Time goes very slowly in hospital. When I arrived in casualty on that Friday night with all the symptoms of a heart attack I saw the nurse straight away. The Doctor came pretty quickly too, but it was about three hours after admittance that I was moved to a ward. Thankfully there was a drunk girl in fancy dress crying her eyes out to keep me amused. Her boyfriend watched over her with a toy gun in a plastic holster. He was still wearing his cowboy hat.
I was wheeled down for a chest X-Ray and back again. There was no noticeable sign of a heart attack so the clot was more likely. Blood tests showed that a clot was indeeed a probable diagnosis. I would be kept in for the weekend. Never get ill on a Friday because they’ll hold you hostage until the 9-5’ers get back to work.
The pain had gone by the morning, when I was woken for jabs and prodding. My superhuman muscles kept popping the blood pressure velcro open, so I was upgraded to the purple armband. I’d had three hours sleep and looked around. My companions in the ward were an eclectic selection.
There was the old man, who after a meek and timid life had woken up from an out-of-the-blue fit to be told of his violent attack on a pair of ambulance men. He was mortified. The bloke opposite had been worried by the colour of his stools, and I’m not talking about the Ikea catalogue. He admitted that he had been on a bit of a bender, and it was all I could do to withold my expert opinion that his black turds could be expected after 36 pints of Guiness.
I saw a lot of different Doctors on that first day. I think I retold my health history about six times. Each Doctor arrived with a different level of seniority, but none of them had read my notes. Not one. There was an early ECG scan taken in casualty which showed signs of a heart defect, but the new medics had no knowledge of its existence, so they took another one. When a consultant came on a ward round, the junior Doctors were unable to provide any information as they hadn’t chased up my results.
My experience as a patient on the NHS has been mixed. Okay, I admit they saved my life a couple of times, but their management system could do with a makeover. And if I was misdiagnosed by my GP a few times in the past, I’ll put that down to my bravado and casual indifference when it comes to critical illness. You see, like a lot of men, I tend to brush things off when I’m talking to my Doctor. Did I convey any real worry that my whole lower trunk was semi-paralysed in 1994? I think it was easier for me to pass it off as a manly injury suffered after some manual labour on the mean streets of Birmingham. It’s not surprising that it took 6 months to be taken seriously.
And likewise, when I reported the suspect clot after the flight from Lanzarote, I might well have told my Doctor that having suffered DVTs previously, I could tell that this was just a calf strain. Well that shows what I bloody know doesn’t it? Let me patronise you for a second; if there’s a possibility you may have something serious, don’t just brush it off for the sake of humility and concern about your reputation – it’s not worth it. Hypochondria keeps you safe.
Now I wonder if any of you can tell me what happens to the bits of paper that constantly disappear in the health system? Where do they go? Is there a big room somewhere filled with ECG scans, blood test results and referrals? Because an awful lot of paper seems to go missing in the NHS. I drove from Cardiff recently to make an appointment with my physio, only to be told casually that a letter he’d written had been “lost in the system” and that there was nothing could be done. While I was in hospital, I was something of a ghost patient – moved around from ward to ward on a busy weekend, nobody could keep track of me. Would it be too much to digitise things?
I was lucky that there were people in the hospital able to chase up my appointments. The radiologists had sent for me on the wrong ward – the porter took me back to the wrong ward – the thrombosis experts had no idea I was there at all until they received some scans showing clots on lungs of a new patient. Nobody saw me at all on my second day, and on Monday morning I had to ask why I hadn’t been given any Clexane injection. “We didn’t know you needed one”, they said.”Hellooo, Coo-eeee, I’m over here!
There is not much dignity in hospital. A very ill old lady was admitted to the bed next to me one night. I heard her telling her daughter that she was embarrassed by her weak bladder. She began to weep as she explained how much of a nuisance she felt. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been when she was forced to use a commode just feet away from my head, seperated by a thin curtain. I know it was bloody tough for me.
After a quiet first day, I thought the worst had passed and I would be angling for an early release. But I was hit by an episode of so much pain in the early hours of Sunday that I could not even move to press the emergency button. For half an hour I sat on the edge of my bed gasping as a sharp stitch cracked into my ribs. My back was sore too and every breath which expanded my lungs burnt through my windpipe. I was totally helpless. Maybe I’d better stay in another day after all.
That Sunday was the day it began to sink in. I was weak, lethargic and grumpy. My football team, Cardiff City, were playing, and when they conceded a late goal, I didn’t really care. This was something new. People often talk about illness giving perspective, but the truth is we don’t want it. We need to over-react about unimportant things – whether that be crying over the meaningless relegation of a bunch of spoilt multi-millionaires, or throwing a shoe at the television after the X-Factor results. I mean, fine, curse me with an illness, but don’t take away the pointless trivialities in my life. I’d been discussing this really with a friend, who quoted this section from Spinal tap:
David: Oh sorry...well this is thoroughly depressing. Nigel: It really puts perspective on things, though, doesn't it? David: Too much, there's too much fucking perspective now.
And the pyjama clash had been embarrassing. Like every other man in the World, a stay in hospital means one thing to the women in his life – new pyjamas.It doesn’t matter how serious the condition, it doesn’t matter if your face is covered in warts, if your hair has fallen out or that your teeth have all turned green – you simply cannot be seen in those old pyjamas you wore last time you were in a hospital bed three years earlier. New pyjamas are essential.
The pyjamas chosen for me by my dear wife served two purposes. Firstly, they covered my arse and looked clean. But most importantly, theywould give her hours of amusement whenever I wore them. She chose purple and blue checked bottoms which emboldened Owain to tell me I looked like a clown. That was the idea – she had had good service out of my Rupert the Bear set, and would have a good chuckle without fail whenever she caught sight of me wearing them. These new clown trousers, XXXL from Tesco would keep her in sniggers for years.
Both the black turd man and myself retired behind our discretion curtains like Madame Butterfly and a Geisha Girl. He too had received a pyjama delivery from a concerned companion. After changing we drew back the rails to present ourselves like reborn lava. Only to quickly redraw them again when we saw to our horror that we were both were the exact same purple check clown pyjama trousers.
And that is the unifying emotion in hospital wards. Nobody wants to be exposed at their most vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how ill you are, whether you are suffering silently or at death’s door – we all want some level of dignity. For the woman plopping and grunting in her commode to the grizzly middle aged men in matching pyjamas, shame can be felt as strongly as pain.