Tuesday, January 4, 2011

78. Heart surgery

Then something unexpected happened. A specialist I was consulting about something examined me under anaesthetic and after the examination he advised that I see a cardiologist immediately. This advice surprised me, but not nearly as much as the cardiologist’s opinion that I needed to have my aortic valve replaced as soon as possible. “And, if I do not agree to this procedure?” I asked him. “The Aortic Valve is almost closed. You will probably be in a wheel chair within three months and will die drowning in your own body fluids.” Nice one! A carer, of sorts, was hired to look after Elaine and ten days later my rib cage was opened with a Black and Decker saw and a porcine valve inserted into my heart. Pity about the pig.

There is nothing as blissful as ignorance! And I was certainly ignorant about open heart surgery. When I said to the receptionist, with a big smile, “Sure, next Wednesday will do.” I had no idea that my rib cage would be sawn open, all my blood would be pumped out and put in a storage tank to keep warm and that I would all but die on the table. With fifteen surgical procedures behind me, plus the removal of two in-growing toenails and giving birth twice, I had complete confidence in my powers of recovery. But this recovery was different and I can only tell it how I saw it!

After a sleep that seemed like eternity, I awoke in a strange world. Something had happened to me but, for the moment, I could not think what it was. Then a voice echoing from far away drifted through the haze, “Mrs. Winter! Are you awake?” A reluctant “Erm" came from somewhere in my head. “Open your eyes. Come on, Mrs.Winter. Open your eyes”. Through the mist I thought “if someone would remove the glue from my eyelids I would!” With a tremendous effort I half opened my right eye and gave another grunt. All I wanted to do was sleep. Other voices joined the first one but I could not understand the strange words they were saying. Of course I could not, they were speaking in Afrikaans. “You can go back to sleep now.” That was English; that I could understand, and I gladly obeyed. The feeding tube, catheter, drips, drains, cuffs etc., were taking care of all my bodily functions so I could just lie there. I was no longer in charge.

Hours, days passed, I had no idea of time. There were two clocks on the walls of the Intensive Care ward, I could see them clearly now. They were driving me crazy because they chimed on the hour, and every quarter of an hour, which I thought most unreasonable and unnecessary in a hospital ward. The most irritating part was that on some quarter hours they chimed the hours. How could a clock chime twelve times when it was a quarter past two? Another puzzling thing was that these were battery operated clocks, like my kitchen clock at home, and they should not chime. I made a mental note to complain about the clocks later.

The chiming clocks were only one of the strange phenomena that occurred during the next five days. A cooler box appears on the nurse’s desk, covered in labels. It contains the heart of a baby which has to be transported urgently, by air, for another baby. I become quite agitated, because the longer the box is kept on the desk the less chance there is of the transplant being successful, but the box just stays there. An elderly man in a scruffy raincoat appears at the nurses’ desk. His wife has just been admitted and he keeps scrounging cups of tea. He comes into the ward quite a lot and the nurses are a bit fed-up with him, especially when he complains that the mixture of Ensure (a food supplement drink) made up for his wife is too thick and rich. A strange woman, who has just brought a friend in for admission, is sitting at the end of my bed where my nurse should be. She is drinking tea and reading a magazine. I would love a cup of tea and I try to call out, but I must be invisible; it seems no-one can see or hear me!

What I find most disturbing is the regular appearance of two morticians. They wear black suits and white shirts and frequently wash their hands at the basin. About six of them appear in pairs, sometimes they are black, sometimes coloured and sometimes white. They are very serious looking and scrupulous in their hand washing. There must have been several deaths that day because the bodies are on stretchers lining the corridor, waiting to be wheeled away. I am wide-awake but think it would be dangerous for “them” to know that I know what is going on. So I feign sleep, and watch these happenings through squinted eyes. My life could be in danger.

I want to talk to the lady in the bed next to mine, but the curtains are always closed round her and she does not wish to speak to me. The physiotherapist, who has lost his patience with me because I cannot blow into the breathing machine correctly, often goes behind those curtains with one of the young nurses, to blow into the machine. Of course, when they use the machine it is filled with oxygen and something else, so they expand their lungs and get high at the same time.

Someone just died in the bed in the corner. It is obscured from my view by a cupboard, but I can see the white haired head of the husband bowed quietly in prayer. He is very tall and his head can be seen above the cupboard. I watch him for a very long time and he never moves. Now I focus properly and I can see that his “head” is, in fact, a roll of white toilet paper, which has been placed on top of the cupboard. No one is praying for the poor, dead person.

The walls and doors around me are covered with a strange material, it is black and the texture resembles heavy black cobwebs, while the patterns look like the membrane that covers the heart. This material begins to move away from the doors and takes on the shapes of heads and bodies. I mention this to a nurse who assures me that there is nothing on the doors and walls. How can she not see them? In answer to my questions about the shapes another nurse says “My dear, I would not be surprised at anything you see down here!” Far from making me nervous, this statement reassures me that I am not imagining things.

I don’t like or trust the nurse who is looking after me, she sits at the end of my bed knitting a large sweater and spends a great deal of time discussing the size of it with another nurse. She is not watching me, like she is supposed to, and I begin to panic. “I want Dr. Chipps to come”. I cry. “What for?” asks the knitter. “Because I am afraid, I am dying.” “No, you are not dying.” She snaps. She does not reassure me nicely by explaining that I am hooked up to all these machines which indicate that I am O.K.; or that she will call Dr. Chipps if there is any sign that I am in danger. I am very frightened and her rough assurance does nothing to calm me.

I know that my life is in danger because my nurse has a plastic pouch of blood plasma hanging round her neck, which does not appear to impede her knitting, and that blood is for me, I am dying and she won’t hook it up. Blood is very precious and she is waiting until she is certain that I will die without it before she will give it to me. On the other hand, perhaps she really wants me to die, after all, I am only a useless old woman. What is it, day or night? I cannot tell. There are no meal times, no doctor’s rounds, no one is doing anything for me. I am just drifting in and out of sleep. I must lie on my back, which I hate, my back aches and I just long to turn on my side

An abundance of the cobwebby stuff appears before me now. It is taking on the shape of books, and there is also a very fine light baby’s shawl suspended from the ceiling with words crocheted into the pattern. The titles printed on the spines of the books are blurred, but the author’s name is clearly mine. I try to lift one down, but it dissolves into dust in my hand. Is this the library of books I should have written and never did?

They help me out of bed and into an armchair, my tubes are draped all over it. Two women I do not recognise have come into the ward and I watch them washing their hands. Oh, horrors, they have come to see me, in spite of my instructions that I do not want anyone to see me like this. Without even greeting them, I tell them, in graphic Olde English, to go away, they smile in an odd sort of way, and drift out of the ward without their feet touching the ground. The beast with the breathing machine has arrived, I don’t want that beastly mask on my face and in my mouth; he is holding my nose so I am beating him with my fists. What if I do get pneumonia and die who cares, I am more than half dead already. Roll on tomorrow!

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