How Times have Changed
Hearing that my friend had suffered a heart attack was quite a shock, she was only 30 something and lived a healthy life, and she was in intensive care. Remembering my time in intensive care when I was a little boy, I felt the cold wash of nausea and fear run through me leaving me feeling hollow and sad. My thoughts immediately turned to my friend, Clare, and her husband, Paul. I felt useless as I couldn’t do anything to help Clare, what I could do, was help Paul, reassure him and be there in what I knew was a hateful situation.
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Talking to Paul in the intensive care family room, I couldn’t quite get my head around the care and facilities Paul was describing, it was a world away from my experience and the memory I had carried around for the last 37 years. I took stock of the situation, looking around and seeing this incredible room filled with equipment, dedicated teams working together and an overwhelming sense of calm and compassion. This was a far cry from nonchalant staff, blood soaked sheets and rattling trolleys, which precariously supported huge noisy machines held together with brown parcel tape, connected to me with rusty and corroding crocodile clips.
A few weeks after visiting Clare and Paul, I went back to the hospital for my annual check-up, I knew that my heart was in need of some help however I had decided that after the experience I had had as a child that I wouldn’t ever undergo surgery again; I was quite seriously preparing to live out what ever my heart could manage and take it on the chin. The doctors explained that surgery was really required and with it I could quite probably live a full life, healthier than before. I went away to digest this although I was still pretty sure that it wasn’t going to happen. There was though a niggling voice that I eventually gave airtime and listened to. What I had seen in the intensive care unit surrounding my friend Clare had made a massive impression on me, it was so far from what I had experienced that my perception was changing.
In 1980 I went to a hospital in the midlands for surgery on my heart which turned out to shape my life in many ways. Without going into too much detail, my time there was more in line with time spent in a correctional facility than a children’s hospital. I was constantly surrounded by suffering, humiliation, death and pain. I spent hours, terrified, pretending to be asleep to avoid certain cruel members of staff, whilst planning my escape. When I came round after my operation, it was several days before I realised that I was alive. I didn’t recognise anyone and no one spoke to me by name. Believing you’re dead for 4 days when you’re 8 years old is quite something to get your scrambled head around only to discover you’re not.
Strapped down to the bed for some reason, I lay watching the blood fill the crater in my chest that had appeared as a result of the surgery, after 20 minutes it would over flow and I would lie for hours in blood soaked sheets, unable to speak or move. My focus became the Gents clock fixed to a beam on the ceiling opposite my bed. Trolleys probably intended for carrying a selection of scalpels or syringes groaned under the weight of machines balanced haphazardly on top, some plugged into the wall with two pin plugs and a biro pushed into the socket. Nurses and doctors would come with their faces covered, rarely speaking to me. Quite often they would put their notes down, covering my face. I didn’t feel like a person or a little boy anymore, I felt completely worthless, disregarded and pointless. They would inject me, pull a drain out, prod me, stich me and generally hurt me then go off and talk amongst themselves.
When my parents were allowed to visit, I couldn’t see their faces. I recognised their voices but they were both crying or terribly upset, I couldn’t ask why due to the pipes in my throat, so I assumed that they had received bad news from the people who had been hurting me, I was convinced that I wasn’t expected to get out of there alive.
Driving home after my consultation I pulled over in the New Forest and started walking, it was dark and cold but the air was fresh and I felt great clarity as I looked up into the clear winter’s night sky. I thought about Clare and Paul and how amazing the people were around her and thought that I should leave the past well behind and look forward, look at what was possible; give myself the chance of a life not over shadowed by the trauma and legacy of the past.
I was completely unprepared for the level of attention and kindness I experienced. From the lady calling me to make an appointment to the warmth and generosity of spirit of the team in the physiotherapy department who set about preparing me for my operation, I soon began to feel that I was in safe, caring hands. The good humour and encouragement from the bearded lads in the treadmill test to the concentration and skill of the team performing the various scans, ECGs and ultrasounds. All of this before I had even a date for my operation. I felt at ease to discuss my concerns and apprehension with Louisa, the lovely physiotherapist, who arranged for me to visit the intensive care unit and ward before I was admitted, so I could ask all the questions that were bothering me and see these places in the cold light of day without the drama of being there as a patient or someone visiting one.
Eventually the end of May was upon me and I checked myself into the ward on a Sunday evening. I spoke at length with the anaesthetist who had come in to the ward specifically to talk to me on his Sunday off. He was a wonderful man with great humility and understanding despite my endless questions and recapping. Left alone though after his eventual escape, I felt a sense of surrender, suddenly all the goodness and positivity that had led me here seemed a long way away, time had rewound by 38 years and I was the empty little boy again not even scared - just empty. I lay in my bed trying to think of a better place, happier times, when the chap opposite me asked me, “What did you do wrong to end up in here, we’re all in for a ten stretch”, spontaneously I laughed. He was a big strong man who had the persona of someone who had lived a full and entertaining life, within a few minutes I was talking openly with my other three roommates and enjoying their company I didn’t feel alone anymore.
The anaesthetist who I had been questioning at length came up to the ward to start the anaesthetic procedure, I said cheerio to the gents and slipped off to sleep. The next few days were a compendium of familiar faces, pain, alarms, kind voices, confusion, frustration, agony, surprise, thirst, pain and an overwhelming desire to take a shower. To be absolutely honest with myself I was surprised that I had made it through the operation, in the back of my mind I was more convinced than I realised that I wasn’t going to wake up again. But I had and suddenly I felt like the luckiest boy in town.
Several days of being back in the ward reunited with my gentlemen inmates and after relentlessly asking for a shower, one of the male nurses arrived at my bed with a roll of cling film. He had a plan to enable me to shower without removing any of the electronic monitoring kit I was attached to. He explained that he was going to wrap up the monitors, and that he was going to have to join me in the shower, I didn’t care, I just wanted to feel water on my skin and wash. Although this caused hours of amusement for the gents who found endless innuendo and laughter at me wrapped in cling film showering with an audience.
Without exception everyone I met who was part of this incredible care team were some of the kindest people I have ever encountered. They were professional beyond compare, funny; warm hearted, patient, and understanding. My experience could not have been further removed from my frankly horrible experience as a child. I was astounded by the dedication and care I received and have continued to receive in the past few months through follow up appointments and the occasional overnight stay when things were not going so well.
I am now well on the road to recovery, I wasn’t prepared for how much of a knock this surgery was going to give me, it did though give me much needed time to reflect and make positive changes in my life, all of which were made possible by this incredibly unique and special team of people.