I am perched in the middle of the back seat of the car, and the Chinese couple who have adopted me (or taken me into foster care, I’m not sure) are sitting in front. They keep turning round and frowning at me, and then at each other; I can’t understand what they are saying but I get the impression they’re both intensely annoyed with me, that I’m not what they’ve been led to expect.
I am in hospital, and the Christmas decorations are up even though it is July. That makes sense, as Christmas happens in summer in Australia. That’s how I know I must have been in a coma for at least a year.
I’m at Lizzie’s house at a sleepover – so they must have brought me back to England after all. For some reason I’m sleeping in her parents’ room, at the foot of their bed. A bedside lamp gives off a pinkish glow as they lean forward to check on me.
I’m being wheeled on a hospital trolley through Tessa and Vince’s hallway – there is the drawing of Vince’s father on the wall, there is Tessa, and now she’s gone away.
Where did everyone go?
I am in the old library on Treaty Road, the one they tore down to build the Treaty Centre. Or maybe it’s Chiswick Town Hall. No, it’s the spaceship from that episode of Dr Who with the clowns. Everything is unfamiliar, I can’t see anyone I know.
I’m at the GP surgery in Hounslow – finally, things are making sense. Except it seems a bit like somewhere in Australia, so I’m not entirely sure. It feels like I’m lying in the deserted reception area for an awfully long time, with no-one coming to help me. I realise I am in the hospital in Australia. It is night and a tropical storm is lashing the windows. Outside, palm trees are bending over in the wind. I recognise the streets as being in Ealing in West London – but it isn’t safe. There is a tribal war going on, it goes on all night.
My mum is in the hospital! I am still in the hospital, in Australia, and my mum is here. But she refuses to see me. Why is she being so cruel? I am heartbroken. I learn from listening to the nurses that while I have been unconscious, she has taken a job volunteering at the hospital. But she has killed a baby in her care and that’s why she won’t see me. She hasn’t accepted what had happened, she is going round with a bright smile on her face and talking to everyone except me. I am heartbroken all over again. I can hear my dad’s voice talking gently to me on the phone but I can’t see him anywhere.
The longest, loneliest night. The far wall of my room is in shadow, but I know the shadow conceals library book shelves. Two Sikh girls from my old school are there, one up a ladder and one reaching down, long black plaits down their dark green uniformed backs. They are whispering to each other, unconcerned by me, just getting on with their day.
The night shift hands over to the day shift. Someone is washing my hair, and music is playing on a cassette player. ‘It’s classical,’ a voice says, ‘Your mum said you like classical music.’
I don’t want classical music. I want my mum.
Then, somehow, the room changes and at once, my mum bursts into the room and rushes towards me.
And this time, I really am awake.
A bouquet of flowers is hustled in, so that I can read the card from my grandmother: it just says, ‘Hoorah, hoorah!’ The flowers are then instantly hustled out.
The first thing that happens is that I am fitted with an oxygen mask, which seems uncomfortable at first until I realise it is helping me breathe. A short while later, the X Ray people come round to take an X Ray of my chest. The staff sit me upright for the purpose, and I immediately projectile vomit emerald green bile all over the room (‘…just like in a horror movie, so it can happen!‘ as my dad reported in one of his email updates to family and friends). At some point, my mum disappears and I am given ventolin through a nebuliser for what seems like hours. I’ve seen my brother on a nebuliser before for his asthma, but have never before realised quite how unpleasant it is. But after the nebuliser, the oxygen mask can come off. I am breathing on my own!
My hospital room is full of people, some from the hospital and some from Hounslow. I can’t quite place one woman. It’s not Sarah Hudson, it’s that other girl who works in Boots on Hounslow High Street. Or is she one of the mums at Chatsworth? It’s annoying me, not being able to remember.
(Of course my room was not actually full of random people from Hounslow – although it was frequently quite full of nurses, students and various specialists; my mum told me she once counted 10 people in the room – but no-one told me until weeks afterwards that I might hallucinate after coming round. None of my hallucinations were wild or crazy – they just made things not quite add up: nurses’ conversations that never happened, instructions that were never given to me, impossible locations…It was such a relief to discover I wasn’t going mad).
The next phase after waking is deeply frustrating: I am compos mentis – kinda – but cannot speak.
I have a terrible itch on my cheek and am dying to scratch it. Since I can’t speak to ask anyone to scratch it for me, I attempt to scratch it myself. I manage to lift my hand and start moving it, excruciatingly slowly, towards my face.
“She’s going to try and rip the tubes out!” someone cries and three people are immediately on me, clamping my errant hand back down. I just want to scratch my face! I silently scream. Honestly, I am barely aware I even have a tube through my nose at this point. I must be able to form some sort of facial expression as the staff, and my mother and aunt, seem to understand that there is something I want to say. “I know it feels like you want to,” a nurse says kindly, “but we really can’t let you pull anything out.” I’m not trying to pull them out, I just want to scratch my face!
One of the nurses brings out an alphabet card and helpfully suggests I spell out what I want. This plan is soon abandoned – I am so weak that it takes a painfully long time to get to two letters, after which I fall back exhausted. I just have to live with an itchy face.
There has been so much emphasis on my breathing that I am surprised to hear one of the nurses comment on ‘how my legs are doing’. I glance down and notice for the first time that my legs are wrapped in bandages from knee to ankle. I hear people talking about them and have a distinct sense of something being kept from me. I ignore the matter.
It is not long before my voice starts to come back, enough to complain about my unbearably dry mouth. I am still not allowed to take in anything by mouth, so I am given a saturated cotton wool ball to roll around my mouth. It is as poor a substitute as you would expect. Don’t believe me? Try it at home!
