I recently spent a week in hospital (hip replacement surgery). With time on my hands, there was plenty of stuff running through my head. I wanted to write some of it down (perhaps for the memoir that is, of course, a never ending work in progress.) But I wasn’t well prepared—no laptop, pad, or even a smart phone. So in the end I resorted to making some notes by hand in the back of a novel I was reading—diary entries about the quirks of hospital life, glimpses of what living with a disability might be like, musings on ageing, claustrophobia, lockdown, why we shouldn’t fear death. This blog post is the result …
DECEMBER 2020. It’s finally time to do something about the arthritis in my right hip. My right leg is shorter than my left and I walk like a ninety-year-old (I’m 67)—bent over like a tree in a hoolie. The pain in my spine and right knee is relentless. There’s no cartilage left. Bone-on-bone …
For a while I’ve been putting this off, head-in-sand style. After all, I can still walk (just about) and windsurf (albeit with so much pain afterwards that I limit myself to an hour max and only when the conditions are special). As the hip deteriorated, my wife, Nikki, has been trying to persuade me to get it sorted before I find myself unable to get out of bed and confined to a wheelchair.
So I book an appointment with a traumatologist at our local hospital (the Quiron, in Costa Adeje, Tenerife). When he sees the Xray, his face folds into a frown. “¿Malo?” I ask. “Sí, artritis severa,” he replies. “You need an operation. You want it next week?”
“Well, umm, I’m not sure…” I was expecting this, but his enthusiasm still comes as a shock. I’m not quite ready to commit there-and-then. He notes my expression and suggests we wait until after Christmas.
Later, I realise just how lucky I am to be offered an operation at all. Since qualifying for my UK state pension in 2018, I’ve been eligible for the Spanish national health system, but most routine surgery has been postponed indefinitely because of The Pandemic. However, when we moved to Tenerife, in 2007, we had to take out private insurance. Now is the time to claim on it.
JANUARY 2021. I see the surgeon again, and he books me in for the op. I have a blood test and a check-up with the anaesthetist. She asks me what blood group I am. I confess I don’t know, but remind her that I’ve just had a blood test. Apparently this wasn’t tested (wtf?), so I make an appointment for some more of my blood to be extracted (it’s the only niggle I had with the hospital during the entire process). The day before the op, I have a Covid test and am relieved when it’s negative. No excuses now.
THURSDAY 28/01/2021. I check in to the Quiron. I’m allocated a bed, undress, and am wheeled down to the operating theatre. This is my first major operation and tbh I’m terrified (not helped by having to sign legal consent forms listing what might go wrong—including the word “death” 😦 )
But there’s no time for second thoughts. A brief, lighthearted conversation with the friendly Danish anaesthetist helps calm the nerves. I’m having an epidural and I request to be unconscious when they’re slicing into me. I remind them which hip is being replaced (maybe their pretence of not knowing was all part of the pre-op de-stressing strategy.)
There’s a sort-of rushing, free-falling sensation—like plunging into a vortex. Then nothingness. Time passes (how much is a mystery) …
I hear voices. Where am I? Who am I? It’s like the time I took too much LSD on my own and lost all sense of myself. The hallucinatory moment gives way to awareness. Consciousness returns. I remember. The pain in my back is intense. I attempt to move, but they tell me I mustn’t. They increase the analgesic medication dripping into my arm, and I resign myself to my situation.
Later, I have some thoughts about being anaesthetised. When you open your eyes and claw yourself back to reality, it’s like waking from a bottomless, dreamless sleep—or like coming round after fainting (if you’ve ever fainted, you’ll know what I mean). The time I spent in the operating theatre is lost from my life. It wasn’t experienced consciously. No memories. No ‘Me’. Nothing. If I hadn’t woken up, I wouldn’t know I was missing—and ignorance is bliss. So, if death is the end of consciousness, there’s really no need to be afraid of it. There won’t be a ‘Me’ to be afraid. I simply won’t exist. No big deal. Closure.
An hour after the op, I’m wheeled down to Radiography for the ‘after’ Xray. It must be OK, because it’s not mentioned again. Later, I download a copy—proof I’m now officially bionic. Hip, Hip, Hooray …
FRIDAY. Bedridden all day. My leg is a dead weight. No muscle power to move it. It’s normal, but still rather scary. The back and knee pain increase through the day, and the night is challenging. Normally I alternate between sleeping on my back and either side to relieve the pain, but now I can’t change position. It’s a long, bleak, sleepless night. I pass the time reading and playing with the remote-controlled electric bed.
I’m given a plastic bottle to pee in. It doesn’t do much for one’s self-image, but it’s quite relaxing to be able to pee without getting out of bed, then push a button and summon a nurse to empty the bottle. Enjoy it while you can, I say to myself. I can’t expect Nikki to be on bottle-emptying duty in the wee small hours—that would definitely be taking the piss.
