I suddenly found myself with no fixed abode. My tenants had moved into my London flat and it was pointless renting something in Bath straight away because I was spending the next 8 weeks at my parents’ house post surgery. But the last few months had been so stressful – the sleepless nights, the decorating disasters, the endless lists of things to do – that when it all just stopped, I felt amazingly carefree. The last of my belongings were packed into my car Gigi (aka The Golden Goddess) and I was looking forward to spending time with old friends and having nothing else whatsoever to do. My Kiwi friends had planned a brilliant leaving party, combined with an equally fantastic Rugby World Cup Final (hurrah for the All Blacks!), and so I was not only able to say a huge farewell to them but also see a lot of my other friends. My last three nights were spent with my Godmother and family, a perfect ending to my time in London.
My Godmother also took me into hospital for my 7am check-in a few days later. There were two other people waiting for surgery and just my luck, I was third on the list... 6 hours to wait, nil by mouth! By 1pm I was a bit giddy from lack of food and water but prepped and ready to go, and had been visited by my surgeon, numerous nurses and finally the anaesthesiologist. I asked him if I was eligible for a spinal block and local anaesthetic instead of a full general, which means you are numbed from the waist down and heavily sedated rather than being unconscious, and results in a much speedier recovery and less side effects. The downside is you are only sedated so it is still possible to feel sensation and pressure as they work on you, plus you might be able to hear certain things during surgery. The anaesthesiologist looked at me with horror and said, “Believe me, you do not want to hear this operation, I’m putting you out!”. And when I saw the trays of tools laid out in the operating theatre before I went in, I am definitely glad I didn’t have a choice. There were drills, electric saws, hammers, chisels, honestly it looked more like my father’s workshop than an operating theatre.
There must be a checklist for people training to be anaesthesiologists; easy on the eye, great at small talk and hilariously funny. Maybe it’s because they are the last ones you see before you fall asleep, they want you to be left with nice thoughts and nice images. I’ve been lucky, every single time I have had surgery I’ve gone to sleep laughing, and had the most brilliant dreams. My 3 anaesthesiologists this time did not disappoint either. One blonde and blue-eyed irishman, one dark and blue-eyed englishman and one bearded redheaded green-eyed Welshman. I kid you not, it was the best start to a joke ever! And I swooned. Maybe it was the injection to relax me or the oxygen, but I found myself giggling and twirling my hair as if I was on a blind date or something... ridiculous behaviour. Suddenly one of their beepers went off and he looked at the pager, turned a bit white and ran out of the room. The other two just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, he’s on call for emergencies. He’ll be back in minute, unless they peg it.” Oh joy, gallows humour! He did come back 5 minutes later, apologised and carried on prepping the equipment. The welsh chap told me a joke, while the englishman asked me what my favourite tipple was. I laughed, said Pinot Noir, and that was the last thing I remember.
Just under 4 hours later, I woke up. My surgeon came over, pinched my toe and grinned. He was over the moon because the surgery had been one of his best he said (good to hear), the titanium implants had fit perfectly almost first time round, so there was no lengthy process of cutting and shaping my thigh bone over and over again, the plastic knee cap was also a great fit and he could go home early because it all went rather swimmingly. Spiffing! I was wheeled out of recovery and along to the ward, where I just had time to drowsily look around at my neighbours – who all gave a little wave hello – before I passed out from the effects of the morphine. I woke again a few hours later and was introduced to my fellow patients; Trudy, Irene, Susan, Pat and Nicolette, five wondrous women who made my stay in hospital an absolute joy.
Trudy, Irene and Susan were in their 60’s, Pat was 85, and they all had had full knee replacements. Nicolette was the odd one out, having had some mystery surgery that seemed to have no effect whatsoever on her spirits or mobility. She was about 75, incredibly elegant and was a Chelsea aristocrat. She was the most brilliant name-dropper I’ve ever known and told the most outrageous stories. She had an opinion on everything and everyone, was very demanding of the nurses but also incredibly kind, taking it upon herself to be our legs for the next 5 days. She bustled around the ward in a floor-length purple velvet dressing gown, endlessly asking for cups of tea and biscuits for us, filling ice packs, making sure we did our exercises, filling our water jugs and generally being a good stick! She was also the person responsible for butter-gate!
