Thursday, 31 May 2012

Fear and Loathing in West London

When dawn broke on the morning of the 26th October last year, I wasn’t sure I was ready.  I’d packed my bag, obviously; I’d not had the drinks they’d given me as part of what was called the ‘enhanced recovery programme’, which was supposed to mean you healed more quickly, but seemed to me to be just an excuse to make a person drink more revolting liquid. There are so many hideous liquids you have to drink when you have an inflammatory bowel disease and I make it my mission to avoid as many of them as possible.  Including these ones, which I finally dug out of the back of the fridge and threw away just a couple of months ago. If and when they asked me about them, I was going to lie and say they’d made me feel sick. I hadn’t actually tasted one, but I knew they would; I’d decided they would, and that made it so.

A quick breakdown of the hideous liquids – there’s barium for x-rays, there are all kinds of weird contrast drinks for other tests where you have to drink them over varying periods of up to several hours before lying in a plastic tube, or on a big metal table with machines hanging over you, and then there’s the downright evil that is Piccolax, a preparation for clearing out your bowels prior, most usually, to a colonoscopy (another joy in itself).  Piccolax is unholy – you pour the powder into cold water and watch as it heats and fizzes and bubbles in a way that can only be described as wrong.  And then you have to drink it; gallons of it, at the end of which you might as well just sit on the toilet for a day or so because getting off will only result in a few seconds of being in another room before you have to run back again.  I was so relieved when I had had enough of my intestines removed that I no longer had to take Piccolax or anything else before a colonoscopy.  All I had to do was stop eating and stop taking codeine and my bowel would empty itself all on its own.  Anyway, you can see that what I’m doing here is what I was doing on the morning of the proctectomy – digressing; distracting myself.  I’ll stop.

Before saying goodbye to the teen (see last week’s blog for that particular tale), I had a sudden panic about my bag.  I should change it, right?  I’d changed it the day before, but I was about to go into surgery; surely it was only polite to do that with the cleanest, freshest bag possible.  Now was my last chance to do that.  And what happened with the bag during the operation anyway?  The surgeon would be going through my old scar to take the rectum out – the scar that bisects my torso from breast to pubis, and which is partially covered by the bag.  So the bag would have to come off, surely, in which case what did it matter if it was yesterday’s bag or one fresh on a few hours before?  Well, it mattered to me; I was going to change it.  So I did; fortunately my many hours of pre-operative starvation meant that was a pretty easy process, but as I peeled it off of my stomach, I thought of a new worry; if the bag was off during the surgery, and the surgery was going to last at least five hours, then the stoma was bound to gush while I was under wasn’t it, and then what would happen? What if the output squirted so dramatically that it landed inside the open wound?  How embarrassing that would be; what on earth would everyone think of me, and precisely how insane was I to be worrying about what the surgeon who created my stoma in the first place (and told me he voted it his stoma of the month at the time) was going to think of how it behaved while he was busy ripping out my rectum and sewing up my anus to create my Barbie butt?  If anybody was aware of how a stoma could behave under any circumstance, and likely to be able to handle it with aplomb and absolutely no revulsion, it was my surgeon.  Any surgeon, really, but definitely my one because he’s wonderful.  Obviously.  Otherwise I wouldn’t be putting my life in his hands.  Again.

Fresh bag applied, body waxed and freshly showered, teen kissed goodbye, and I was ready to make that journey across town.  Husband drove, as usual, and we listened to the dulcet tones of Eddi Reader and Fairground Attraction singing The First of a Million Kisses, which is kind of our song.  Well, our album really; it was playing a lot when we first got together so it kind of happened by default, though there are a few Sinatra songs that arouse the same emotional response in us; that make us look at each other knowingly with a slightly cynical, ‘if we had an ‘our song’ this would be it, but we’re not really like that’ sort of a look.  We didn’t say much; Eddi crooned all that needed to be said, in her own special way.  Whatever happened to her anyway?  She was good.

