11 September 2011

When you are alone

At six thirty this morning, I was lying on my back, staring at the Milton Keynes hospital A&E ceiling, trying to stay above the pain and think about loneliness. Let me explain.

Milton Keynes has opened a new Chinese supermarket which is a lot things: amazing, huge, huge, and amazing. Anything Asian you (a Chinese take-away shop owner) might want. Including lettuce and cabbage, both of which were on sale yesterday. We dropped about £50 there, no small feat for a PhD-supported family, but what the hell: it was new and we were enjoying ourselves.

We came home and made a lot of great good on the BBQ, enough that when it came time for dinner, I didn't feel like eating much beyond some stir-fried veg and kimchi in a can which I had also purchased. I had a lot of this, and no one else did, and by about 8, I was feeling a bit... odd. That odd feeling turned into the feeling that I was going explode, quite literally. So much gas was building up in me. Around 10:30, I was extremely uncomfortable and went to bed, or at least tried to go to bed. I couldn't. Extreme discomfort turned into pain, sharp, shooting pain all-around my stomach and lower abs. I got up, did what I could, came back to bed and repeated for about four hours, until finally at 3, I threw up everything from the day before. Great, I thought, that will be the end of it. But it wasn't. The pain was getting worse and I decided around 5:30, in a stupor, that I needed to go to the hospital.

At this point, I was not in great shape. On all fours in the stairway landing, knowing that this too would pass but at that very moment thinking that I wasn't going to make it. We called the ambulance, but they won't come unless you are in an emergency, not in need of urgent care. So I called and waited for a taxi which took about ten minutes to come, all the time second-guessing the decision to go, although it was clear at this point that the pain was not abetting and there was nothing left in my stomach to get out.

The taxi took me quickly to the hospital, and although the pain was killing me, I was confident that I was going to be able to make it without ruining the driver's car. I went to check in at the A&E, which took some time as I had to go to the bathroom twice in the middle. As the hospital works, I was very quickly into a room and very quickly triage'd and they set me up on a paracetamol drip as well as some stuff for the vomiting and something else. 'Ate something dodgy?' the woman at the counter had said to me. Yes. It appears that way.

So I laid on the trolley, trying hard not to move because every time I shifted it caused a new series of pain. The nurses came in a couple of times, and finally the doctor to inspect me. She tried to feel up my stomach and abs, but I was so tender, I would tense up immediately. They ordered some x-rays and I waited for those.

Being alone in an A&E, mobile phone service on for like 5 minutes an hour, the bright lights, the trolley, the old man outside of the room, disoriented from a fall: I felt utterly alone in a way that food poisoning has found me two times. The last time was in Bangladesh, in a hotel room, trying to make it through the night. No one is there: it is you only, and you know, in your mind, that you will make it, but you are in a hole, a dark, painful hole that can't be mitigated by anything. You just have to live through it, minute by minute, calling out and reaching out for something that doesn't exist. 'Mom,' I could hear myself wanting to say, 'Mom, come and help me.'

Luckily, after the order for the x-rays, I was exhausted, so by the time I was taken away, I was coming in and out and of sleep and I only roughly remember being taken back to Room 5 in the A&E. Everyone was so kind: the technician, the nurses, the doctors. They have a healthcare worker sensibility, the same as Yoko has, strong and resolute when you are weak, but kind and supportive. Like coaches: you will be okay, I have empathy for you, but I'm only going to show you what you need to get through this. You will make it and I'm here with you.

I'm here with you, yes, the morning was laced with the kindness of strangers doing their jobs, but keeping my head above the waterline.

I slept and woke up in a start, the light in the room exactly as when I had gone to sleep and the same sounds outside. I went to move and there was no pain. No pain? None. It was almost 11 at that point. I had slept and hour and half and like what happened in Bangladesh, I had woken with a new body. I called the nurse and asked her what was happening and she said that the surgeon had been called. Shit, I thought, this is more serious. Appendix? Cancer? Do I have a lump of kimchi and cabbage lodged in me that needs to be cut out? How embarrassing would that be.

The surgeons came and pushed on my stomach and the pain was gone thankfully: the surgeon assured me they wouldn't cut me open and that I could go home. I called Yoko, they took out the IV, and I left at 12:30, weak, but feeling like I was going to make it.

It was sunny when I came out and I felt that feeling you have when you get close to the edge of yourself. Close, even if only in theory, to your own death, what it could be like. I bought a scone and some sports drink and waited for Yoko.

I'm sure there's a moral to this story, but I'm not sure what it is. 'Don't buy lettuce from them,' the surgeon said. It feels silly in the end. I felt silly in Bangladesh. All that was something, right? It wasn't just a dream, was it? Surely it wasn't. Surely I wasn't over-reacting: it takes a lot to get me to the hospital, alone for that matter. No, it was serious, just not life-threateningly serious.

Everyone who checked my pulse commented on it: do you play competitive sports? Do you work out a lot? Are you quite fit? I compete against myself, I said to one nurse.

As a foreigner, I am also a student of the NHS, how it works. It works very well, to be clear. Things take time, but they are very, very good at serving the needs of the hospital, not the individual patient. That isn't to say the individual patient suffers: you don't any more than you would anywhere else. But the hospital has a priority system and you fit in that system at different places at different times. And it will take an hour to be seen by a doctor, but not if you're in trouble. So you don't have to worry. You just have to be patient.

I think this week should go on without too many changes, as per usual. I have supervision tomorrow and then a conference the rest of the week at the OU. I was at the edge: I am back now. Best to be reminded that the body, even a good healthy one, could go out at you at time. Interesting what you regret when you are lying there alone.