“What are you doing?!”, the nurse snaps at the man in the bed opposite mine.
The man is a recalcitrant patient. He will not take his medicine as he does not like the taste. There is something wrong with his bowels, his insides, and he is now shitting on the floor. He is about to get back into his bed, and the nurse says, sternly, “Stay where you are. I’m not cleaning up the bed as well”, and he stays where he is. She calls for a cleaner, and then attends, briefly, to the other patients in the room, of which I am one of four.
“All the good jobs”, I say to her.
“I’ve long ago lost my gag reflex”, she replies, removing my antibiotic drip and flushing the catheter in my vein.
Some hours later I move from my bed, walk to the toilet, open the door, close it again, and say to the same nurse, “The toilet’s clogged with what looks to be a large nappy, and there’s piss all over the floor”.
“Thanks, Ross”, she replies, and then mutters something under her breath as she goes to call for a cleaner. Again.
All the good jobs.
A day later I am moved to a bed in the respitory ward, where I should have been put upon admission, but there was no room available. No one here is shitting on the floor.
There is an elderly French man opposite, Gabriel, who flirts shamelessly, but not crassly or in an offensive manner, with all the female nurses and staff. His left side is stiff and immobile, and he walks with a cane, a result of having had five strokes some years back. His breathing is fucked up, but slowly getting better, and he is in good spirits, walking about, chatting with all and sundry.
“What are you thinking, Ross?”, he asks me one day, catching me in a faraway moment.
“I’m thinking of veal tortellini with mushrooms and pancetta in a cream sauce with lots of parmesan cheese”, I reply, “And a glass of wine.”
He chuckles at this, and says, “Soon, my friend. Soon.”
“Soon” would be another four weeks away.
A couple days later there is a new admission to the ward, a man of Slavic descent who does not speak a word of English, and who looks like one of the Super Mario Brothers, right down to the peaked cap which never leaves his head, his physique, and moustache. He is placed in the bed next to Gabriel.
That he cannot speak a word of English does not stop him from speaking, which he does. Constantly. Loudly. Day and night. In a deep, guttural tone of voice. To imaginary friends, and perhaps imaginary foes, from another time, from another place, back home, the old country, the new country, it is a stream of consciousness conversation that has no beginning and no end, and it wears thin with the other three of us in the ward after the second night of it.
We cannot sleep. Not a wink. And nor does he. He just keeps talking.
“Why are you speaking?!”, says Gabriel a number of times, exasperated, tired, pissed off, at wit’s end, as are we all. “Shut up! Shut up! No one can understand you! Shut up!”
“Oh, for FUCK’S SAKE!”, I also snap, “Will you shut the FUCK UP! … Jesus Christ …”
The man is sick. Obviously. Dementia? Possibly. Yet we too are sick, and patience and understanding elude us. At this point in proceedings, the milk of our human kindness has not so much curdled as turned to mouldy yoghurt.
On the third night, or perhaps it was the fourth, he leaves his bed and moves through the ward, going from bed to bed, his “conversation” never flagging, not for a moment. He sits in every chair, talking and talking and talking, and two nurses come into the ward, trying to calm him, trying to get him to go back to his bed, trying to Shut. Him. Up …
“You can’t be here. You have to go back to your own bed. Do you understand?”, says one. They try taking him by the shoulders and leading him back, but he resists, twisting away from their grasp, and then scuttling over to the chair beside my bed. The two nurses follow and are clearly losing their patience, repeating their exhortations for him to get back to his bed, again and again, in ever sterner, ever harsher tones.
There he sits, rabbiting away about God only knows what, and I snap at him, “Oi! You! Chuckles! Get back in your fucking box, boy! PISS OFF! Leave us all the fuck alone, for Chrissakes!”
My calling him “Chuckles” makes one of the nurses snort loudly and begin to giggle. Eventually, they get him back to his own bed. Eventually.
I crave a cigarette. To relax me. I have not had one for the whole week I’ve been here. There are cigarettes in my coat pocket, but to smoke one, I would have to drag myself downstairs, outside and across the road from the hospital entrance, and it is 1.00am in the morning and bitterly cold out. I take a drink of water, the craving passes, and at last I begin to doze, the mutterings of Our Super Mental Mario Brother in Bed No.34 still burbling away in the background.
Finally, at long last, and to the relief of us all, Chuckles wears himself out, and sleeps two whole days and two whole nights, but not before he pees on a nurse who is struggling to change his diaper at 3.00am one morning. “OH!”, she squeals in surprise, “He’s WEEING on me!”, and she flees the room for assistance. The nurse in charge comes in, and manages to finish the job, saying, in the manner of a father to a small child, “Now, now, it is not polite to have no pants in public. Come now, here we go … “, and so on.
