My year started waiting for an operation date. Finally, in early February, it came. All other plans are on hold until I get through a complex and risky surgical procedure. On the morning of Friday 12th February, 2016, I lay in a bed on the Specialist Surgery Ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, waiting to be called to the operating theatre.
It was a beautiful morning, weather-wise, with bright blue sky over the green farmland hills in the distance. In the foreground is a heli-pad, where I watched a Thames Valley Air Ambulance crew land and transfer a patient to a waiting ambulance. Someone else’s life balancing on a thin thread. I can’t praise the emergency service staff enough. They are true heroes in an age of selfishness and greed.
A plastic surgeon and a neurosurgeon come in to brief me on my procedure. It is to remove infected bone and tissue from my cranium. The Plastic Surgeon will deal with lifting the skin flap on top of my head, exposing the infected bone, which will then be cut away with the assistance of the neurosurgeon, whose primary function is to prevent any fatal contact with the brain . They will then send samples for analysis, attempt to identify the type of infection, and then make a treatment plan. Simples. I can expect to be in theatre for up to four hours. How do I feel about it? Well, not thrilled, but I know it is necessary as I have been living with a slowly worsening infection in my skull for 10 months. I can do little else but sign the consent form and put my faith in their hands.
Another air ambulance helicopter arrives, and another still patient is removed and I reflect once more on my mortality, hanging by a thin thread, in the hands of practiced health professionals, hoping they find a familiar problem they can easily correct. I can have a sip of water at 10.30 and then nothing. Fasting until it’s over, knowing that I’ll come to in a recovery ward, feeling groggy, thick tongue, and, as the anaesthetic slowly wares off, a throbbing headache. They intend to keep me in for a week on an intravenous antibiotic drip, to try and flush all vestiges of infection out of my system. During this time they will be getting results on the nature of my infection from analysis of cultures in the laboratory. Modern medical science is a marvel of human ingenuity and endeavour. They cannot be praised highly enough. I know I’m in good hands…
Panic over. I survived. Yes, I woke up in a bed in my own room, my head pounding with pain. Slightly spaced-out after the general anaesthetic, the words of a favourite song running through my head:
Flying, but I know I’m not coming down,
You’re trying, but I can’t be found,
All my colours turn to brown,
All my colours turn to clouds.
(Zimbo by Echo & the Bunnymen)
I became aware of a tube attached to my head wound, it is draining off excess fluid – blood and bile – and I have a kind of colostomy bag that I have attached to me. I’m typing this on the Tuesday after the Friday afternoon procedure. Saturday was a day spend in bed, not moving, on a drip. I had a catheta rod up my penis, and when I asked the nurse to remove it the pain was excruciating. It still hurts five days on when I take a pee. Hospitals are no fun for patients.
The surgeons came to see me on Saturday and declared it a success. They took off the bandages and took some photos. I asked them to take some pics on my phone. They explained they had successfully identified the infected bone and removed it, the neurosurgeon doing the delicate excision without coming into contact with the major artery that runs above the brain. Horray! This leaves me with a hole in the skull, which they covered with the skin flap. No grafting was done. The bad news is, they will have to go in again in a month or so, once they are sure the infection has gone, and put a moulded inplant into the hole to give the cranium some solidity.
My mind wanders to near-death experiences – a car crash in Zambia, and the time I was chased by a hippo whilst canoeing on the Zambezi… but I managed to distract myself from morbid reflections. I know I must keep my mind occupied, try and stay positive, to stop falling into morose self-pity and general gloominess. I listened to music on my i-pod. I watched TV programmes on my Kindle. Free wi-fi is a godsend. Patients have the option of using hospital television for a fee. I paid for Saturday and Sunday to watch the international rugby and football highlights, but stubbornly refused to pay thereafter. My sisters, their partners and my brother all visit on Sunday, bearing gifts of fruit juice and cereal bars…plus some chocolate!
