The lady opposite me has not taken her nail varnish off.
The notes clearly stated that all nail varnish and jewellery had to be removed. She doesn’t look like a rebel. She’s reading People’s Friend. Maybe she can’t reach her toes anymore.
Suddenly she lifts her feet up and places them inside the shopping basket on the floor next to her. I wonder if this is because her feet are cold or because she can hear my thoughts and wants to hide her rebellious toes from view.
My toenails are naked. They are never naked. Right now they should be at the beach, turning cartwheels and playing in the sea. I’m not planning to die today but if I did, would anyone know to repaint my toenails for me? I don’t want to spend the rest of eternity with naked toes.
It’s the last day of the summer holidays and the weather has delivered a perfect day. One of those wall to wall sunshine days where people are in and out of the sea all day, having barbecues and staying for the sunset. Not a good day to leave the beach early because the holiday’s over and you have to drive home to some landlocked county five hours from here. And not a good day to not get to the beach at all because you’re going into hospital. Who even knew that you could have an oscopy on a Sunday?
The last time I was in this particular place, I was having a colonoscopy and wasn’t allowed to eat for a day and a half before the procedure. Today I’m having a gastroscopy which means I stopped eating last night and haven’t been allowed a drink for the last two hours. I spent the night dreaming about being thirsty and got up extra early to drink lots of water. The leaflet said I could only have clear liquids, even so I’ve steered clear of the Vodka and Malibu.
The lovely lady at reception gave me a questionnaire to fill out and a pen that didn’t work. Obviously I had at least twelve different coloured pens in my bag, so filled out my answers in magenta. One of the things I’m asked to do is list all the valuables I brought with me, and I wonder if this is to protect my items or to give staff a heads up as to whether or not it’s worth raiding my bag once they’ve knocked me out with sedation drugs.
The waiting room is a busy place. Two men who haven’t seen each other for at least three years are having a cheerful reunion, chatting about all the people they know who’ve died since they last saw each other. It’s not the best topic of conversation to have in front of an audience of people about to have exploratory surgery, but these two men are oblivious to that as they gleefully try to outdo each other with their death stories “One minute she was at the top of the stairs, the next she was dead.”
Bringing relations along for the ride is supposedly prohibited so my Mum dropped me off, giving me a hug and a sticker that says Bee Brave which the doctors and nurses will no doubt have a good laugh about once they’re sure the sedation drugs have kicked in.
But one lady has ignored the no guests rule and has brought her whole family into the waiting room. They don’t seem to notice that they’re using up all the chairs and that real patients are having to stand. One of them’s got a bacon sandwich which is particularly cruel seeing as all of us have been fasting for at least twelve hours and some of us for considerably longer. If you’re not even supposed to bring relatives into the waiting room, then I’m sure relatives with bacon sandwiches are off the scale illegal.
It’s soon my turn to go and talk to the nurse. She’s incredibly lovely and knowledgeable and I wonder where she was on the day that I phoned up with my pre-surgery questions because the nurse I spoke to that day couldn’t answer any of my questions and I ended up getting all my answers off the internet. When this nurse asks me if I’ve got any questions I really wish I could think of one, because she would definitely know the answer.
I’m shown to a bay with a bed, a chair and a shopping basket. The rebellious lady with the painted toenails is sitting opposite me with a hospital gown on. My bay is right near the window, the door is open and I’m being flooded with fresh air and sunshine. Maybe I’ll get to do some sunbathing after all.
I sit down and put my bag on the floor. A different nurse immediately swoops in, picks it up and tells me that all items have to go in the shopping basket as if she’s manning the self-service check-out at Tesco and thinks I’m trying to steal some sausages. Then she places my bag in the shopping basket, gives me a pointed look for breaking the rules and announces she’s going to do my cannula which wipes the smile off my face completely.
“Are you scared of needles?” she asks.
No, but I’m absolutely terrified of cannulas.
I went to A&E in London in 2002 and screamed the casualty department down for four hours, not because of the initial pain that I went in with which was significant enough to get me a ride in an ambulance, but because of the cannula that they stuck into my arm. Having had subsequent cannulas that haven’t hurt at all, I can only presume that the London cannula was put in wrong or that I was a bit of a wuss back then. Whatever the reason, the memory is still vivid enough for me to be scared of looking at a cannula in someone else’s arm, let alone having one put in my own.
This nurse is possibly the one who couldn’t answer my questions when I phoned up last week. She likes to ask the same question three times, but not listen to the answer.
