“You gotta know when to hold’em”
I limped slowly into the hospital for my first outpatient’s appointment. Anita had chauffeured me there as I was still deemed too mad to drive. I did have my specially privileged doctor’s carpark pass and that allowed us to park closer to the hospital than commoners.
I had walked through that entrance a thousand times and yet it was surreal. I felt intimidated and lost in my own backyard; just another patient holding my carer’s hand, searching for an appointment in an unfamiliar arena.
I had instinctively grabbed my doctor’s i.d. as we left the house that morning, habit I guess. I hid it in my pocket.
‘Dr Bruce Powell, Specialist Anaesthetist’
I used to dangle it proudly around my neck, like an Olympic medal, signifying my hard-earned membership of medicine’s Hall of Fame. It came in handy sometimes in the old days, shortening my wait at the cafe. If there was a particularly large crowd, I’d make a few gentle, concerned tutting noises and the assistants would give me a wink and let me jump the queue. As if some time-crucial activity depended on my 3 lattes and a flat white!
Even the elevators were preferentially geared to elevate the hospital’s Gods. If I swiped my card across the little black box at the closed lift door, a light went from red to green and an elevator of patients and visitors would arrive. They would look confusedly at you, as you pushed in and swiped to go straight to the ICU. Coffee didn’t stay warm forever.
Everything had changed and the view from the economy seats was rather less welcoming than the plush consultant’s business class I used to occupy.
I felt ashamed for my fortune.
It was especially confronting to recognise the disorientated, confused ones, their vacant gazes and flapping hospital gowns. Some were probably befuddled by the same painkilling medications that had me howling and sobbing, or they had been prescribed drugs to muzzle their demons. Many carried a magazine or a newspaper, perhaps hoping to be reminded of the banal, routine nature of their life before some cruel illness focused them on survival? So many stories, so much courage and uncertainty. It wasn’t possible to absorb all the emotion swilling around me as I shuffled along.
My professional identity had taught me not be unsettled or distracted by other’s troubles, but that was eroding now.
When I was a young medical doctor, white coat and stethoscope, I used to strut the corridors, treading a fine line between arrogance and confidence. I’d seen most things and had heard enough stories to cover the rest. Next I joined the intensive care team, then the anaesthetists, donning the obligatory theatre blues and Nike trainers. Only surgeons thought that Wellington boots looked cool.
Anita and I crossed the car park to reach the brain injury unit where my new care team lived. I hadn’t met any of them before and that was bizarre in itself. I’d crossed state lines back in Western Australia and no one knew me or had witnessed my struggles to rediscover myself.
Outside the entrance to the gleaming rehab ward, sheltering in the shadows from the blistering heat, were rafts of wheelchair-bound patients, drifting in the covered car park, tethered together by their roll-ups and their catheters. Old and young, some smoking avidly, others noisily demanding help from those able to hold cigarette papers and roll the next one.
Some sat motionless, faces fixed, contorted in fierce grimaces as if frozen permanently at the instant when their agony started. Most had chairs with high backs, their foreheads, necks and chests secured with thick straps and Velcro, twisted, hunched and in terrible discomfort it seemed. Finger-sized control sticks directed wheels and seat positions, powered by huge banks of batteries beneath their seats. Yellow-stained clear pipes emerged from shiny track pants, tied to a lower leg, left or right unless both were already amputated.
I kept reminding myself how lucky I was.
I waited in the waiting room. No favours for doctors here. I was the only one walking under my own steam. Everyone else was wheelchair bound. Another pang of guilt and sense of shame for surviving the massive impact with my spinal cord intact.
I sat in silence, hiding in a corner playing with my phone.
I had the bright idea of searching my social media for clues as to what I had been up to after I was given my phone back. I found a text that I had sent to a kind surgeon who had enquired about my well being. I don’t think he expected to be addressed as “bell-end”, apparently my favourite word in the early days.
I saw 2 photos of me in a coma, strapped to an ICU bed, tubes in my lungs, chest and bladder. I had wanted to see myself. Somehow make sense of the dark, the timeless period that I had missed. I wept softly. I know that my family had been sitting at the cot sides, but they were edited from the photo as if unimportant, inconsequential. It was me who was immaterial.
I had wanted to see my family’s faces, witness their grief and understand what they had been through, feel part of it. I didn’t want to be the patient, I wanted to be a father and a husband. I had missed the pain that I put them through. It wasn’t exactly my fault, but I was responsible for the pause in their lives, the fear and the sleeplessness. I don’t think that any young person or any loving partner wants to confront their loved one’s frailty, their mortality.
I stuck my earphones on and investigated what other memories might be discoverable with the right stimulus. I had a vague image of me dancing around, unclear where or why. I searched my phone and discovered video I had taken of myself dancing, striding and singing around the rehab unit courtyard in the early morning with tears welling in my eyes yet again.
“You gotta know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ‘em”.
Kenny Rogers butchered for all time.
“Hoorah, hoorah, hoorah-ay,
Over the hills with the swords of a thousand men”
Tenpole Tudor remade with better clothing but worse dancing.
“Come on baby don’t fear the reaper”
Blue Oyster Cult would never be cool again.
Shards of the shattered, forgotten stuff flooded back. Not accessed from my puttied brain, but on my iPhone. The memories, the videos, were tangible, replayable, vivid and preserved. I found messages indicating that I had shared the videos with my family back in the UK, asking for their help with my recovery and they had responded. I found the replying videos of sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces singing their hearts out.
My baby brother, nearly 40, singing sweetly into a CO-OP water bottle, searching for the melody as he warbled one of Bryan Adam’s finest, wide-eyed at his phone
“Oh thinking about all our younger years,
There was only you and me,
We were young and wild and free”
Lexi, my sister, beautiful voice and generous heart, banging out Fairground Attraction’s finest.
“It’s got to beeeeeeeeee, peeeeerrrrrrrrfect”.
David her Spurs-mad policeman husband, Mexican hat and maracas dancing around the room singing about tequila. His “best work ever” he assured me.
My amazing, resilient baby twin sister Vick and her wonderful, tough hubby Ben, plus Matty their 7 year old laddie in the rear car-seated, all doing carpool karaoke.
“Hands touching hands,
touching me, touching you……
Sweet Caroline……..bah bah bah”
The other twin sister, Gin, proper kind-hearted witty scouser, stood in their kitchen, singing with her youngest lad Paddy about our beloved Liverpool FCs march across Europe. Her hubby leaping from under the kitchen table during the chorus, bald pate gleaming in the downlights.
My powerhouse elder sister, somewhat surreally sat alone on a couch singing about a “finger of fudge”. The good thing to report was that one made me laugh, instead of more tears.
Finally my tiny nephew and niece, wrapped in Autumn woollies holding hands on a climbing frame in some park somewhere, invoking the strength of the god Freddie Mercury himself in their joyous voices
“Blood on ya face,
kickin your can all over the place.
We will, we will
I vowed that one day, when they are older, I will hug them all, young and old and remind them how they helped drag me back to me and this time. It will be them who won’t remember. We will watch the videos together and slightly strange Uncle Bruce will embarrass himself and try to squeeze them tight.