The shortest waiting list for a Coronary Artery Bypass Graft, known colloquially as a ‘cabbage’, was at Coventry Walsgrave Hospital. As others have pointed out a hospital, the name of which ends in ‘grave’, hardly inspires confidence, and the name is becoming phased out under the University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire umbrella. Despite the graveness of my situation I was rather pleased with this progressive name change, and I was further comforted by an old friend who had the same operation at the same hospital way back in 1998. Malcolm explained to me some of the statistics as they had been explained to him by the professionals of the day. They reassured him that those who died were usually the older patients. As Malcolm is younger than I am, and his operation was 14 years ago, when I had time to reflect it dawned on me that I was possibly one of the older patients, though there were others much older than me.
All my pub team, Quids In, and other friends came to visit, Sarah bringing along a first novel written by somebody she knows which has the added bonus of already having received two major book awards. I read Before I go to sleep by S J Watson cover to cover without pausing for breath. It was one of the most talented literary first efforts I can ever remember reading. All homage to the author of this tantalising crime novel about a woman who wakes up every day without any previous knowledge of her life, not even the day before. Every day she has to rely on others for links into her past. On plot it cannot be faulted. I would need more medical knowledge on the subject matter to know whether any suspension of belief was necessary but I found it very easy to dispel any misgivings that initially raised their profiles. Among the numerous testimonials dedicated to this novel was one from Lionel Shriver whose We need to talk about Kevin I read last year. That was a good read; but Watson’s book was in a league of its own.
I had been in hospital a few days when I developed an abscess under one of my top teeth, one which had been filled and re-filled by a long list of dental practitioners. This would potentially delay matters, though there was already waiting period of about a month before transfer from Solihull to Coventry. First I had to take a course of antibiotics plus codeine to deal with the pain. With heart surgery any infection in the bloodstream is potentially fatal. The codeine ought to carry a constipation warning with a skull and crossbones on the tablet. It is piracy of a normal bodily function, the details of which will be temporarily spared, of the worst kind.
There were political intrigues involved in getting me to a dentist, due to hospital procedures, but eventually, with the accompaniment of a nurse, and an ambulance, I was taken the few-hundred yards to the dental practice. Three, rather than the two teeth on my target list, were extracted and after a four hour wait for an ambulance and two stitches to help stem the bleeding, I was returned to my ward. This, and the long wait for a bed at Walsgrave, were the only two criticisms I am prepared to make of an otherwise outstanding service. Eventually my time came and the 40 minute ambulance transit turned into more than an hour due to the rush-hour traffic. There were few changes at Walsgrave from Solihull – some procedures were slightly different.
The evening before my operation I was somewhat apprehensive pondering big issues like life and death, good and evil, and took up one of the Gideon Society New Testaments on the ward seeking some kind of consolation. Flicking through I settled on Romans 5 verses 6-9 and suddenly felt that I was no longer alone in the forthcoming battle. I slept remarkably well. About 6 a.m I received my pre-med and very soon found myself being fearlessly wheeled away to the operating theatre, where in a few moments a vein was found in my hand and a drip inserted into my neck and after that I was aware of nothing.
I woke up with a big man shaking me and urging me to cough. “Cough! Cough!” I coughed and coughed and coughed up a big white tube. I was alive and breathing on my own. Very soon, almost drunk from anaesthetic I was conversing with my wife, and a friend, Garry. Through the night I got the closest attention from a nurse called Rebecca and in the morning Adrian took over. He removed three tubes about half inch in diameter which had been draining my chest . Then he tied up the loose ends. This procedure can only be described as a lively experience. The day that followed was my worst. I had to have stronger painkillers than paracetamol , which in their turn had stronger side effects, including nausea. Some time after midnight I got to sleep. All through this process I tried to eat, as advised, but it would be another 24 hours before I was eating properly and no longer feeling sick. Since then I have been on nothing but paracetamol for the pain. Other loose ends, like the jump-start wires into my heart, the catheter – something as a catheter virgin I need not have feared as much as I did – and the drip into my neck made me a free man. I had had my cabbage.
Several tasks had to be completed before I could return home, tasks like showering myself, climbing a flight of stairs and performing a bowel function. Despite regularly taking laxatives the last of these proved the most difficult task to achieve. On the morning of my release, Saturday, a team of doctors gathered round the bed to ask my progress. When it got to the inevitable bowel-function question I had to confess to some amusement: “I can produce enough wind to sail a pirate-ship, but no cannon balls to sink one.” Later that morning I succeeded in the most demanding of tasks. And two days after that the laxatives came back with a vengeance.
The whole experience in hospital taught me just how proud we should all be of the NHS, and how worried we should be about it being dismantled It was fitting that today I got an email petition from 38 Degrees which I share with you. Please sign it if you do not want a system where poor people are dying in the streets. There were poor people in my ward. I am so glad they were there.