“God, you have no veins,” she mutters, which doesn’t make me feel as if today is going to be the day that I cure my fear of cannulas.
The nurse mutters a lot and inspects both of my arms without enthusiasm, whilst I focus on the ceiling and pretend not to think about what she’s about to do to my veinless arms.
“You look scared,” she says, as if this is a surprise. As if she isn’t a nurse and hasn’t spent her whole career sticking needles into people who are scared of needles. As if she hasn’t already asked me three times if I’m scared of needles and three times been given the abridged version of my fear of cannulas story.
Eventually the cannula is in, and actually it doesn’t hurt at all. The nurse disappears to leave me to my sunbathing. At the far end of the ward is a seating area where people who’ve already had their oscopies are drinking tea and eating biscuits, chatting cheerfully as if they’re having a marvellous time at a coffee morning. One of the ladies is absolutely jubilant to be having her first cup of tea since 9 o’clock yesterday morning and wants everyone in the ward to know just how happy she is. I wonder how many meetings the hospital had in order to decide it was a good idea to have the people rejoicing over cups of tea and biscuits in the same area as the pre-surgery people who’ve not been allowed anything to eat or drink for the last day or two.
Whilst I’m waiting, I contemplate my hospital bracelet. School starts again tomorrow, not that I’ll be there for a couple of days. This is the time of year that people come back with their hair braided after a Spanish holiday or with the wristbands showing that they’ve been to Reading Festival or stayed at an all-inclusive hotel. Maybe I’ll go back to work with my hospital bracelet on. “Hey guys, I had a gastroscopy this summer.” “That’s awesome Cazza, I saw the Foo Fighters at Leeds Festival. Let’s take a selfie with our wristbands.”
Cannula Nurse comes and tells me that I’m not wearing a hospital gown. I already know that I’m not wearing a hospital gown, and clearly she does too, so I’m not really sure what she wants me to say to that. Then I remember I can say anything I like because Cannula Nurse doesn’t listen when you speak to her. Her eyes dart around the bay, as if searching for a hospital gown, and then without another word she pulls the curtain around my bay and leaves.
Luckily I’ve got supersonic hearing so I hear her tell someone else that I haven’t got a hospital gown, and I hear that someone else tell her that I don’t need one. Otherwise when she came back without a hospital gown, pulled the curtain open again and walked off without uttering a word, I would have been very confused.
Time passes. The lady with the rebellious toes is taken off for her oscopy and wishes me luck with mine. My shopping basket and I are alone in the ward. The jubilant cup of tea lady has left, looking far too energetic and cheerful to have just had a camera inserted inside her. In her place a subdued lady drinks tea quietly and nibbles on a Digestive. I decide it’s a perfect time to get my phone out. Some of my friends messaged me earlier to say good luck, and now is probably my only chance to write a coherent reply before I’m sedated.
I’m in the middle of a juicy three way conversation with two of my closest friends when the doctor comes to ask if I’d like to come for a chat. Hmm, not really, I can’t imagine he’s going to be sharing the same sort of gossip that we were in the middle of, but he is the reason I’m here after all, so I hop off the bed and he takes me to the Quiet Room.
Having worked in special needs schools since 2002, I come across a lot of Quiet Rooms in my line of work, but I had no idea that they had them in endoscopy suites as well. I presume they have slightly different functions, I don’t think the doctor has brought me here because he thinks I might be about to trash his ward to get to the subdued lady’s Digestives. But you never know (answer: only if they were chocolate ones).
We have exactly the same chat that I had with Knowledgeable Nurse earlier. Then he says that we’re going straight to the oscopy room, quashing my hopes that I might get another ten minutes in my sunny bay to finish catching up on the gossip. Instead I dutifully pick up my shopping basket and follow him.
I’ve said a very enthusiastic yes to as much anaesthetic as possible, I have no desire to be fully conscious as a camera snakes its way down my throat, or bits of my oesophagus are taken out for analysis.
“You’re not allergic to anything, are you?” asked one of the nurses as I lie down in my designated spot.
I’m allergic to bananas, tuna and artificial sweeteners, and then there’s a whole load of other things I don’t eat because I’ve got colitis, but I never know whether I’m supposed to talk about this when a doctor asks me about allergies. I presume they want to know if I’m allergic to any of the drugs that they might be about to give me, not that I’m going to be displeased if they present me with a round of tuna sandwiches when I come round after the surgery. All the same I tell her what I’m allergic to, and everyone in the room gasps because the anaesthetic spray is flavoured with banana.
