When my friend Anna found out I was taking a bus to the Whittington Hospital the morning of my hip replacement, she called me names, shouted and said 'She was hiring a £”!!! car.' I said this wasn't necessary. She told me to - well - to be quiet - and when the cab picked me up in the darkness outside my flat on 29th November, Tuesday morning, 6:30 - I was very glad to know we were getting her next.
I had no idea just how glad I could be until she was still with me at 2pm. We waited for seven hours in a curtained cubicle for me to be taken into surgery. I was naked under two hospital gowns and wore purple slippers.
I do not use the term ‘friend’ lightly.
Driving north from Bayswater in pre-dawn London, I felt a combination of mild hysteria and exhaustion. I hadn't slept more than about twenty minutes, although I put that down to the intense carbo-drinks they get you to ingest in the 24 hours before the operation. 'It's what athletes drink, before a marathon' a pre-op nurse had told me. I had taken mine religiously the day before, downing two more before the cab arrived. When we got to Anna I was buzzing.
She slid in beside me, smiling, took my hand and asked me how I was. I shouted 'High!' she said 'Good!', and we drove a dark, circuitous path to Highgate, arriving at 6:55 - five minutes early.
We walked up to the Day Centre and there were already a dozen people waiting to be admitted. 'Oh my god, maybe you're right Steph, maybe it's first come, first serve' Anna said. We tried to seat ourselves so we could elbow the more elderly-looking out of the way to make sure I got a good place in the queue. When the desk opened I was the last to be ticked off the list and I don't know if this was pertinent, but I was last in line for surgery that day.
We were escorted down hallways to the aforementioned cubicles. I changed into my two blue gowns (‘Good colour on you!’ Anna cried) and sat while she played me songs on her iPod and read me poetry. She brought work and marked papers; I did a bit of writing. We eavesdropped on the doctors speaking to the patients beside us and I recognised my surgeon's voice as he did his rounds.
'That's him, he's coming' I said. 'He has that – shy-but-friendly-scientist thing.' I’d also told Anna he was cute so this was our chance to see if she thought I was right.
In fact, it’s probably why she came.
We heard 'Stephanie Young?' and both looked up as – I’ll call him Dr Who - pulled our curtain back.. In actual fact he is Mr Who because, in the UK, once you’ve reached the illustrious heights of consultant status, you drop that title you’ve worked most of your bloody life for and are no longer referred to as ‘doctor’ but ascend back to ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr.’ So orthopaedic surgeon, Mr Who, attended by someone so deferential as to hardly be corporeal (Anna and I agreed later we had no recollection of any discernible features or recognisable human characteristics in this ghostly attendant but who must have been there because we saw a clipboard) Mr Who, I say, smiled and asked how I was.
'I'm fantastic, I'm buzzing!' I said.
'Oh?' he said, smiling more broadly but also more unsure.
'Yeah, those drinks. I'm high as a kite.'
Anna nodded beside me. He glanced at her and seemed relieved. I was obviously demented so it was good to have someone coherent in the room.
He told us what the day might hold. He looked well-rested, his blue eyes were sparkly and he was wearing a suit. (I said to Anna that I hoped he'd change before operating. I had visions of pus and guts and effluvia all over his – well. Anyway. The dry-cleaning bill could be pricey.) He outlined again the risks of the surgery but confirmed I needed it, asked if I understood, got me to sign some forms - all of which I read. He started to describe what I was signing, assuming I was reading because I didn't understand.
'No, she does this,' Anna explained. 'She also reads terms and conditions.'
'Oh?' Mr Who said.
Anna gestured 'crazy' beside her head.
'Yes,' I said, not looking up. ‘I don't want to commit myself to loaning you £300...'
He is shy but laughs.
He said the procedure could take two hours, probably more an hour and a half. He asked if I still wanted to go through with it.
I was so keen at this point, if he'd had a Swiss army knife and a bottle of gin I would have suggested we have a go then and there. Instead I consented, he said 'Fine' and told us unfortunately there was a bit of a back log and I might not go in until after lunch. It was 9am. I felt bad for Anna but I knew she would hit me with the oxygen tank under the table if I suggested she leave me so just nodded, philosophically, at Mr Who. He continued.
‘There may have been contraction of the thigh muscles while you have been accommodating this condition and if so, I will lengthen the leg slightly.’
