First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I’m very aware that there are many people who are in more pain than I was over the last couple of weeks, and even more of them are in pain for longer. The thing with pain is that it’s very personal. If you’re in pain, it doesn’t help that someone else is hurting more.
I woke up with a pain in my abdomen. At first it was sort of tight and gripping, and spread out quite a bit. It nibbled at my ribs. It kept me awake most of the night; eventually I took a Paracetamol and after a few hours got to sleep. The next day it was much better.
A couple of days later it came back again, only more precisely located. It was quite a different kind of pain, really, but they had one thing in common: they were strong and frightening, because I didn’t know what was causing them, and it all seemed to be getting worse.
Eventually, I rang 111. They told me to go to the walk-in centre, and the walk-in centre took it pretty seriously. They were quick, too. They said I should go to A&E if it got any worse. It did, and I did.
I do not like A&E. I know many people love it and seem to spend half their lives up there, but to me it’s just a massive waste of time, with no-one seeming to be in a hurry or connecting with each other. I’m sure that’s an illusion. Or it may be the IT system. I have been known to say I’d rather die than go to A&E, but that’s not strictly true. Obviously.
It was tortuous. Morphine didn’t affect the pain, but they eventually found something that did – about three hours after I arrived. I was moved here and there, had an x-ray and an ultrasound and eventually was taken to a ward by a nurse who thought I’d come from there in the first place. She was very nice. All nurses are nice. When I clap the NHS, I’m clapping the nurses and not the organisation.
The surgeon I saw a few hours later wasn’t sure what was wrong. To do him credit, he didn’t ask me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I would have had no idea of the answer to this. I never do. It seemed pretty painful to me, but if someone was cutting my leg off without anaesthetic, I’m sure that would have been worse. I usually say 7 or 8. If someone were to try out the full range of pain on me and then ask, I would know, but I don’t really want that to happen.
The surgeon wanted me to have a CT scan urgently, but of course that wasn’t possible. It was Sunday, and there were lots of people who needed CT scans. He asked if it would be all right if he discharged me, and I came and had the CT scan as an urgent out-patient in a day or two. Foolishly, I said yes.
Still in quite a lot of pain, I waited patiently at home for a day or two. Then my wife rang the CT people. Yes, I was scheduled. Yes, I was marked urgent. It would be ten days or so.
This did not thrill me, but I buckled down, because the painkillers seemed to be working. I rang my GP, who couldn’t take my call but would ring me back. When he did, it was on a different number, and I didn’t answer it within 10 seconds. I rang back and was told I had to ring the following morning. I persisted, complaining about my pain and eventually got to speak to him. Rather reluctantly, I thought, he prescribed some more painkillers. It wasn’t my usual GP, of course. It wasn’t anyone I had ever spoken to before.
Anyway, with the help of the painkillers the pain eased, and when I went to get my scan, it had departed – for a while, at least. I should mention that during all this post-hospital time I had been eating a fat-free diet on the instruction of the surgeon. It would have been easier if I didn’t love fat so much: butter, cheese, steak… Now I had naked bread, bits of fruit and salad, boiled eggs and some jam or honey. I wasn’t hungry anyway.
I asked how long I would have to wait for my scan results, and it turned out to be two weeks or so. Probably. As it was urgent. I did not get upset with the radiographer, who was very pleasant, or with anyone else, because I suspect they’re all trapped within the system and don’t know how to get out of it.
The radiographer wasn’t sure why I was not eating any fat. But I have lost half a stone, which can’t be bad. Or can it? I don’t know. There’s no-one to ask.
This is a poem I wrote 12 years ago after an earlier spell in hospital, for an operation to remove my prostate and its accompanying cancer. Not long afterwards my wife and I headed for the North Norfolk coast...
Knowing all of the night –
the dry, dry paths and piercing pain,
where the spirit is mysteriously absent
and strange breath is forced into sleeping mouths –
I find your big blue sky hard, like horses galloping
Yes, darkness fades, but fear remains
however bright the sun:
shafts of love splatter randomly
across artificial rocks
while kites run across the scorching sky
cutting the future into slices
too hot to hold
On the beach, stumps of ancient trees
criss-crossed with nails
carved by the soldier sea
And now the spirit spins down unexpected channels
I am staked out, exposed
up to my neck and out of my depth
The tide slithers in: send no boat
This is where I belong:
the sweet salt waves washing bitter black desert away
I close my eyes,
but fail to dream