My father used to refer to me as ‘a little pit pony’. Not an absolute compliment, but I have always been blessed with good health. I have counted on it. It allowed me to work on past the shelf-life of contemporaries and to have the energy of a much younger person. At rare times, I had a bout of bronchitis but it rarely stopped me working. I took for granted my ability to weather ailments and to rock on whatever.
Then, this year suddenly my health started to falter and it was one niggling thing after another; loss of feeling in my foot, brain scans that detected a few black holes, a test that shows all is not well with my liver. And then Fishguard.
On a weekend trip to Fishguard, with my daughter and grandsons, after a day of feeling queasy, I ended up vomiting for eight hours with no respite. My daughter sent for an ambulance. The medics gave a sense of calm as they loaded me into the ambulance and we drove off into the night leaving my daughter pale-faced with her sleeping children. Instead of going to the nearest hospital, I was driven through the early hours to a hospital 44 miles away. I was miles from home or family. Lying there on a trolley in a featureless cold room, I was relieved to be in medical hands but also alarmed by the sense of isolation and helplessness that being tethered to wires and tubes gives you. The next morning I was exhausted and unwell but was informed I was being dismissed with some antibiotics for a kidney infection. This struck me as odd as I had not been tested for one or experienced any obvious symptoms.
It was not until I was outside the hospital that it occurred to me that I had left the night before without money and my phone charger. I was allowed one phone call and sat down on the steps to await a lift. I was suddenly overcome once more with nausea and dizziness. I returned to Accident and Emergency and was told that although they had just discharged me ten minutes ago, I would have to report to the desk and repeat the process all over again.
I spent an hour fighting back nausea, feeling so giddy I had to lie down across two chairs and shivering so badly my whole body was shaking. Once, I looked up and saw my daughter and nephew through the window and I remember thinking that he must have gone to Fishguard to get her. I couldn’t understand why they had not come into the hospital to find me. It was at that moment I was called in to the examination room.
When the doctor popped outside for a moment, I opened the door and shouted my daughter’s name. People in the waiting room stared. When I was re-admitted into Accident and Emergency, I told the nurses that my daughter was lost in the building and if she turned up to hurry her in. I was re-assembled into a tube-infested body and dozed off thinking I could hear her voice in the next room. Coming into sharper consciousness, I asked a passing nurse for the time and realized it was four hours since I saw my daughter and nephew approaching the building. I felt profound sadness that they had not found me and had probably gone home.
Waking hours later, I found that my daughter was there, having been picked up by kind friends who had travelled from Cardiff to Fishguard to find her and my grandsons. It was only then that I realized that I had not seen my daughter and nephew earlier but that this had been a hallucination brought on by a raised temperature and whatever virus I was suffering from.
After my visitors departed, I suddenly remembered that I had had nothing to eat and I fantasized having a bowl of clear soup put in front of me. At this moment, the doctor arrived and explained that I would be having a chest X ray and a lumbar puncture, a needle to remove fluid from the spinal column for testing. The lumbar puncture sounded alarming, especially when the doctor outlined everything that could go wrong. I began thinking of saying no but gave myself a talking to – about how some people went through torture and extreme pain so I should be able to face this. As the trolley was wheeled out, the supper cart was wheeled in and I comforted myself with the thought that, at least when I returned, there was soup on the menu.
The thought of the lumbar puncture turned out to be not as bad as the thought of it. Frankly, I could have done without the commentary of the Consultant as he talked through the process with the junior doctor who proudly told me ‘It was my first one’. Back on the ward, I asked the nurse about supper but her reply was that nothing was left. I asked for some water and a pillow, and she promised that they would be with me soon.
When I woke up shivering four hours later neither of these items had arrived. Around midnight though, a new nurse, kindness itself, offered me iced water that tasted delicious. I was discharged the next day with bags and bottles of tablets, but before I left, I had to venture to the ward bathroom where I twice opened the door on an old man sitting on the toilet and when I did find an empty one, there was faeces smeared on the seat.
Although the lumbar puncture turned out to be manageable, the after effects were not. I suffered from excruciating headaches that made me sick and unable to keep pain-killers down. So it was back into hospital, pipes and wires in the hands again and pain killers intravenously. My local hospital was a completely different experience. For a start, it was clean. The doctor spoke to me like a human being. Things were explained to me clearly.
It is a month now since this episode but I am still very tired and feel a little more vulnerable that illness could bring me so low in a short time. It worries me that where you are taken ill has a big effect on your well-being and treatment. Recently on a trip near that initial hospital, I told my companions that if I was taken ill to make sure that they took me over the border. I wasn’t completely joking.