Foolish me. I presumed I had it under control at 85. I planned to live for about ten more years and then, in my mid-90s, die of a heart attack. After all, I was in rude health, ate healthy food, exercised and walked a lot. After all, I was in charge of my body. And then my illusions were shattered when, after doing some maybe too energetic Qigong, I was suddenly debilitated by a smarting chest and pain down both my arms. It was aching so much that I even took a painkiller.
The next morning, the 11th of February 2020, I was a bit tired, but not worried. Still, worried enough to tell my children who insisted I get in touch with my GP immediately. I didn’t want to, I have forever avoided doctors, but let them talk me into it. The GP sent me to UCLH for a check-up that afternoon. I thought it wouldn’t take long, so much so that I did not take my phone charger with me.
At first, the medics who examined me said that there seemed to be nothing wrong, and complimented me on my health. Then, after hours of various scans, a painful angiogram, x-rays and what have you, they told me that I’d had a heart attack, and had blood clots on my lungs. Which explained why, for years, I had breathing difficulties, which I’d put down to age.
Before I was aware of what was happening, I was wheeled to a ward, given hospital pyjamas and slippers and told to put my clothes in the cabinet next to my bed. When they then connected me to a beeping machine I felt that my life, as I had known it, was over. I was now an invalid. Not valid. In-valid.
To my question: “How long do I have to stay here for?” I was told that I would have to go to Barts Hospital, which specialises in the treatment of heart conditions, to have a stent put in a blocked vein leading to my heart. As, at the moment, there were no free beds there, I’d have to wait here until one was available.
This was a bad state of affairs, but what preoccupied me the most at that moment was the low battery signal on my phone. What would I do if my phone died? It was my lifeline to the outside world. The free world. But I still had enough power to WhatsApp Johnny, a friend who lived nearby and asked him please to go to my house and get the charger. “It’s the white one plugged in the extension under my bedside table. And also please bring me essential oil of tea tree, lavender and frankincense, which are on the bedside table. Also, a sleeping mask and earplugs. They’re in a small, brown cotton pouch on top of the cupboard in the bedroom. You can leave them at the hospital’s reception desk. And please turn my computer off, and bring me the book on the settee in the sitting room. Thank you so much, Johnny, I really appreciate it.”
Providentially, I have a key-lock by my front door so he was able to get in and bring me what I’d asked for.
My phone fully charged, I WhatsApped my children and other friends to give them my bad news. Everyone was shocked. And given fucking Covid, no one could come to help me.
So began my lost days as I waited for a free bed at Barts Hospital.
After weeks of lockdown, I was suddenly in company. My Covid-free ward was jumping with comings and goings. Patients spoke to one another, and jolly nurses chatted to me as they brought me medication (I had never taken a pharmaceutical till now), checked my blood pressure, injected me with blood thinners and tested my ailing heart with machines.
The nights were another story. Some of the nurses were not going to make the patient’s life pleasant. They talked loudly to each other, were brusque when they came to check my blood pressure and the peeps on the machine. In no way helpful or willing to say something nice, or anything at all. Others hardly got out of their chairs. They are getting us back for the years they’ve been treated as second-class citizens, I thought. And who could blame them? One night, when I lost my bearings as I was trying to find the lavatory and asked a nurse for help, she vaguely pointed in some direction which did not make it any easier. I knew that had this happened during the day, the nurse would have taken me to the toilet herself.
During the interminable days – which I tried to handle by reading and WhatsApping a lot with my children, one in Italy the other in New York which meant I had to handle my condition on my own – I thanked the heavens for cell phones.
Young doctors, accompanied by a student or two, came around in the early afternoons. They didn’t have much to say except that no bed was as yet available at Bart’s.
I’m used to taking a daily shower, but there was no way I’d make do with the hand-held shower in the cold bathroom, so I washed in the basin using a paper towel provided by the hospital. I wished I’d asked Johnny to bring me a face cloth and my face oil.
As everyone knows, hospital food is disgusting, so I’m not going to go into it, except to say that it’s beyond me why there’s no awareness in the NHS about nutrition. Fortunately, a friend sent a rescue package with yogurts, kefir, green grapes, two novels, hair scrunchies and a white cashmere shawl.
I’m used to walking and exercising daily, so I walked as much as possible around the ward and did a bit of stretching. The others looked at me as though I was doing something abnormal. But then, I’ve never been regarded as ‘normal’.
The large windows at the end of the ward faced a nearby building, so there was no view on to the street. I never knew what the weather was like outside.
Patients came and went daily in the ward, and on the night when all hell broke loose, a middle-aged Polish woman, Anja, was in the bed on my left. She was at all times on her phone. In the bed in front of her lay a very old lady who seemed on her last breath. The compassionate male nurse, Silvester, from the Congo, was forever waking her up asking her what date it is. It’s the 14th of February, I said to myself, a fact I only knew because it’s my grandson’s birthday. Next to the old lady, a rough-looking working-class woman, Louise, in her early fifties, was constantly wailing for the doctor because she had pain, she said. The Polish woman told her she was given liquid morphine at night. Louise, looking displeased, went to the loo and came back with a long strand of lavatory paper stuck in her anus. She did not wear pyjama bottoms so we were treated to a full view of her large, varicose-veined legs.
