Diverticulitis Dave and fainting Ray

I’ve been moved to a small ward, which is a good sign.

They tell me that the closer you are to the nurse’s station by the door, the more likely you are to die. Nurses are clearly too lazy to run down the ward if you start to hemorrhage blood from your ears and eyes.

But now I’m about a quarter of a mile from the nurses, in a little side-ward with only 6 beds. It’s ve-e-e-ry quiet, and I can finally get some sleep. Nice people too. Opposite is Ray, a university lecturer who has a smart and talkative group of visitors that I like to eavesdrop on. I’m hoping he’ll notice I’m bored talking to Diverticulitis Dave (of whom more later) and will invite me to join in their discussions about economics, arts, science and Kiera Knightly, who they also seem to believe is the worst actress in recorded history.

Ray has a problem with his bladder, but his biggest problem is his nerves. Every time someone tries to investigate the his urinary issues, Ray faints. This morning a doctor came into explain that they were going to take a 2mm thick microcamera, numb the relevant parts, and then and very gently feed the camera up him to look at the problem.

“OK”, said Ray, “although the problem is with my bladder, not with my colon”.

“That’s right”, said the doctor, “We’re going to feed it up your urethra. You won’t feel a…”.

But Ray fainted before he got to hear what it was that he wouldn’t feel. The tube up my penis is 4x thicker than the one they planned to use on Ray, but the very idea was enough to put him on his back.

So Diverticulitis Dave is a particular challenge for Ray.

Diverticulitis is deeply unpleasant. Deeply. Stop reading now unless you think Two Girls, One Cup is an aid to digestion.

Diverticulitis is very common, but it rarely gets bad enough for anybody to notice. It’s a hardening of the bowel, with the result that you get ridges forming. For most people this means their bowel operates a little slower, but they don’t notice. But on those rare occasions when it gets really bad…

… brace yourself….

… the bowel blocks completely, your stomach fills with backed-up excretia, and you vomit your own poo.

It’s treatable, but because the surgical area is full of (let’s face it) human shit, infections are very common and it takes weeks and weeks for the wound to heal. So Diverticulitis Dave has been in hospital recovering for more than 4 months; long enough to make a sitcom about him, co-starring James Bolam. I’m already composing a jaunty theme tune.

He’s clearly bored out of his bonce, even more than I am, and entertains himself by welcoming new inmates onto the ward with a selection of his favourite anecdotes. When people tell anecdotes often, they fine-tune them until they’re like a little piece of performance poetry. And in Diverticulitis Dave’s case, his poem is all about that time he puked his own diarrhoea across the kitchen table.

Some of it got on the cat, which is always my favourite part. I look forward to that bit.

But every time he tells it – especially the bit about the cat, strangely enough – Ray takes a tumble. You’d think somebody would move Diverticulitis Dave, if only to give him a new audience (one that doesn’t collapse when he speaks). But no, they prefer to keep propping up Ray and giving him hot sweet tea until the next time Dave gets to tell his little story.

It passes the time.

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Travel broadens the mind

They say that travel broadens the mind,
Til you can’t get your head out of doors

Elvis Costello

Over the last few days I’ve had a battery of tests:

  • Something called a PET scan, which the technician described to me as being like an opinion-poll. It doesn’t give final results, but it’s an indication of the way things are going. Looks like we might be able to win, but it’s going to be close. More campaigning needed, and probably a better economic policy (i.e. I’m not working and can’t pay my bills… but that’s a story for another post, I think).
  • An ultrasound of my kidney, which gave me the first ghostly view of the horror story growing inside me.
  • A CT scan, which gives the surgeons a millimeter-accurate 3D view of the tumour so they can decide the best way to go at it.

For a few days they’d been talking about keyhole surgery: a 2cm incision in the lower belly, then they put a pipe into my abdomen and inflate it like a balloon to give them more room to work. Then they go in with instruments like Satan’s Long Spoon, and scoop out the kidney in bits.

