Fri 9 April, 2004
Managed to get out of bed and sit in a chair, despite the various drips and lines, but I needed help from the nurses, who simply pressed a button. The electric motors raised my back while lowering my legs. That made it easy to get out of bed and into the chair. Spent a long time in that chair, dozing. No food, but gradually feeling better as the effects of the anaesthetic wore off.
Either I was recovering well, or there was a lot of pressure on the ITU beds, as I was told that would be moving to normal ward later that day.
I had an early introduction to the realities of hospital life, when the nurses suggested I might like to have a wash. It was now Friday morning, and I had not washed or shaved since Wednesday. There was no way I could get to a washroom, so I was brought a bowl of warm water, a lot of disposable towels and a bar of soap.
Anyone who has been recently sliced up the midriff will know that the stomach muscles normally used to sit up from a lying position do not work. I needed help to sit upright. The electrics sorted that out but worse, I was unable to wash myself, so it fell to one of the nurses to wash all my erogenous zones, and try to shave my face.
Shaving was the worst part. My wife had brought a new tube of shaving gel to go in my washbag, and the lovely nurse used half of it over my dry face, and then dragged the razor harshly over my 60-hour stubble. Not only did this sting somewhat, but it caused severe razor burns and all but scraped the skin off from under my lower lip. It must be tough, as a young woman, to shave a middle-aged guy. She also washed my 'pits and crotch. Fortunately, she was more gentle there than she had been with the razor.
This brings me on to one of the more delicate aspects of hospital life. Over the next two weeks, I took to wandering around in nothing more than a hospital gown--something like a night dress. This is standard issue for all patients. Some choose to wear underwear as well, to protect their modesty, but because all the beds, chairs and other furniture are covered with PVC to prevent too much damage from the all-too-frequent leakage of bodily fluids, I found sitting in underwear much too sweaty. Not being especially modest, I took to wearing a gown and nothing else. As I became more mobile I washed thoroughly and changed the gown often. It worked well.
The only problem was at the back. The gown overlaps around the back, but if one is not careful about making the fabric lie straight, then the rear slit shows a long line of flesh from the knee up to the shoulder. More than once, one of the nurses had to stop me and re-arrange the fabric.
I've never worn skirts, so I have never thought too much about keeping my knees together, or otherwise protecting my modesty when swinging off a bed, or manouvering my body around. When going down for X-ray, for example, one has to swing off a wheelchair and on to a bed. For better or worse everything is on show, unless one is excruciatingly careful. I usually prefaced such acrobatics by muttering that I was about to show off my immodesty. The narrow range of responses showed how mundane body parts have become for most of the medical staff.
I think the best response came from a young radiographer, who said casually, "Oh after a while you don't even look" The nurses on the ward were equally bored about it all. Now these are young women, typically in their 20s, and they have all the healthy interests that 20-something women have. They left me in no doubt that they had seen it all before, and that if anyone was going to be embarrassed or squeamish about seeing or touching any body parts, it was not going to be a nurse or a doctor.
Nevertheless, the relationship between patient and nurse is curiously intimate. Not sexual, but intimate. Every time I had a shower (in later days), the dressings on my wounds became wet. A wet dressing maintained at body heat is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, so the dressing had to be changed every time.
The curtains around the bed are drawn, creating a small, darkened space. I am lying there, freshly showered and naked, except for my gown, pulled up to my chest, with only a clean, cotton sheet covering my lower half. She is close by, tenderly wiping the space between each staple with a cotton wool bud, soaked in alcohol, to keep the area sterile. I can feel her body heat close to mine, and the tender touch of gentle stroking on my lower abdomen is only familiar in much more intimate contexts. We talk. Sometimes about hopes and fears, sometimes about the daily routine. Sometimes about other things. It’s a good feeling.
Meanwhile, back in ITU, the nurse has washed me, but I am still too drugged up to feel any of this intimacy. And besides, she seems to be taking for ever to get anything done.
My smart electric bed is wheeled away, and replaced with one of the oldest beds in the hospital. I am too dopey to care, but I can feel that the new bed is much less comfortable than the electric one. The porters wheel me through the hospital to Keate ward, where I am left pretty much on my own to fend for myself.
The nurses are much too busy to care for me, so I have to pull myself up every time I want to sit up in bed to take a drink or some medicines. It's not easy.
I have the PCA which allows me to control the pain by injecting morphine into myself. Each time I feel too much pain, I press a little button, and a motor drives a syringe, which pushes the pain-killing mixture into a line in my arm. In addition, I am taking the maximum dosage of paracetamol and dimethyl codiene. I am not especially happy about taking morphine, and besides, the pain is not that bad, so I choose not to use the PCA very much and the nurses admonish me for it, telling me I should be using it more.
In the evening, a friend arrives and is amazed at how well I look after such a serious accident. I discover that I am feeling very positive about life and the future. Maybe it's just Mark, who is himself a positive guy, but I do feel very good about the future.