Our lights were already out and I was about to put my sleeping mask on when suddenly screams and crashing of furniture came from the male ward adjacent to ours. I bolted up in my bed.
“Oh dear God,” Anja said. “What is happening? Did you hear that?”
How could I not have heard such a din?
The guy continued screaming and throwing stuff about. Finally, policemen and security guards marched in loud, authoritarian droves down the corridor. The man screamed more, the cops screamed back at him. “We’re going to take you back to prison.” He screamed “NOOOO”, and I thought, oh my God they brought him here from prison!
After they finally managed to drag him away, it seemed peace had been restored. But it hadn’t. Louise got out of bed, threw a faux-leather jacket on her shoulders and said, “I’m going out.” Nurse Silvester didn’t seem bothered and shrugged his shoulders. I told him, “No, you can’t let her out. It’s freezing outside.” Again he shrugged his shoulders and avoided my eyes.
“I’m going out,” she repeated determined. So I went over to her, and putting my arms around her I said, “Sweetie, you can’t go out, it’s freezing. Now, take your jacket off and get into bed.”
I was quite proud of my authority, as she sat on her bed weeping like a small child.
In the meantime, Anja called Silvester and said the old lady was coughing very badly and maybe she had Covid. Silvester went to check, I put a scarf around my nose and mouth, Anja got on her phone, Louise continued weeping, Sylvester, rolling his humorous, dark eyes, brought me a mask. To our relief, the old lady did not have the dreaded Covid.
The next day I emailed my son the horror story. “I felt like I was in a Beckett play.” I wrote. “Although I’d rather be in a Chekov one.” “Waiting for Stento,” my son wrote back.
What I found out later when Louise again put on her faux-leather jacket and a cap on her short-cropped brown hair – was that she was actually allowed to go out because she needed to have her fags.
No wonder I’d made her spill so many tears as I’d prevented her from feeding her addiction.
Before she came back, they had unplugged me and wheeled me to another ward where I waited two more days before going to Barts.
Anja came to chat with me in the new ward. “She’s a very odd woman,” she said about Louise. Louise came also, I had now become her best friend as I’d put my arms around her. She said she was going to the shops and did I want anything. “About four mandarins please,” I told her and gave her money. I wasn’t expecting to see any change, and my expectations were verified when she brought me the fruit. Once she left, nurses came over to tell me everyone knew her at the hospital as she came in and out and was a difficult patient.
The windows of this ward faced the street and my view was of rain on roadworks.
Finally, Barts had a free bed and I was ambulanced over. I was the only one in the ward. It was very quiet; the few nurses were busy at their desks and no one spoke to me as I waited in trepidation for my stent operation.
A nurse brought me a document to sign, a release form that stated I would not sue if something went wrong with what they were about to do to me. I signed without a second thought. I had given up any will. I was a leaf blown about in the winds of the system.
After about an hour, a doctor came to talk to me. “The ink they put into your body in order to find where the stent should go is damaging to the kidneys,” she informed me.
I didn’t know that, and frankly, had I known I would still have gone on with the procedure even though my kidneys were not in the best of shape. “It’s an age thing,” my GP had told me some time ago. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Would you like to participate in an experiment we’re doing regarding the kidneys?” the doctor asked.
“Sure. What do I have to do?
“Beetroot is very healing for the kidneys. It contains niacin. I’ll give you beetroot pills to take daily and you’ll have to go to your surgery to take blood tests once a week.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. “I honestly don’t want to take blood tests every week, so I’m sorry, but I won’t participate in the experiment,” I told her as I made a mental note to drink beetroot juice daily when I was back home.
Finally, I was wheeled along deserted corridors to the operation theatre. The surgeon in charge explained the procedure. “You’ll be put on a table in front of a large screen. You’ll be turned on your left side so you’ll be facing the screen. You’ll see your heart on it. Then you’ll be injected with a red dye so we’ll be able to look for the blocked vein.” There were more instructions, but I lost him. He then proceeded to tell me he needed to go somewhere else, “But you have a very expert team that will take care of you in the best possible way,” he said as he rushed off.
The six people in the operating room were jolly, put me in the right position, told me not to worry they knew what they were doing, and injected me with morphine.
In my drugged state, I could vaguely hear them talking amongst themselves. Seemed an obstructed vein wasn’t easy to find, but finally, they got it and put the stent in place.
Back in the quiet ward, I felt very tired as I waited impatiently for some hours for the ambulance to take me back to UCLH, where the sweet nurses welcomed me back, “Heh, Hanja, how did it go?”
The next day, Thursday the 18th, I binned the horrid hospital pyjamas, changed back into my own clothes, and waited impatiently for the ambulance to finally take me home.