But it looks like that option is off the table, because the CT scan didn’t look good. The surgeon came to see me to tell me all about it. He’s a natty little man aged about 30, with the kind of tan you only get on the very finest ski slopes, and a suit with a pinstripe so vivid it would make a banker’s eyes bleed. I couldn’t see his red braces, but I know they were there. The knot of his tie was as wide as his neck. He had metal taps on the heels of his shoes so everyone would know he was striding proprietarily down the ward.

He put me in mind of a premiership footballer, until he spoke. Then he put me in mind of minor royalty. Which around here, he probably is.

He looked at me as if he thought getting cancer was a sign of weakness, and I should pull myself together. Then he announced that he wasn’t going to do the operation himself, because he’s going to be in Gstaad tacking a particularly tricky black diamond piste. He didn’t say that last part, but his demeanour did.

Instead it’s going to be done by a colleague, but the colleague is “brilliant too”. I must have looked like I’d spotted his gigantic ego rampaging around the room, because he gave a self-depricating little smirk and tried to brush it off. I don’t care how big his ego is, frankly, as long as he’s a wizard with a knife.

First he told me about the tumour. It’s big. Very big. They’re all poets round here. I asked for more detail and assured him I was capable of understanding big words, and wasn’t going to cry.

The tumour has taken over one side of my right kidney, and has swelled up to a very large size. It’s 17cm across (a healthy kidney is only 9-12 cm, so that’s a pretty big tumour). As far as they can see it hasn’t breached the kidney or spread, which is a good sign.

And it seems to be a slow-growing cancer. Fast-growing ones tend to push the skin out and be clearly visible from outside. Slower ones tend to ease other organs out of the way and remain hidden until, like mine, they grow so big they tear open the organ they’re growing inside, and cause a bleed.

Mine seems to have crushed my right lung to about 50% of its normal size. The lung will re-inflate after the surgery, and I’ll probably feel high on oxygen for a few weeks – it’s likely the cancer has taken 5 or even 10 years to get this big, and for much of that time I’ve had oxygen depravation. How odd.

The bad news is that cancers which start in the kidney don’t respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy. So if the surgery doesn’t work there’s little else they can do.

So they made the decision to give themselves the best chance of a successful surgery, and that means opening me up rather than keyhole. The surgeon traced a little line from the bottom of my sternum down to my hip, which I estimated was around 10 or 12 inches. Big hole.

Surgery is scheduled for 5th April. Good. I’ll be glad to get the malignant little fucker out of me.

Fuck the motherfucking pope

The only fun here is abusing a priest.

Over the years, in the longueurs of the night, I’ve often wondered if life would be better if it was much, much shorter. But in hospital this feeling is intensified to the point when you’re actually cheering for the cancer.

Fuck all happens. And then it happens again. Occasionally, just to shake things up a bit, all of a sudden fuck all will stop happening, and sod all will happen instead. But then it’s back to fuck all for the rest of the week.

The day has several highlights, which is a bit like saying East Anglia has several Alps.

  • 6am wake-up.┬áThanks nurse, you absolute bastard. And for absolutely no reason at all, even though some buffoon a couple of beds away was talking to Napoleon Bonaparte until 4am.
  • A pill, which no nurse can explain to me, and no doctor has the time to answer questions about. I just swallow it. It might be cyanide, but by 3 in the afternoon I’m too bored to care.
  • People taking blood samples. I’m unconvinced that my blood changes dramatically from day-to-day, but it breaks the morning up if I let somebody stab me in the arm.
  • Something dubious and grey on a small saucer being pushed in front of me by a con-artist in a tabard, who is convinced I’ll believe it’s actually a salmon en croute if he repeats this slanderous claim often enough.
  • Tea. I used to drink coffee, and I’m no snob about it. Powdered Maxwell House is fine by me if that’s all you can be arsed making. But the stuff they serve here is water from a puddle outside, which has been heated by being hurred on a few times to take the chill off it. That’s the only rational explanation for how bad the coffee is. So I’m drinking tea instead, which somehow they get right.