“It’s okay,” I said. I’ve done my homework. This is one of the questions the nurse couldn’t answer last week. “It doesn’t actually have bananas in it.”
All the same there’s a flurry of excitement because they’re not allowed to rely on me and my Googling skills, they have to go and check. In the meantime the other nurse leans over me with what looks like a plastic necklace and places it around my head as though awarding me a medal at an Olympic ceremony. It has two plastic prongs where the medal should be and I assume he’s going to put them in my mouth, but instead he puts them up my nose. A nose necklace. Who knew that was a thing? It smells of plastic and apparently it’s going to help me breathe. My nostrils are far from pleased with this unexpected intrusion.
The results come back on the banana spray, my homework was correct, I am allowed to have it and so a nasty stream of synthetic goo is soon sprayed into my throat.
“If you can’t feel your throat, it means it’s working,” reassures the nurse.
I attempt to answer but instead the banana goo gargles in my throat and makes an unintelligible noise that sounds a bit like an angry goose.
He gets me to lie on my side and puts a plastic green ring in my mouth.
Parts of my body are queuing up to complain. My nose hates the plastic, my throat hates the banana taste – which even I know doesn’t taste anything like a real banana – and my toes are still furious about being naked.
“The sedation will soon start to take effect,” says the nurse.
“Good,” I reply forcefully, not that he can understand me. I can’t wait for this moment in my life to stop being a reality. Whoever invented sedation needs a medal, and not just a plastic nose necklace like the one I’m wearing.
When I had the colonoscopy in 2015, I was able to speak, because the camera used a different entrance to get into my body. All I remember from the whole experience is a brief snippet where I was looking at my insides on the TV screen and announced to the doctors and nurses that it was very sparkly inside my colon. One of the doctors laughed and said that was the fairy dust. The other one said it was the light reflecting off of the camera. I can bet which of those doctors is the most fun at the staff Christmas party.
This time as they wheel me back to my bay I’m convinced that I have stayed awake and remembered the whole thing. But actually I haven’t. A flash of red on the screen, the sound of my throat fighting against the camera and then nothing. Not until the nurse leaves me in the bay and says “Well done” leaving me to wonder what it is that I’ve done well.
The nose necklace, the cannula, the mouth ring are all gone. I can’t see my bag either. “Is my bag….” I begin, because last night I made a litre of extra strong full sugar squash to pour down my throat at precisely this moment.
“It’s under your bed,” said the nurse. “There’s a special little place for it.”
“Can I have…” I ask but maybe I don’t say it out loud because the nurse has gone.
Cannula Nurse floats nearby. I don’t rate my chances but she’s my best shot.
“Okay?” she inquires abruptly.
“Could I have my bag please?”
“It’s under your bed.”
“Yes I know, but could you pass it to me please? I’ve got a drink…”
“You want a drink? You want a tea or coffee?”
“No thank you, I’ve got a drink in my…”
“You let me know when you’re ready for a drink okay?”
“Um now. I’m ready now. If you could please just….”
But she’s gone.
Fine. I’ll have to get it myself. I just need to sit up, swing my legs round and….
But before I can do any of that I fall back to sleep again.
Minutes, or possibly hours later, you really can’t tell when you’ve been sedated, I’m awake again and still thirsty. Nobody’s around. I decide I’ll get my bag, drink my squash and get back on my phone to see what else has develop after the cliffhanger of gossip that my friends left me with before I got sedated. Cannula Nurse is immediately beside me.
“Shall I call your Mum?” she asks. “Are you ready to go home?”
I have no idea if I’m ready to go home. The last time I tried to sit up I passed out. I can’t even get my bag from under the bed. Walking out of the ward and getting into a car doesn’t seem like something I’m going to be able to do any time soon.
“I just want to get my drink,” I tell her with as much determination as possible.
“You want a drink?”
“Yes, it’s in my bag… I just need to…”
Before I really know what’s going on, Cannula Nurse is escorting me and my bag over to the sofa at the end of the ward. Clearly this is the designated drinking area and she won’t have anyone swigging their squash in any other part of the ward.
I sit down, retrieve my squash, take off the lid and just as I’m finally about to drink it, she says “You need a cup.”
This is highly debatable. I don’t need a cup, I just need a drink, because I had my last sip of water five hours ago and I’ve been thirsty for at least the last four. But she produces a cup, I pour my squash into it and down it in seconds. Cannula Nurse is satisfied and moves on.
