Periods of public holiday and the NHS’s Accident and Emergency Departments have a fatal attraction for each other. If things are to go wrong then they will do so just as the clock moves the wrong side of five on a Friday, the moment the GP’s surgery closes and the harassed receptionists make a break for home. Down the years I have observed this medical Heisenberg principle many times. It sends hordes of worried citizens through the tobacco-smoke stained doors of UHW’s A&E at the stroke of 6.00 pm, Friday, hauling themselves into line in front of the glassed protected check-in counter, holding their bust arms, their distended stomachs, their aching heads, all waiting to be seen, hoping against hope that the rumours are not true and that somehow today by a fluke, by design, by divine intervention it’ll be quick, or even reasonably so, but it never is.
You hand in your name, tell them the problem, and then you sit. Around you paint dries. The Coke machines are empty. Former Health Minister, Edwina Hart’s healthy option chocolate machines dispense only seeds and nuts. There are no newspapers. And thank the lord there is also no TV.
I thought I was doing well. The prednisolone was working, so it seemed. The Polymyalgia (PMR) was getting squashed. The recent bladder infection was under control, sort of. I’d joined David Lloyd in an effort to get fit.
But then came Easter weekend and the glories of a family Saturday, chocolate eggs down the front of everyone’s shirt and that feeling of being replete you get from pub lunches and hours of conversation about motor racing, gardens, curtains, wardrobes, motorway routes and nice places to stay in Wales. I got home to find my temperature rising and then, in a matter of minutes, falling right back. I began to shiver and couldn’t stop. Middle of the night I was bathed in sweat. 34 degrees then 39 then 34 again. I felt awful. Hangover, flu, migraine and the need to stay sitting down. There’s a twenty pound note at the foot of the bed, said Sue. You have it, I replied. That’s the test apparently. We got in the car and drove for the Heath.
You look terrible, said the triage nurse when I eventually got to see her at Easter Sunday morning’s A&E. Lie down here. It was a hospital trolley. My home from home for the next six hours. I was given co-codamol and entered a sort of pain-riddled doze. Around me heart monitors bleeped and buzzers sounded like this was an eighteen movement composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Things clanged. Things thumped. Out at the edge of consciousness I heard what I took to be a doctor’s voice say, well I’ll just check through here to see if anything interesting is going on. Down the line there was moaning. Opposite someone seemed to be giving birth although given where we were they certainly wouldn’t have been. A Rudyard Kipling or an Ifor Thomas would have a made a poem out of it. I hadn’t the strength.
Eventually a young man with a stethoscope round his neck and wearing black scrubs began asking me questions. The duty doctor. According to his badge he was called Sebastian Pompadour. He put a line into my arm and then a chubby nurse with an impenetrable accent fixed a saline drip to it. You have an infection and we need to treat it. We’ll keep you in, he cheerfully told me. I’ll just need my diagnosis confirmed, someone will be round soon. They weren’t.
After several further hours of heart monitor symphony and an increasing hubbub from the cattle yards of A&E admission out there just beyond the curtains a porter in green coveralls appeared. He stuffed my saline bag down the side of the trolley and, without a word, set off with me on it down the corridors of Beirut. The scene, that which I could glimpse as we thundered by, resembled World War One. Bodies of trolleys, people on sticks, groaning persons in heaps, the resolutely ill on drips and with bandages everywhere, people slumped in corners, people leaning against the walls, people lying on the floor. We hurtled round a corner at speed, me grasping the trolley sides and sliding around much as clothes do in an under full suitcase. Crumple, crinkle, slap, thump.
I end up in Assessment. A new, brightly lit ward full nurses and smiles and not a single heart monitor in earshot. Karl Heinz’s intermission, no doubt.
Here I get three nurse, two doctors, a whole raft of intravenous antibiotics delivered by injection and by drip, and a meal. Actually sandwiches and a yoghurt but better than nothing. Am I feeling better? No. But I do know where I’m going. Urology. An Easter admission. They’ve got urologists working, I’m told. Someone will be there this weekend. You’ll be fine.
I spend two nights here. The doctors, and I see so many of these that I lose count, are convinced that it is indeed an infection. What they don’t know is of what.
I come round from my addled doze to hear voices in animated discussion. They don’t understand the stress it brings, says one. They do not, agrees the other. Too many at once, it’s not normal, it takes it right out of you. These are patients, both connected to catheter drains following prostate ops discussing visitors. In hospital you get them. It can be like the Eisteddfod, everyone you know in the world comes by.
In the corner a prostate and pretty knackered-looking man in the seventies, connected to drips and drains without number, is surrounded by his extended family. They all wear track suits apart from the daughter who has on more make-up than they use on Strictly and is wearing tights. She uses visiting time to good effect by playing constantly with her phone. Phones, once banned as devices of the devil that would interfere immediately with hospital electronic equipment, are now welcomed. Everyone in the ward seems to be chatting on theirs, those who are conscious that is.
Even the man in the next bed, a Serbian called Velcro, although that can’t be his real name, bursts into fluent and very loud Serbo-Croatian when his goes off. A quiet man who has hardly spoken the entire time I’ve been here is now shouting into an old Nokia at the top of his voice. Dobar dan rodni vidimo se uskoro da da hopsital yes very good, he yells. On the ward amid the pings of incoming text messages, the discussions about football and the sound of visitors rifling through patient’s supplies of mints nobody takes any notice.
Eventually after a few days of treatment and the taking of endless samples they decide to let me go. I’ve made one foray down to the concourse to buy a newspaper and got lost on the way back. I’m five floors up and in some sort of alternate dimension as far as I can see. The real world and mine rarely touch. But I’m keen to get back.
They are still not sure what’s wrong but the infection’s signs are in retreat. Through the night device in the ear temperature readings followed by the taking of my blood pressure appear normal. I’m given a two week supply of yet another heavy duty antibiotic (no alcohol, take it easy, complete the course) and told that they’ll be sending for me soon to scan those parts of me they haven’t scanned already.
Things read in hospital:
Peter Guralnick – Feel Like Going Home, Portraits in Blues and Rock and Roll in which I discover the unexpected rivalry between Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf and read about the part played by alcohol in almost every American musician’s career.
Four copies of the Times and one Echo.
Cardiff and the Vale NHS Trust welcome pack, stuffed top of my bed where only the most eagle-eyed will find it. We want your feedback this suggests. I’ll send the CEO a link to this blog, once it’s posted. Maybe.
At home the cat is really pleased to see me and the grass has grown six foot. Grass does this. Unless you are there every day watching it the stuff rockets. Good to be back.