But the undisputed highlight, the thing I look forward to more than anything, is the weekly visit from the hospital chaplain. The first time he arrived I was reading Catch-22, which (in case you haven’t read it, in which case your life is an empty sham) starts with these words:

It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

So there, right in front of me, was a chaplain. Standing upright, proudly humble, as though he actually belonged there. This flatulent, fatuous, fraudulent… I was not in love with the chaplain.

Scene: Hospital ward, interior, day. A hospital chaplain is doing his rounds and alights at Mole Rat’s bed.

Chaplain: Hello.

Mole Rat: You’ll be sorry.

Chaplain: What?

Mole Rat: I said you’ll be sorry. I’m just giving you fair warning that if you try to peddle “crazy” around here you’ll be sorry. I don’t think religion demands automatic respect, so if you want to be loudly disrespected try talking to me about your invisible friend.

Chaplain: I’m here to bring comfort to people.

Mole Rat: You lie to them.

Chaplain: No I don’t.

Mole Rat: Prove it.

Chaplain: Prove what?

Mole Rat: Prove anything! Absolutely every claim you make for the presence of God is based on the superstitious rantings of a few fishermen 2000 years ago, who didn’t even know where the sun went to at night or understand the mechanics of rainfall. Do you REALLY think those people accurately guessed the cause of creation for the entire universe, what it’s for, and what happens after death? Of course they didn’t; it’s a myth. It’s one of millions of myths, it just happens to be one that’s popular right now. It could just as easily be Zeus or the mighty Im Ho Tep. And you’re selling this bullshit to people who are sick and desperate. You should be ashamed of yourself. If I was you, I couldn’t live with myself. It’s disgusting.

Chaplain: I do a good job. I make a lot of people feel better.

Mole Rat: So it’s all about you, is it?

Chaplain: No, it’s about the patients.

Mole Rat: Surely religious patients already know about God?

Chaplain: Yes.

Mole Rat: And you believe God listens to them?

Chaplain: Yes!

Mole Rat: So what do they need you for? You serve no purpose. Go away, you fraud.

Chaplain: I’m not a fraud.

Mole Rat: Look around you. You’re here in a temple of science, where every single aspect of the care and treatment is built on trial, and evidence and the scientific method. And you have the unmitigated nerve to float from bed to bed, mopping up excess gratitude and claiming your magic friend in the sky is helping to cure people. Well He isn’t. You can pray until you’re blue in the face, and it’s not going to stitch a single wound or cure a single cancer. Did 2000 years of prayer cure Smallpox? No, 25 years of science did. God is a childish myth, and you’re a gullible fool. In fact you’re worse than a gullible fool, because as a professional theologian you’ve undoubtedly thought about this a lot; and unless you’re a total moron, you’ve probably considered the fact that there isn’t much to back up this “God” malarkey. So you’ve either decided to con yourself, or you’ve decided to con your flock. Either way, it’s a pretty miserable way to spend your life. If you really wanted to help people around here you’d take a medical degree.

Chaplain: I don’t think I can help you.

Mole Rat: I don’t think you can help anybody. Bugger off.

End of scene.

I enjoyed that. So did the patients all around me. I got a little ripple of applause. I’m no hypocrite; I don’t even claim it’s about God or the patients. It’s all about me, me, me. I live for the adulation of my captive audience. Ha ha, don’t you know greatness when you see it, puny humans!

I’ve spent too long alone in here.

Breaking the news

Last night I slept like a baby. In fact it was a lovely evening all round.

I can barely see any of the real world from my hospital bed, but the tiny corner of sky was clear, bright blue, a Californian day in Stockport.

The lunatic who has spent the last 3 days calling for a cup of tea every 20 minutes, day and night, has died. Yay. The whole ward celebrated.

And I re-read a big chunk of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which I hadn’t read for about 10 years. I’d forgotten how brilliant it is: insightful, touching, clever and with big things to say about big important subjects. But more than all of that, it’s probably the funniest book ever written. I remembered many of the jokes, but not all of them – there are many – and even the familiar ones are so beautifully rich and unexpected that there’s a little delight in appreciating the art of the writer. The skill. The craft.