Shit and piss, pus and vomit, and God only knows what else. Every day. Every night. A working life.
I ask a nurse, “You get much abuse in this job?”, and she replies, wearily, “Oh, yes. A lot”, as if it were the most natural and normal thing in the world, just another job requirement, just another day in the life …
“Somebody spoke and I went into a dream”
… Gabriel has since been discharged, his bed now occupied by a woman, Margaret. Chuckles, now quiet and much subdued after his forty-eight hour rest, is discharged a couple days later, and his bed assigned to a very large woman with arms like baby fur seals and legs which resemble fat stacks of oversize doughnuts. That her name is also Margaret she takes as an unspoken, but perfectly obvious invitation to make a new friend, and hence, Margaret No.1 finds herself regaled at length over the next few days with the life, trials and tribulations of Margaret No.2, not a word of which I can recall, beyond something to do with cats …
… Margaret No.2 has rung her buzzer to summon a nurse. Margaret No.2 would like her bedhead adjusted. When her needs are not immediately attended to as a matter of grave urgency, she mutters grumpily “Ya wouldn’t wanna be dyin’ in this place, would ya?”
Why, it takes almost ten or fifteen whole minutes before someone can respond to her bidding …
… And during mealtime one evening, Margaret No.1 finds a black hair on a slice of bread. The bread is packaged in cellophane and is supplied to the hospital from an external source. She informs one of the attendants. And then another. And another. Pretty much anyone in a uniform within earshot is informed of this gross dereliction of care over the next several days, as is every member of her family who visit during this time, of which there seem to be about a dozen, half of whom are grandchildren. This has become a tale for the ages, it would seem, to be passed from generation to generation until it becomes the stuff of folkloric legend. Or perhaps a feature film …
“This is not my beautiful life. How did I get here?”
I make an appointment with my GP to deal with a backache that will not quit and is gradually getting worse. To the point where I can barely walk ten paces without panting like a dog and needing to sit or lean on something for five or ten minutes before I can continue. The GP presses her stethoscope to my chest, to my back, and leaves the room briefly. On returning she says, “I can’t hear anything on your left side. Nothing at all. We’ve rung an ambulance and you’re going to the hospital”, to which I respond, “That’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it?”, having never been to a hospital before, not as a patient. Hospitals are for the aged, the dying, the desperately ill. I am none of those.
The ambulance arrives. Quickly. Two paramedics, a male and a female. A stretcher. They put something on my finger, and do a few other things, I know not what or why. One asks, “Can you get on the stretcher? We’ll take you down now”, and I say, “I can walk out”, and the woman says, “No, you’re not. Your oxygen levels are very low”, so I get on the stretcher, and they take me down the lift and out to the ambulance. The woman rides in back with me, and places an oxygen mask on my face.
I look around the interior of the ambulance and think, “I’ve seen this in movies. This looks about right.”
My thought processes, at this point, would appear to be a little arse-up.
We arrive at the hospital, and what happens happens, little of which I can recall. X-rays are involved, for some time later I find myself facing two doctors, one male and one female, and they talk to me about what they’ve found, not found, and suspect to find.
“We can’t see anything on your left side”, says one, “This white area? It should be black”, or vice-versa. Known truths, symptoms, causes and consequences. The word “emphysema” makes an appearance. My left lung, they tell me, is swimming in fluid, in pus, and it will have to be drained. They will then have to analyse this pus, they tell me, to find out what it is, what it comprises, but they have a strong suspicion, at this point, there is, in fact, the distinct … possibility, indications, but we will have to wait to be sure, of lung cancer.
But we will have to wait to be sure.
The woman hands me a brochure, saying, “We know this is a lot to unload on you at this time, first off, but we … and this and that, so on and so forth … “ and she goes on like that for a time …
The first episode of “Breaking Bad”, Walter White was told he had lung cancer.
That is the first thing that comes into my mind.
“It’s only a flesh wound”
The next day I am taken down to a room cluttered with machines. Machines that go “ping”. Machines that don’t. Machines with other machines connected to them. Machines with pipes. With hoses. Machines that measure, that count. Machines with dials. Very important machines.
Where do they all come from, I wonder. Who makes all of this?
There are two doctors, and three nurses. I am to be fitted with a tube. I am to be drained.
I lean across a metal bench, my arms stretched out in front of me, as instructed. A nurse is at front, and she places her hand on my arm, a gesture of reassurance perhaps. That nothing horrible, or too horrible is about to take place. A liquid, a local anaesthetic, is applied to my left side and I flinch slightly from the chill of it. Nothing horrible happens.
