Archive for the 'sickness' Category



Such a simple plan

So I suppose a brief update is in order.

My dad has been in hospital for roughly 4 weeks. Through two major operations, a spell on a breathing machine, an episode of mild disorientation, a few organs lighter and more antibiotics than a 3000 year old fungus infested coffee cup.

It has been somewhat up and down to say the least. ‘Set back’ is a truly devastating turn of words. We’ll get there. I’m pretty sure we’ll get there, it’ll just take time. I continue to keep the details of our lucky day in Hell and how all this feels, I’m just not quite sure if I’ll ever get round to sticking it on the site.

I spend roughly between 4 and 6 hours a day in the hospital in Belfast with Dad. A lot of the time he sleeps and I read books (5 Chronicles of Narnia, a John Pipier, a Kurt Vonnegut, The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim’s Regress, a lot of CS Lewis essays and finally, at last – On the Road). Me and Mum have developed all kinds of little routines to fill our days and keep us sane. We even bring a flask of hot water to the ward so we can have a cup of tea and coffee when we’re there.

This leads to a strange, slightly fractured lifestyle. I’m used to working and routines and planning ahead. And now I plan no further than a day or two in advance (and frequently cancel), always waiting for the next crisis. This is strange for me. This is losing control of my petty little importances (sic). This should be driving me loopy but it’s not. I am eternally grateful that it’s not.

I’ve taken to cycling to Scarva and back of an evening with some of the lads. Simply to get out of the house and avoid the phone ringing. We end up coming back in the dark along the tow path, with narrowly slit eyes to avoid the flies. Riding back in the dark feels like Africa, just cause there’s no artificial light. It’s nice to find new experiences in your own town when you’re 26. They become fewer and further between.

I have such plans. Such plans to read, to write short stories, to study medicine all over again and actually learn something. To use my time wisely and meet people for coffee and build depth and honesty and integrity in my relationships. To go to prayer meetings and church and feel part of a community.

But time flies when everything you’ve held most dear hits the proverbial fan. Well I wouldn’t exactly call this fun, would I? And so I only occasionally meet my ambitions. Never mind Paradise Lost, I’ve still got the (not so) new Harry Potter to get through.

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August and everything after

The past 6 weeks in summary:

Yellow eyes. Blood tests. Hospitals. Waiting rooms. Magazines. Day time TV. Scans. Results. Waiting. Blood tests. Cotton wool. Tea. Car parks. Rain. Cigarette butts. Cardboard cups. Newspapers. Driving. Vinyl floors. Biopsies. Results. Tumours. Cancer. Doctors. Cleaners. Nurses. Tablets. Injections. Blood. Pain. Waiting. Drips. Infusions. Scars. Wounds. Staples. Pain. Nausea. Ventilators. Tubes. Morphine. Sleep. Waiting. Anxiety. Insomnia. Fear of the phone ringing. Fear. LCD screens. Temperatures. Blood pressure. Urine. fluid. Numbers. White cells. Red cells. Platelets. Kidneys. Antibiotics. Oxygen. Tubes. CS lewis. Paul Simon. Van Morrisson. Prayer. Tears. Waiting. Phone calls. Doorbell. Repeat. Surgery. Transfusion. Drugs. Pain. Ice. Lollies. Confusion. Washing hands. Lifts. Stairs. Beeping. Machines. Car parks. Tea. Coffee. Books. Waiting. Chinese Take aways. Emails. Little routines. Joy. Sadness. Pain. Sorrow. Relief. Hope. Faith. Coming home.

Don’t change your plans for me

I haven’t gone away you know. I mean I haven’t gone back to NZ. Or maybe you’ve not noticed. Or maybe you already know.

At lunch time on Sunday past, a tannoy voice in Belfast city airport called ‘passenger Neill’ to proceed to the gate. And someone boarding the air New Zealand flight to Auckland that evening would be pleased to find the seat beside them empty. At Napier airport there would be no bleary eyed member of the walking dead greeting the ‘sky blue sky’ of Hawke’s bay and rejoicing in his first decent cup of the black stuff in 6 weeks.