I’d have pissed myself laughing if my cock wasn’t full of tubes and having 300 litres of saline sluiced thought it every day.

So in spite of the cancer diagnosis, I felt good yesterday, and had a very nice evening. Now for the tough part – telling everyone. Honestly, I’m not being a tough guy: finding out I had cancer didn’t bother me one bit. I already kinda figured it out before they told me, although I didn’t know where or how big. So none of it has bothered me.

In fact the only surprising thing is how unsurpised I’ve been. I thought I might be in shock about it, so I took myself into a little room in my mind, sat myself down, and had a long serious talk about it.

Scene: Interior, day, Mole Rat’s brain. Mole Rat’s Ego and Id sit around a table with a swinging lightbulb above it. His Id has an erection, the sick puppy.

Id: You’ve got that fucking cancer, mate.

Ego: Yes, I know. Will you put that way, or think of something else at least?

Id: And it’s massive.

Ego: It’s not THAT big. Oh, the cancer. Yes, I know. Please hide your erection, it’s disturbing me that I find my own penis attractive.

Id: I always knew you were gay.

Ego: I’m not gay, that’s just my Id running wild inside my subconscious. My SuperEgo knows I’m not gay.

SuperEgo: Don’t bring me in on this, I’m not even in this scene. And anyway, I’m not a Freudian; I’m more into Jung.

Id: Paedophile!

SuperEgo: Jung! With a J. You animal.

Ego: Can we all just put away our cocks and have a serious conversation, for once?

Id: I don’t think so, I’m your Id, My cock is always visible and always hard.

Ego: I’m closing my eyes in case I accidentally discover I AM gay, and have to tell SuperEgo.

SuperEgo: Not listening!

Id: Aren’t you frightened? Cancer could kill you. Leave you disabled. Unable to work. Scarred, bald and dying in a chemo-chair in Christies.

Ego: Everything you say is true, but what can I do about it? Nothing. So why worry?

Id: Well, you’re a bigger man than I am.

Ego: Oh, that’s very nice of you. Although I can’t help but notice your penis is actually much bigger than the real thing, in which case I’m actually a smaller man than you are.

Id: Will you stop thinking about sex?! You big gay freak.

End of scene.

Maybe I’d come to grips with cancer a bit more if I wasn’t thinking about sex all the time.

Anyway…

Telling my mum? Phew, that’s hard. The conversation in my brain was too scary, and I didn’t want my Id turning up with an erection while mum was in the room. So I made my brother tell her.

Chickening out

Mum has Parkinson’s and can barely make it across the living room, so she’s not going to be able to get to the hospital to see me. I can’t go home to see her, I’m still having my bladder sluiced out and am tied to a drip by my poor, shrivelled, suffering tallywacker (can’t they make these tubes any more confortable?).

So I called my brother; he can go and visit mum and tell her in person. She’s bound to have a cry and need an arm around her, and my dad is too busy being dead, so brother will have to do it.

Brother is a busy man, a senior exec at a huge, market-dominating company. In other words, a he’s a bastard. But he always has time to answer the phone to me with a few kind words.

Brother: Fuck off, you scrotum.

Mole Rat: You feckless cunt.

Brother: What do you want now? Can’t you leave me in peace?

Mole Rat: I’m in hospital.

Brother: Nothing trivial, I hope?

Mole Rat: Are you sat down?

Brother: Oh… OK. Now I am.

Mole Rat: They’ve found a large mass on my right kidney. I asked to see it but Windows Vista wouldn’t let me. So their poet in residence desribed it for me as “Big. Very big”.

Brother [talking in his unrealistically deep “I’m being serious” voice]: OK. I’m on my way.

Mole Rat: No, just go and tell mum, will you? And fuck off too. Go on. Off you fuck.

He fucked off.

And then I made a virtually identical call to my girlfiend’s parents, but with less profanity (at least on my part). So brother is driving over to tell mum, and girlfriend’s dad is driving over to tell girlfriend.

One less thing to do. Now, back to Catch-22…

Cancer? You’ve GOT to be kidneying me!

