‘Patient’ – Part Two
Dippy-dippy-dation, my operation:
How many stitches did you have?
Children’s Counting Song
Six weeks after being taken to hospital during a severe attack of pancreatitis, I returned there to have my gall-bladder removed. This is of course a routine surgical procedure (routine for the surgeons, if not for the patients): indeed, a timely newspaper article had informed me that it was ‘the major surgical intervention most commonly carried out in Great Britain’. After several examinations I had been told that the operation would prevent a recurrence of attacks of pancreatitis like the one I had been through: a promise or invitation I was not disposed to reject. Let the reader think of what follows, therefore, as a kind of traveller’s tale: the account of a brief sojourn in a country which is never more than a few minutes or miles away from any of us.
So there I was, having been admitted ‘cold’ on this occasion, lying in bed with a full two and a half days to go through until the operation. In the bed alongside mine was a geriatric patient named Teddy. I did not know, and still do not know, why I was admitted so early: apparently that was the standard procedure. For Teddy there was no going back and forth, no crossing of frontiers, no letters or visitors from that remote kingdom which began just outside the hospital doors. His entire life was spent either on his bed or in a wheelchair. In the mornings the nurses unplugged his catheter and its receptacle; then they took him to the bathroom; then they propped him up in a chair, in his pyjamas and dressing-gown, with a blanket around his knees. They never failed to put his checked cloth cap on his head; occasionally, for a laugh, they put it on back to front. Thus rigged out, he sat through the day: sometimes sleeping, sometimes staring, sometimes shouting (if he managed to catch anyone’s eye) ‘Hoy! Hoy!’ or ‘How about it, then?’ When he opened his mouth three long green teeth showed. ‘Where’s me sandwiches?’ was another favourite cry. The young men in the ward responded to it by giving him bananas and biscuits from their private store; when they gave him a cigarette he promptly began to eat that, too.
Shortly after the cigarette-eating incident I was moved out of Teddy’s room into a specially made-up bed in the ‘high dependency’ section of the ward. This was directly in front of the table where the nurses sat and did their paperwork: it was separated from them only by a low parapet, so that they could see at a glance whether any of the patients needed their attention. Items of emergency and resuscitatory equipment were also kept there, affixed to the walls. At last, after hanging about for two days in a state of useless anticipation, enlivened only by repeated form-filling and examinations by every grade of medical staff and student in the hierarchy, I had been brought up into the front line. Or so I thought. Naturally I was depressed and anxious about what lay ahead, as well as impatient to get to it, to have the next night and morning over. Then I would go into a gulf, an abyss, a place of darkness which was unknowable by definition, and from which I would emerge like another of the bloodless, prostrate, unconscious, white-swathed creatures whom I had seen being wheeled into the ward from the operating theatre. How could one imagine oneself becoming like one of them? How could one not try to do so?
In the pre-dawn darkness, the grim, Aztec-like rituals of preparation began. I ate a breakfast of cornflakes and tea with milk, and bathed in water treated with a special iodoform mixture; my stomach was shaved; a suppository was administered; white, sacrificial garments were given to me – a brief nightgown with tapes that tied at the back, a chef’s hat, little cloth slippers. Just how anxious I was, in going through these procedures, became apparent to me when I noticed that I had begun to treat my body with a special solicitude, as if it already had some deep injury inflicted on it, whereas the truth was that nothing at all had happened, and I was quite as capable of walking out of the hospital as I had been of walking into it, two days before.
Instead I lay in bed in my white nightgown, trying without much success to read a book, or listening as if across a great space to the casual conversation of the nurses on the other side of the parapet, or to the monologue of one of the other patients in the section. The talker was an elderly, elongated man, with exceptionally large feet and hands, whose presence in that room was something of a mystery, since he was well enough to be discharged directly from it, on that very day, into the great world outside. Some of the things he said were rather mysterious too. For instance, he firmly told the huddled, silent heaps of bedclothes who were his only auditors, ‘As far as I’m concerned the Edgware Road is the road north out of London’ – as if any of us had been arguing that it ran south out of London. Some birds flying past the seventh-floor window produced another authoritative ruling from him: ‘They must be rooks, since crows don’t fly that high.’
The hours seemed to go by even more slowly than they had the previous night. Before a patient was taken down to the theatre, I had been told, a ‘pre-med’ was administered, to make him drowsy. Then darkness would supervene. When the staff-nurse finally approached me, well after mid-day, I sat up almost eagerly, to take my medicine like a man. Or rather, like a child. At that point there took place the only ‘mishap’ I have to report, as far as my own treatment is concerned. The nurse had not come to give me my ‘pre-med’: far from it. She had come to tell me that I would not, after all, be operated on that afternoon: indeed, the operation would not take place until the next Monday. (It was then Thursday.) They had miscalculated the time needed in the theatre by the two patients who had preceded me there.