Medical reminders

Small things can escape through the sieve of memory. Events can wrench them back starkly.

A recent stay in hospital brought back many little reminders of things I had forgotten, or rather stored deep and inactive in my memory. I was brought in for three days – a small, routine operation – I had the luck of the draw, at least compared to my three roommates.

Opposite lay a truckdriver who had fallen off his scooter very early one morning as he entered his workplace to start his new day. The scooter was ok, but he broke his tibia underneath the kneecap. He lay on the wet ground waiting for help, and the ambulance was shut outside the electronic security gate. Once in hospital they pinned his leg, linked the pins with external metal rods. He would need a second operation in a week to insert a plate. He could not move. “Can you wash yourself?” said the young trainee nurse.

Next to me was a man who had had a head operation the previous day. He’d suffered from a balance disorder for seven years. Eventually it was diagnosed as leaking from one of the semi-circular canals. As he described the operation, “they opened up the side of my head, lifted up my brain, inserted a cannula over the leaking canal, lowered my brain, and sewed up my head.” Sounds so simple! The result was amazing: he could see much sharper than he had ever been able to, and the world stopped oscillating.

The third roommate, however, had endured a commando operation for cancer. He had deep incisions down the side of his neck, across to his shoulder, down the abdomen, and also a long incision in his arm. He lay partially inert. The young trainee nurse had clearly never met such a case before: “Can you swallow your medicine?” she said, oblivious to the evidence. “Can you wash yourself?” she said to the man who was locked into many tubes.

It was not so much the commando operation that reminded me of my wife Eva’s – the man was recuperating better than Eva had – but the little things around it, things that had become obscured in my memory. The way the feeding tube through the nose needed to be changed; the aspiration of the tracheotomy tube through the front of the neck, to suck out phlegm from the lungs; and the pulverization of the medication, so that it could be injected through the nasal tube; the fact that the man, incapable of speech, had to write down everything he wished to communicate. So was it with Eva.

The little things that I can recall: adjusting the flow the enteral feed, deblocking, delivering the medication, checking breathing, wiping brows, communicating via eyes, via the written word. I have kept the last words Eva wrote, her last verbal communication. One day I may share. Mundane, functional, small, no ‘great last words’. Small things that persist, small things that endure. Small things that make up a life.

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