Still in hospital, and now I’ve been moved to a urinary specialism ward. I’m the youngest person here by at least 35 years, and the only one who’s teeth don’t regularly fall out and skid across the lino. I also seem to be the only one who isn’t either:

  • Incontinent
  • Mad
  • Incontinent and mad

Until now I hadn’t called my mum to tell her about any of this hospital stuff. No point in worrying her; she worried enough that time I went out in the wind and got a runny eye. She’d be a panicking, vibrating mess if she knew I was in hospital.

And yesterday a specialist came to see me, poked and prodded me for a while, and announced that it was 99% certain to be a kidney stone which had nicked a vein, causing a little bleeding. Painful, inconvenient, but completely treatable. I should be out in 2-3 days. So why bother my mum about it?

They did a little scan to find the stone…

… and couldn’t.

“Not to worry”, said Mr Specialist, “that’s quite normal. It might be too small to be found using this scanner. Let’s send you for an X-ray”.

So I stayed in another night. All very embarrassing. I don’t own pyjamas, so they gave me a hospital gown which is custom designed for male rape. It ties up at the back, but with a gap of around 8 inches through which my inviting little rectum peeps out. And I can’t twist my lumpen, rugby body around to reach the little tie-cords behind me, so I have to ask a nurse to do it. It’s humiliating.

So after another night in hospital, with about 10 minutes of sleep because of the howling lunatic 5 beds away, this morning they sent me down the hall to get an X-ray. Waddling barefoot around the hospital with a drip-stand clearly delivering a tube up my cock, and my arsehole winking at the world. Oh joy.

X-ray done, I went back to bed and tried to have a sleep, but they just won’t leave you alone in hospital. I must have been asked my name about 100 times. I’ve already started to get fed up with it, and am trying to find ways to entertain myself by confusing the staff:

Scene: Interior, day, a hospital ward. Mole Rat lies in bed, and is approached by a gaggle of doctors doing the rounds.

Mole Rat: I suppose you’re wondering why I invited you all here this morning

Gaggle: [bemused silence]

Mole Rat: Oh, never mind. Carry on, Nurse.

End of scene.

And here’s the big news

Half an hour ago I was trying to sleep when a nurse told me the doctor wanted to see me. She asked me to go to his office near the nurse’s station. Hmm: news which must be delivered in private. Bad news. And as soon as I thought “bad news” I thought “cancer”. And then I realised I had an answer to a question that had squatted at the back of my mind for more than a year.

Last year my dad died, having had all manner of things go wrong with him in the previous decade. He’d got diabetes, then he’d gone 90% blind. He had a severe stroke, which left him in a coma for 2 weeks, but from which he’d made a very good recovery, but was pretty weak. He’d had renal failure and had to go on dialysis 3 days per week for 4 years. And then finally, he’d had a couple of heart attacks over the course of a weekend, and karked it.

Lightweight.

I’d often wondered what would kill me. Not in a morbid way, just kind of curious. We all die. Would it be Parkinson’s disease, which my mum has, and her mum before her? Diabetes? Stroke? Heart attack? Raped to death by the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team? Or, in this invitingly arseless gown, by the Brazilian men’s beach volleyball team?

Now I had an answer. Cancer. And then I was fine, and I knew how to deal with it all.

All this went through my brain before I’d got off the bed to walk to the doctor’s office. So when I got there and he told me they’d found a very large mass on my right kidney, my response was “Yep”. And then I asked to see it.

Typically, I couldn’t because he couldn’t operate his crappy Windows Vista laptop, so he had to describe it to me. “Big”, he said. “Very big”.

I suppose they pay him to be a doctor, not for his descriptive powers.

So the proximate cause of my death will be cancer. Unless, of course, that Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team gets here quick. Here’s hoping!

A funny thing happened on the way to the bathroom…

I woke up this morning (“da-da-de-da-dum” blues riff) and went to the loo, and my urine was dark red.

This, it has to be said, is not normal for me.

I felt fine, just as I always do, but it was a bit of a concern, so I called my GP and made an appointment for later that afternoon. Then I got on with a couple of hours work, and didn’t think about it much.

