Back in October I woke up in hospital after being unconscious for two days. The last thing I remember was sitting at my laptop and looking through the open French doors. White sheets drying.
When I woke it was dark. There was a keen smell of something sharp and my arm was attached to a drip. My partner bent over me and I wrapped my arms round him, reaching for safety. I tried to speak but words were spilling out like crazy salad. Even worse a part of my brain knew I was talking rubbish.
I was given a sedative and sank into a disturbed sleep.
I’d been due to meet my best friend for lunch on the Tuesday and hadn’t turned up. She was worried and contacted my partner (we don’t live together) who also tried to contact me. He then rang my ex who lives locally – who came round to my flat, couldn’t get in and called the police. They showed up, used a battering ram to get in and found me unconscious. I’d been on the floor for two days.
When I came to again, I was in a bed with blue curtains drawn round. The ward hummed. I jumped as the curtain whisked back. ‘Time to take your blood pressure!’ said a young nurse, in the first of approximately two million bp checks. My right arm was tattooed with tubes and drips, so I shakily offered up the other. The nurse left the curtains open and I blinked up at the jaundice yellow lighting.
The woman in the bed opposite was forever escaping downstairs for a cigarette despite laryngeal surgery. She was wispy thin, with red hair and her bare feet were beautifully pedicured. ‘Do you want anything from the shop?’ she’d rasp cheerfully, returning in a fug of smoke, her arms full of chocolate. In my head I called her Bette as she reminded me of Bette Davis.
In my drug befuddled state, I thought the second woman on the ward was yellow due to the lighting. On day two, she sat on my bed where I was trying to swallow some food under the watchful eye of Scary Nurse Sade.
‘I think I’ve lost my sense of smell and taste,’ I said.
‘Think yourself lucky,’ said Yellow and honked with laughter.
She told me she had liver cancer. ‘I can’t drink again. If I do, I’ll die.’
‘Bummer’ I said helpfully.
A few minutes later I was sick. ‘Oh dear oh dear’ said Scary Nurse Sade. I shakily held the cardboard all-purpose vom bowl, noting that my regurgitated lunch didn’t look much different from its original form.
The bed on my right was occupied by an Asian woman, delicate, with a mass of dark hair and liquid eyes. She seemed to sleep most of the day. On the second day as I looked out the window, she pointed to my head wound and said, ‘Husband’?
‘No no’ I said, horrified, adding ‘No’ for good measure. She didn’t seem to hear me but pointed to her bandaged leg and said, ‘Husband’.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said uselessly as Yellow shuffled by and glared at the Asian woman. ‘You kept me up all night with your wailing,’ she said. ‘Sounded like a bloody banshee.’ Banshee looked bewildered and sad. I hadn’t heard anything, but I’d been drugged. Bette then announced she was going for yet another fag. ‘Can I have chocolate?’ asked Banshee. ‘You still owe me for yesterday’ said Bette, and Banshee suddenly stopped understanding English.
Later that night, with the sedatives wearing off I woke to loud wailing and the sound of the night nurse hissing, ‘Relax . . . just relax!’ The next night, more wailing. I padded round the ward and talked to the night staff. Surely, I would be able to sleep by the following night. And I did until Banshee started shrieking at 3am. Again.
‘Shut the fuck up!’ yelled Bette and Yellow in tandem. The night nurse finally marched squeakily over to Banshee’s bed with a syringeful of something. After three nights without sleep I was hoping it was cyanide.
I thought of that cartoon by Jacky Fleming about an exhausted mother trying to comfort a shrieking baby. Eventually her small daughter says, ‘Shall we kill it mummy?’ The mother sighs and says, ‘It’s just not done.’
Day four . . .five . . . I tottered to the bathroom, holding onto the walls. My face was yellowy green and swollen like a Black Mirror version of Shrek, but it was my eyes that really startled me. Why had I pencilled thick black round them?
‘You have bilateral periorbital haematomas,’ said the doctor. ‘Better known as raccoon eyes. Often caused by a basal skull fracture. We need to do another MRI to check for any permanent neurological damage.’
Night five, and added to Banshee’s cacophony were various snorings, and random clunks. I spent hours at the nurse’s desk, watching shadows move, talking to lovely Surita at the desk who would tell me all about her four children and how tired she was with shift work. Even though I was exhausted, it felt good to not be a patient for a short while but a sympathetic ear.
On the sixth day I had a shocking look at myself in the mirror, realised that not only did I have a wrecked face and raccoon eyes, but Worzel Gummige hair, or ‘day three festival hair’ as my far cooler sister put it. Even so I begged her to help me wash it. We went to the bathroom which was unfortunately located next to the dementia ward. This meant that patients would knock on the door, be greeted by ‘Occupied!’, promptly forget they had knocked and knock again five minutes later. It made the process of getting clean a bit stressful, but my lovely sister remained unfazed. ‘We’ll laugh about this one day’ she said, managing to comb conditioner through my hair, shout ‘Go away’ and keep the door closed with her foot, all at the same time. Because despite everything I was cheered and buoyed up by the actions of my family and friends. They visited in a cheerful stream, heroically not wincing at my appearance. My best friend schlepped across London every day with books and toiletries. My sister washed, conditioned and fed me. Other friends breezed in on a wave of fresh air and good spirits. My partner, dropped his life and business, bounding into the ward every day, occasionally becoming what he calls emphatic and what everyone else calls Raising His Voice. He arranged for my front door to be replaced, barked at various officials and made sure the ten pounds I lost in hospital was swiftly replaced by his wonderful cooking.
I was cared for by doctors, a neurologist, many lovely nurses and one very scary one, had two MRIs, a sackful of drugs, terrible food and gallons of hot chocolate.
After a week in hospital, I tottered back into the huge, terrifying world and my partner drove me home, where I spent the next few months in recovery. Shored up by friends and family who loved and protected me, let me be and helped me get better. That and the incredible care from the NHS is why I feel so much better.
And the cost was zero.
Bette went home on day four. Yellow was sipping a cup of chicken soup when I left. ‘It’s the same colour as me,’ she snorted. When I left I squeezed Banshee’s hand which felt like a tiny bundle of dry sticks.
I still don’t know what happened. My dissociative amneisa means I may never know.
‘You were dangerously dehydrated and had very low blood sugar,’ said one doctor. Another day of being unconscious and you would have died.’
I kept waiting for that phrase to jerk me into some sort of state of shock. But it seems to further shore up the sense of how lucky I am to have such amazing people round me.
So, I begin 2018 in a spirit of thanks and optimism.