“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Spike Milligan

This week’s blog is brought to you by the letters ‘M’ (for morphine), ‘C’ (for codeine), and by the number ‘10’, which is the ward I’m currently laying horizontally in within the hospital’s Acute Medical Unit. This is all quite new to me, as is the experience of being smacked out of my head on prescription drugs. So, good luck making any sense out of what I’m about to write.

Turns out I’ve got a blood clot on (or in – I’m not quite sure) my left lung. I think that’s ‘stage left’, as opposed to … starboard? I also have pneumonia – that thing my mum always warned me I’d get if I went out to play without doing my coat up. 

Had I been aware of my condition beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have battled through the twenty-five sets of parents I’d been booked to meet online to discuss their kid’s school subject choices with before calling the ambulance. Thing is, as a self-confessed immortal, and having never really been ill before beyond the odd cold or migraine, I’d fully expected my symptoms – though perhaps a little more pressing than usual – to pass.

‘You should probably phone to cancel your Parents Evening,’ Nat had said to me earlier that afternoon while taking my temperature and contemplating the greyness of my skin against a Dulux colour chart she’d found in the kitchen drawer. ‘You should also probably call in sick tomorrow – you’re barely a tone and a half away from Natural Wicker.’ She hands me the colour chart as proof. 

‘Are you mad?’ I’d protested. ‘I’m not wasting sick days on being ill. Spring’s just around the corner; I’m going to save my sick days for when I’m well.’

This isn’t how things have turned out. The doctors put me on oxygen pretty much immediately, along with intravenous hydration fluids and who knows what else. I didn’t ask and, after my second day of drug cocktails, I didn’t care. 

* * * * * * * *

I’m not sure why I’m surprised to have been put in an adult men’s ward, but I am. At some point in my life I seem to have become a grown-up. Nobody ever overtly tells you this; you have to work it out for yourself. But now that I’ve been audited and categorised as an adult by the hospital staff, I guess the decision is final. 

I survey the faces around me. ‘There seems to have been some kind of mistake,’ I mumble, but my voice is too weak to gain traction in the room. ‘These guys look all ill and middle-aged and stuff.’ And then I catch my reflection in a chrome jug that’s been left on the table beside me. ‘Fuck!’

I spend the next few days in and out of consciousness. When I’m awake, I don’t bother my eyes with frivolous expectations like being open or focussed. Ward life works adequately well audibly, as radio, and, anyway, I’ve already taken in all there is to see around here.

In the bed opposite me is Alistair. He’s nocturnal and has an enthusiastic need to tell everybody that he loves them. He’s fairly inclusive about who he loves, with the objects of his affection being pretty much anybody within range. Apparently, he loves me too, though I do question his sincerity. Later, a nurse tells me that he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, which I’m a little relieved about as it limits the likelihood of him remembering me unintentionally telling him that I love him too. I think my meds are quite strong and, anyway, he caught me by surprise.

Alistair has a further superpower. After sundown, he becomes full-on cow.  His mooing can be heard right across the unit, as can the shouts of abuse from patients in other wards that echo and ricochet back at him.

Next to Alistair is an older-looking guy with a large white beard and swastikas up his arms -a bit like a Nazi Santa. He doesn’t moo, he has more important things on his mind. He has questions – questions such as, ‘Is that my methadone?’

Next to him, and last in the row, is a tall guy in his late twenties who likes to talk about the stolen vehicles he welds together for stock car racing. I haven’t yet warmed to him. 

‘Are you in a hospital or a probation office?’ asks Nat when we next text and I describe my surroundings to her. 

Along my side of the room, other than me, is a vaguely bewildered guy who looks a little like Jean Reno, from his profile – which is the only angle I get to see him from. Next to him is an elderly guy who is constantly asleep. 

This is my world; my new world. I think Methadone guy is my favourite. There’s a kindness in his eyes despite what’s written on his arms. I’m conflicted.

* * * * * * * *

Breakfast is always interesting in that it’s never quite what one has ordered. Today, I asked for yoghurt and orange juice (as I’m told they don’t do croissants) but what’s just arrived is Rice Crispies and a plastic beaker of tea, brought to me by a nurse whose phone is playing Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ from out of her back pocket. I’m wondering if this is irony, sadism, or merely bad timing. Either way, I sense a long Sunday ahead of me.

One of the lessons I learned a long time ago is that the gift that some people claim to have, of being able to sum a person up within minutes of meeting them, is not a gift I possess. Having spent an extra half hour over (probably) someone else’s breakfast, I get talking with the guy with the swastika tattoos. He tells me that he suffers from an emotional condition that I’ve never heard of but that has occasionally resulted in him stabbing people. What makes it worse is that he’s becoming agitated over having been apparently missed out on the breakfast round. He presses his button and a nurse appears

‘What was it you ordered?’ she asks. 

‘Rice Crispies and a cup of tea,’ he barks.

I reach over and cover my empty breakfast tray with my newspaper. 

* * * * * * * *

Due to it being daylight again, Alistair is no longer mooing. He is no longer cow. ‘I’m waiting for my autopsy to come back,’ he tells me.

‘I … um … ok,’ I say, before adding in a whisper, ‘Word on the street is that it’s likely to be good news.’

‘That’s excellent,’ he says. ‘I love you.’

‘I’ll bear that in mind,’ I say.

Around lunchtime, I get a visit from the Middle Ages in the form of a very young and extremely awkward hospital chaplain, courtesy of my bloody mother. It could have been worse, I suppose, I’m in no fit state for a strippergram right now. 