And there would have been none of the desperate regret and tearing, the bitter separation of leaving where I am now (and all that that means) behind.

To be brief – and I intend to be lengthy at some point, if I ever find words (or indeed the guts) to describe the past month – my Dad got sick.

And I would be nowhere else but here at this time. Walking away (when I saw the heat around the corner..) from NZ was as easy as two, admittedly rather emotional phone calls to my boss and my best mate out there.

In the midst of two weeks of hospital visits, on the other side of the fence, I’m lying in the greenhouse, tacked onto to the toilet of our house (it is more elegant than it sounds) listening to Pedro the Lion and reading CS Lewis essays (proof that indeed this literary/cultural nonsense I indulge in is actually solid ground beneath my feet and not mere entertainment to make the slow road to the promised land pass a bit more tolerable, which is why I mean it when I say I’ve come to like only the music that makes me feel like crying) – and somewhere between keep swinging and start with me I’m back in Napier. Running (indeed a distant memory, perhaps even fantasy) round the estuary in the twilight, dreaming of home and the dear souls who dwell there, and in the near dark catching my breath. Passing the fish and chip shop, looking forward to a shower and the endorphins.

NZ was something that happened a million years ago, somewhere else, to someone who looked a bit like me and just perhaps may have been somewhat like me, but it did not happen to me. At least that’s how it feels.

I’d already decided not to stay. The plan was always to have been back in NI by Christmas. But I had goodbyes planned. Or at least planned that I’d plan my goodbyes. There’d be a farewell meals with lots of different people, there’d be more helicopter rides and resus calls, and central lines, and speaking to relatives (for good or ill), and cups of coffee with the staff.

I wanted to leave NZ. Though this was not how I pictured saying goodbye to the place.

Two stories

Two stories.

One. I’m walking into work and meet my consultant on his way in. I ask if he’d had a quiet night on call and as I said it his phone rang. Quiet up till now I suppose. So there’s a patient in the GP hospital 30 mins flight north who’s not too well and could the helicopter come and pick them up. And so that becomes my job for the morning. I grab the trolley with all the gear, enough to run an ICU in the middle of nowhere, and go to the hangar.

In Wairoa (referred to as the wild west of Hawke’s Bay) there’s a poor wee 62 year old Maori lady with not enough breath to utter a word and so sweaty and cold she feels like death. She’s now confused and wanting to stand up and sit down and then stand up again. Not a good option in a helicopter. I fill her with drugs for half an hour and if anything she’s worse. For once it’s probably not my fault.

I ring my boss and tell him the only way I’m getting her back is paralyzed and ventilated. I feel I ought to tell him cause I’ve never done this on my own before, and if I’m gonna kill someone then I’d prefer he knew.

And so I open the mini-icu in a bag and get my bits and pieces together. Now what I’m proposing to do is give an anaesthetic, play the role of the gas man. Now usually this is in a nice controlled environment with lots of flashy screens showing nice normal numbers. I have a portable monitor that would give me most of this. If it wasn’t for the fact that her blood pressure is so low that the only pulse I can feel is in her neck so I know her blood pressure’s not good. And that the probe for measuring oxygen content doesn’t work cause her fingers are so cold and the only number it gave us was 78% and I really hoped that wasn’t right.

The idea is to give her some sleepy stuff and then some stuff to paralyze every muscle in her body (apart from her heart – which is kind of stuffed already) so I can put a tube down her throat into her lungs and breathe for her.

