Saturday 7 March 2009

Nurse! The screens!

Back in 2001 I contracted bacterial pneumonia. This is what happened…

My husband wanted to go to Leeds to watch the football so we planned a weekend trip north. Fare enough, I thought, I fancy hitting the shops in the city centre.

The night before we left, in the small hours, I had a stomach upset. Rather annoying I thought, but I’ll get over it. And then I felt cold, so intensely cold that extra socks, jumper and another duvet would not stop the shivering – the chill was coming from my core. A sharp pain deepened under my shoulder blade. In the morning I thought, oh, I’ve got a bad back and I’m sick but I’ll get over it. We can’t miss the football match. At least I can rest at the posh hotel.

While he packed the car I tried to eat some cereal, but unsuccessfully: I could not hold my head up, I had to prop up my head with my hand, resting my elbow on the table. I lay down on the back seat for the 250-mile journey and then bedded down in linen sheets at the hotel to sleep it off. I had no idea I was desperately ill.

It was a different story the next morning when I could barely breath and began to cough up blood. My husband called a GP to the hotel – at great expense – and he said I must go to A&E. Now.

Inside the cubicle I overheard the doctor on the phone to a cardiac specialist. He thought I was having a heart attack. ‘Where did that come from?’ I thought, ‘I’m only 35.’ They gave me oxygen. A nurse tried to take blood from an artery deep in my wrist – ineffectively – I hit the ceiling. Then the doctor tried. They had to hold me down. Such was his expertise, I didn’t feel a thing. And yet the pain in my chest intensified. There was not enough oxygen in my body. The minutes were ticking down to kick off. Three o’clock came and went.

After long stretches of time, waiting for x-rays, a full body CT scan, and sitting next to the token Saturday night drunk, I wondered why I was in a wheel chair hooked up to a drip. Then I realised: I could not walk.

At 1am I was admitted to an enormous old-fashioned ward full of the cries of the elderly and a teenage delinquent who kept getting out of bed. The charge nurse, a stout man, was in control but I did not feel safe. I woke in the morning to the sight of the yellow fluid oozing from the catheter of the man in the bed next to mine. My chest felt as if all my ribs were broken, caving in, stabbing me. I cried out; tried to get someone’s attention. I screamed with the pain. Inexplicably, a nurse offered me ibruprofen but was mercifully over-ruled by the charge nurse who gave me some pink pills. The ward began to change shape: it lengthened, it widened. I saw kaleidoscopes of colour. I might have even giggled.

The consultant swooped round the ward followed by a posse of students. Pneumonia, he told me, and I was pushed up to a respiratory ward - all elderly patients, bedpans and phlegm pots. The rattle of the drugs trolley coming round was enough to make me sit up in expectation of more pain control. An antibiotic drip was administered every 12 hours, but my veins kept breaking and the liquid oozed under my flesh, so that I could not bend my swollen arms. My tongue was green, my skin was yellow and blotched with red, but the pain began to fade and, a nurse commented, my face was not so twisted in agony.

And then, the low point. The doctor pulled the screen round the bed and told me to lean over the table so he could extract the pint of pus that had collected in my pleural cavity. The local anaesthetic did not work the first time the needle went through my ribs. I tried to put myself in a different place while I listened to whatever had invaded my body sluicing into a bucket.
But then I turned a corner. It was someone’s birthday on the ward and eating my slice of cake was an incredibly new and beautiful sensation. At night, nurses like silent angels, continued to find unbroken veins where they could inject me with the antibiotics that were saving my life. I got better.

Released into a fresh, bright world after ten days of confinement I was shocked, weak and humbled. What strange and cathartic places hospitals are. Fifty years ago, I would have been dead. And I never did find out who won the football.

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