After a few days the pain settled down into something like nagging discomfort. Still taking my full allowable quota of painkillers every six hours – paracetamol and codeine. My head hurts less when I sit up, I’ve come to realise. After four days the drip tube is removed from my head, as the drip of blood and bile has finally dried up. This is liberating, as I no longer have to carry my colostomy-type bag around with me. The drips continue and they butcher my arm with repeated failed attempts to find a vein that will take the catheta. I sit in the armchair in the mornings, after showering, looking out of the window at the helipad and cemetery behind. Convenient. Time to waste, if it’s possible to waste time. I’m on treatment and in recovery, so don’t even think about editing my book. Rest!
My consultant surgeon visits, and tells me I’m healing well. Results are still coming in from the lab and they will soon make a treatment plan. He can’t say how long I’ll be here. I ask him for his take on the problems with the NHS. He says it has become too big and unwieldy, and reform is needed. He admits that it is going through a painful process of being run down by the Government as a precursor to privatisation. This, he feels, is inevitable, and not unwelcome. He see this hospital in the near future being run by a private company, like Virgin Healthcare, with a mix of private and NHS patients. It is a painful but necessary process, in his view.
I ask about staff. Less than one in four nursing and support staff are British or Irish. He smiles, and says they are currently recruiting in Portugal. There is a friendly, youthful and extremely helpful team on my ward coming from a variety of European and Commonwealth countries – Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, India, Pakistan and South Africa. Good for them – they’re getting experience that many will take back to their countries. Britain is committed to capitalism, and cheap labour can come from any country. This is exploitation, thinly disguised as something positive – multi-culturalism. No one cares about the consequences, as long as the rich get richer. They can afford private healthcare, in any country in the world, so the National Health Service, the last thing that makes Britain ‘Great’, is seen as an expensive inconvenience. But I’m still here, in defiance of smiling assassin, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary.
Communication can sometimes be an issue, but on the whole, things seem to work. It concerns me that the nursing profession is now seen as being an unattractive career option to young British people, due to (comparatively) poor pay and long unsociable hours. Am I alone in worrying that the country is losing a generation of health workers – and many other skill areas for that matter – as we passively accept the dictates of international capitalism? Finding cheap labour from wherever to undercut local workers may be financially rewarding for corporations, but surely we are helping to dig a huge pit into which our independence, cultural identity and personal development prospects are being dumped?
There’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in is a line from a song, but which one? Songs about holes in the head include, Hole in the Head by Sugarbabes, and by Cypress Hill. Another Hole in the Head by Nickleback, but that’s not what I’m trying to remember. Is it in King of Pain by Sting? My search engine says Rhianna, Foreign Tongues, Dixie Chicks and Human Radio all sang about a hole in the head. Most along the lines of, “I need you around like I need a hole in the head.”
But I’ve heard it somewhere, if only I can find it. If only I can remember… is it Heaven by Psychedelic Furs? No. That’s, ‘hole in the sky’. Ah ha! I’ve got it… Evil Woman by Electric Light Orchestra:-
There’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in,
You took my money and played to win…
Relief! Hate that – when you’re trying to remember something but can’t, and online searches are of scant help. After all, there’s a hole in my head, and the rain would undoubtedly come in if I walked outside the building. Better stay in.
Just read in today’s (18/02/16) BBC News highlights another scare story marking the crumbling of our National Health Service. “More than 1,000 NHS patients in England in the past four years have suffered from medical mistakes.” Yikes! Should I be reading this in hospital? These ‘never events’ include a man who had a testicle removed instead of a cyst, a woman having her fallopian tubes removed instead of her appendix, wrong leg, knees and eyes being operated on, and hundreds of cases of objects such as scalpels being left inside bodies during operations. An NHS England spokesperson valiantly tried to defend the indefensible by playing it down. These ‘never events’ only occur in 1 in every 20,000 cases. There are 4.6 million operations a year in NHS England. Well, that’s one lottery I’m pleased to have lost. Oh, they’re going to set up a Task Force to investigate and make recommendations! That’s alright, then.
Is there a general dumbing-down of professional standards going on? Part of the degradation of the NHS prior to full privatisation? They would never admit to it.