Hospital memories part 2 – Spain
Part 1 has hopefully set the scene for this next chapter. All I can do is be honest about the days that followed, in six years I have never discussed them. Exploring these memories will be even more challenging and hopefully by the end of this post you understand why.
As I left things at the end of part 1 I was still in Spain and waiting for an operation. At this point I had no problems breathing myself and I had started to lift my arms off the mattress with some level of control. Ideally the operation would have been carried out back home in Glasgow but with my condition being so fragile the risks involved in travelling were too high. They needed to secure my neck first.
The plan was to make an incision in the back of my neck and carefully move the displaced vertebrae, C2, back into line. They would screw titanium pins through my spine, one below the break and one above it, and then attach rods to the pins down both sides to hold everything in place. It was crucial to avoid causing any further trauma to my already damaged spinal cord.
As standard before any operation the surgeon had to talk me through the risks involved. Working so close to the spinal cord and the base of the brain was a complex and dangerous procedure. That was made clear in no uncertain terms.
I have always been, and still am, very flippant towards warnings about my health and safety. Ironically, many people have said to me that I seem to have an invincibility complex. I have dodged plenty of bullets so I tend to pay little attention when warned.
I don’t remember having ‘a special moment’ with my family before the op. We were all desperate to get me home so it helped to concentrate on that rather than unnecessarily discussing the dangers ahead. We were all more than aware of them. I have no doubt that my friends and family were more worried than I was although they managed to mask it well.
I clearly recall being taken to the pre-op room. One of the nurses, Mira, was particularly good-looking. She might have something to do with that, who knows! I was told to count back from 20 and allow the anaesthetic to take over. Within seconds I was drifting off to sleep and spent the next 2hrs unaware of what was unfolding.
I have always enjoyed a general anaesthetic (yes, I am strange in many ways). I find wakening up on the other side is a relaxing and surreal experience. It’s a lingering process beginning with faint background noises that slowly evolve into recognisable voices. The eyelids seem weighed down but gradually the seal starts to break and blurry images begin to filter through narrow slits. Eventually the surroundings come into focus and the brain begins to slowly piece together what is going on. A couple of attempts at talking usually result in no more than mumbled noises until the effects wear off and the drowsiness passes.
NOT THIS TIME
I woke up suddenly. Alarmed and confused that something was wrong, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
Out the corner of my eye I could see my mum sitting next to my bed. She was already looking at me and her expression confirmed that I was right, something was definitely wrong. I tried to talk but I couldn’t. If you are imagining trying to talk but nothing coming out then stop. It wasn’t like that.
I have been staring at the screen for 10mins now searching for the words to explain properly. Try this, squash your tongue as far back against your tonsils as possible. Now hold it there and try to speak. If you are anything like me then that will be difficult. Natural instinct is to move your tongue so imagine what it would be like to replace your tongue with a thick plastic tube. A thick plastic tube coming from a machine, taped on outside your mouth and passing all the way down past your vocal chords and into your airway. I desperately wanted to pull it out but my arms lay limp on the bed.
Saliva was starting to gather in a pool at the back of my mouth. Instinctively trying to swallow all I could feel was the cold hard plastic keeping my throat from closing. My teeth bit the tube forcing my mouth to stay open at all times. I began choking on the saliva as it dripped and gurgled its way into my lungs. The more I choked the more I panicked and then I realised something else.
I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t suffocating but I wasn’t breathing either. It didn’t make sense. I tried to take a deep breath. As you take one yourself right now your shoulders will lift and your chest will expand. Nothing happened. I wasn’t running out of breath but I wasn’t capable of taking a breath either. The increased confusion was resulting in more and more panic.
I realised that my mum was repeatedly saying my name. No idea how long she had been doing it but eventually I looked at her, searching for some kind of answer.
I don’t know what she said before I began to settle down and concentrate. I still don’t remember the words she used but I do remember the tone of her voice. She was calm. I realise now that she had been sitting preparing for the moment I woke but I’m still astonished she managed to sound calm. I never thought my mum was capable of hiding her true emotions. I wonder just how hard it must have been for her to do that. To push back and ignore her own feelings. To do that for me.
