Now it’s Saturday lunchtime. I came home last night. The test for a blood clot came back all clear, so it was option two: the remnants of an infection that had irritated my lungs (all my health problems last year have left them vulnerable still to such things). My temperature was back to normal & the pain had somewhat subsided. Armed with tablets, I was free to go.
I am relieved that it was not something as serious as a clot. I am also relieved that it was not something with as many long-term implications as a clot. Although I am pleased & proud of my mood control & chipper Blitz spirit while in hospital, I did not relish the idea of another summer marked by illness & treatments. Even I’m bored of my own ill health, let alone how my friends & family must feel.
Furthermore, I am tired, so tired, of feeling that I’m defined by – & my life is dominated – by events that are outside of my control. Sometimes I feel that my whole adult life has been characterised, implicitly or explicitly, by external events. I want a life of my own wrestled free from the control of others & other goings-on. I want a life of my own on my own terms, not labels like ‘ill’ or – even worse – ‘hypochondriac’ & ‘victim’.
As I look out of my window at my usual view, & look around the room at my possessions, all in their usual place, my incredible journey over the last few days feels like a long way away. It seems surreal, as if it never happened or was just a dream. I have woken up, back in my everyday life. If I didn’t have a pile of tablets & a hospital wristband, I’d never realise I’d been on a journey at all.
Today (Friday) I am having a scan that involves being injected with radioactive dye. Sounds grims, I guess, but I’m a bit of a masochist with such things – I make myself watch needles being inserted. On Thursday evening, I welled up with pride as the sister said I was a ‘good girl’ as I never flinched while the anti-clot injection was inserted. I am experiencing far more trauma from the apparent insult from a clinician.
I’ve just had the canula put into the inside of my right elbow. The woman doing it looked at the bruise where my bloods had been taken from the same spot. People often have trouble getting blood, I tell her. Her response? ‘You look like you’ve got rubbish veins’. What?! What does that mean? Rubbish veins I don’t dispute (although I was somewhat offended by the ‘crap’ & ‘pants’ labels that she also then used – she was only in here a few minutes!).
‘You look like…’ is the bit I have a beef with. Does she mean I’m not as thin as I could be? Does she mean ‘I can see your hospital-issue nightgown, your slightly chipped nail varnish & lack of blowdry. [Reader: please note that my hospital admittance was unexpected – usual grooming standards do not apply] You are clearly a slattenly mare whose circulatory system is probably as wayward as your outward appearance’.
I don’t know what she meant; she was actually quite friendly. I’ll never find out what she meant; it may have just been a passing comment. Nor will I probably unearth why her comment ranckles so much, although I guess it suggests that I would rather have needles stabbed in my arm than be accused of being poorly groomed.
Thursday: I am further examined. They suspect a blood clot on my lungs. There are other possibilities, but they want to ensure the most serious is eliminate first.
As the day progresses, I begin to feel the purpose of my hospital stay is not to do with the pains & their causes at all.
I look as two radiographers prop up an old lady with cushions, tenderly addressing her & trying to make her more comfortable.
Twice I see a very busy doctor gently steering Joan (an elderly lady walking around in just a t-shirt, cardigan & pants, as she’s not supposed to get out of bed) back to her bed, joking with her & her soothing her agitation & confusion.
I watch an experienced orderly, nearing retirement, instructing her grand-daughter, a recent starter, on how to clean a commode frame. Her pride & professionalism – her commitment to the task & sense of responsibility for its results – were audible.
These moments reduce me to tears. Pride; compassion; care; dignity – these people are unsung heroes. Forget privileged celebrities who have the time & money to do charity work – these people should be recognised by our honours system. It is they – not our politicians – who have earned the right to be called honourable.
I am in here to see these moments. It re-ignites memories – that I’d sadly forgotten – of my epiphany last summer. Having almost lost my life in July, I very quickly re-assessed my priorities. My whole attitude to life shifted even more so than it had in the previous months since my breakdown. Yet these moments, as they are inclined to, slip from view; their poignancy & resonance wane & drift. Being back in the same physical environment – witnessing & experiencing the same connectedness – has served as a much-needed reminder of my values & priorities at a time when I’m reaching a crossroads in terms of future direction.