I frowned but Anna’s eyes lit up.
‘Could you lengthen both of them?’ she asked. ‘Juuuuust a teeeeny bit?’
Mr Who gazed at us. I sighed.
‘She’s always wanted me to be taller,’ I explained.
Anna nodded, eagerly. Realising we must have looked suspiciously intimate – not knowing that Anna was simply tired of bending down to ask me the time – and wanting to leave all lunching, dating, dining options open in Mr Who’s mind, I said, loudly ‘Not that we are actually lovers.’
The floor around our cubicle went silent. Mr Who cleared his throat at which I point I noticed the ring on his left hand. It obviously didn’t matter what my sexual orientation was, he and I were having a strictly professional relationship. I rose above my disappointment as he gathered himself - maybe seeking diversion from the image of the two women in front of him engaged in carnal embrace - and asked if I had any further questions.
'Yes,' I said. 'I have just one.' He gazed at me, patient, blue-eyed, and attentive. I breathed in deeply, became very still and looked into his face. Then I said, slowly
'Have you done this before?'
He laughed in a way that sounded as though he couldn't tell whether to be hugely offended or hugely amused. He almost sort of half fell over.
'No, you're the first,' he said, still making that almost-laughing almost-offended sound.
'Well, I'd like you to sign it, then' I said, indicating the scar on my hip. He looked to the intern (now a respectful vapour) and out of the mist came a felt pen.
‘It’s this hip, isn’t it – you confirm that?’ said Mr. Who.
‘Yessss,’ I said, thinking I didn’t want him to sign BEFORE the surgery. That was cheating.
He asked me to raise my hospital gown slightly and, witnessed by the spectral presence, put a big, black arrow on my right thigh.
Mr Who smiled.
‘Just to make sure,’ he said. I looked down at the greasy-looking road sign on my leg.
‘Does that come off?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ he smiled, opening the curtain, about to leave. He looked over his shoulder. ‘In three or four months.’
I obviously wasn’t going to have lunch with him, but I’d encouraged his inner Jack Dee. My job was done.
Anna and I chatted. We read. She left for ten minutes, feeling guilty for being able to eat and drink, so having her lunch, decorously, in the cafe without me. At 12:30 she came back and overheard a surgeon in the cubicle beside us say 'The lady next to you is going in now'. She turned to me, beaming, saying 'That's you! you could be next!' And I surprised myself by feeling uninterested, even slightly hostile. We'd been waiting five hours, hadn't seen Mr Who since 9:15 and I'd lost momentum. For the first time I wasn't excited, I was nervous. I’d been standing too long in the queue for the roller coaster, I was asking myself why I wanted to plunge 90 feet at 120 miles per hour. Straight down.
I was going to be cut open, bits of me were going to be removed and new, fake bits put in.
I know it’s something most Hollywood starlets have been undergoing since adolescence but it was a first for me.
Suddenly I wanted to go home.
If I had tried to bolt, however, I don’t think I would have got past the very pleasant, not-very big-but-very-strong-looking Polish nurse who pulled back the curtains carrying her own clipboard and a machine. She took my blood pressure (which was fine) (which was disappointing – with all the ruddy cycling I wanted her to shout ‘You have the most healthy blood pressure I’ve ever encountered in my life!’ – instead Anna’s was lower) and told us it would be another two hours. Anna asked, firmly, if I might have a drink. The Polish nurse smiled, incredulous.
‘No,’ she said.
‘She’s thirsty,’ Anna said. ‘Not even a sip?’
The nurse considered. She left the cubicle with forms and the equipment. She came back with a paper cup.
‘You may have one sip,’ she told me. ‘A mouthful.’ I swished it around in my mouth as though it were a glass of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947. I took ten minutes to swallow.
And I don’t know if it was that moment of hydration, or Anna’s love or the nurse’s compassion, but my spirits lifted. I thought of my happy future. I was going to roller blade again. Do yoga bends. I could return to every sexual posture imaginable. All this was possible because of the titanium spike about to be hammered into my thigh. I chatted with Anna, buoyant; there was more reading, more poetry and at 2pm the nurse came back. I was next. She raised an eyebrow and smiled at me.
She asked what tune I was whistling.
I was obviously ready.
The anaesthetist outlined 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 drilling) or general anaesthetic. 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.'