get given some more codeine, which is a great little drug but makes you constipated. But combine with morphine and paracetamol and you’re laughing. Someone injected something into my stomach at some point during the night. Worst of all, my phone has run out of battery. I’m also being starved again, which is a good thing because it means I might be getting into surgery soon.
They ask me if I’m ready to go to theatre. I ask if I can run there. Pain seems to make me incredibly witty. I put on a gown and go downstairs in bed. My gown doesn’t flap open at the back, that appears to be an inaccurate rumour. I am placed in a holding room where I look at the wall and tremble intermittently. I am asked several times to confirm my name, date of birth and whether or not I am allergic to latex.
They take me to be anaesthetised. They were going to give me local anaesthetic in order to get the cannula into my knackered vein, but decide it would just be another injection, so the lady just shoves it into my hand. I freak out immediately. They’ve done it wrong. They’ve missed the vein. The tube is pissing fluid all down my hand. Blood is gushing out and is coating the bed. I have contorted my body into a desperate shape. I wait for the general anaesthetic to hit me but it doesn’t come. I must be immune. Something has gone horribly wrong. I will be able to feel everything.
Edward, open your eyes. Slow down your breathing. Stop struggling. There’s nothing in your arm. I force myself to look. The cannula is hanging out of my wrist, but they’re right, it’s not attached to anything. But it feels as though there is a tube piercing my bone and injecting mercury into my bone marrow. I can still feel blood spurting out of my hand, although I can see none. I start hyperventilating. They get the gas. Just breathe normally, I hear someone say. My face is being stroked with a latex glove. I am shaking and weeping uncontrollably. But each breath calms me. I gasp and cough. My heart slows. I inhale sweet, black oblivion and limpness washes over me.
The next thing I see is Kenneth peering at me suspiciously from the next bed over. Ah, you’re awake! a nurse says. Welcome back. Surgery went well! Have some more drugs. A morphine injection, some codeine pills. I’m getting sick of these needles. Someone comes in to take my blood pressure and pulse every hour or so. Occasionally one of them pricks me in the finger.
An old friend from school who I haven’t seen in ages comes by with some cookies and some grapes. I am immensely grateful. She has been in hospital herself and so knows what it’s like. We talk a little and then go for a walk around the ward because someone is struggling to open his bowels behind a curtain and it’s disturbing our small-talk.
I’m moved to a different ward. This one is quieter. A new set of nurses are looking after me now. The nurse who admits me is so tired that she writes the wrong date on the white board above my bed. Twice. It’s not 2005 is it? she laughs. Brenda takes my blood pressure and smiles when she finds out my mother found out I was in hospital from Facebook. Boys are always like that, she says, and stabs me in the stomach with anti-coagulant. I eat lasagne and watch planes passing by.
Saturday – 10:00 am
I spend the morning writing this, one-handed, on my phone. It’s laborious, but I’ve started enjoying time-consuming activities. Fraser comes to visit me at two o’clock and he dons my hospital shirt and special socks, which he declares life-changing in both their warmth and grip. A nurse comes in and tries to take his blood pressure when I’m in the toilet. She seems surprised when I reappear.
I’m finally discharged at five o’clock, after sixty-five hours, six x-rays, three blood extractions, three cannula insertions, one operation and forty seven thousand injections. I now know where the radius bone is, and have a much greater appreciation for the patience, skill and self-sacrifice of NHS health workers, an under-appreciated, under-paid, over-tired and generally abused class of saint who care for strangers every minute of their waking lives without an iota of the recognition they deserve but do not demand. Throughout my time in hospital I was treated with dignity, respect and good humour, by people struggling day and night to do the job of two, and sometimes three, colleagues. It is a thankless task, yet they continue to provide a service that we so often take for granted, a service that is the envy of so many in the world, but which is also one that many people in this country feel the need to attack, inexplicably, for its inevitable imperfections. To those people I say: spend 24 hours in their Crocs. Be spat at by drunks, vomited on by dying children, and inform a distraught relative of the death of a loved one. Do not sleep. Do not sit down. Receive no thanks. Then go home and come back the next day and do it again. Then tell me that they don’t deserve a three-fold increase in resources, and that the endless waves of government cuts are fair and justified, and maybe I’ll listen to your opinion.