At 4:00 I went to see my GP, a flustered 30-something woman with the air of a disappointed flautist about her; all whispy hair and cardigans, and a faint yearning expression that makes you realise she’d much rather be at home with her cat and some sheet music.

Normally you hope your GP is organised, responsible, sympathetic and calm. I showed her my bright red urine sample and she said “Oh my God, is that yours?”. Then she stood up, walked in a small circle, and sat back down again like a dog being startled by a spider. She held her hair in two fists and stared at my sample like she had no idea what to do next.

I think she needs to review her bedside manner.

Because she remained so calm and did such a good job of hiding her concern, I came away with the distinct impression that I – and most of my family and friends – will be dead in a week. She made an emergency appointment to go to my local hospital in 2 days time, and I got back in the car to drive home. I still felt fine apart from a serious giggly fit about how terrible my doctor is.

But by the time I’d got home 5 minutes later I wasn’t laughing. I had really serious abdominal pain. It felt like I needed to piss so badly that I was about to rupture. I found myself moaning involuntarily.

Now, I’m a big tough northern bloke who used to box and play in a decent amateur rugby team. I’ve broken bones, fallen out of trees and down hills, been hit by boxers, by rugby players, by medecine balls, and on one unfortunate walk to school, by a car. But none of it was like this.

Pain is very hard to describe. We’re biologically programmed to forget how it feels, because if we remembered we’d never do a dangerous thing again. And animals often need to do dangerous things, like fight tigers, give birth, and try to steal a pint off girls from Leeds.

So it’s hard to put into words how it felt. But if you’ve ever slammed a finger in a door you’ll know there’s a cold, sharp, instant slice of pain, which lasts a millisecond. Then there’s a brief painless moment of shock, and then a long, slow ballooning throb.

Well, my pain was that initial cold slice, but it didn’t end. The shrill moment of pain just went on and on and on. And then on. I could barely walk. I couldn’t get up the stairs. I collapsed in the hallway, and my girlfriend had to half-carry me to the bathroom to piss.

But I couldn’t piss. I just wasn’t happening. And the pain was getting worse and worse. I was sweating so much my tattoo slid down my arm and onto the floor.

999. Flashing lights. Going the wrong way up a duel-carriageway to get me to hospital. The paramedics offered me morphine in the back of the ambulance, but I declined. I now know how stupid that was. If a paramedic offers you morphine it’s because you need it. Take it. It’s brilliant. Vivid, vivid dreams about (of all things) sherbet bon-bons.

At the hospital I was rushed through triage and straight into a treatment room, where I lay down for as long as I could, about 3 seconds. And then I started doing what women in labour do – stand up, lean on a wall, lift my leg up and twist in strange ways. Anything to find that comfortable position.

A doctor came in and squeezed my bladder, and it hurt so much I nearly punched his fucking lights out. He came back with a syringe full of morphine, which he forced into my mouth. And before it had had a chance to work, he got a 8mm thick tube and forced it up my penis. That wasn’t the best thing to happen to me all day, but it did the trick.

I immediately urinated thick dark blood down the tube and into a bag, and kept urinating like this for several minutes. The human bladder holds about 750ml of liquid. Mine had almost 3 litres in it. It was coming out so fast they couldn’t change the bag it was emptying into fast enough, and the treatment room ended up looking like an abbatoir.

Preventing people from weeing, I later found out, was a highly successful method of torture during WW2. I’m sure it was. It would work on me!

The pain eased off, and I just felt limp and bruised and wet and useless. Men, I think, are used to being physically in control. This was the first time in my adult life that I felt things were getting away from me.

I was attached to a drip, which fed 3 litres of saline per hour up my uretra into my bladder, washing away the blood. They still didn’t know where the blood was coming from, but it was stil coming. Some of it had congeiled in my bladder, causing cramps and preventing me from urinating and building up pints of blood behind it – that was what caused the pain.

And then I was moved to another ward, and told I had to stay in for the night and have more tests tomorrow.

An exciting day!