SATURDAY, SUNDAY. I’m allowed out of bed to ‘walk’ (well, hobble, stumble and crawl, slug-like) with a Zimmer frame walker. It’s seen better days and a bit rickety. I tighten up the bolts, but fail to notice the damage the abrasive handles are doing to my hands. Eventually I cover them with towels, but by then I have a nice hole in my left hand (equivalent to a good day’s windsurfing, after a run of no wind has allowed the callouses to go soft).
I begin to realise what living with a permanent disability might be like (mine is temporary, of course.) Everything has to be planned in advance: how to get from A to B, how to carry things, where to put them … it’s frustrating, but it keeps one’s brain occupied, like solving an ongoing crossword puzzle. There’s plenty of scope for logistical ingenuity and creativity—having a brain like the late, great Stephen Hawkins would help.
Minor improvements can make my day. For instance, it’s a real pain finding places to balance a crutch when you want to pick something up. But when I get home, I discover I can hook one of them over the stair bannister, the ideal place for when I need both of them to climb / descend the stairs.
I have this friend who’s been paralysed from the waist down for years, after a snowboarding accident. He designed a special kitesurfing board with a seat and more-or-less invented ‘seated kite surfing’. He organises wheelchair tennis tournaments. He has a specially adapted VW van and drives all round Europe. He’s always been my hero—even more so now.
A while ago, my friend inspired an idea for a sequel to my novel TOO CLOSE TO THE WIND (a philosophical thriller about an Ozzie windsurfer who gets caught up in a mysterious cult). My narrator, Nick, would have a similar accident and end up in a wheelchair like my friend. I asked him if he’d be interested to collaborate on the project, and he said yes. So the sequel would be grounded in his experience of life. Hopefully, one day I’ll write it.
MONDAY, TUESDAY. Insomnia has me in its grip and I’m feeling a bit disorientated. My hospital room is a Covid ‘bubble’. I’m not allowed out. The window looks out onto a concrete wall and the world outside might as well not exist. It’s like being confined to a luxury prison cell, or ‘house arrest’ as one of my Facebook friends called lockdown—which reminds me …
Before going into hospital, I was working on a chapter of my next novel, THE RHYTHM OF TIME, in which my partially autobiographical narrator finds himself stuck in solitary lockdown …
I found myself alone in this New Normal—just me and my demons. There was no escape from them in my claustrophobic apartment. Before the lockdown I had deadlines, rehearsals, networking, Sophia … I could lose myself in work and the social interaction that came with it. Now there was a vacuum.
He fills the vacuum by working on his music (he’s a composer). Every day is the same, as it is in hospital, but he finds the routine liberating …
My windowless box room studio was my universe. I lost track of time. Days became nights became days … and they were all the same. I fuelled up on alcohol and the amphetamines I kept for deadlines, ate while I worked, and hardly slept at all.
In the following chapter, he gets Covid and dies in hospital (yes, I know, a plot spoiler—but hey, it won’t be published for ages, and now if you’re reading this, you’ll have to read the novel to see what else happens.) I promised Nikki not to write that chapter until I came out of the Quiron (not that we’re superstitious, but no point in tempting fate, eh?)
The day-today routine in hospital runs like clockwork: a meal every four hours (excellent food), blood pressure and pulse monitored, fresh bottle dripping into my vein, make another hole in my wrist when the catheter gets too painful, hobble doggedly around the room with the walker and the hole in my hand … As with my locked-down narrator, the routine is reassuring and unlike him, I’m not in solitary confinement. Nikki and I speak on the phone and she’s the only visitor allowed to share my Covid bubble. Then there’s the banter with the nurses …
They are lovely: efficient, sympathetic and friendly. It’s an opportunity to improve my Spanish, but they want to practise their English, so we swap vocabulary and communicate in ‘Spanglish’ …
“How you say this—la sábana?” one asks, as she makes the bed.
“That’s a sheet.”
She says the word and I giggle. Spanish pronunciation makes it indistinguishable from “shit”. I attempt to explain the difference, miming what comes out of one’s backside and we both collapse with laughter.
Tuesday is a fiesta (la Virgen de Candelaria.) The hospital is quieter than normal. No outpatients, just an emergency doctor and a skeleton staff. It feels like I’m the only patient. The nurses have a bit of fun, Canario-style, skateboarding along the corridor on medical trolleys 🙂
WEDNESDAY 03/02/2021. Back home! I get out of the taxi, Nikki hugs me and our pooch, Gizmo, goes crazy. He watches me hobbling around on the crutches and licks my bad leg sympathetically.
Nikki has performed miracles: installing grab rails and raised toilet seats, rearranging the house with a bed downstairs, buying me a walker etc. She looks after me with the patience of a saint, and I feel blessed to be back with my soulmate of thirty-seven years. The long and winding road to recovery starts here …