‘Do you believe in God?’ he asks, in a strong and endearing German accent.

‘Not since my rabbit died when I was nine,’ I say.

He seems surprised, though I’m not sure if it’s in response to my atheism or the demise of Colin, my bunny. ‘My son had a goldfish called Keith,’ I add. ‘Turns out that goldfish don’t like Play-dough.’

The one thing missing from this interaction, I note, is any sense of sympathy on the part of the chaplain regarding my rabbit. ‘It was very sad,’ I say, as way of prompt. Still, he offers nothing from either himself or God. I’m looking for a polite way of telling the chaplain to sod off but he seems vulnerable and I end up ordering him a chair and allowing him to chat for a while. With his accent and manner, however, it’s a little like sitting through a private one-man performance of Allo Allo

When he eventually leaves, I find myself hoping that he feels I’ve adequately seen to his needs. ‘If you need to talk further, you know where I am,’ I tell him. I don’t turn my back in case he secretly blesses me or spritzes me with holy water. My stats are apparently coming into line for the first time, this afternoon. I put this down to the drugs. Whether I can do it by myself is another thing. 

* * * * * * * *

Because this is an emergency ward, the turnover of patients is quite fast. The fact that I’m on day 5 here means I’m now the wise old man of Dangerville. I’m a little disappointed, therefore, that people aren’t yet coming from wards around to hear my wisdom. Maybe after Eastenders. 

The evening meal lady has just turned up with her trolley. She hands me my order. I’ve learned never to order the soup, and have by now refined my choice down to the only thing I consider edible on the main meal menu. She hands me my fourth Chicken Korma of the week and reaches over into her trolley to pass me my desert.

‘That’s not an “easy to peel orange”,’ I say. I point to the wording on the menu.

‘What is it then?’

‘It’s a satsuma.’

‘Exactly,’ she says, and wanders over to the next bed.

Some battles just aren’t worth fighting.

* * * * * * * *

Arthur came in last night. He talks to his wife in his sleep. It’s quite endearing, though I’m constantly on edge in case he says something overly personal to her. Occasionally, I throw pieces of rolled up paper at him, just to help keep him on the right side of REM sleep. I’m not looking for any acknowledgement for this, I merely consider it my civic duty. 

It’s 6am at the start of day seven and I’m woken by a new nurse. ‘Do you mind if I give you your antibiotics?’ she asks. I know the drill by now. It’s a rhetorical conversation with a very familiar rhythm and outcome. ‘First of the eighth, sixty-six.’ I mumble. My date of birth is the password to my meds.

Again, I don’t bother inconveniencing my eyes by opening them as she leans over to clean out my cannula. I can hear her forced breathing through her mask. She has the onset of a cold. This is how I know she’s new to the ward – none of the other nurses sound so … moist. In my drowsy state, every sound feels closer than it really is. I first realised this on day two. Her mask is probably not as close to the side of my face as it sounds but, in my mind, a large drip is forming, waiting its opportunity to land with a heavy flop onto my cheek.

She’s quite heavy-handed. My antibiotic is served to me in the same aggressive manner as a saloon bar might serve you a drink – delivered into my vein so quickly it’s probably got a head on it. She tugs the syringe out of the Cannula and again flushes the line, leaving my arm and sleeve with its own line of cold liquid up it. The liquid smells flammable. It probably isn’t. I hope it isn’t. 

I hear her start to walk away. Without opening my eyes, I ask if she’d please switch my bedside light off. She tuts and I hear a loud slap against the wall as the switch is flipped, as though she’s just thrown a slipper at it. She’s somewhat lacking in bedside manner and is probably the type of person who would break your coffee cups if you invited her over to your place, and would probably sit on your dog while she’s at it. You know the sort: no awareness. I don’t think she enjoys her job. 

As the chaos around me subsides, I lay here trying to re-find my comfort spot. This is not so easy since they took my morphine away. I lay listening to my environment. After several days, you get to be pretty familiar with the view, which is restricted to a section of the ward only; no window. I’m told it’s raining with 50 mph winds outside, but you may as well tell me what the weather’s like in Budapest. In fact, please tell me things about Budapest. British weather is never worth the conversation it’s printed on.

Mooing man has been moved to a different ward this morning. I think they are sharing him out for the sake of fairness. He sounds like he’s been placed at the end of the corridor. His far-off tones have, by this point, a curious familiarity about them, like the tap-tapping of water on the forehead of a torture victim. If sound were a painting, the constant mooing would be the first wash placed onto the canvass, heavy strokes, imprecise, and probably administered by the same nurse who did my cannula.

‘Asking for date of birth as password for access to meds is a bit sloppy,’ I say to the next nurse that passes. ‘My bank would probably hang me from my ankles if they found I’d used my date of birth as my password.’

‘It’s just a precaution,’ she says.

‘After a week here, I could be pretty much any of these guys,’ I say. ‘I’ve heard each of their passwords at least a dozen times a day.’

‘And which of these patient’s medications would you like to put yourself in danger of sampling?’ she asks.

I look at the sickly row of faces across the way from me. (Hospitals are like that.) ‘… None of them,’ I conclude. 

‘Have a good morning,’ she says as she turns to walk away.’

‘Do you by any chance know my wife?’ I call after her. But she’s gone. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. You can also find more by Adrian Sturrock on https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adrian-Sturrock/e/B07QQDZMKQ? (UK) or https://www.amazon.com/Adrian-Sturrock/e/B07QQDZMKQ? (.com)