Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Being a patient - for real this time.

This time last week I was recovering from general anaesthetic. Hence my absence from writing. Beforehand I was a little anxious and just didn't have the headspace to write.  Afterwards, I was recovering, sleeping and thinking and just needed space.

Thanks for bearing with me.  Thanks also for the love and support sent my way at this time.

While I'm very experienced in being a patient interacting with the health care system, I'm not usually sick. Everything feels completely different when you're confronting surgery. From the moment of walking in the front door of the hospital (if you're lucky enough to be able to walk in), doing paperwork and making payments, to following instructions and having observations taken, the power relationship shifts. Suddenly I went from being an independent woman who acts on my own behalf and decides whether or not to follow rules and obey instructions, to being completely passive and following all instructions without question or comment.

Luckily I had a solid and trusted person with me who helped me keep perspective and stop me from worrying myself into a puddle on the floor.

Waking from a general anaesthetic is surreal.  One minute you're listening to the friendly and soothing chat from the anaesthetist as whatever marvellous stuff he has given you starts to loosen your hold on consciousness; you're noticing a mask being placed over your face.  Next thing you're hearing your name, you're somewhere else and you're in pain.

Pain was attended to swiftly and with gentle concern. Even as I shook uncontrollably for what seemed like ages, I was aware of the care and attention I was receiving. When the shaking didn't stop, I started to become distressed and tears started to flow. It seemed like a biological reaction which I was observing from afar. Unpleasant. It took a long time to make it out of the first stage of recovery. I kept falling asleep and my oxygen saturation was low. An alarm kept sounding and I was being reminded to breathe. I would and the alarm would stop.

I was relieved to be moved to another area and see my friend arrive. God knows what we talked about. I can't really remember. I hope I wasn't rude and didn't reveal any secrets.  A different nurse took over. She  didn't introduce herself and I felt she was very matter of fact and not very empathetic. My friend said she was doing a fine job from his perspective and I should appreciate that. I did. I've spent so much time thinking about and teaching empathy to health care professionals that I really notice when it's not there.

We arrived home after 8pm and my friends changed shift. My friend who stayed the night had a quiet night of it. The next morning I thanked her for staying and apologised for there being no middle-of-the-night emergency. We both have an appreciation for drama and she said she was a little bit let down she hadn't been required to play the scene requiring her to drive me somewhere, in my car. The kicker is that it would have been her first driving practice in about 20 years.

We both understood that we were joking.

On Friday, I had a half day of simulated patient work. I was back in a hospital gown and lying on a trolley. While the case was very different from my own circumstances, I felt that my recent surgical experience was adding to my authenticity in the role. Several students checked to see whether I would be okay as they finished their exam station. (Now that's empathy!)

Monday, I was back in shapeless blue piece of material, hopefully (ironically?) referred to as a "gown" as I went to have an MRI on my knee. (This is the one I fell on back in August.) The procedure was straightforward and painless and required me to follow one simple instruction: lie perfectly still.  Suddenly, this was an impossible task. My right arm was at a funny angle. Could I move it? Only it? Surely if I just shifted it a little, it wouldn't move my right knee?  Would it? I can't breathe! Oh, yes I can, but am I moving too much when I breathe? Or maybe I'm not breathing enough? Is that why my left big toe is suddenly incredibly ITCHY? I've got pins and needles in my left hand! Just lie still! Just lie still! Only 17 more minutes to go. I hear the machine go quiet. The technician reads my mind and just as I think I can move, her voice instructs me through the headphones to "keep lying still...only five more minutes to go...you're doing really well!" Look how much my chest moves when I breathe! How deeply can I breathe without moving my whole body? Wow, suddenly I'm aware of my earlobes...

And so it went for the whole 20 minutes.

I was told I'd been very still and given a well done as I carried my basket of clothes back to a cubicle to extricate myself from what I hope will be the last gown I'll wear for real for a while.

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