‘Under your buttock’: 10 memorable days in hospital

2012-12-19 00:00

NO, the three words quoted above were not the verbal equivalent of a rude gesture, but part of a statement made to me by a young male nurse, with some problems in English, some days after I had had spinal surgery.

I was languishing in bed in a local hospital, feeling sorry for myself, when I sensed a presence next to my bed. And there he was, wearing a nifty pair of rubber gloves and holding, between thumb and forefinger, a suppository. He said: “The sister says I must put this under your buttock” — a considerable understatement, but the message was clear.

Major surgery and its aftermath in hospital is full of surprises and I write this in the hope that potential patients may be better informed than I was.

• Suppositories. It hardly needs saying that these are no fun, for patient or nurse. What is perhaps less known is that the inserter may get it wrong. Twice during my stay a nurse got it wrong (once with an incomplete insertion, once with a sideways) and I had to call (shrilly) the nurse back to have another go. Which leads me to …

• Dignity. More generally, it is widely known that you can forget about dignity in hospital. What is perhaps less known is the extent to which dignity goes by the board. Apart from suppositories, there are catheters, bed baths by more or less heavy-handed nurses, bed pans (and here I avoid details — this is a family newspaper, after all) and those horrible gowns that open down the back. Rule: never turn your back on others in your ward or the door into the passage, especially during visitors’ hour.

• Morphine. For three days I was on a morphine epidural drip. There’s no doubt that morphine is a brilliant painkiller, for which we may be truly thankful, but coming off it is another matter.

I was “weaned” off it a unit at a time during my third night. My skin began to itch, fiendishly, as if ants were crawling over it, and scratching had no effect. Then, I began to sweat rivers of perspiration, and that went on for about three days. I felt as if I had a raging fever, but the thermometer said no. I also had a heavy headache for about two days, which seemed unimpressed by my new painkillers.

• Noise. Hospitals are hardly the hushed temples of healing one might long for. Noise prevails much of the time, including the middle of the night, when bored and/or tired nurses may indulge in loud conversations in the passage outside your ward. Then there are one’s ward mates. My first ward mate warned me that he snored. He was right: there was a regular snort-and-shriek from the other side of the curtain from bedtime until dawn, without pause. My second ward mate tended to receive calls on his cellphone in what felt like the middle of the night and the ring tone on his cellphone consisted of a recording of shrieking seagulls, at high volume. The first time this banshee scream tore through the dark and through my clouds of sleep I actually thought it must be a signal for the end of the world.

• Helplessness. Perhaps spinal operations render a patient more helpless than some other types of procedure, as the patient is not allowed to sit for six weeks after the operation, and most of the first few days are spent lying down (note bed pans above) and I realised one day that whenever anyone had dealings with me, they would be towering above me as I lay on my sweat-soaked bed. I was in a situation that I had not been in for over 70 years, since I was newly-born. This situation can make one feel surprisingly vulnerable.

• A voice in the wilderness. One really disturbing situation occasionally arises, especially alarming in the middle of the night: one presses the button that summons a nurse, waits for some time, and nothing happens. Another press: nothing.

Eventually, someone arrives, hears about your problem, says: “I’ll come back in a minute” or “I’ll get someone to come and look at it” or “The sister will be here shortly”, and disappears. The minutes drag by. In the end, someone arrives and does something about the blocked or empty drip, or whatever it was, and one’s heartbeat slows down again. But it is lonely there in the dark.

But don’t let me put you off. In the end, the incisions heal up, the physiotherapist gets one up on one’s feet and moving around (perhaps considerately holding shut the back of one’s gown), the drips and other devices with tubes are removed, loo-going becomes more viable, the sweats and pains and humiliations end, and the surgeon speaks the magic words: “You can go home today”.

Hospital stays also help one to appreciate simple things previously taken for granted, such as being able to stroll to the loo; walk anywhere without having to carry a catheter and without having to call a nurse to disconnect one from a drip; eat at a table; privacy; quiet nights; and especially, such stays show you how some people care for you more than you realised, and what a tower of strength and comfort one’s spouse has been, yet again.

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