I also decide I want to go for a walk. Honestly, the fuss that this request garners, you’d have thought I’d announced I wanted to embark on a major expedition! I am brought a wheeled Zimmer frame to lean on and two nurses to support me. They unhook me from the equipment on the wall and with their help I manoeuvre myself to the edge of the bed. I stand up and promptly fall down. I cannot walk, I really cannot! My legs just don’t hold me up. After a couple of abortive steps I’ve had enough and am helped back into bed.
Well. My brain finally accepts what the medics have been saying: that it will take time to build up to walking again.
So many things I had taken for granted. I recall the previous year having dashed across the road, almost colliding with an oncoming vehicle. Had I really been able to dash like that? I could always dash, whenever I wanted to. I didn’t even think about it. If I needed the loo I just got up and ‘popped to the loo’. It was all over in minutes, seconds even. Now…well, I will spare the reader’s blushes on this subject.
Then it is just the multitude of indignities and irritations of being in hospital. The stupid plastic clippy thing on my finger. The way the nurses make my bed while I am in it, tucking the top sheet tightly under the foot of the mattress so that my feet are flattened into ballerina pointes. Two nurses giving me a bed bath while gossiping to each other as if I wasn’t there. The way everyone talks to me as though I’m eight years’ old: ‘You’re a very lucky little girl’, older people (not my mum or aunt) keep saying to me, sternly. I’m not a little girl! I’m 19! I want to say. (Now I look at the photo above, and I think I look about 12). The doctors are a bit better, since not only am I an exciting case medically, but I am currently their most high-profile patient and well may they congratulate themselves on saving my life.
The nights are the worst. Exacerbated by the deep separation anxiety I feel in relation to my mum that will last until the day I leave hospital, they seem interminable. The night staff are less caring, and hallucinations continue to taunt and confuse.
Eventually, the Nil by Mouth instruction is removed – hallelujah! My first drink is a simple glass of orange juice, and I have never tasted anything so delicious and refreshing, before or since. I am advised that ‘this is the one time in my life that I can eat whatever I want!’ The important thing is to get the calories in. Ironically, of course, it is the one time that I don’t want to eat anything at all (I, whose motto is Never Knowingly Undereaten). I decide I might be able to eat a ginger biscuit, which becomes one my staple snacks. The doctors make me drink Nurishment between meals – yuck. To this day, walking past a tin of Nurishment in the supermarket makes me shudder.
The days and nights pass and I am moved from ICU to a ward, in time for the second big wedding of the summer: Edward and Sophie. (“I didn’t like her dress, it was too much like a coat-dress” is the speech therapist’s damning verdict.) Along the way, Mum fills me in on her side of the story. When she mentions she would hold the phone to my ear so my dad could ‘chunter away to me’ (her words), I remember my dream – ‘I heard him!’ If you’ve ever wondered if someone in a coma can really hear you, I am here to tell you that yes, they can!
I get terribly down thinking of Dad and the boys back home. My cousins send us some photos of a recent gathering at my grandparents’ house in Wadhurst, and they make me weep to be home with my family.
After a few days I am able to take a daily walk to the nurses’ station and back. I gradually progress from the wheeled Zimmer frame (which they call a “roll-ator”), to walking with two sticks. Then I am walking with one stick, until eventually I can walk unaided. Every single day, to my utmost irritation, the nurse on duty at the station chirps, ‘Now all we need to do is fatten her up for Christmas!’
Then the final tube is removed, and I accept the doctor’s reassurances that the disease is gone and my fear that it could come back from inside me unfounded.
I am moved to the rehab centre to focus on physical and occupational therapy. I am told that not only have my muscles wasted, but my tendons and ligaments have too. It is easy to rebuild muscle, apparently, but much harder to rebuild the other stuff.
All of my fellow patients are stroke victims, and the next youngest is 44. For the first time since being in hospital, I have to share a ward. Initially, this makes the nights even worse, and doubly so since I have been diagnosed with severe anaemia and am in the middle of a marathon prescription of six blood transfusions. I had been given the first couple while still on the ward, and they made me feel like I’d drunk two shots of espresso; by the time I get to number five however, my vein hurts so much I’m writhing on the bed in pain. To make matters worse, the rehab centre doesn’t have a fancy machine that beeps at the mere hint of an air bubble: the blood is just hooked up to a pole. What if there’s air on the line? I’ll die!!! I gratefully accept the offer of Temazepam, the only solution to both my anxiety and sleeplessness.
There are many gross things about the Rehab Centre (trying to eat dinner among very sick elderly people; sharing a ward with sick elderly ladies who snore and break wind at volume; the staff’s obsession with your every bowel movement), but the best thing is that it is just across a car park from the Red Cross Rooms, where my mum and auntie are staying. One afternoon, we get special permission for me to leave the Rehab centre and watch television in the Red Cross’s little sitting room with Mum. As fate would have it, Pride and Prejudice comes on. There is just one other lady staying at the place and she leaves us to our ‘Pommy programme’. ‘Oh I hope it’s the one where she sees Pemberley for the first time!’ Mum says excitedly, ‘So do I!’ I say. And fortuitously, it is!
I do an interview with the local press; both the words and images make me wince. But at least I get an upbeat happy ending to all the news coverage.
(This is such an unflattering picture of my mum that I feel morally obliged to tell you that she lost five stone last year. Here is a photo I took last summer at a shoot she did for Woman and Home magazine (Mum’s the one on the left):
The Daily Mail even published her tips for looking sensational at 61. Go Mum!).
And then, after a week or so of group activities and physiotherapy, a nurse comes into the ward with big news: I will shortly be discharged! I want to jump for joy.
I finally leave Nambour General Hospital after just over five weeks. And all the while, my legs are being dressed, cleaned and redressed…but I think my legs deserve a post of their own.
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