Anna was terrified that I would die on the operating table or that Mr Who would replace the wrong hip. I didn't know. Given her fears, the fact she was about to leave me in the cubicle that had been our home these past seven hours for a prior appointment meant she was either very brave, trusting my life to the medical gods – or cavalier. Heartlessly callous even.
As I had no idea she didn't give a toss about me, I hugged her happily, waved her off and within 30 seconds the anaesthetist arrived, outlining the options.
I had the choice of light sedation ('Are you out of your f****! mind?' I said) (no, but - thought it), heavy sedation (not really conscious but might hear some hammering) or general. Out. Under. Gone.
He was selling the sedative – fewer side effects, the recovery time is faster. He shrugged, politely.
‘If you’re in distress, we can ask how you are and switch to the general.’
I stared at him. I said, blinking 'Ask how I am? I could TALK?' and he said 'Yes, more or less.'
I reached out, grabbed his collar in both of my fists, brought his face very close to mine and said, very slowly and very loudly - 'I don't want to be able to talk.'
That clinched it.
And as I was taking the Trip to the Bathroom they told me I Should Take, thinking about my happily-general anaesthetic, I suddenly had a revelation.
All along, without knowing it, I had been associating this experience with my original injury. The injury that happened the December I was 22, on a perfect winter afternoon - a quiet snow falling, sunlight dim through white clouds – when my sister, then-husband and I went tobogganing down a popular local Ottawa hill. Conditions were ideal and we had two hilarious runs. Our third attempt saw me, recklessly, crossing my legs under the bend of the sled (rookie mistake) and when we hit a bump and went over, my husband landed on top of me and my leg stayed behind. The head of my femur was shoved up into my waist. And stayed there for several hours because I was too stoic to scream in the ambulance or the halls of the hospital.
Even though I enjoyed a full recovery, the cartilage started to disintegrate four years ago and by the time I was walking to the bathroom at the Whittington Hospital at 2:40 pm on the 29th of November, the ball of my femur spent most of its time resting on the bone of my pelvis. Which doesn’t feel great (When Mr Who had first seen the x-ray of my hip he had squinted, breathed in deeply and said ‘Aarrrrrgggghh!!.’ I said ‘That’s not very professional.’ At which point, still staring, he said ‘Oooooooggghh!’ ignoring me completely. Things were obviously worse than I’d known.)
I washed my hands in the loo, remembering the accident and the agony of the medics trying to pull my leg back into place without pain killers and it occurred to me, out of the blue that - THIS WAS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. I was going to be DRUGGED THE WHOLE TIME. I wasn't in pain now (well, only when I walked), I would not be in pain during the surgery and - I HAD DRUGS FOR THE PAIN AFTERWARDS.
I almost laughed.
I emerged and was met by the nice-but-firm Polish nurse who escorted me down the hall. We passed a sign that said 'Theatres' and I felt immediately at home. An orderly smiled at me and said 'Good luck!' I said 'Thank you. I'm going to a theatre!'
The nurse left me with the anaesthetists saying 'Have fun' and waved. The assistant anaesthetist was smiling under his mask, preparing things in the room. The head honcho anaesthetist – let’s call him Dr Feelgood - arrived and said, very jolly 'So - we're going for the light sedation are we?'
'No, we most certainly are not,' I screamed. Well. Said firmly with as much authority as someone on her back, naked under a gaping hospital gown can muster. 'It's all there in that form.' I pointed. He looked and said 'Oh yes, I see. The general. Well, that's fine, we'll do that then.'
I decided not to be alarmed by this apparently casual attitude to my most fervent wishes, and instead allowed myself to be distracted by the expert small talk he launched into, pretending we were having a friendly chat at the canapé table before drinks at the opera. He asked what I did for a living. 'I'm a writer,' I said.
'Aaahh!' said the two men who were preparing to insert needles into my wrist and spine, in hushed and respectful tones. Men in masks who performed life-saving jobs every day of their lives. Like. 'You're a WRITER. That's - important.'
Dr Feelgood said he had 25 years of experience he wanted to write about but never found the time. We talked about Ian McEwan's Saturday, had he read it? 'Yes, about the neurosurgeon? Yes. But I'm not much of a novel reader. By my bed at the moment I have How to Tie Knots and Training Horses.’
'I want to learn to tie knots!' I shouted, trusting him immediately.
'Do you?' he said. 'I'll show you, I'll do one here now.'
The masked assistant raised his eyebrows but the chief seemed to have no inclination to actually make good on his promise. Instead he moved behind me and put a swab on my back.
'What do you write?' he asked.
'Plays,' I said.
'Ah! And where have your plays been put on? - Hang on, let's have another go, it didn't take there. Just try up here. Good thing you're thin, makes it easy for us.'