Zita was in charge of catering. She was a tiny plump Sri Lankan woman with a huge smile and warm hands, always clasping yours in hers, while saying, “Are you all right my darling?” before asking what you would like to eat. The first morning after surgery we were all ravenous and were excitedly talking about scrambled eggs, the possibility of bacon, and lots of tea, toast and marmalade. Zita burst into the room at 7am and asked Irene (who was in the first bed) what she would like to eat? “Bacon and eggs?” Irene ventured. Zita rolled her eyes and said in a very slow, loud and heavily accented voice, “I have the cereal and I have the toast! None of this bacon, none of this eggs... we’re not in the bloody Savoy ladies, and you aren’t being private, so you can have what I bloody well give you. Cereal. Toast. No more!” And she wiped her hands in front of her dramatically. I hooted with laughter and Irene just nodded demurely before a tray was slapped down in front of her, milk slopping over the edge of the cereal bowl. Zita came to my bed next and took my hands in hers, “And you my lovely, what do you want, you hungry?” I couldn’t help myself. “Bacon and eggs please.” Zita threw up her hands and let out a stream of swear words, in both English and Sinhalese, while tugging at her hair net and scowling at me. “I’m only joking Zita,” I said, “I will have whatever you’ve got.’ “Oh you so funny yes?” she said, her smile returning. “Ok what cereal you want?” she asked, bending over her trolley. I then listed all the cereals I could think of, my memory slightly compromised by morphine; Bran Flakes, Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, All Bran? Zita shouted, “No!”. Finally I shrugged and said, “I can’t think of any others, what have you got?” “Only the Weetabix,” she replied straight-faced.
The same thing happened every single morning. Instead of telling us what she had, she would ask what we wanted and the fiasco would begin again. “What toast you want?” “Brown please.” “No, I have only white!” It happened with the spreads too. “What you want on toast?” “Marmite please?” “No!” “ Marmalade?” “No!” “Well what do you have Zita?” “I have only jam!” and some insipid sugary nonsense would be thrown onto your plate. We rebelled one morning when we had been given this heinous oily sunflower spread. We all groaned at the sight of it but Nicolette went one further. She gasped in horror, threw the packets in her bin and chased Zita down the corridor, shouting, “We cannot be expected to eat this dis-gusting slime! We want butter Zita. The ladies want butter!” It was hilarious. Thank goodness the nurses found Nicolette as amusing as us, rather than a pain in the backside. Even Zita came in the next morning with pockets full of contraband foil-wrapped butter, a cheeky grin on her face, making us promise not to tell anyone. “All the patients will be wanting the bloody butter now. Zita spoil you.” And she did. Any extra biscuits or slices of cake would come our way. She even smuggled marmalade down from the private ward! Bless her.
Meal times with Zita were always fun and broke up the day, as did visiting hours, but I was dreading the rest of it... endless hours of mind-numbing boredom with nothing to do! It was not the case. From 7am until 11pm it did not stop. After breakfast was physio... the most hideous thing I have ever experienced. Telling someone to get out of bed and walk a few steps the day after having all the muscles in their leg completely severed and alien implants embedded into their bones, did not go down well. “You want me to do what?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t even move my leg let alone get out of bed so they grabbed hold of the toe of my compression sock, supported the back of my knee and my heel, swung my leg out at right angles and lowered it to the floor, all in a matter of seconds. Oh. My. God. When someone hurts you that much you really want to hurt them back. I wiped the tears away and looked at her with such venom that she stared back at me and said, “I know you want to throttle me right now but if I don’t get you up on your feet, you will seize up completely!” Grrr. Safe to say I disliked her visits, especially when she would wake me out of a particularly pleasant morphine dream to torture me, but by the second day I had been taught a genius way to get my leg off the bed with a loop of stretchy bandage (and without screaming), and was also able to stand and walk a few paces with a zimmer frame. Hurrah. What I couldn’t do was go to the loo. I wasn’t able to walk as far as the bathroom (10 metres away), so I had to use a bedpan. And let me tell you, the indignity of perching on a cardboard bedpan in full view of your neighbours is something I will never recover from. During the day the humiliating act was bad enough knowing everyone could hear your ablutions, but at least we could draw the curtains. At night, however, the hospital was so short staffed that they didn’t really have time for protocol or privacy and would leave the curtains open. We were so hydrated from the saline drips that we would have to go at least 4 times a night, so the whole ward resembled a peeing conveyer belt. Once one of us rang the nurse’s call bell, the others would wake up and realise they needed to relieve themselves as well. There was no time for decorum so the nurse would fling back the bedsheets and we would heave ourselves onto these contraptions, one after the other, perched high on the bed like brooding chickens, desperately trying not to make eye contact with each other, and thus laugh. Of course giggling was inevitable but doing so whilst doing the other is not recommended. Seeing the squatting silhouettes of my (usually so dignified) neighbours, whilst all sorts of natural and unnatural noises escaped them, will be ingrained in my memory forever.
