Lots of it. In fact, to use a medical term; shitloads of pain. But in completely the wrong place.
This is the enduring memory of regaining consciousness – or at least something approaching it – after spending (little did I know it at the time) twelve hours on the operating table. The very first thing I had become aware of was the pain – in fact I shall stick my head over the hyperbole parapet and use the word ‘agony’ – followed by lots and lots of noise and a voice shouting my name. Following instructions and opening my eyes, there was a vaguely familiar face – my friendly neighbourhood neurosurgeon, no less…
He is smiling, and as I lie there in a hot pool of pain, I hate him for looking so bloody happy. “It’s all over!” he yells over the background cacophony, momentarily freezing my heart as I think he’s telling me I am dying. “It went very well! We’re very pleased!” he bawls, his smile broadening in what I can tell even then is a rather forced attempt to reassure me. Exhausted by the effort of despising him with every cell in my body, I fall back into my world of agony, the like of which I cannot remember experiencing before.
But it hurts in the wrong place.
I know, for example, that I have had an operation on my head. I can just about recall that it was supposed to entail a graft being taken from my left hip. However, although my nose is completely blocked, my head doesn’t seem to be hurting – at least not that I can tell through the incessant clamour of screaming nerves in the region of my right hip. It doesn’t occur to me that they may have taken the graft from there instead (as it turns out, they haven’t), I’m too busy being very confused and just a little terrified about the depth of that brutal, unremitting pain.
There follows the briefest moment of unconsciousness (it turns out to have been another two hours during which I was – I am told - at least semi-conscious) of which I now have no memory whatsoever. Suddenly, I’m in a different room. I’m lying on my left side and I’m cold - very cold. The pain is still there, but a little less all-consuming. The hated face has gone, and to my startled delight, my world fills with the most wonderful sound I have ever heard. It is my wife’s voice, and she is calling my name (excuse me for a moment…I must stop typing here; there seems to be something in my eye). With an effort, I rise through the fog to meet her. After what feels like ten minutes, my eyes open, and there she is. I’m lying on my left side and she is bending over me, softly calling me. She is smiling as my eyes open, but even then, even with the background of pain and sluggish wakefulness, I can see the lie behind that smile. She is beautiful, she is wonderful and I can feel my tears pooling in my eyes. She is here.
I'm not alone.
She is deeply moved, scared and worried, I can see that much. Beyond her is my daughter, her face pale and shocked, and no wonder; before her lies little more than a remnant of the big, strong man she has grown up with. The man who has always protected her now stretched out on a bed, powerless and struggling. I remember my promise to myself and to my wife; I know what I must – what I should – do. As she leans to kiss my cheek, I try to speak but find my mouth painfully dry. “What did you say, my love?” she leans in again to try to hear me. “I’m still here!” I manage to whisper. A brief moment of shock passes over her face, followed by intense emotion as I try again. “I’m still in here!” My deepest fear – that I might not be the same person when I awoke – must be dispelled. I’m conscious of how terrible I must look, yet my focus is gripped by what she says next. “It’s been twelve hours! You were in for twelve hours!” she tells me, and it’s my turn to be shocked. Twelve bloody hours!
I’m forced to shift my attention again as my daughter steps forward and leans over me. “Hi dad!” she says in her soft, gentle voice, and behind her eyes I can see the tears waiting to flow. “Hello my gorgeous girl.” I croak, an emotional tremble making itself evident, and then again in case she too needs to know that the same person has returned to her life “I’m still in here!”. As her face dissolves in emotion, my eyes close and the room briefly becomes a place merely of confusing sounds. I can rest now. I have said what needs to be said. What I don’t know at that time is that the operation did indeed last twelve hours – having been scheduled for seven – and that my wife had been denied the chance to see me for another two hours while the post-operative team tried to stabilize me and make me comfortable. What agonies my daughter -and in particular my wife who had been waiting for fourteen hours - must have endured…
Next, my eyes open upon strangers’ faces. Someone shouts “…moving you in a moment! One, two, three, go!” and I am dragged backwards, reigniting the white hot fire in my hip. To my embarrassment, a loud groan of agony escapes from me, and darkness kindly falls once more.
When my eyes open yet again, I’m moving. Voices – two of them – are complaining about the bed upon which I’m lying. It’s the wrong type of bed, apparently – not intended for an ICU patient - I’m very heavy (agreed) and the combination is, apparently, difficult to steer. They are unhappily discussing their bad luck as I watch a clichéd scene of overhead lights passing from below my chin to above the top of my head. It’s reminiscent of a 1970s TV series, yet curiously reassuring; I’m moving away from the source of my distress, moving towards the next steps in my healing journey.
The worst is, I hope, over. A short journey in a brightly-lit elevator, another brief trip underneath stereotypical overhead lighting and into a dimly lit space – suddenly accompanied by muted beeping sounds - and then finally a brightly lit, small room. I have arrived in the Neurological Intensive Care Unit just as the anaesthetic is losing its insidious grip upon me. Faces gather around, intravenous drips and monitoring devices are attached by invisible hands. I am more aware than ever of my utter helplessness.
For the first of many, many times over the next ten days, the standard mental acuity questions begin. “What’s your full name? Can you tell me the date? Do you know where you are?” Groggily, I do my best to make myself understood through the combination of anaesthesia, a horrendously swollen and sore throat (intubation for such a long time apparently – and understandably - has that effect), a painful, dry mouth and my ever-present English accent.
My recovery -beginning with the longest night of my life - is officially under way…and my hip still hurts like hell.