They moved the needle up a bit, although I didn't feel it go in.
'I've had plays at the Arts Theatre in the West End. And Theatre Royal in Bath,' I said. I could feel their attentive care, their interest, and thought to myself 'Yes, well, why not? I'm a verrrrrrrrry interesting person.'
I was enjoying this conversation, this sense of myself as someone to reckon with in the world. I was enjoying everything - did he just say I was thin?? – I wanted to hear more about training horses. Maybe he made the knots in the ropes he used to train the horses. There was much more about my writing I wanted to share. I liked these men. I liked horses. I liked knots.
And then I woke up.
Someone was holding my hand, very lovingly. Three doctors in blue surgical gear were at the foot of my bed, beaming. BEAMING. I suppose every day someone doesn't die on your watch it's a good day. I recognised Mr Who, even without my contact lenses.
'It went very well. No complications, we're very pleased. You've done very well.'
And weirdly - I thought 'Yes I have.' As if I had anything to do with surgically removing calcified and arthritic bone, inserting a titanium spike holding a ceramic ball into a ceramic socket into the pelvis of a living body. 'Yes, I've done WELL.'
The post-op nurse was still holding my hand as he said 'It's been a joy caring for you.'
I would like at this point to say if I ever hear anyone breathe a word of anything even remotely critical of the NHS I will follow them down the pathways of their life, reading my testimonial in a loud voice in public places, shouting out my unqualified devotion for everyone who is a part of this efficient and humane system.
‘It’s been a joy’ he said, squeezing my hand.
I don’t think health gets any better care than that.
And I was trolleyed away. I felt no pain. I had been surgically-and-post-operatively loved. It was over.
Apparently I waved at the nurses in reception when I got to the ward. I only know this because my friend Mark was on the phone with the nurse at reception at that precise moment, asking if I'd arrived. 'Ah, that might be her now. She is - she is - waving,' the nurse at reception said.
'Yeah. That's her,' Mark affirmed.
Five minutes later, having been set in place by a huge window, another friend - let’s call her – Lisa – because that’s, like, her name - walked in, disguised as a ministering angel. Straight to my bedside, she put her arms around me and I almost cried. She sat with me for two hours, holding my fingers and, get this, putting her hand lovingly on my back as I proceeded to vomit not once, or twice but FIVE times in 90 minutes. At one point I turned to her and said, weakly 'Are you squeamish?' 'Not in the slightest' she said. 'Barf away.'
She stayed until visiting hours were over. I fell asleep. And slept so deeply, so profoundly that when I woke and saw it was 12:53 – I assumed it was the next day. FAR into the next day. Seventeen hours into the next day.
But it was very dark. On the ward – and on the street. And even in my morphined-state this darkness was a clue; that and the fact there was no noise of people running to and fro, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if night had beaten off bright day, and taken possession of the world. As Dickens might have said.
I’d only been asleep for five hours.
The lamps outside glowed orange across my blankets. I lay, sighing, in a stupor of peace. Perhaps drug-induced peace, but, more convincingly, a product of every single wonderful, loving, prayerful thought that had been broadcast to me over the past 24 hours. A cloud of beneficence surrounded me and I felt bliss. And saw how my physical life had been given back to me.
Mr Who came with the same clip board attendant the next day to check my progress. I turned to the ghostly assistant this time and said 'Hello. I'm Stephanie.'
'Oh yes,' said Mr Who, looking at his colleague. 'We ALL know who you are.'
I decided this was a good thing.
Outside of two setbacks the next day when I passed out, trying to walk - scaring everyone around me apparently - 'It's always the young ones who give you trouble!' a nurse said later - I was sailing. Forty-two hours after surgery I was on crutches, doing the stairs. The physios grinned, my surgeon grinned. This was a conversation between the x-ray technician and me, the Thursday before I left hospital:
Tech: (hauling machine around) So when did you have the op?
Tech: A week last Tuesday?
Me: No. This Tuesday.
Tech: Tuesday?? 48 hours ago? And you're WALKING??? I've NEVER, ever seen anyone walking after two days.
Me: Really? Oh thank you. I've been wanting a prize and no one has suggested I deserve one.
Tech: The nurses will all be talking about it.
She saw me manipulate my leg on the table to get it back on the floor for the crutches.
Tech: Does it hurt badly?
Tech: (quietly) You must have a high threshold of pain.
And I thought 'Honey, until you've been tobogganing and shoved your hip up into your waist - you don't know from pain.'. NOTHING is even remotely as bad as the original injury. No where near.
I got home to my bed, 72 hours post-operation, and was already forgetting I had the surgery, it all felt so good.
I was able to walk with only one crutch - so I could carry tea to my room.
I had been given enough chocolate to re-sink the Mary Rose.
And Anna agreed – Mr Who was cute.