There’s nobody else in the designated drinking area so I sit by myself drinking cup after cup of squash. There are biscuits on the table, packets of threes. I take some Bourbons and after I finish eating the first one, it seems there are none left in the packet. I pat it dramatically, searching for the other two, but it’s definitely empty. This is the magic of sedation, it makes you think you’ve had one biscuit when you’ve actually had three. I reach for another packet and soon forget that I’ve eaten those as well.
“I’ve called your Mum and she’s on her way,” said Cannula Nurse. “Are you ready to go home?”
“Is someone going to talk to me about my results first?”
We fall into a bit of a pattern. I’m not going to be ready to go home until someone speaks to me about my results, she’s not going to answer the question about my results because, well I’m not really sure why, but she’s really doing her best to avoid it.
Eventually she tells me that my Mum’s here and she’s got my results. And so she leads me on a merry dance up and down the corridor looking for a private space where we can talk. We sit down, and she tells me that there are no results. I’ll get them in nine to ten days time. I’m all for patient confidentiality, but we really didn’t need to go and find a private place for her to divulge that piece of information. Especially when I had been sitting alone in the designated drinking area and nobody would have overheard her. Maybe she just wanted to get me away from the biscuits. Maybe I only thought I’d had six. Perhaps I’d actually eaten twenty-seven.
Cannula Nurse hands me some paperwork and much to her annoyance, instead of getting up and leaving, I sit and read it. There’s a section called advice/comments and someone has typed that I’ve been reassured. I’m not sure that my chat with Cannula Nurse counts as reassurance, and even if it did, the piece of paper saying I’ve had reassurance was printed before the actual reassurance was provided. Maybe time works differently for everyone in endoscopy suites and not just those of us who’ve been sedated.
Really I would have liked to have chatted to Knowledgeable Nurse, or the Quiet Room doctor or even the lady with the rebellious toes. I contemplate asking to speak to someone else, not because I think they’ll magically have some results for me, but because after you’ve had exploratory surgery, it’s nice to be spoken to by someone who understands the concept of a two way conversation.
In shops and restaurants, when staff members don’t have any people skills, and prove to be bad for business, their bosses put them out the back where they won’t have to interact with the public. I wonder if it’s the same in hospitals: the staff who are rubbish with people are put in the wards where none of the patients will make an official complaint because they’ve all had sedation and won’t remember how rude and dismissive the staff were.
Cannula Nurse is glaring at me as if she can hear my thoughts. Just like rebellious toes when she put her feet in the basket earlier. Maybe endoscopy suites are magical places where time works differently and people can hear what you’re thinking.
“Okay?” demanded Cannula Nurse, but she’s not really asking if I’m okay, she’s signalling that she wants me to stand up and leave.
“I guess we’ll find out in nine to ten days,” I reply.
She seems to think I should be able to find my own way out of the endoscopy suite. I definitely can’t. Even in New Zealand where a town had just one road leading through it and I hadn’t had any sedation, I’d still walk the wrong way if I didn’t know where I was going. The endoscopy suite was far more challenging with all its doors and corridors. Grudgingly she escorts me to the correct door and pretty much pushes me out of the endoscopy suite, out of her life. My Mum is the other side of the door and I land in her arms.
I recline the passenger seat on the journey home, close my eyes and quiz my Mum about what she’s been doing since she dropped me off. Except I realise I’m not listening to her answers. I ask “Where have you been?” at least four times and she gives the same answer each time, but even now I have no idea what my Mum did for three hours in town on a sunny Sunday other than wait for the call to come and pick me up. I’m behaving just like Cannula Nurse, asking questions with no intention of listening to the answer. Is it catching? Did Cannula Nurse squirt some of her social ineptness down my cannula whilst I was sedated? Or did she used to be a lovely chatty person who has simply just been around sedated people for so long that she’s absorbed their speaking and listening incoherencies and and has now lost the ability to ever have a proper conversation?
“We should go to the beach,” I mumble, before falling asleep completely.
Mum takes me home. She’s sleeping over tonight, otherwise I would have had to stay in hospital overnight and that would have made this story much longer. Patients and nurses I never got to meet, a hospital tea that may or may not have contained tuna. But instead I sleep in my own bed, completely unaware of the night that could have been and the stories that would have been written.
I spend the rest of the afternoon sound asleep on a bed of cushions and blankets in the garden.
I sleep solidly for four days. On the fifth day I repaint my toenails.
WARNING: When you have been sedated, you are not allowed to operate machinery, go to work, drive a vehicle, be by yourself or sign legal documents for at least 24 hours because the sedation might affect your thought processes. However nowhere does it say that you can’t write a story about your experience because you might not have remembered it properly.