The Gall of It – Part 1
In the faraway year 2000, three momentous things happened: my son was born, my father died and, I had a gall stone attack.
My father Roger’s death, aged 66, was sudden and unexpected. He had FSH Muscular Dystrophy, but a milder, more typical manifestation of the condition than the godawful version inherited by two of his sons, Mark and myself. Until Mark and I were diagnosed, aged 6 and 8, Dad had attributed his clicky knee and distinctive gait to a childhood diagnosis of Polio. He walked well into his fifties, albeit increasingly precariously, until he fell into a glass-fronted display cabinet and came within a gnat’s whisker of severing his carotid artery and fracturing his spine. The whole family breathed a collective sigh of relief when he started to use a wheelchair.
Matthew was born in spring, 2000. At that point, Polly and I had been married seven years and just prior to the pregnancy had been planning an elephant riding, tiger spotting, rapid rafting adventure holiday to India – plans we set aside when the pale blue line appeared in the little glass window. It pleases me greatly that Dad got to see and hold his grandson just weeks before he died.
And barely three months before I contracted pancreatitis.
St Helier hospital sits atop Rose Hill near Sutton, a 1930s art-deco building, disfigured somewhat by extensions, add-ons, and the fact that you approach it from the north, the back of the building. I spent much of the latter half of 2000 shuttling between Ward B6, ICU and HDU with a combination of pneumonia and pancreatitis caused by gall stones, resulting in no less than three tracheotomies. Three times Polly was told I wouldn’t survive the night.
I’d slowly make progress and be weaned off the hospital ventilator ready to be transferred to the specialist respiratory ward, B6. The ICU and HDU units at St Helier were brilliant. B6, not so much.
I nearly died in ward B6; had my sister not been visiting me and noticed I’d virtually stopped breathing I would not be here writing this. Polly would regularly come in to find several doses of medication placed out of reach on my locker. The nurses would sorrowfully tell her that I wouldn’t take my medicine, “He can’t move!” she’d explain again and again. “He didn’t say anything,” they would counter. “He has a tracheotomy! He can’t speak.”
Nineteen years ago, the ward was filthy. There were specks of blood on the floor and walls. Suction catheters that are inserted into the lungs to remove gunk were used and reused, the equipment didn’t work, and patients with infectious diseases occupied beds next to patients recovering from pneumonia. I had been moved to the far end of the ward, presumably to get better on my own. Instead, I caught double pneumonia. It eventually took a blues and twos ambulance transfer to the Royal Brompton hospital and another couple of months plus the introduction of permanent night-time ventilation to sort me out.
(In fairness to St Helier, some eight years later I was briefly back on Ward B6. Gone was the vast single room lined with beds with a nurses’ station in the middle. Instead, the ward divided into bays and single bed rooms; the whole place now decorated in a subtle shade of anti-suicide green. and everything looked reassuringly clean.)
Gall stones, though, would plague me for the next nineteen years.