Day 4: through the fog I hear beeping. The continuous, rhythmic beeping of some far-off hospital machinery.. the type made famous by Monty Python with their ‘…machines that go Bing!…’ skit… Its rhythm continues unabated and I wonder where it’s coming from ..
beep… beep… beep… unstopping.
I turn my head to find it; in the hope that I can shut that fucking thing off and get some sleep…. But my head wont move. I try so hard to lift it off the pillow but it wont budge… Something from above keeps pressing down on me, but I don’t know what..
To my left I become aware now, of a new sound. Its rhythm is different to the machine that goes Bing! Its slower, lower and more animal like… it sounds almost as though some animal is breathing on me at close quarters… like an angry dog; but much much slower…..where the fuck am I?
Opening my eyes, I’m blinded by shards of sterile white fluorescent light. They stab at me and my eyes feel like they’re on fire and I desperately want to cover them with my fists… only I cant. My arms won’t come off the deck either. Try as I might, I can’t feel them. Something is terribly wrong here..
Slowly , I open my eyes again and quickly snap them shut again. The pain is horrific but I need to see. I’m scared shitless as I don’t know where I am, and since I can’t feel my hands or feet for that matter; I’m frightened that I might be a newly minted quadriplegic. Maybe, I’m dead and this place is… what exactly? Frightened beyond words… I begin to yell, but nothing comes out… In my head, I’m screaming.. and since I know my ears are working ( I can still hear that infernal machine beeping) I’m now petrified because I know no sounds are coming from my throat…
Where am I? What the fuck has happened to me. Where is everybody ?
Taking a moment to collect myself, my eyes are adjusting and I’m able to take in my surrounds. I cant seem to move my head, but my eyes are moving about OK. I can see I’m in a curtained off area of what I suspect is a bigger ward. At eye-level now, I can make out some blue box on a pole near the foot of the bed that I’m lying on…it has a kaleidoscope of flashing lights and a spiders web of cables coming from it. Reasoning that they’re attached to me, I make the connection and assume it to be the culprit that makes that unending beeping sound.
Scanning to my right, I can see but not feel my right arm. Its heavily bandaged from forearm to shoulder. At my wrist, I can see the result of massive bruising and some sort of haematoma snaking down from under the bandages. My fingers extend from the bandages and I’m pleased to count all 5 of them; but arising from my right wrist is a dizzying array of plastic tubing…. I count at least 4 individual tubes and something that has the disturbing appearance of being a tap in my wrist…
Slowly, I become aware of a pain in my right abdomen, the likes of which I have never felt. It’s sore as hell, but in a dull aching kind of way. I guess It must be pretty bruised down there too… maybe I’ve broken a rib or something too… Cant lift my head to see..
Just then, the sound of sneakers on linoleum approaches and a bespectacled face pops around the curtain to look in on me….
“Oh my goodness, you’re awake already… we weren’t expecting to see you come back up for hours yet… You gave the surgeons a hell of a time…”
She is young, perhaps only a year of 2 older than me and dressed in the crisp, starched uniform that Nurses wore in the early 1980’s. Her nurses hat is not on straight and a small analog watch was safety-pinned to her collar. Looking at it, I idly wondered why it as upside down and then understood it was for her benefit, not mine. From behind what seemed unusually large spectacles, I see she has a pretty, kind face but she looks concerned for some reason.
“Hi, I’m Maureen and I’m your ICU Nurse. I work day shift and since its mid-morning ; you’ve got me for about another 5 hours or so….”
For what seemed like half an hour, she rabbited on about what had happened, what the state of my injuries were , where I was, who was looking after me and more. She spoke in the sort of clipped, deliberate sentences of somebody who had been tasked with giving somebody the bad news without wishing to leave me drowning in it. In practise she was probably only talking for a minute or 2, and I didn’t take much of it in… My mind was racing. Where am I , what happened to me? I was just on my way to work… has anybody told Tim that I’m gonna be late…? All of these unspoked questions remained unanswered yet, for reasons I couldn’t explain, the sound of her voice was comforting though I didn’t yet comprehend the full extent of my injuries.
“…. And this machine is the one that’s breathing for you…”
Say What. The. Actual. Fuck….?
