October 13, 2003

I needed that surgery like I needed a...

So, on Thurday morning I had my brane surgery, which is sort of a heavy-duty description of what they kept assuring me was a “minor procedure”. (“Minor for you, maybe”, I’d mutter, sulkily.)

It went pretty smoothly from the get-go (You know you’ve been having too many procedures when you get down to pre-op, and people greet you as an old friend.) Anyhow, I was fairly gibbering with nerves while I was in there. The anaesthetist came to see me, and asked if I wanted anything to mute the anxiety. I said merrily, “Oh no. It’s nothing. The neurosurgeon told me he does the whole thing by feel, not by sight, and that he just pushes the catheter into my brane until he feels a pop, and then he knows it’s in the ventricle. Teehee.” By this point I was giggling uncontrollably. “OK,” sez the anaesthetist, “I think I’ll give you this right away, then”. And pushes a great big syringe full of narcotic release into my port. Bless his cotton socks.

Next thing I know, I’m awake in the Recovery Room (where I spent the next twelve hours, due to an acute bed shortage in the hospital) and feeling ferociously hungry. I sat up and announced this fact to passersby in case they cared. (You know there are advantages to having had four procedures in the preceding ten days, when the Recovery Room staff know you and make treats for you when you wake up.) Given my accent (still traces of Brit after over thirty years here), they ceremoniously rolled up a bedside table, with a great flourish covered it with a table cloth (actually, it was a clean sheet, but it was pure damask in spirit), and served me a cup of tea and a home-made buttered scone. Pure heaven.

After that, things began to go downhill a bit. I was prescribed a large dose of a penicillin derivative – Ancefal – and as soon as they hung the bag, I began to have some tightness in my chest. This was reliably ascertained not to be a heart attack (“Squeezing pain? Any shooting pains? Left arm?”), but what we didn’t spot was that the chest tightness was the beginning of an allergic reaction to the penicillin. Over the next two days, things got a bit more miserable. Nausea and vomiting (*really* not a good hobby to take up immediately after you’ve allowed someone to drill a hole in your skull and put stitches in your scalp), a scary spiky fever, and just feeling like crap. Oh, and the development of a ferocious scarlet rash that stealthily spread over my entire torso – back, belly, chest, legs, upper arms. I look like a giant measle.

For two and a half days I was up in the Neurological ICU. This wasn’t because I was in need of critical care, but because they routinely do 24 hours of monitoring post brane surgery to ensure there’s no bleeding and no infection. The extra day and a half was because there were no beds available in the whole hospital. People were being admitted from Emergency and were spending 24 hours on stretchers down there before being taken to a room.

NICU has to be one of the most desolate places on the planet. It is inhabited almost entirely by patients who don't speak or move, and who exist only as extensions of things that beep and flash and go bing. No phone, no showers, nothing but machines that read your vital signs and make horrific post-horn noises if you aren't up to scratch. Because so many patients are in a coma, or close to it, the night nursing staff feel free to call out to one another and sing and generally make merry throughout the night. One of the neuro-surgical interns was singing Beatles songs fortissimo at 5am.

They are so used to post-surgical patients, that they were charmingly indifferent to my 101.5 fever. All they would do about it was throw Tylenol at it, although I kept pointing out we needed to understand the source, because I hardly have two white cells to rub together. The nurse treated me as some sort of health nut, being a crybaby about a fever, and offered me ice bags rather than recognizing that if it was caused an infection it could be life-threatening. There I was with no phone, unable to call anyone. For a while, it felt like some science fiction bad dream.

At dawn on the first night, I needed to pee (for at least the eighth time), and my beeper had fallen on the floor. I was at that time attached to five EKG lines; a blood pressure cuff that mooed into action on the hour every hour; a saline IV; a pulse-ox (not cattle, but a way of checking your oxygen uptake); huggy-legs (leggings which inflate and deflate like blood pressure cuffs and prevent thromboses post-surgery); and an oxygen supply line up my nose. Plus I had a profoundly psychotic hair-do, with a sort of moussed cockscomb rearing upwards stiffly, away from a narrow pink stripe of incision and sutures.

I managed to get out of bed and stagger across the floor to the door, leaning on my IV pole. I think I looked a bit like a spectral Bertha Mason as I opened the door (in a unit in which patients are not mobile and mostly can't speak). I do know that when I said, rather hoarsely, "Excuse me", one of the doctors looked up and said, "Good god".

It was one of the few good moments in NICU.

Oh, plus the fact that the surreal atmosphere of the unit was augmented by the presence of an Amish man as a patient. It was something of a visual shock to see his family, all in traditional Amish clothing, quietly wandering through the garishly lit, noisily beeping and flashing environment of the unit, bonnets tied, skirts at calf-length. I kept looking for the horse.

Posted by maddy at October 13, 2003 10:07 AM