“Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, Sister Morphine
When are you coming round again?”
The Rolling Stones, Sister Morphine
Well, here I am on the far side of surgery, tender, tired and swollen. No, my leg. And when I say swollen, oh my word, but it’s swollen. And crusted with dried gore. But I am, nevertheless, still very much here, bloodied but unbowed (if a bit hunched when I’m stood up on crutches).
“What’s new, Llama?” I’m glad you asked. They’ve removed the tibial nail, and I’ve traded titanium for stainless steel: five rings of it round my calf, all connected by nuts and bolts. Each ring supports two rigid wires. The wires – and this never gets any less strange to me – pass completely through my leg. As each wire makes an entry and an exit hole and there are ten of them, that’s twenty holes in my leg. Twenty little scars when the frame has gone. For the rest – removing the nail, cutting out the dead bone – the surgeon went in through old scars, which is a relief. Scar tissue clings to bone like tar, impeding movement, and I’m glad he’s made no more than he has to.
I was under the anaesthetic for about five hours, I think, and came to in the strangeness of the recovery room. It’s full of baffled people on hospital gurneys all blinking and looking confused. A bit like we’re all waking up in the Matrix, but none of us know kung fu.
After the consultant rounds the next day, I peel back the cotton wool curtain and take my first look at the frame. It’s huge, much bigger than I was expecting. And it’s here for a good long while. On the positive side, they had to take out only half as much bone as expected, so I shouldn’t have the frame on for as long as I first feared. They’ve shunted the two halves up together so my leg is one inch shorter than before. It looks more swollen than it is because the muscles are slack around my shortened skeleton. I have to come back when the break has set; they’ll re-break my leg and stretch the inch back in. I’ll have to crank the new break open with the frame 1mm a day and bone will grow into the gap as it heals. What a time to be alive!
The following night, the pads on my pin sites are changed. Twenty holes, remember, and two pads per hole so that’s forty pads. I’m not doing all this myself – not yet – and I’m glad of this. Under the pads, there is still a lot of gauze stuck in blood dried on to the hair on my very tender leg. As the nurses remove the dressings, I howl soundlessly (and sometimes soundfully) at the ceiling. Occasionally (alright, frequently) I swear and (in the most British way possible) I apologise (I’m so sorry, that’s not directed at you, please forgive me). When they are done, I think about how sore it was and how I’ll have to do it once a week, and how I don’t know if I’m up to it. I sit on my own in the dark, crusted in my own blood, and weep just a little. And, to be perfectly honest, the opiate constipation isn’t helping.
Because I hallucinate horribly on morphine, I’m on a synthetic opioid called oxycodone. Your body breaks it down differently to the way it metabolises morphine so you don’t get those side effects. On the other hand, it can provoke a side effect where it feels like your skin has been filled with ants. What’s got two thumbs and gets that that side effect? It’s calmed down with antihistamines but I am soon shifted to my old friend, dihydrocodeine, and exactly that much is right in the world.
A nurse arrives with my evening medication. “I’ve got to inject you with this to stop you getting DVT” – tinzaparin, another old friend – “do you want it in your arm or your abdomen?” “Just pass it here, I’ll do it myself” “Ooh, champion, you can come again.”
Let’s not get into detail, but let’s say the constipation has been dealt with. For this relief, much thanks (Hamlet, 1.1.10). I’m making my way hither and yon around the ward on a zimmer frame. I’m wearing my own clothes. My cleverly altered underpants have made such a difference to getting dressed – I cannot thank you enough, LB. Those of you who know me will understand what a huge part coffee plays in my life. Hospital coffee has no part in my life, and a succession of friends bring me good coffee from the outside world on a daily basis. Thanks, NT, LB, MR, JB, EM.
A young man is admitted to our ward on Saturday evening. He’s been in a motorbike accident on a motocross circuit somewhere to the east. He’s taken a jump too hard and he’s come off his ‘bike and then the ‘bike behind him has run over his back and he’s still broken less* bones than I did. Slacker. So there’s that – competing over who’s had the worst injuries. Gallows humour or not, here I am dragging around the least constructive traits of masculinity. I don’t know what to do about that right at the moment except acknowledge that it’s happening.
Soon I am up on crutches and then I’m going up and down stairs on crutches and then I’m being discharged and then I’m at home, going up and down stairs on crutches just to get better at it. It has its moments, this self-discipline, it has its place. It’s been holding me up and not blinking in the glare for about 20 months now, but there’s not much tenderness in it, not much comfort, not much room to soothe the wide-eyed, frightened child.
My GP practice arranges for a doctor to call me to discuss pain-control medication. The doctor asks how I am, and I start to explain a poor night’s sleep and how I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. She stops me to tell me that I’m allowed to feel sorry for myself, that I’ve been out of hospital for less than a week and that the operation was pretty savage. And this is all true. The accident was brutal, the surgery that followed it was brutal and this surgery was brutal. There’s more to come – they still have to re-break my leg. But I don’t have to face this unflinching, all day and every day. So this week, I am going to feel a bit sorry for myself, and not feel bad about that. Next week, I’m going over the top but for now, I can crouch in the trench and stay out of harm’s way.
*Yes, it has been pointed out that this should be fewer. This is correct. I was on a lot of codeine when I wrote this.