Perhaps I should precede this essay with the sort of solemn warnings we get on television that what we are about to see might shock or worry viewers. If there be such among the readers I apologise in advance. I simply needed to get this experience out of my mind.
Earlier in August I entered my 84thyear, and wondered again, as you do at this age, how long I had left. I don’t have a bucket list, neither my wife nor I will travel overseas again, and I am more or less content with what I currently do, write books, maintain my website and attend to medical visitations of several kinds. And by and large my battle against cancer was going well, until this month. I log the ordinary indicators of my health on a daily basis, and could see that my weight was slipping rather than increasing. That was not good, and I could see no obvious reason for the change. Abdominal pain, a curse now for the past two years, was increasing. I’ve had a kidney stone, and that was gruesome. This pain was not quite as severe, but finally unpleasant enough for me to agree that I should go to hospital where some real pain relief could be provided. The doctors there would be able to find out what was wrong.
I arrived into the Emergency Department around 10 pm and at about midnight was having a CT Scan. The diagnosis was that I had a ‘ureteric stone’, and something would be done about it in the morning. I was then transferred to a ward, and did my best to sleep. Oh, yes, I did get some real pain relief. What is a uretric stone, you ask. Well, it’s a kidney stone that has became stuck somewhere else, in my case in one of the ureters, the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. About nine in the morning I had an exchange with the anaesthetic specialist, who was informative and had a group of students with him. I was assured that this was a routine procedure. What was it? Well, a tube would be placed through a catheter that would hold the stone in place and allow fluids to flow. That tube is called a stent. A few weeks later, when everything had settled down, another stent would be placed in the same position, and the stents and the stone exploded by sound waves. It didn’t sound highly attractive. ‘Lithotripsy’ is the technical term for the final procedure, and it didn’t sound an attractive term either.
What happened after that is somewhat blurred in my memory. I do remember the anaesthetist placing a mask over my face and asking me to take in oxygen, then another mask and an immediate total blackout on my part. When the procedure was over I was placed in Recovery, about which I remember very little, other than being asked my name and date of birth, questions that I answered perhaps several dozen times over the next three days. At length I returned to the ward, was greeted by my three companions, and tried to sleep, that which ‘knits up the ravelled sleave of care’. Yes, I studied Macbeth for the Leaving in 1953. For the next three days I was desperately underslept, and indeed even now, two weeks after the event, I am still short of sleep.
The reasons are straightforward. Every four hours my blood pressure was tested. That’s six times in every 24 hours. Then I had an intravenous antibiotic, also every four hours, but not the same four hours. Then my bladder woke me every couple of hours. There were three meals and three breaks for tea. Each of the three shifts began with a public discussion of where patient Donald was in the scheme of things. My three companions had similar interruptions. In no sense am I critical. The doctors and nurses were exemplary, caring and professional. But my cancer and the chemotherapy already rob me of energy, and sleep alone helps you to cope. I just couldn’t get enough of it.
The general anaesthetic I was given also seemed to destroy my sense of time. It seemed that I had been there for days and days. In fact, when I told my daughter this she pointed out that I had only been in the hospital for less than a day. I kept closing my eyes to grab whatever sleep was about. Each time I did this it was as though another day had passed. All four of us in the ward wanted to go home. I had to wait until the doctors were satisfied that my bladder function was okay. When the catheter was removed (ouch!) would my system remember what used to happen before the catheter and the dreaded bag? Fortunately, it did, and I received applause from the nurse for that small victory. Finally I was pronounced fit for duty, and told I could go home that day, which turned out to be in mid afternoon. I went at once to bed, and spent the next two days just sleeping.
Now I wait for Phase Two, the second stent and the ultrasonic explosion. Apparently this is much less of an ordeal. I hope so.
I’ve not had quite such a hospital experience in the past, or if I have had one, I’ve forgotten all about it. I learned through it that old men have much less resilience than younger men. I learned, with real gratitude, that today’s medical professionals are on top of their jobs. I learned that hospital beds are precious, for the hospital wanted me out of mine as much as I wanted to go home. I learned about shared adversity. One of my companions was a skier with a broken leg, and his first experiment on crutches was applauded by the rest of us. We’d never met before, and are unlikely to meet again, but for three days we shared all the excitement and pain of serious illness. I learned, again, that we have a decent health-care system
And all that explains why there was no essay last week. My thanks to those who sent get-well messages or were simply worried about what had happened to me. I’m still in the land of the living, and hope to remain there for some considerable time to come.
Finally, something on the funny side.
How do I follow the science? Is there a consumer’s guide to the right science to follow?