It’s not bad luck but good fortune that has bought me here again.
I arrive at A&E at 8.30pm. Four hours later, I am in a bed in a ward side room. ‘Four hours!’, NHS detractors might say. ‘Four hours! It’s a disgrace & I shall write to the Daily Mail to voice my protest!’. ‘Four hours!’, I say. ‘It’s amazing!’. In that time, I am thoroughly examined physically for a number of possibilities. I undergo blood tests & an x-ray; results of both are examined. I am seen by two doctors (one initially; his concerns lead to a second opinion being sought). Five nurses (a shift change occurs part way through the time), a radiographer, a receptionist & a porter are also involved in the process – not to mention all the other staff & services needed to keep a hospital functioning. Not just a bed, but nightclothes & toiletries are found for me. I am made comfortable – both through their attentions & various forms of pain relief.
All this in four hours, at a time outside of regular working hours & without question of payment. I give my name, address & date of birth. That’s all that’s needed. It’s amazing.
The train is packed. I secure a seat, only for an announcement to declare that my destination required me to be in a different carriage. As I get up & being to move, I acquire a ‘railway orphan’ – a person of whatever age who clearly doesn’t use trains often & wants to be sure that they’re in the right place (or at times even on the right train!). The railway orphan & I find seats further down. We talk a bit. I knit a bit. I read a bit of my new book. I look at the three Home Counties commuters opposite. Anonymous looking men in suits, all harassed, all tapping away on Blackberries. No amount of money can compensate for how miserable they look. I look out the window, at the perfect summer’s evening outside. How can there be that many shades of green in the world?
Further down the line, the railway orphan & I move down the carriages again, ending up sat among three bank managers returning from a training course. They mistake us for a married couple. We all play ‘I-pod Charades’ – my mime skills fortunately compensating for my inability to work the I-pod. The bank managers buy wine for us all. It’s hilarious fun but as we all get off our very own love train, I decline their offer to share their night out – the pains in my chest have finally caused alarm.
4.30pm: I pack up & decide to visit Friends House before my train. I love it in there but haven’t been in a long time – years, even. I don’t know why; I pass it often enough, thinking ‘I must stop in’. As soon as I go through its doors, I’m relaxed & uplifted. I browse the books, feeling cheered that others are thinking similar thoughts to me & sharing their wisdom in print. I spot two postcards, perfect for some friends. For the equivalent price of a glossy magazine that I’d have probably bought for the return journey otherwise, I get a book & some postcards. And for undoubtedly less than I’d pay in the station opposite for a comparable fresh organic salad & drink – if Euston even sells such things amongst its fast-food outlets – I get my dinner. If only making alternative choices was always so easy.
I sit in the beautiful neighbouring square, eating my food, watching the world go by & being delighted by two courting blackbirds who scurry around my feet.
As I head over the road to the station, I dismiss the pains in my chest as indigestion – too much food on an empty stomach, I reassure myself.
Arrive in London & wait for the tube. A lady asks me for advice on her journey. I give her my suggestion & we board the same service. We stand chatting for the rest of our shared path. People say ‘Oh, if you live in London, no-one talks on public transport’. I say: that’s their loss. I often chat to strangers. Yes, some are weird but on the whole it’s one of life’s great pleasures – a mine of treasure.
Newsagents: man in front of me stops to buy a mint ‘Feast’ ice lolly. I immediately decide I must have one too. I walk around the corner to the archive, where I stand, leaning on a bike rail, eating my lolly in the sunshine. For a moment I’m a child again, playing in the front garden after the ice cream van’s been round. I may not have had a mint ‘Feast’ since that moment. As Woolf observes, how can I be both here & there? But I’m not in the garden; it’s twenty years later & I’m happily stood munching a lolly on a street in East London.
Inside the archives: I get on with my work. I keep dashing down three floors to get a drink. My on-going kidney problems cause a bit of nightmare in the drink-free world of archives. A kind librarian says I can leave my water bottle on the main desk in the room where I’m working. Hurray! For the rest of the day, I’m in the zone & embraced in the world of my work. Even Thursday’s aims are achieved by 4.30pm on Wednesday (useful, as it turned out).
I dismiss the pain in my chest as not having had enough lunch.