By degrees they make you feel ill, even if you’re not yet sick.
I arrive at the hospital about 7pm in jeans and a t-shirt, a rucksack slung over my shoulder, a bag from Prét a Manger with naughty but nice snacks for later.
It’s as if I’m checking in to a hotel. Actually, I think I said that at the desk on the ward: “Oh, hi, just me, you know, checking in.”
They show me to my bed, and a nurse comes along and takes my blood pressure, measures my oxygen levels (with a strange red glowing finger thingy), and sticks a thermometer under my tongue. Just checking my ‘obs’, she says.
Have you got the wrong person, I think? I’ve not actually had anything done to me yet.
Are you allergic to anything? Any medical conditions we should know about? (Er, do you mean apart from the brain tumour?) Ha ha.
Oh, well, actually there is this kidney thing. And the appendectomy. The stomach ulcer. My brother’s cancer. A life of illnesses come back to haunt me, scrawled down on a chart at the end of my bed in ball point pen.
Then the disrobing begins.
It starts, of course, with the white band. One on the wrist, then another on the ankle. The first stage of an ebbing away of my sense of wellness. Slow by slow step, my gradual acquisition of the accoutrements of sickness remind me that all is not quite right.
“That’ll be it for the night,” says the nurse. “You won’t see anyone else tonight.”
It’s only about 8pm, and my wife is still here. We chat excitedly as if we’re in a hotel. Sleeping this close to central London would normally cost you a fortune, we joke.
I’m in a ward with six other guys, some reading, some sleeping, a few grunting and grumbling in pain. Fresh sheets, a big screen TV for us all to share, my own little cupboard, a little reading lamp. I could get used to all this. We break out the Prét a Manger.
A doctor turns up at 9-ish. He’s on his rounds. He takes some blood. He asks me about any allergies (again), and checks me over. Shines a torch in my eyes. Hold my hands, now push against them, now pull. Very good. Now to the side, push right arm, now push left. OK, now the feet.
He’s got one of those plastic white sticks with a rubber doughnut on the end, and sets about banging different parts of my body to see whether my reactions are intact. They are. Like I say, you haven’t done anything to me yet.
Do I know my name? My date of birth? Where I am? What’s the date today? Like saying ‘bomb’ on a plane, I don’t muck around with these questions. I answer straight, and he goes on his way.
“That’s all for tonight,” he says over his shoulder. “Someone will be round to see you in the morning.”
My wife leaves and now I’m starting to feel like I ought to be sicker. Maybe I’m letting someone down. I’m an imposter in this place of ill people. I’ll blend in better, I decide, if I lose the jeans and pull on my pyjamas.
Twenty minutes later a surgeon comes up. He’s dressed in blue gowns and sports a hairnet. “Who’s brain have you been inside today?” I wonder.
He explains the procedure. Tomorrow morning, they’ll send me down for an MRI scan. That’ll help guide the surgeons as they drill a hole in my head and use a stealth guided needle to take a piece of the tumour for analysis. He goes over the risks again: the death, the permanent disablement, the stuff that’s been going round and round and round in my head for the last week.
From 12pm, I’m not to eat. From 6am I must not drink. He finishes off by drawing a big red arrow in marker on my neck, pointing up. In case someone gets confused and tries to do brain surgery on my arse.
He’s reassuring, but with all these tests and warnings and instructions, I’m feeling a bit more like I’m starting to fit in here.
But I’m in good hands. Though he’s clear about the risks, he seems so relaxed about the operation. I’m a pretty routine gig around these parts.
As he leaves he just about manages to say no-one else will come and see me tonight when a new nurse pops her head around the curtain. Time for my ‘obs’.
This nurse is no messing. Stern. Matronly. She does my blood pressure, my oxygen levels, my temperature. She hands me one of those gowns that show your backside, and some tight socks to prevent DVT.
I need to change my own pyjamas for these, she instructs. I will, I promise, next time I get up to go to the loo. She looks sceptical, then spies the book sitting by my side, waiting to be read just as soon as I stop getting disturbed. You should be going to sleep, she says, and turns out my light.
At 11pm some poor guy has just been brought in: he’s suffering, obviously struggling. He cries out in pain, gurgles through the tubes half-blocking his airways.
At 3am, the nurse – the one who told me I should be getting some sleep – wakes me.
She has to put on some stickers, so the surgeons can guide where the needle will go. I sit up in bed and she plasters me with a dozen circular pads. Then she pulls from her pocket a green marker pen. Not some medical instrument, just your standard WH Smiths permanent marker. She colours in the centre of each circle. The whole process takes no more than three minutes.
“Now, try to get some sleep,” she says.
I can’t help a sneaky trip to the loo first, to examine my new look. I look stupid, but worse. For the first time, I look quite ill. The poor guy who was struggling seems to have settled down, or maybe he’s been taken away. I drift back off to sleep.
It’s 6am and a new nurse calls around. He wants to check I’ve taken my epilepsy medicine, because after six I mustn’t eat or drink a thing.
Six is the start of the day in hospital. There are no lie-ins here. People are milling around, orderlies are throwing open curtains (my window looks out onto a picturesque air conditioning system), and the twice-daily cleaning of the wards has already begun.
I get just a sniff of other people’s breakfasts, before a porter comes to take me down for my MRI scan. Of course, I’m still in my pyjamas, even now resisting my last induction to the world of the sick.
He stands and watches as I don my gown, finally jettisoning anything I have left that makes me feel I don’t belong here. He has a wheelchair, but I say I’d rather walk. We go through ward after ward, through corridors, down stairs, past the reception desk and into the MRI department.
I sit on a chair, my naked buttocks chafing on the roughness on the green pre-formed plastic, waiting to go into the machine.
Then, and only then, do I remember that my face and head are plastered with stupid circular stickers, each with a green mark stuck right in the middle.
Health update: I’m home back in Essex, after a long-night’s sleep at the in-laws.
Yesterday, I must have been fired up on adrenaline. I was able to leave the hospital (wearing a cap) and make my merry way back on public transport to the suburbs, alongside the bustling city folk calling it a day at 3pm and streaming into the pubs to enjoy the sun.
Arriving back, my kids seemed not to have missed me one bit. Nor were they interested in the plaster or the staples in my head. Still, I’m surprised how good I’m feeling. I only came out of surgery about 15 hours ago.
Well, you know that scene at the end of Terminator? That bit where the battered shell of the robot’s remains, still with its one glowing determined red eye, drags itself towards Sarah Connor using the only limb it has left? That bit where she flicks a switch and finally, triumphantly crushes the Terminator’s head under a heavy metal roller?
Today, that’s a bit how everything feels above the neck.