The journey from north to west London doesn’t take nearly as long at 6.30am as it does later in the day, and before we knew it, we were there, and sitting waiting to see the anaesthetist.  She came in and talked me through what drugs I would have and we argued briefly about the need for an epidural.  An epidural worked fine when I had my son; absolutely perfectly – I didn’t feel any contractions and it wore off just as I needed to push.  I had thought epidurals were great, until they gave me one when I had the ileostomy surgery and I’d woken up with my legs completely numb.  Both legs.  Entirely numb.  And pain where they’d cut me open, which somewhat negated the whole epidural thing, and eventually someone came and took it out and gave me morphine with a clicker that meant I could administer it myself and that was much better so I was insistent that we went straight to that option this time please, thank you very much. Then my surgeon came in as well and reminded me again about the mortality rate for this operation being 1%, which is not exactly high, but I remember fleetingly wondering if this would be the surgery I didn’t survive.  At this point, I didn’t know about the teen’s thoughts on the subject so I believed it was an original idea, and it was a momentary concern.  This was my first ever elective surgery.  The operation I didn’t actually ‘need’; not in a new pair of boobs or stretched out face kind of way, but in an I wouldn’t die if I didn’t have it kind of way, and all the other bowel surgeries I’d had over the years had been that serious.  Maybe I’d be punished for this; for choosing a massive surgery that wasn’t entirely necessary in a life threatening context.  Was I just being a bit of a spoiled brat having it; a bit whiny; a bit, well, my life will be better if I do have it and it’ll mean everything’s all solved and finished off and there’s no going back from the baglady thing, but it’s not like I was going to be in screaming agony or drop dead in the supermarket if I didn’t have it.  Anyway, as I say, it was fleeting; momentary – there were plenty of excellent reasons to be having a procetctomy and that’s why I was having it and enough already with the self-flagellation. 

And then it was just the husband and me and those horrible white support stockings that you have to wear for major operations.  I pulled them on over my waxed legs, wondering why I’d bothered, and sat waiting for what would come next.  One thing that had changed between the two operations was that they give you two hospital gowns now, so that there’s no gaping at the back.  You put one on one way and one the other, and lo that cliché of your arse hanging out the back of the gown is no more.  I held husband’s hand and we both squeezed; this was a big operation, we’d been told that over and over again, but we’d undergone all of the pre-op stages now.  Just a bit more waiting and I’d be gone.  I felt a bit wibbly; I wanted to cling to my husband like a leech and I never want to do that.  My surgery was due in thirty minutes.  I missed the days when they used to give you a pre-med and everything that was about to happen took on a hilarious hue; didn’t matter at all.  And then the surgeon came in again and told me he had one other operation today and it was going to be really quick, so did I mind if he put my surgery back about an hour, and then he’d have no distractions because I’d be the only one he was doing the whole day.  What could I say?  I did mind a bit; I wanted to get on with it, have that needle in the back of my hand that sends you off into oblivion sooner rather than later, if only to get rid of the icy fear that was creeping up and down my spine because my body thought surgery was imminent.  I told him it was fine, obviously.  At least I’d get a bit more time with husband. 

Then a nurse came in and said she needed the room for another patient and that it was time for me to go to the women’s waiting room.  Women’s waiting room?  That was new as well.  So I had to leave husband?  Now?  Even though my operation wasn’t going to be for another hour?  Yes, I did.  We hugged, and I followed the nurse to the women’s waiting room, knowing I’d have to lose the icy fear or go completely mental, given the amount of time I was going to be waiting.  ‘Did you have your pre-op drinks last night and this morning?’ the nurse asked as we walked.  ‘No,’ I told her.  ‘I tried, but they made me throw up.’


  1. "What if the output squirted so dramatically that it landed inside the open wound?"
    This line reminded me of my first night home after my month-stay at Leicester Royal Infirmary. My laparotomy wound popped open a week after surgery once I started putting on weight, and I spent a month there while it started to heal from the inside out. It was in such close proximity to the bag (as i was so tiny during the op) that the dressing overlapped the bag and stuck to that rather than skin! Anyway, first night home and I had a monumental Code Brown, where it leaked into the open laparotomy wound. Scariest night of my life, but that incident made me.

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  3. Loved the Barbie butt comment! I too have a Barbie butt, but only in the no butthole kind of way. I only wish mine looked as perky as Barbie's. Glad I found your blog! Mine is