So that’s straight forward enough, the nurse gives the drugs (half the big syringe, all the little syringe…) and she stops breathing. And the tube goes in easy enough and I squeeze the bag and her chest goes up and down. I feel the pulse in her neck and realize it’s not there any more. In my head I swear and curse that I’ve killed her. So I stick a big hose pipe of a needle in her neck and give her some adrenaline and the pulse comes back at a thready rapid rate, wait no, maybe that’s just mine. But no, it is there, just about…

And I talk my way through this in a strangely calm tone of voice, asking for this and that, betraying the cold sweat that’s just come out on me.

We stick her on the stretcher load her in the chopper while I sit at her head with my finger on the pulse and nothing to monitor except a read out of the electrical activity in her heart. And I search through the drug bag, cracking open amps of bicarb and calcium and adrenaline to keep that pulse there.

And we land and get her into the unit and I stick some more needles and drips and tubes in her. The boss wanders over and I give him the handover and he says I did pretty well even if the induction was a bit ‘vetinary’.

You see in many ways it’s easy to keep people alive. With enough tubes in the right places and enough drugs you can keep that little sack of muscle in their chest going for well past it’s sell by date. But most of the time, in cases like this it’s ‘futile’ (as I say to the family), cause they don’t get better and you never get rid of the drugs or get the tubes out.

My only comment to the boss is that it’s another successful resuscitation of a dead person.

Story two. Again, I’ve just arrived in work (it’s been a chaotic few mornings), and there’s a patient in the fire exit (our emergency extra bed space when the unit’s full) who’s just arrived. He’s been sent down from the ward cause he’s been unwell night and no one can get a needle into him to give him some drugs to make him a bit better. He’s got some horrible advanced cancer in his belly that he only found out about yesterday.

An hour of needles and x-rays and blood tests and fluid later it’s clear he’s dying. He’s in the process of having a heart attack, his kidneys have shut down cause his belly’s so swollen with fluid that they’re blocked. He can barely get a breath cause of the fluid in his lungs and the pressure pushing up from his belly underneath.

I only look at the name on his chart after the first hour’s over. I kneel at the bedside and look in his eyes and he knows his time is up, he just nods when I ask is he comfortable. I know he’s lying. I take his family into a room and sit them down and explain things. They already knew about the cancer but they hoped he might have had a bit time. I say he won’t and I use the ‘futile’ word again. And it echoes through my head that I said the same thing two days ago about the other one. And I curse myself (though I know not why) for having the same conversation over and over.

I take them back to the patient and everyone cries and I ask him again if he’s comfortable, and again he lies and I give him some morphine anyhow.

Two hours later his nurse calls me in cause he’s ‘going’. And he’s breathing his last, and it looks horrible. The deaths I’ve watched (I’ve forced myself to watch, to be there cause they deserve that much, looking away and standing outside would be too easy, cause maybe a few days earlier I’d said it would be OK and now it’s not gonna be) are mostly not peaceful. At least they don’t seem that way. The patient would have lost consciousness a long time before it happens, often uttering their last words days before it comes. But it’s not peaceful for the families. 24 hour vigils at the bedside, resolved to what’s happening but determined that they’ll not be alone when it comes.

And so this guy breathed his last with his wife holding his hand and sobbing that he was a good man and didn’t deserve to suffer. And I stand with my arm round her and let my eyes fill with tears and I pray – though I know not what. The pastor in the room closes his eyes and prays out loud in Maori and I pray along not understanding any of it except the amen at the end. I just say sorry. Sorry it had to happen, sorry we couldn’t do more, sorry it had to be this way. I prayed again, more of an empty ache for God’s presence than a cohesive worded sentence of petition.

Why do I tell you these stories? I tell them cause I like telling stories, cause the retelling of them has been in my head for days.

One of the guys I work with is a fairly thoughtful interested guy and asks why we do the job/ He asks is it cause I get a ‘jolly’ out of it? And yeah, I admit that’s true. I do this cause it’s a buzz. I do this cause in some ways it reminds me I’m alive, cause it seems important and something of significance in a world and society of mostly meaningless dross.

