I swung into Charing Cross Hospital’s Ward 4 South, feeling pretty much as I did the first time I ever joined a ship – lost. At least the smell was nicer than a ship’s. I was shown to a bed in a side ward where there were three other people, and left to it. As the day wore on, I was visited by various staff, who checked this and that, and wandered off again. I asked whether I should be doing anything, like shaving the surgery site. “Oh no, that’s done in surgery,” the nurse said.
So I chatted with my fellow residents; Janet, a sculptor, who’d come in a week before for a very simple operation to cure excessive sweating; the op had gone wrong, and there’d been some very serious complications. She was obviously feeling quite overwhelmed at this unexpected turn of events. It was nice for both of us to be able to talk about arty stuff… Then there was Pamela, who’d also had loads of complications including having her spleen removed, and was very fragile but making the best of things. And then there was a bloke whose name I didn’t catch; he’d been beaten up, and had all sorts of internal injuries. He was constantly attended by hordes of visitors, who ignored the “two visitors per patient” sign and sat around chatting volubly in Punjabi, or, in the case of the womenfolk, stared expressionlessly at me. I tried smiling at them… and gave up.
I was issued with my hospital gown, the one where your bum shows at the back if you’re not careful; and I put it on, thereby formally institutionalising myself. I was then given an enema. Gosh, that was interesting… And so to bed.
In the morning, I was visited briefly by Phil Thomas and Lisa the gender nurse. I can’t remember what we talked about; it was just a ‘well, here we go’ sort of thing. Except that it turned out that I did indeed need to shave the surgery site. So I made a hurried job of it in the shower, cursing the failure of things to run as smoothly as I should have liked.
Back in gown again, I read a bit more of the travel book I was in the middle of. Then I thought that I should perhaps be thinking more elevated thoughts, just in case I didn’t come back out of the anaesthetic. So I tried thumbing through my poetry anthology. No dice. So I tried lying there thinking about how you set about mentally preparing for something like this… and after a bit I went back to the travel book.
After a while, a couple of people in blue appeared and modified my bed into a Mobile Patient Carrier, and we were off, with just time to wave goodbye to Pamela and Janet.
Now I was in a room with the anaesthetist, who inserted a thingy in my arm; we chatted about something….
…. I was conscious enough to feel a pressure on my bladder. There were people around. I tried to explain that I needed to go to the loo. Someone made reassuring noises…
I’m slowly taking stock of my surroundings. The sensation of pressure is still there. There are tubes leading from my middle; a catheter for urine, and two drains from the surgery site. There are two tubes leading into my left arm; one from a bag of clear fluid, and one from a black handbag (this is the on-demand morphine…)
James Bellringer and Lisa appear, the former in a characterisitic item of clothing. “You’ve heard about the cycling shorts, I suppose?” he asks. I nod.
They peel back a large and bloody nappy, and make admiring noises. No, really, they did. Then off they go, and two nurses pull away the nappy and remove the drains from my abdomen. Gosh, another funny sensation. They went on for ever…
I finally get to see the new geography. At least, the top part of it. Which answers the question, “What If I wake Up And Realise It’s All A Mistake?”. I see the labia, swollen and discoloured with iodine and bruising, and definitely unlike what was there before. I think, “Oh. Okay…” They’re not just any old labia. They’re part of me.
Time passes. When I get bored of being awake, I press the morphine button.
“Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
S+2, it’s time to give up on the morphine and swim back to the surface. Tubes disappear , leaving only the catheter. I start to have worries about bowel movements, which ain’t happening. Mr Bellringer says, “No laxative till the packing’s out.” This is turning into a big issue. A low point comes in the middle of the night, trying and failing to go to the loo, while avoiding tugging the catheter, holding the packing in mortal fear of a prolapse, dribbling blood on the floor…
I resolve the bowel business eventually, but things can get overwhelming for me quite easily in this sort of situation…
I’m moved to the women’s ward, and meet Louise, who was opped on the same day as me; and Eve and Janice, who were done on Wednesday. There’s also the octogenarians; Pearl, who takes a shine to my teddy bear; Evelyn, who is trying to maintain a fierce independence in the face of a failing body, and who had a nasty fall in the loo late one night in consequence; and Beth, who’s very much a Cock-Er-Nee. Beth’s in the next bed to Eve. “Eve; that’s a funny name for a feller,” she says to a visitor. Visitor, almost as venerable as Beth, explains something in what might be a whisper to an octogenarian, but could be heard from Beachy Head on a stormy night…
“whisperwhisperwhisper…BLOKES WOT LIKES TER DRESS LIKE WIMMEN…”
Notwithstanding this sort of thing, we all get along famously, and help each other out as best we can. As Pearl said to some young relatives, “We gets along nicely in here; folks looks out fer each other.” “Yer,” says the young man with the enthusiastically-pierced face, “It wuz like that in Pentonville….”
At last it’s time for the packing to come out. Three nurses sit in on the operation, as part of their ongoing training. A gentle tugging…. And a tape appears, and goes on and on appearing, like a ribbon from a magician’s hat. I start to laugh… I’ve never been tickled there before…. I’m shown how to use the smaller dilator, then left to my own devices. With the mirror, I finally get to see what’s there, and realise that I just don’t know my way around, let alone any names for what I can see… still, never too late to learn… disappointingly, the catheter remained in until the last day, when I was required to pee at least twice before they’d let me go…
And so the time passed. I was fortunate to receive visitors every day. The food was survivable. The staff were wonderful, and seemingly from every nation under the sun; there were folk from Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, the Philippines (including the wonderfully-named Amor Resurrecion), Ireland, Lancashire, even London.
My abiding memory of the time in Charing Cross will be an extremely happy and pain-free one.
Which did not stop me pining for home, when the time came. The bag was packed, Louise and I were waiting for our discharge letters. Again it reminded me of seafaring days; gear stowed, ready to pay off and waiting for the gangway to be lowered…
And then it was all over and farewells made and Susan, who’d come to collect me, staggered ahead of me under the load of my luggage down the Fulham Palace Road, as I teetered gingerly.