The chaos of hospitals means there is never a hope in hell of getting any actual sleep either. If it’s not nurses checking vital signs every 4 hours or doctors and surgeons checking up on you, it’s the peeps and pings of machines, alarms going off, mobile phones ringing, patients shouting, patients snoring, TV’s turned up too loud, the racket of tea trolleys, cleaners, vacuums... enough hubbub to wake even the most exhausted. And if none of that keeps you from sleeping, there is always the pain.After surgery you have two cannulas inserted into you, one in the forearm, one in the hand. The arm cannula is for your morphine while the other is for saline, antibiotics, anti-clotting drugs and anything else you need. The morphine machine is brilliant... a giant glass vial, inside a large glass case (locked), connected to you. You are given a clicker and are allowed to administer the drug yourself whenever the light goes on, and whenever the pain is bad enough. This, on average, is every 7 minutes. It feels like an arcade game... you stare at the clicker until it illuminates, press it frantically and are rewarded with momentary euphoria. You are an absolute slave to the morphine for 48 hours because it works, but as soon as it wears off it feels as if someone has ripped your leg in half. So when my surgeon told me that he was removing the the drip on the night of the second day, I cried. The pain was only just bearable with morphine, but without, my God, it was going to be a real test of endurance. They removed my cannula and said they would return in 4 hours with some oral morphine. By the end of the second hour, around 10pm, I was almost hysterical. The pain was like nothing I have ever experienced, and I honestly have a high pain threshold. No one can really comfort you either. During the day you have family and friends there but at night you rely on other patients and the nurses. The nurses have to be practical and get on with it... to go around hugging every patient in pain would be a waste of resources, and none of my fellow patients could get out of bed. Pat held her arms out to me and mouthed “hug”, while the others looked on helplessly. Nicolette was listening to opera in her headphones and only realised what was going on when Susan threw a sock at her. She immediately got up and sat on the edge of my bed, but being so incredibly old school, the best she could do was give me a quick pat pat on the arm and utter the sympathetic words, “Now come on Juliet, buck up”. Ha.
The only other comfort I had was from my hot water bottle Bruno. Yes I have named my hot water bottle for he has been with me for over 20 years and travels with me everywhere. Morocco, India, and Alaska are just a few of the places he’s visited, as well as most of my friends’ houses, but it took a ward in London’s finest hospital for Bruno to cause the most commotion. Most people know what a hot water bottle is. Even in Morocco, they thought he was just a stuffed toy – and gave me slightly odd looks for sleeping with something like that at my age – until they picked it up and realised it should be filled with water. On my first night in hospital, everything was warm apart from my feet, so remembering I had brought Bruno with me, I took him out of my overnight bag asked one of the night nurses to fill it for me. She was an agency nurse from Nigeria called Patience and she took Bruno from me and held him up by his ears in front of her. “You want me to fill this dog?” she asked frowning. “Yes please. Boiling water if possible,” I said. Patience turned Bruno upside down and back to front and looked at me as if I had a screw loose. “It’s a hot water bottle,” I added helpfully. “A what?” she said. I took Bruno back off her, opened the flap of fur at the back and showed her the bottle inside. I then unscrewed the top. “See?” She peered down into the opening and shrugged. “Ok, I fill it.” She retuned with Bruno, concave. He was the largest I have ever seen him, filled to the brim with boiling water, the rubber straining. Oh shit. She handed it to me and it weighed an absolute ton. I was terrified. It was like an unexploded bomb! “I have never see such a thing, it is most strange,” she said. “Me neither,” I said. Safe to say, I left Bruno in the bin that night, scared that I would roll over, explode the hot water bottle and end up with third degree burns. The next night a similar thing happened with a nurse from the Philippines, except she filled it with ice cold water thinking I was going to drink out of it!! Hilarious!
Once the pain was under control, my last few days in hospital were actually quite fun. I had lots of family and friends visit, bringing cards, flowers, yummy treats, pressies and conversation, so my afternoons went by in a blur. I was on the top floor of the hospital and had the most incredible view of central London, and as my stay was over November 5th, I was also lucky enough to see the numerous spectacular firework displays going on across the city. The ladies and I would chat for hours, asking the nurses to pull back our curtains so we could see each other properly. We offered each other biscuits and chocolates and magazines, or whatever was brought in by relatives and friends and once we were up on our feet, would sit on each others bed for a good old gossip about certain nurses and doctors. The only time we would ever shut up is when a certain resident consultant would enter the ward. His name was Alex. He was an Australian ex-rugby player and had one of the finest posteriors I have ever seen in my life. I don’t mean to objectify him but the sight of his derriere made six women fall silent. That is truly a superpower!Now that I’m home at my parents, the hard work really starts. Physio 6-8 times a day, learning to walk again and keeping my sanity. It will be 2 months before I’m really allowed to do anything on my own, to really get back on my feet, so until then it’s my mother and father (and indeed my sister and family when they visit), that are my nursemaids, my cooks, my cleaners, my drivers, my financial advisers, my laundry service, my postal service, my encouragement, my friends, my loves and my laughter. I’m so lucky to have you both. Thank you. X