Sunday, February 04, 2007

ABL: "Patch me up boys, take me home"

After Birthday Letters: "Patch me up boys, take me home"

My final retrospective blog comes from a period of my life [Spring 2003] that I've - fictionally - written about before, though never quite as up close and personal as this blog became. Such is the brain of someone who considers themself a writer I can remember sitting on the hospital trolley working out in my head how an online diary of this day might go [these were the days before I used the word 'blog']. For lots of reasons that entry never got written but it's lurked in my head ever since; something that I knew one day I would have to write just because it's too good a story not to. To name drop shamelessly, Paddy Marber told me that one day I'd have to write more on this subject. Having started writing what I thought would be the little anecdote which starts this blog I realised there was more I wanted to say. So maybe he is right. Maybe this is one of my stories that I haven't yet articulated as I would like.

In "An Average Rock Bun" Alan Bennett goes over some very similar ground - though infinitely more eloquently - and it would be remiss of me not to preface this with a quote: "For a writer, nothing is ever quite as it is for other people because, however dreadful, it may be of use". I can't begin to explain how right Bennett is. But maybe this blog goes some way to proving the point.

If ever there was an item of clothing that needs seriously looking at then I for one would like to nominate the hospital gown. Even I can accept that this may be one item where any pretensions to style or co-ordination have to give way to functionality, but what I cannot accept is when it looks like a sack and its supposed functionality is meeting neither my needs nor that of the Doctor who needs to puncture a hole in my chest.

"You'll need to put it on backwards" the nurse had said as she handed the offending gown to me.

"Backwards?" I echoed, rather hoping that I'd misheard.

"Yes, backwards, the holes need to be at the front". She didn't say this unkindly or harshly, but in a neutral tone, the same tone I have come to expect over the last few days. If there's one thing to be said about cancer, it really does give you a license to be dumb without anyone berating you.

I'd hrrumphed a bit as a put the gown on, not sure that I was quite ready to lose the last vestiges of my dignity quite so early in the process. I had wanted to cling on to a little bit of it at least until the bone marrow biopsy that I have a sneaking suspicion will involve showing my bottom to a Doctor I haven't even had dinner with.

As I sit with my back to front gown however, proudly informing the world at large that I am incapable of putting my clothes on the correct way, I have to concede that maybe the battle is lost. Dignity gone. I just hope that I don't accidentally flash anyone.

I've been perched on the trolley - in a hospital corridor no less - for about five minutes when a smiley nurse with spikey blonde hair comes towards me carrying a jug filled with pale orange liquid and a plastic cup. I assume I'm not being offered home made squash.

Blonde nurse smiles as he reaches my trolley. I smile back, pretending that I'm not half naked.

"We need you to drink this"

Blonde nurse hands me the cup and I nod. And then, more apologetically this time:

"All of this"

"All of this?"

"All of this"

It's a demented echo, neither of us able to get past the obvious as I look at the jug. If I were at all mathematically minded I'd be able to work out how much liquid is in this jug, but I'm not so I can't. I know enough just by using my eyes to say that there is far, far too much for my bladder to contemplate. Regardless of anything else I know I'm going to spend the rest of the day on the loo.


I say it as breezily as I can muster, resigned to the fact that I am half naked, incorrectly dressed and quite likely to wet myself. Blonde Nurse smiles and continues his round of jobs.

I'm half way through my second cup of what seems to me to be coloured water when it strikes how ridiculous it is for them to have given me a cup. A nod to something much more civilised than I'm going through. It's not like I'm sharing the contents of the jug, they could have just dispensed with formality and given me a straw. I'd be no worse off and the NHS would probably have saved a few pence.

By cup three even the hilarity of how incongruous the cup is has worn off. I'm drowning in the stupid stuff. I wonder just how stuffed up my Doctor would be if I accidentally poured the remaining contents of the jug down the side of the wall. Would he even know? There's surely enough liquid in my body already to sink a small ship.

For a moment or two I seriously consider this course of action. But then I remember that I'm 20 years old and even if I do have a disease invading my body it doesn't give me an excuse for petulant behaviour. I am not six years old.

Blonde Nurse returns just as I finish the jug.

"Well done"

I wonder if this means I'll get a sticker and a lollipop.

He takes the implements of my torture and smiles again.

"It won't be long now"

I smile back but I don't say anything. What is there that I can possibly reply?

For the last few days, in those odd quiet moments when I've been allowed to sink into my own head, I've wondered about this thing in my chest. It's not been worried wondering, it's not even been angry wondering. It's more...intrigued. Curious. I've wondered if I should name it. I've half settled on Henry. I can't see it, I can't even feel it, but just knowing its presence makes me feel it deserves marking. Instinctively it's a Henry.