I look immediately to my left and suddenly I understood where that weird animal-like breathing noise was coming from… I was looking at a Perspex box about the size of the oversized vase that my mum owned, except its Octagonal shaped and transparent. No flowers in it, so definitely not a vase then…. Within it, some large corrugated bellows rhythmically expanded and collapsed , driven by some unseen motor behind it. Looking at it now; I can hear an electric motor previously undetected and with a rush of understanding I see now what’s happening… From its top, a pair of corrugated plastic tubes extend across some sort of small gantry suspended above me and connect (rather snugly) to a bung that seems to be jammed between my teeth. Well.. that’d explain the no noise coming from my throat then…
All that was taken in, in a matter of microseconds; and it was then that I somehow became aware that there were more tubes extending beyond that bung, past my larynx and down into my windpipe; and as had been rather benignly pointed out; this machine was indeed breathing for me…
Then, at that precise moment, my gag reflex cut in…
Now; with the calm perspective of ten thousand days between then and now, I can say with some surety that the more conservative approach might have been to lie still and take it all in… But no… All hell was about to break loose.
Alarmingly, I couldn’t breathe all of a sudden. . I’d been breathing now for about 20+ years uninterrupted and was I thought, pretty good at it … Its not something we consciously ‘do’, but when faced with the clear-and-present danger of not doing it, it becomes front of mind pretty damn quick… I was trying desperately to inhale through my nose but nothing was coming. Nothing. Nothing at all.. not even a single puff of air was making it to my lungs; but I’d finished the exhale cycle just seconds before ..
Ahh……that would be because the balloon that was inflated behind my larynx had effectively cut my normal airway between by snoz and my lungs… The same fucking balloon that was also shutting down inhalation via my mouth… So, my options at that point are to suffocate, or try once again to let the machine take over…. I’m guessing by now you can imagine I was not about to let that happen… For a brief moment a thought crossed my mind that this must be what it must feel like to drown. I was conscious. I knew I needed to breathe, but try as I might, I couldn’t… My lungs were empty and apparently… staying that way unless I did something pretty damn quick. I felt the burning start in my lungs immediately.. that lactic acid burning that you get when you’ve been underwater just a little longer than you intended to be, then look up to see you’re still about 10 feet below the water’s surface. Oh shit.. better get swimming…
Turns out though, when threatened with imminent demise, your body can do some pretty wild things. Of course, I wasn’t underwater so no mad scramble for the surface, was going to fix my lack-of-oxygen situation… but there was plenty of arm flapping I have to tell you….With a herculean strength and a resolve I didn’t know I possessed until this very moment, my previously immobile left arm suddenly came to life, and reached the corrugated tubes just above the bung in my gob; and pulled on them… hard. So fucking hard in fact, that the bung was pulled from my mouth , but then, it wouldn’t come.. It felt like it was on some sort of elastic band. Holding it back.. it’d stretch.. accompanied by a searing pain at the back of my throat; only to spring back into place when I let it go… 3 times I tried this before it finally came free and I felt as though my throat was on fire… At the time I didn’t know it, but the aforementioned balloon that had been blocking my windpipe was actually attached to the back of that bung; and I’d drawn it RIGHT THROUGH my larynx, still inflated mind you… and the whole damn assembly was cast aside while I drew a big fat gobful of fresh (well, hospital fresh anyway..) air… Relief!
The cacophony of alarms that immediately burst into life was startling.
2 new heads appeared around my curtain all of a sudden. Each one looking more concerned than the next. An older Nurse, more matronly that Maureen and with a much sterner expression looked at me and rolled her eyes in what I hoped was just disbelief… “Oh shit, he’s extubated himself” she said; suddenly silencing the first of the alarms. She barked an order at Maureen who turned to the machine that now went Bing! (suddenly a lot a faster now..); and silenced it too; while she started drawing blood from that tap in my Right arm.. ahhhh.. nowigeddit… Its blood-on-tap! They needed to measure my blood oxygen levels so frequently so its easier to leave the plumbing intact and just draw off the blood as needed… Suddenly I felt slightly less human and a bit like a brewery strangely.
The cast aside balloon and mask assembly was now on the side of the bed. It looked like some sort of weird SCUBA appliance, and not in a good way… it was bloody from where I’d extracted it and by now the scary Matron was lecturing me about the damage I’d probably done to my breathing bits… That said, I was breathing somewhat normally; though slowly and more laboured than I was used to.
The 2nd head belonged to what I would later find out was the Surgical registrar that had assisted at the operations that put me back together. He looked at me with friendly smile; observed that I was breathing more or less normally and advised the scary matronly looking woman that it was probably OK to leave that thing out of me for now…. He sensed the relief on my face and asked me if I could tell him my name..
“Well of course I can…” I said; in somebody else’s voice…
Now I know I made the words; I felt them leave my mouth. But the words I heard were from somebody else. Not me. That’ wasn’t my voice….
I must ‘ve looked puzzled because The Registrar laughed gently and informed me that I’d just performed a surgical procedure on myself without anaesthesia and I was lucky that my larynx were working at all; so any voice at all was a good sign that that bit at least was going to be OK.
He asked if I could sing and I said “ I dunno, I’ve never tried…”