And I know I do it cause of who I can be. Cause of how it portrays me. And I know I tell these stories cause of how it makes me appear. And if I use ‘me’ any more in this paragraph I’ll scream.

And I hate myself for the motives in my heart for telling these stories. I used to make deals with myself that when I did something I knew would make me look good that I’d not tell people. That I’d keep it to myself, but it never happened, I always had to let it slip into conversation at some point. I hate myself for being the self-absorbed, self-referencing prick that I am. That no matter what I touch I corrupt. That the only thing I can contribute to my own salvation is my need of it.

In ‘the great divorce’, probably my favorite CS Lewis book (though please don’t make me choose…), it talks of how when we get to heaven there’ll be such laughter. Laughter at ourselves, at our histories, at how we got so worked up over so little. That we’ll laugh at our own petty little quests for significance in all the wrong places. All our self-righteous rants and arguments, how it was so important that we were right. We’ll laugh just cause we have a better view, a better perspective on our existence and purpose. Kind of like I can’t believe that I had my hair in curtains when I was 16. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I still think our parents made worse choices in the fashion department…

So why do I tell these stories? Maybe I just needed to stand back and have a bit of a laugh at myself…

Bread and butter

Today was a funny day in work. Maria and Otto (my hungarian bosses) were both off. They actually had to be forced to take a day off cause they’re kind of workaholics. Maria even rang in at one thirty in the morning to make sure a patient got a certain drug.

I work in an AAU (acute admissions unit) where we see folks who usually need a few investigations and chucked out the next day. An attempt to cut prolonged admissions to hospital. It’s a decent place to work. Fewer old demented crocks than usual.

So today the AAU was me and Bob (the ED/A&E boss). Bob spent most of the time running the ED so I was kind of my on my own. And i’ve been kind of baby sat since I started. I think maria and otto have me sussed as a bit of a muppet doc and are trying to stop me killing people. They’re probably right.

Today there was no such baby sitting so I kind of had free reign with the patients. Which is more what i’m used to. First guy. Mr A. He’s fat, a smoker, a diabetic, knackered kidneys, dodgy ticker and low on blood. His lungs are knackered from smoking. This is your standard medical patient. This is my bread and butter.

Except Mr A has a 10p piece on his chest x-ray. And I don’t mean he choked on it. It’s what’s described as a ‘coin lesion’. Lesion is a word doctors use to disguise cancer when we’re talking about it. Everyone knows what tumor and malignancy means these days so we use ‘lesion’ or ‘neoplasm’ to hide it from people.

Mr A doesn’t know this yet. I know this. I know it’s not definite, few things are in medicine but i’ve seen enough to know i’m not wrong. He’s a dead man. So he gets a scan of his chest and it shows he’s got one lesion on the periphery of his lung that’s spread from another one near his wind pipes. I know this. He doesn’t yet. This means he’ll be a dead man in a few months and there’s little anyone can offer him.

Mr A is fed up with hospital. He’s had his blood transfusion and Hawke’s bay are playing rugby tonight and he has work to do in the garden. He has no intention of staying. Mr A can’t complete a sentence without stopping for breath. He’s going no where.

He has to know some time. And Bob (the boss) has gone to a funeral and there’s just me. If it were me i’d want to know. So I go in and I sit down and explain that we saw a ‘shadow’ on his lung and we did a scan to check it out and that we think he has cancer. And that last word sticks in my throat. Like my voice has never said it before. Like it’s not quite sure it should be forming the sounds. The atmosphere changes. We make eye contact. And it’s not like there wasn’t eye contact before but it’s clear now he’s really listening.

He rolls his eyes and sighs. Then mutters an angry comment about how long he’ll have to stay in hospital then he looks at me again and he’s petrified. Anger, denial, acceptance and fear in seconds.

He asks me to ring his daughter and tell her to come over. I ring her. I fear she’ll ask me why I rang her. But she spares me that.