“Stay very still, Ross”, someone says from behind me.
I stay very still.
Something then tears into my flesh, grinding through sinew, muscle and fat, a thick hot plastic needle pushes through gristle, cartilage, and, staying very still, I YELL out in PAIN, I yell “Shit!” and “Fuck me dead!”, several times, and several times more, and the nurse pats my arm and says, “You’re doing well, Ross. It won’t be much longer”, and then there’s another thrust, and I yell out again, saying much the same as before, and someone says from behind me, “Just a little more”, and then there’s another thrust, and another yell from me, and someone says, “Okay. That’s it”, and I say, “Jesus Christ … “, and I say it again, and I say it several times more, and the nurse tells me I’ve done very well, and I take “done very well” to mean not flying off the bench-top and into the fucking ceiling.
My body now comes with an attachment, an accessory.
The tube from my side feeds into what looks like a large, hollow, transparent Lego block, and this sits on a small trolley, and it is these things that shall be my constant companions for the next three weeks, the draining of pus from my lung cavity being a somewhat slower process than I had first thought – “Yeah mate, we’ve sucked all that out, sewed you up, whacked a bandage on it and you’re right to go”.
… Pills three or four times a day. “Observations” every three or four hours. An antibiotic drip to be replaced. Painkillers. A jab here, a jab there. X-rays. Scans. Ultrasound. Questions. A doctor looks at the amount of pus that has thus far been collected and remarks, “That’s quite a lot. I’ve only seen that much once before.” People go about their work, their routine. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is missed. Everyone has something to do. They do it without complaint. They are pleasant and polite and friendly. Unfailingly so. With tube fitted, I am asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would rate your pain levels?”, and the first time, I reply, “I don’t know what pain on a scale of 10 would feel like. Being skinned alive while having your small intestine pulled out your left nostril with a rusty hook might manage it … ”, the response to which is, “That’s a very … colourful … image, Ross”. I cannot remember anyone’s name, but they all know and remember mine, even if they’ve only seen me once or twice. Clipboards are carried, boxes are ticked, notes are taken, care is administered, and here comes someone else …
I see and experience nothing here that would make the “news”. No one is giving birth in a toilet. No one is dying in a corridor, bleeding from their eyes. There are no doctors snorting cocaine in the supplies room. No drugged to the eyeball nurses trying to set fire to the joint. There is nothing worth writing a letter of complaint about to the editor of a tabloid or a member of government demanding something be done about something disgraceful, something appalling, something we should all be ashamed of, we taxpayers.
… I’m up early each morning, maybe 5 or 5.30 am, and as soon as it hits 6.00am, I’m downstairs to the newsagent on the first floor, my tube and pus-bucket in tow, scouring the shelves for something decent to read, picking up the day’s newspapers. I’m even buying “The Courier-Mail”, but I draw the line at “The Australian”. I may be ill, but I’m not deranged. Coffee shop opens at 6.30, closes at 6.00 pm. I’m there four times a day. “On the house, love”, says the woman serving one morning, “We’ll be able to open another shop at this rate” …
One thing …
I don’t have cancer.
“The Power of Christ compels you!”
“We’re not getting all the fluid, Ross”, a doctor tells me. “There’s still a residue of pus on the bottom of your lung, and the lung itself is stuck to the cavity wall. We have to peel that off.” … Scraping bacon from a skillet … “So we’ve pencilled you in for an operation on Monday morning.”
“Right”, I say, but I am thinking, “People die during operations. I should’ve cleaned the fucking flat”, that is the first thing that comes into my mind, “I should’ve cleaned the fucking flat.”
Last time I saw, the lounge room looked like the Gaza Strip.
The day before the operation, I am told what exactly will be done, how and why, and I am asked if I understand all of this, which I do. I am then told a grim list of all the things that could possibly go wrong, from the minor horrors of infection through to the end of days, the popping of clogs, the mortal coil shuffle, the pearly-gate pimp-roll, the ceasing to be. I am asked to sign something and I do. In the unexpected event of my demise, this will absolve whoever is responsible of all blame.
Nice work if you can get it.
On the day, I am taken from my bed and wheeled through corridor after corridor, some familiar, some not, down an elevator, more corridors, another elevator, and still more corridors and I ask of the attendant, “Are we going to the morgue?”. Memories of the 1978 Michael Crichton film “Coma” come to mind, its tagline, “Imagine your life hangs by a thread. Imagine your body hangs by a wire. Imagine you’re not imagining.”
