Tuesday, 21 October 2014

64. Released from the ward


From a freely provided London hospital ward to a rented Paris apartment in the space of nine hours.

Talking of extremes.

I looked as confident as I could when the doctor asked how I was feeling. Fine! I'm fine! Look at me, smiling, sitting up! No more fevers! Well, that last bit was true, and it was the most important bit. The ongoing weakness, I still tell myself, is simply because I've been ill and incapacitated for almost two weeks now. Limbs like over-stretched rubber: it will get better. (Won't it?)

In my naivety, I thought that having been re-admitted to hospital with more fevers on Thursday night, they'd let me go on Friday once my temperature had come back down. No such luck. "IV antibiotics until Sunday," the doctor decreed.

It slowly dawned on me that this meant staying in hospital for three nights.

Three nights!! I'm breaking records here. I am not a seasoned traveller in NHS land. A day tripper, yes. Seeing the sights. Scanning rooms, waiting rooms, bad-news-rooms, wig rooms. Only ever pitching my tent up twice. One night for the lumpectomy, two nights for the mastectomy. Home before I have absorbed the culture, learned the language, become institutionalised.

Have I learned to speak In-Patient now? Just a bit perhaps, but with a strong Nurse accent. As soon as I stopped feeling so ill, I was back to fetching drinks and towels for my fellow patients, ignoring the Staff Only signs on the linen cupboard and the kitchen door. Staff? That's me, surely.

By Sunday, the feeling of being one-of-many-patients-on-a-conveyor-belt was melting away.

Several nurses had learnt how to pronounce my name and were beginning to figure out parts of my story. As usual, the student nurses got there first. You're a nurse??! they asked, settling in for the details. Perhaps they have more time; I notice how they can spend half an hour talking to a patient without getting called away. Less of a to-do list in their heads maybe, or simply the energy to pursue their interest in patients, having seen hundreds rather than thousands.

Less expected was the way in which I was also beginning to figure out part of theirs. I liked that. Sometimes it almost moved me to tears (in my weak and vulnerable state), but I didn't mind.

Like the phlebotomist who came to take my blood and told me how her husband had died on this ward, only two years ago.

Or the young nurse whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, mirroring my own teenagers' experience (hopefully that will include me being well in five years' time, as her mother now is). I was interested to hear about her inside experience as a young daughter.

Most moving was meeting the doctor who had assessed me in A&E on Thursday night. I bumped into her wandering the corridors on Saturday. "How are you now?" she asked, and I wish I hadn't told her, because it turned out that she was let off being a doctor for a while so she could be here with her extremely ill father. Oh no. We talked briefly about how hard it is to be a professional-turned-relative. On your own ward, no less. I hugged her, hoping they give her father a side room. Can't imagine sitting at the bedside as an (undoubtedly distressed) daughter, with your very own patients looking at you from the other beds.

Then there were the other patients.

I could start writing a book about them. Don't worry, I won't. But I am struck yet again how different we all are, how our life stories (and, undoubtedly, our characters) affect our experience of cancer, how we all have such different coping strategies.

Gladys* was still there, her wig yo-yoing between her head and her locker.

"I don't think about it," she said. "I try to ignore it. I don't talk about it."

Her ears pricked up briefly when one of the nurses asked where I had worked, and I said "Trinity Hospice". 

"They told me last week that I should have a look around a hospice," she said. "That gave me such a shock. I try not to think about it. Perhaps I should."

Perhaps she should. I was so tempted to go and sit on her bed and talk to her about it all, and had to make a concerted effort not to. They were becoming too blurred, the boundaries between me being a fellow patient and me being a nurse.

Dorothy* in the bed opposite, in her late seventies, was here for her third cycle of chemotherapy. Not for her the in-and-out-of-the-VIP-lounge treatment. Each bag of her VIP took 24 hours, and she had five of them. She sat through it all, patiently and quietly, from before I arrived until after I left.

I shared my mince pies with her, bought at 8.30pm from the M&S shop downstairs. It was an emergency. I have never eaten mince pies before December, and neither had she, but when you are feeling ill with your taste buds laughing at ordinary food, who cares. There was nothing in the shop I fancied more. We held them up, Happy Christmas, giggling like naughty school girls having a midnight feast. (It felt a bit like that. New room mate at boarding school.)

I felt sorry for Wendy* in the bed next to me, who was so very miserable. She had more to be miserable about than all of us put together, it seemed (including being in pain and discomfort, and being forbidden to drink even a tiny sip of water, let alone eat mince pies). I could escape after four days of constant moaning, I am soooo fed up. Who could blame her? No escape for her. Or for her daughter.

"She's moved back in with me," Wendy explained as she sat down in my bed. "We get on each other's nerves. We just shout at each other. It's because we are both so worried. And I'm not used to her telling me what to do."

I'd heard the shouting. I just wish that instead of Wendy telling me, they could sit down and tell each other how worried they are.

By the weekend, I'd probably bored all the staff with my mission to get to Paris on Monday.

It looked precarious. I'd spiked another temperature on Friday night. (I blame the late night M&S shopping, overdoing it.) Three times in a week, that's a worry, the doctor explained. Usually, the first temperature settles with antibiotics and that is that, so why do my fevers keep coming back? A whole battery of tests to try (in vain) to find the source of the infection.

But they took my mission on board. When they changed the antibiotics from a drip to tablets on Sunday evening, I should have stayed in another 24 hours, just in case. But the doctor was happy to release me om Monday morning. "Because you are sensible," she said. Hurray.

Just enough time to go home and pack. Shirts, pants, book, hospital letters, stack of pills. thermometer. We boarded the Eurostar at lunchtime. The first thing we asked, on arrival at the apartment, was Où est l'hospitâl?

So here I am. Still fever-free, resting whilst my husband and daughters have gone off to search for the Mona Lisa**. My older daughter turns 15 today. Don't want to miss her special day.

And here's a happy thought: if I do end up in a French hospital, the chocolat chaud will be first class.

*Not their real names
**They didn't find her. Turns out the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays.

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