Time becomes whimsical, when you’re waiting for major surgery. On the one hand, the days can’t go swiftly enough, as you want to have it all over and done with, and get back to normal life and hopefully health. On the other, they drag and drag with the apprehension about what it will be like, how long it will take to recover, what kind of after-effects you might have to face. (All helpfully described in the literature you’ve been given.) Even, whether the surgery will actually go ahead at all, when there are so many cancellations because of greater emergencies or staff shortages.
When you phone the day before (or 3 days before, if your surgery’s going to be on a Monday) to find out your admission time, it begins to feel very real and scary.
My surgeon phoned the day before to make sure I was happy about the procedure, and did I have any questions. That was nice. “Just come in a bit earlier if you can,” he said. So instead of checking in at 11 we arrived at 10, when I’d had nothing to eat since the previous evening, and no water to drink since 8 a.m. “Oh,” says the man at the desk, “he’s always doing that, he’s very keen.” So we still had to wait, not till 11 but till 12, because the procedure before mine had some complications.
Then I got to see the surgeon for last minute checks that what he was planning to do was what I had agreed and was expecting him to do, and to sign the consent form. Then, a little later, to meet the anaesthetist who attempted to put a canula in the back of my left hand. By then I was dehydrated enough that he couldn’t find a good enough vein and had to put another in my right hand. The scariest part was then having an oxygen mask placed over my nose, and panicking about not being able to breathe.
And I knew no more…
Until very drowsily I began to drift back to consciousness to find myself in the recovery room, with a nurse sitting next to my bed. I suppose he did things like ask me how I was feeling, take my blood pressure and stuff, but mostly I just hovered between being conscious and not. I think I remember saying Thank You to him quite a lot. This went on for a long time, and I didn’t have a watch and it was a while before I had my glasses on and could see where the clock was. I think he told me the operation had gone well and been successful. I don’t know how he really knew that, or even if it’s true, other than in the sense that I’m still alive.
Meanwhile Alison was phoning the ward asking how I was, and being told I was still in recovery (no explanation why) and getting more and more worried as time passed. Eventually she thought she’d come in and see me anyway, (though I’d assured her she didn’t need to), but when she looked outside, the car was frozen up and there was freezing fog, so she thought better of it. It was about 9 p.m. before I was taken to the ward, by which time I still didn’t feel like taking anything more nutritious than pain-killers and water. And so the first long night began.
Christmas morning came early. No idea when, it might even have been 2 or 4 a.m., when a doctor (I suppose?) came and relieved me of some blood. And then everyone’s saying stuff like “Happy Christmas! How are you feeling?” Urgh. At a more civilised hour a young woman doctor came and gave me a cursory examination, felt my abdomen, asked me to cough (a bit painful) I thought some food might go down nicely, since I hadn’t eaten for 36 hours. But even much later on, when they brought a roast turkey lunch (thoughtfully ordered by the man who’d occupied my bed the day before) I could barely swallow the smallest mouthful. Chew as I might, I couldn’t produce enough saliva to swallow, and could only get it down with a slug of water. Hours passed, slowly. They tried to get me sitting up, and standing up, but I felt dizzy and the nurse told me to sit down again. Eventually I made it to the toilet, holding on to the wall all the way, to try my first unattended leg bag draining.
My surgeon phoned, from the middle of his famil Christmas Day, to see how I was. He had visited me in the recovery room the day before, but I was still out of it. That felt like real service and commitment, too.
Nurse Ariana removed the drain from my side and covered the wound with a dressing, giving me more pain-killers and water as necessary, telling me about the disciplines I must follow in the coming days. How to empty the catheter bags. Fitting and use of the night bag. Keeping clean. Making sure I don’t become constipated. Wearing elastic stockings to help prevent deep vein thrombosis. Injecting myself daily with the anticoagulant dalteparin. This in particular was a real tutorial: description, part demonstration, then watching as I injected myself. I had thought I’d be asking Alison to do this for me, but under Ariana’s tutelage I resolved not to be a wimp, and become my own needleman.
Because it was Christmas Day, there was only one pharmacy working in the Trust, so we had to wait for our discharge drugs to be checked at one of the other hospitals and be transported over (by taxi?!) Then at about 3.45 p.m. I was released, and Alison drove me home at the end of possibly my Strangest Christmas Day Ever.
There’s lots to take in and learn and make sure you do. It’s likely to be uncomfortable, not altogether pleasant. But lots of other men have survived it all. And the care and professionalism of the people who are looking after you cannot be faulted. The documentation provided by my excellent hospital is very helpful, but one I’ve found on the Internet that’s even more helpful is the University College London Hospitals Discharge Information.
So, until further reports, just: THANK GOD FOR THE NHS. And thank god for the EU nationals, and other foreign nationals, who make it work.