I am finally wheeled into a smallish room that is crowded with units of shelves, the shelves are laden with things, medical things, purpose unknown. The height of the shelving on one unit is out of whack with the units either side of it, and I find this irritates my sense of aesthetics, of form, of order. “They should all be the same”, I think, “Didn’t anybody notice?”
Two attendants “prep” me for the Drilling Of The Flesh that will shortly commence. Something is stuck into my wrist. I am getting used to this. “Ouch” is my only reaction. Tubes.
From here to the operating theatre, a large room, and to my surprise, there are many people in it. I am lifted on to the operating table. Murmurs surround me. Someone speaks, about what I do not recall. Things are done. In preparation.
I look around the room again and I say, “There’s a lot of people in here. Is this a big thing?”, and if an answer were forthcoming, I did not hear it for I did not so much as drift off to unconsciousness from the anaesthetic I was given, as I did plummet.
“Please release me”
With consciousness, two things …
First thing. I have grown more tubes. One is attached to a large bag of stuff, one to a small. The tube in my side is still there, but it is now draining a watery fluid tinged red with blood.
Second thing. Wasps have set up house under my skin and have declared war on my nerve endings. Or maybe it’s just a manoeuvre.
A nurse welcomes me back to the land of the living, and tells me what the new bags are for. The large one is something, and the small one is morphine. To kill the pain (YES!), press this button (OKAY!), dosages are measured and restricted (FUCK YOU PEOPLE!), so you can press the button only so many times (HOW MANY!?!) before it clams up …
A couple joints, some aspirin and a beer would’ve done the same trick. Maybe two beers.
Next day, two nurses arrive, smiling, and announce they are taking me for a “walk”. They will be managing my tubes and attachments, of which I now have more than a vacuum cleaner. They are taking me for a walk because I have, during my time here, become known for wandering off on a regular basis, upstairs and down, outside and in, a lone, lost soul in the corridors, rattling his tube and trolley like a spirit possessed, a wan and ethereal figure in blue drifting through these cold and friendless halls of the ill, the sick, the damaged and the dying.
And people with tubes stuck in their ribs.
“Can we go downstairs?”, I ask.
“Not while you’re hooked up to the morphine. You have to stay on the floor”, is the reply.
My plan to escape with a small bag of drugs and begin a vast global drug empire is foiled.
On the morning of my 21st day “inside”, a doctor tells me, “The x-rays look good. Everything went well. There’ll be some tissue scarring, but that’s to be expected. Tomorrow, we’ll remove the tube, and you can go home in the afternoon.”
“The afternoon? That’s quick.”
“Once the tube is out, there’s no reason for you to stay”, he says.
“Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.”
One week later, I am back at “work”. The office. The corporate concern. I am sifting through roughly two hundred emails which have arrived during my absence, over three quarters of which have nothing to do with me. There are small piles of paperwork scattered across my desk. These piles represent my “work”. It’s bullshit. All of it. It pays the rent.
Next day, a communication arrives flagged with a red exclamation mark, denoting an “urgency” of some kind. “Ross”, it reads “I know you’ve only just got back, but would you be able to break down these figures for a blah-blah meeting at blah-blah o’clock that blah and blah and blah and blah … Even the roughest estimate will do. Thanks!”
The “roughest estimate”. In other words, a guess.
An “urgent” guess.
Who dies if you don’t get these stats in time? I wonder. I make something up. I send it off. It will be wrong. I don’t care.
You can swivel on your melodramatically “urgent” red exclamation marks.
I am asked questions by email from people who sit two desks away. “Communication” and “teamwork” are theoretical concepts to be found only in “training seminars” or staff meetings, but never to be utilised in practice. Camaraderie is a cold “How are you?” and a “Much better, thanks” and a hasty exit before a conversation can take place. The office is enveloped in a gloom of silence, broken only by a few occasional overheard mutterings in the distance.
Nothing seems real. Nothing here matters. Nothing that is done will live beyond the doing of it, and the doing of it will achieve nothing for nobody nowhere. Not. A. Single. Fucking. Thing.
I leave the office …
“Do you need a menu?”
“No, thanks. I’ll have the veal tortellini. And a glass of the Riesling.”
“Anywhere you like, sir.”
I watch people walk along the footpath outside the café. I lean back in my chair. No pain. Breathe. In. Out. Relax. I should do this more often. Be a little kinder to myself.
Food arrives. It’s good. Lots of parmesan.
I am going to stay here a while longer.
I order another glass of wine.
I am going to have a long lunch.
Anyone who has a problem with that when I eventually get back, I’ll shove a tube between their fucking ribs.