I’ve been a bit silent on the blog the last couple of weeks, in the aftermath of a minor and benign piece of surgery that required an overnight stay in hospital. The recommended fortnight’s convalescence off work has not quite expired yet, but I’m an impatient patient.
Not Holding My Breath
This is the first time in nearly twenty years that I’ve undergone a general anaesthetic. The last time I was left in a slight panic when the anaesthetist told me they’d had trouble getting me breathing again afterwards. Seeing the look of horror on my face, he replied cheerfully, “Oh, don’t worry, we happened to have the best anaesthetist in the region in theatre that day.”
“I’m not liking the words ‘happened to have’ in that sentence,” was my reply.
This time round I was therefore disproportionately nervous at the prospect of the anaesthetic. To me this was far more alarming than the planned surgical procedure to remove a gland in my throat that had become blocked by a stone. It was a bit like a gallstone or kidney stone in that it had formed naturally, rather than the result of my eating gravel. I explained it to my daughter as being similar to the build-up of limescale in our kettle, a side-effect of our living in the Cotswolds with its very hard water.
I expected it to be a simple procedure, a bit like using the special blade on a Swiss Army knife to remove a stone from a horse’s hoof. I only discovered afterwards that it counted as a major operation, because the whole gland, the size of a plum, had to be cut out. Which still didn’t sound major to me, because, after all, I’d had something much larger removed in my most recent surgery, done while fully conscious: a planned Caesarean (planned to avoid the risks of a general anaesthetic, after the previous non-breathing experience). A seven-pound baby versus a plum? No contest, surely?
The First and Biggest Lesson from my Operation
That was perhaps the biggest lesson of my hospital stay:
the pain of an operation isn’t in direct proportion to the size of the item being removed
Re the post-baby pain, having a beautiful new baby to take home probably took my mind off any discomfort. I suspect the body releases natural endorphins or some such as part of the process.
After my latest op, my baby, now 13, was disappointed that they didn’t give me the stone to bring home in a jar. Keen on handicrafts, she was hoping to fashion it into some fetching piece of souvenir jewellery. When we had to take her to the emergency room when she was about three, at least she got to take home the doll’s shoe they had removed from up her nose.
Of course, the scale of my hospital experience is a mere scratch in the scheme of things. I am in awe of friends and relations who have been going through huge and ongoing medical traumas, in one case for over fifteen years, and in another requiring a fourteen hour operation by three different specialists. I’m naming no names for fear of embarrassing them, but you know who you are folks, and you are an inspiration. I feel like a wimp for making such a fuss.
But on the other hand, talking about it so much, and getting sympathy from them and from others, helped me face what to me was a significant fear, and I cannot thank you enough for all for your support. If there’s a next time, I shall be better mentally prepared, having had this experience, and I’ll make less fuss. Well, maybe.
The Other Nineteen
Finally, here’s the list of the other 19 things I learned in hospital, for your instruction and entertainment:
- “If you cut a hole in your neck and take something out of it, it will hurt.” – technical advice received from my consultant the morning after
- They really do use a marker pen to draw on your body to make sure they operate on the correct side.
- A zip-up floor-length dressing gown (Marks and Spencer, £35) is the perfect antidote to the immodest compulsory NHS nightgowns that open from the neck down the back.
- If you’re on nil-by-mouth from midnight till 5am before your op, it is worth setting the alarm for 4.30am for a very early breakfast.
- My habitual weak tea is so weak that when from 5am until 9am (water only), I substituted hot water, I could hardly tell the difference.
- Usually an unswerving three-meals-a-day girl, I can survive twelve hours without food, but it helps when to be told initially that it will be four hours, then six, then eight, etc as your name gets moved down the list of priorities for theatre that day.
- I was very happy to be repeatedly moved down the list because it meant I scored top marks for healthy patient out of the whole list (admittedly at least one of the others was 92).
- Even if you tell your family not to bother visiting after the op in case you’re not awake, it’s very nice when you wake up to find them by your bed and bearing gifts.
- Asparagus soup post-op is the food of the gods (delivered via the earthly presence of my sister).
- You’re never too old to be comforted by cuddly toys. (Thanks to my sister for the reindeer.)
- Knowledge is power and reassuring in advance of surgery – even reading a tell-all memoir by an anaesthetist, listing the things that can go wrong, was a comfort to me. (I’ve reviewed Wolf Pascoe’s Breathing for Two on my book blog, and I highly recommend it.)
- On the other hand, a book called Hurry Up Nurse by Dawn Brookes was not the most tactful reading matter to keep by my hospital bed (though I did enjoy it – review to follow shortly.)
- Working out where the medical staff come from is an interesting distraction. I mentally awarded the delightful male nurse who was Filippino with Hawaiian parents the prize for most exotic heritage from the vast team I met in my two day stay, and they were all wonderful.
- Keeping warm makes a big difference to the speed of recovery – it’s not just an old wives’ tale to “wrap up and keep warm”, I was given a leaflet entitled Perioperative Hypothermia. Who knew?
- Adjustable beds that allow you to move the back and knee areas up and down are not an indulgent luxury or medical necessity, but the most sublime comfort ever. I want one for home.
- Free hospital wifi and a smartphone are a great way to diminish the potential isolation of being in hospital, even if people do think you’re a bit crazy for tweeting from your hospital trolley.
- My mum and dad still worry about me when I’m poorly even though there are two younger generations in the family after me. Of course they do.
- The Bristol Royal Infirmary, though still on its old site, has the most fantastic modern facilities – a private ensuite room is standard on the ENT ward unless you need high-dependency care and the greater visibility and accessibility of being in a ward.
- It was so relaxing and I felt so well looked after that I didn’t really want to go home.
Finally, I should add that the experience reminded me that the NHS is one of the very best things about living in Britain. But that’s really something I knew all along.
Thank you for bearing with me, and I wish you all a very healthy New Year!