I have this fear of unexpected phone calls form unknown numbers from people I don’t know at odd times. I’m convinced the worst has happened. My heart thumps till the person on the other end of the line explains why they’re ringing.

So his daughters turn up, and his wife. And I tell them and him the same thing as before. I use the word cancer again. And still it sticks in my throat. If I didn’t say it then they wouldn’t get it. Until you mention the word everything you say to them will be meaningless. His wife cries, he cries. He thanks me. He thanks me. He thanks me for telling him he has cancer. My eyes fill with tears and I make myself look in his eyes and I make myself hold his hand cause he deserves it and so much more.

Bread and butter

Today was a funny day in work. Maria and Otto (my hungarian bosses) were both off. They actually had to be forced to take a day off cause they’re kind of workaholics. Maria even rang in at one thirty in the morning to make sure a patient got a certain drug.

I work in an AAU (acute admissions unit) where we see folks who usually need a few investigations and chucked out the next day. An attempt to cut prolonged admissions to hospital. It’s a decent place to work. Fewer old demented crocks than usual.

So today the AAU was me and Bob (the ED/A&E boss). Bob spent most of the time running the ED so I was kind of my on my own. And i’ve been kind of baby sat since I started. I think maria and otto have me sussed as a bit of a muppet doc and are trying to stop me killing people. They’re probably right.

Today there was no such baby sitting so I kind of had free reign with the patients. Which is more what i’m used to. First guy. Mr A. He’s fat, a smoker, a diabetic, knackered kidneys, dodgy ticker and low on blood. His lungs are knackered from smoking. This is your standard medical patient. This is my bread and butter.

Except Mr A has a 10p piece on his chest x-ray. And I don’t mean he choked on it. It’s what’s described as a ‘coin lesion’. Lesion is a word doctors use to disguise cancer when we’re talking about it. Everyone knows what tumor and malignancy means these days so we use ‘lesion’ or ‘neoplasm’ to hide it from people.

Mr A doesn’t know this yet. I know this. I know it’s not definite, few things are in medicine but i’ve seen enough to know i’m not wrong. He’s a dead man. So he gets a scan of his chest and it shows he’s got one lesion on the periphery of his lung that’s spread from another one near his wind pipes. I know this. He doesn’t yet. This means he’ll be a dead man in a few months and there’s little anyone can offer him.

Mr A is fed up with hospital. He’s had his blood transfusion and Hawke’s bay are playing rugby tonight and he has work to do in the garden. He has no intention of staying. Mr A can’t complete a sentence without stopping for breath. He’s going no where.

He has to know some time. And Bob (the boss) has gone to a funeral and there’s just me. If it were me i’d want to know. So I go in and I sit down and explain that we saw a ‘shadow’ on his lung and we did a scan to check it out and that we think he has cancer. And that last word sticks in my throat. Like my voice has never said it before. Like it’s not quite sure it should be forming the sounds. The atmosphere changes. We make eye contact. And it’s not like there wasn’t eye contact before but it’s clear now he’s really listening.

He rolls his eyes and sighs. Then mutters an angry comment about how long he’ll have to stay in hospital then he looks at me again and he’s petrified. Anger, denial, acceptance and fear in seconds.

He asks me to ring his daughter and tell her to come over. I ring her. I fear she’ll ask me why I rang her. But she spares me that.

I have this fear of unexpected phone calls form unknown numbers from people I don’t know at odd times. I’m convinced the worst has happened. My heart thumps till the person on the other end of the line explains why they’re ringing.

So his daughters turn up, and his wife. And I tell them and him the same thing as before. I use the word cancer again. And still it sticks in my throat. If I didn’t say it then they wouldn’t get it. Until you mention the word everything you say to them will be meaningless. His wife cries, he cries. He thanks me. He thanks me. He thanks me for telling him he has cancer. My eyes fill with tears and I make myself look in his eyes and I make myself hold his hand cause he deserves it and so much more.


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May 2019
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