A ‘lung doctor’ enters my room. Of course that’s not the title on his lanyard at conferences – I suspect he’s simply sized me up as a medical ignoramus and pitched his introduction accordingly. Hmm, I think, this guy’s good.
He is clear and kind as he outlines the situation. They don’t know what is causing my symptom. In case it’s something highly infectious I’ll be kept in isolation. The staff, who are lovely, are faintly terrified of me and my mystery pestilence. There is a laborious protocol for entering my den of contagion which I’m pretty sure they copied from Silkwood. The doctor knows I write about introversion and says the isolation will test my introvert skills.
He has no idea who he’s dealing with.
After two ECGs, a CT scan, and enough phlebotomy to give me track marks, the coming days will bring a further battery of tests. So named because, as the Duracell bunny taught us, they keep going.
So far nothing the doctor has said is too alarming and I decide to surrender to the days of solitude and uncertainty. But then a nurse reveals the truth of my plight with two words that terrify me to my core. INSTANT. COFFEE.
The nurses have taken to shouting at me through the window in the door as it’s such a rigmarole to enter my room. I want to scream, ‘I am not an animal!’ but obviously I’m too young to know that reference.
My husband fills my mother and sister in and they both text me. I don’t want to worry them and I struggle to be brave. But they need to know I’m facing an appalling coffee situation here.
I picture myself jamming with Simon & Garfunkel:
Hiding in my room
No wifi in my room
I touch no one and won’t touch that coffee
I have the pox
I don’t play the guitar so in my fantasy the chords are mostly just random finger placements but my singing is full of emotion. Simon gives me an approving wink. Not to sound gossipy but Garfunkel looks jealous.
Things here do not jibe with what I’ve seen on Grey’s Anatomy. Not once, on checking my vitals, has the nurse turned pale and called urgently for a consult. Not once has a hunky specialist arrived, dishevelled from making out in the on-call room. Worst of all, not once has someone mentioned a whipple or stabbed my throat with a ballpoint pen to open an airway. This is all basic medical procedure and I’m starting to wonder if these people know what they’re doing.
The nurse calls through the window that he’s coming in to make my bed. I stand aside and reveal the perfectly neat and folded-down sheets, the smoothed-out blankets. Something flashes in his eyes and I realise this is going on my chart under ‘additional peculiar symptoms’.
A sticker on the hospital TV reads: ‘Going home soon? Please watch the discharge channel.’ I guess by then you’ve already binged everything on the pus and oozing stations.
I hear a crash and rush to peer out my little window onto the ward, but the commotion is down a corridor, out of view. You have to take care with those hospital corners.
Why don’t they call in Dr House? Sure he’s difficult, but after an early misdiagnosis he’ll have this thing licked – and in under an hour. I hope he brings the guy from Dead Poets Society. Having him read me Byron would help for sure.
The doctor says tomorrow I will have a bronchoscopy, which involves a camera. I gather he is not suggesting a selfie for his Instagram and decide it’s best not to enquire too deeply about where this alleged camera will go or how it proposes to get there.
I watch as a piece of pale leather is placed before me. The little printout says ‘chicken’ but I recognise it as a Bata Ponytail I wore in Year 7.
Wondering about the bronchoscopy today. Is there any chance the procedure involves watching wild ponies cavort over North American plains through a sextant?
I’m on nil by mouth and realise with alarm I have become addicted to a quivering substance labeled ‘vanilla custard’. The texture evokes cellulite, the hue is redolent of the back of B2’s head, the flavour is distinctly yellow. I miss it so.
They wheel the entire bed with me in it to the procedure. During the long trek we clobber corners and assault door jambs and wallop random things in hallways and by the end I feel I’ve been through a pinball machine. The staff, delightful as usual, are unfazed by my mild whiplash and I conclude this is not even close to their high score.
As I wait for the anaesthetist I consider contacting Super Mario Kart. There is a golden opportunity here for bed transport simulation training.
My procedure is to be done under a form of sedation called ‘twilight’. You are not quite unconscious but happily you don’t remember anything. In rare cases you may be left with intermittent flashbacks of brooding teenage vampires.
I wake in recovery with a strikingly handsome young nurse studying a monitor beside me. Remembering my friend warned me I might talk nonsense (her comment *may* not have been limited to anaesthetic) I hear myself shamelessly flirting with him. Immediately I apologise and say it must be the sedation. But no, he says, that has worn off. It seems I have a lot of coughing to do.
I am returned to a new isolation ward. Here my tiny window looks out on a noticeboard at the end of a hallway and the anteroom window is opaque. I can see and hear no one. Do they even know I’m here? I’m not easily given to drama but FOR ALL THAT IS HOLY WHAT IS TO BECOME OF ME. Oh look, the nurse has written a sweet welcome message with a smiley face on the whiteboard.
The temperature in my room is subarctic as I sit alone and wait for the doctor to bring news. I go and peep out the little window onto the corridor, repeatedly looking one way then the other, as this will hasten his arrival. It does not. Instead I shiver and watch the polar bears lumber past.
I am dressed and packed and ready for home in case the doctor finds me free of the feared contagion. But, so as not to bet against myself, I have also completed tomorrow’s meal preferences and selected ‘vanilla custard’ at every option. I return to my chair, knowing whatever happens now, I’m covered.
The doctor sits on my bed. He usually stands. He describes what they observed in the bronchoscopy and it’s a little TMI to be honest. They still don’t know what is causing my symptom. He explains the possibilities and their treatment options and risks. It’s a whopping calamitous miasma of questions and the medical community knows fuck-all. I may be paraphrasing. I feel lightheaded at all the corporeal details and my brain starts playing Weapon of Choice and suddenly all I can think about is Christopher Walken’s dancing.
I believe that by giving us skin, nature makes a clear statement: WRONG WAY GO BACK. If she wanted us snooping at our interior physical landscapes she would have made it all a lot cuter. To prove my point I have lost consciousness in a routine medical exam, passed out reading an anatomical diagram, and entered a light coma when someone made excessive use of words like ‘capillary’. I bow down to people who willingly choose medicine, and not only because they say gross things and I start to faint.
They are waiting on one key result before sending me home, none the wiser and with heroin-addict arms. The hours pass. Lunch arrives and I collect it from the little anteroom. I place it on the bed table and draw it to my chair. I open the container of potato and leek soup which, bafflingly, is neither white nor even green, but brown. I spread the little paper serviette onto my lap. I may be a giant baby, but I am still a lady.
The nurse appears and announces I don’t have the dreaded pestilence. On one hand this is great news – I can leave the tundra and return home. On the other I am left with an upsetting symptom and no answers.
But then it occurs to me: all of life is uncertainty. We seek reassurance but that’s phoney, we never know how anything will go. Shocks come out of nowhere (global pandemic, anyone?). This is simply one extra piece of randomness.
I take a breath, pick up the bags that have lain poised for hours, and approach the door. Then suddenly I stop, because this is a hospital and it will be many hours before the paperwork is complete. Plus, I still haven’t watched everything on the discharge channel.
Well, things took quite a turn from here. You can now read Postcards From The Ward – Part 2. WARNING: mild gore alert.
Photo by Louis Reed.
With thanks to the late and wonderful Carrie Fisher for inspiring this story’s title.