Her explanation began to shed some light on what I was experiencing. After I had been anaesthetised the surgeon performed a tracheal intubation. In other words he took a plastic tube that was attached to a ventilator and inserted it down my airway. This tube would maintain an open airway to facilitate ventilation of my lungs, artificially, while I was being operated on. I would probably have known this was going to happen had I been paying any attention to the surgeon rather than Mira in pre-op!
After the procedure was complete the plan was to remove the tube and allow me to resume breathing myself. I would wake up with a bit of a sore throat and that would be that. As I say, that was the plan.
They did try but despite continuing efforts my respiratory system has never functioned since. We still don’t know what went wrong during the operation. Complex work in such a fragile area was always going to be dangerous. After all, I was warned.
In terms of securing my neck the operation had been very successful. My family could now liaise with the hospital who could speak to my travel insurance provider who could in turn begin arranging transport home. The process involved so much red tape and protocol that it seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. The next couple of days were by far the most challenging I have faced to this day.
All this time I was lying flat on my back counting the ceiling tiles with this artificial wedge forcing my mouth and throat open. For the two days I could not sleep due to the pain and a genuine fear of not wakening up again. Now and again the morphine would provide some relief. I wouldn’t call it sleep. I was always aware of noise and movement but it did allow me to switch off for a while.
Thankfully I was never left alone. If you have been following my story until now it will come as no surprise that my family did not leave my side.
Communicating was a major problem. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even shape words with my mouth. The only power I could control was the blinking of my eyes. To make use of this the hospital provided us with an alphabet chart like the one below. I would need to have a conversation one letter at a time.
One person would hold the chart above my head in a position that all could see. It would take another person to slowly move their finger down the left-hand side until it was next to the line I wanted. I would blink and they would stop. Then they would move their finger along that line from left to right until it was at the letter I wanted. I would blink again. They would go back to the top left hand corner for the next letter and we would start again. If I had reached the last letter of the word I would blink twice.
I quickly became frustrated. Angry even. It was a huge test of patience for us all and I only bothered with essential communication. Chitchat was not practical and it was unfair to put my family through the painstaking process any more than was necessary. I tended to only use it if I had a question regarding my condition or getting home. I lay in silence and for long spells. I felt defeated.
The family tried to keep me entertained by continually talking to each other about what they thought would interest me. I realised what they were doing, not the most subtle of operations but I was so thankful for the distraction. Even when they did manage to amuse me, it was impossible to form a smile due to the obstruction in my mouth.
Despite how I felt I had to to project a positive attitude for the sake of my family. I could see how much everything was taking out of them and how hard they were trying to mask it. I knew they were tired, I knew they were emotional, I knew they were worried and I knew they would only be worse if I let them see how badly I was struggling.
Waiting for the transport arrangements I was more downhearted than at any point in the last six years. You can no doubt tell that by the tone of this post. I am not looking for any sympathy or pity. In hindsight, those couple of days proved to be vital preparation for what was to come when I returned to Glasgow.
I look back on those days with mixed emotions. I realise how close I came to dying during that operation and it scares me. I am proud of my family and grateful that they dragged me through it. We got there in the end and we got there as a family. A family closer than we had ever been. I realise now that although the pain and the distress almost broke me, I came out the other end a stronger person. I remember reading a quote a while ago that has always stuck in my mind. It goes something like;
“those who fear suffering are already suffering from their fear”
I can’t stand cliches like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ but they happen to be true. 6 years on I am still proud of getting through those days and I take that pride into every new challenge I face.
Two and a half days after the operation I was finally heading home. We were all heading home. A Swiss aircraft with specialist equipment and expert staff was flying to the Spanish island to pick me up and take me home to Glasgow.
And so begins a new chapter.
I realise this post has been long and heavy reading. It was important to me that this part of the story was given proper attention so thank you very much for your patience.