Blonde Nurse comes back. It's time.

I'm wheeled into the room where Henry will get his 12th scan of the week and where, if we are both lucky and he isn't buried too deep or hidden behind something too vital, the back-to-front gown will allow easy access to his bulk. Will I wake up to find him in a small jar, a more sinister version of my tonsils?

My Doctor - not the Doctor whose rooms in the upper floors of the John Radcliffe hospital have become almost a second home in the past few weeks, but my Doctor for today, the one who first spotted Henry - goes over the process. Again. Repetition, it's part of the deal. The Doctors don't expect you to take everything in. I realise that he's going to inject me with some substance I don't know the name of. The injection itself doesn't bother me - I'm a veteran of the needle and confess to having very little sympathy for anyone who is even remotely squeamish. What I don't like is the fact that it's a Doctor doing the injecting. Give me a Nurse over a Doctor every time when it comes to an injection. Can't someone get Blonde Nurse back?

Within seconds of the substance entering my body I feel its effects. It seems to be generating its own heat, blistering its path through my veins.

I consider for a second where I will be when I wake up. I've already developed an aversion to the ward where those of us whose bodies are attacking themselves congregate as out patients. Today, a day I suspect is a mass chemo day, the ward is crammed with people attached to wires, complete with their packed lunches. A daytrip gone wrong. There's a strange buzz to the place that I didn't recognise when I was shown around earlier in the week. The whole ward stinks of it.

As I was waiting to see the consultant this morning I could overhear the conversations, the not quite muffled pronunciations of numbers, of white cell counts, things I can't start to understand. I know the makeup of my own blood, I take curious pride in the sheer ridiculous notion that my body seems to have that it can support itself when one particular guard of white blood cells which number less than 2% in most people make up 27% of mine. But these numbers that I overhear this morning, to me they mean nothing. They are neither hope nor despair nor anything but numbers. To the people involved, however, they're either rafts, tenuously pulling them to safety, or weights pushing them further down.

After one particular breakdown of numbers I hear a woman, much older than me and wearing a brightly coloured headscarf, break through the buzz clearly:

'This means I'm dying, doesn't it?'

There's no aggravation, or panic or even despair in how she says this. It's as stark as that, gently probing, mildly perplexed like she's just been informed she's missed the last bus.

And I know why I dislike the ward. And that curious smell.

It's the smell of people dying.

The surge of heat continues, bringing with it strange sensations as my body ceases to be under my command. There's another injection. Then -


NB: The title is a line from David Gray's 'Hospital Food' which, both in the context of the line I used and the title of the song itself, struck me as perfect.

This blog marks the final installment of my blogging birthday retrospective posts (at least for now!). I had to end with this one simply because - if I'm honest - it's the one I'm most proud of. Undoubtedly it cost me something to write - something I didn't quite envisage when I dashed it off a week or so ago - but which I felt vividly when I re-read it today and it made me cry. The writing, I guess, is doing what it should be doing.

Beyond this blog I hope you've enjoyed the chance to peak into my past. Certainly I've enjoyed the experience. And I have to admit - it's good practice for when I write my memoirs...

2 comments: said...

Stunning writing. Really brilliant. You could probably write a v successful book on your hospital time alone. I find it's perfect material, pathos, humour the works.

Also that Bennett quote is amazing. I can stop feeling guilty for feeling like writing about bad news, now!


Susan Balée said...

You are a kick-ass writer. I wound up at your blog because I'm writing a long essay comparing David Hare/Tom Stoppard and a link to something from your blog came up when I googled their names. I decided to see what you'd written most recently: And this is just awesome. Glad, too, that you seem to be well four years after the rather harrowing/demeaning experience you are describing here. (Wasn't "Wit" the big play of that time? A bit o' verisimilitude, esp. regarding hospital gowns.)

By the way, what do YOU think of Hare/Stoppard? I love certain of Hare's plays -- "Skylight" in partic., also "Plenty," "Amy's View" and "The Secret Rapture." I really did NOT like "Vertical Hour," though I reviewed it. (I adore Bill Nighy, however, and the play is worth seeing simply for him.) Stoppard, though, just blows me away: This guy is a GENIUS. He's our Shakespeare, I think. I just read "Arcadia" (I've seen it twice) and this is the first time a play was better on the page than on the stage. It's because the playwright is so damn brilliant, the actors can convey his stuff but they can't improve on it.

Love your thoughts. Susan at

Keep on truckin'.