A recount of my life-changing illness and experiences in a hospital in Ecuador.
How long does it take between being introduced to someone and getting to know them well enough to call them ‘friend’ rather than just someone you know? I found out last summer, on the last day of my six month teaching contract in Ecuador.
I’d been feeling ‘off colour’ for days, with the uncomfortable feeling of having eaten five roast potatoes instead of four. I could feel a bulge in my abdomen and knew that I had to drink lots of water in order to let my huge meal digest properly.
But, after a week, it hadn’t digested and I decided to get checked out.
I walked down to the end of the lane, thanked Tom for giving me a lift and we drove to hospital. Tory (a friend) came too, as she had the most working knowledge of Spanish, and Nicky (Tom’s wife) accompanied us as she was the more practical one of us.
The receptionist listened to Tory’s explanation of my situation.
I expected to be prodded and analysed, maybe even scanned and then given a prescription before being sent home. The possibility of appendicitis crossed my mind but, as I wasn’t in the type of stomach-clutching agony that you see on soap operas or hospital dramas, I thought that I would be diagnosed as ‘grumbling’, and given medicine to see me through the flight back to the UK.
First, a doctor came and prodded me. This was briefly painful, but he seemed unmoved by my wincing.
It was decided that I needed further tests. I was ‘gowned’ and wheeled down the corridor to the ultra-sound room. Tory came too. It was cold and we were left alone for what seemed like a good half hour. A doctor arrived. The gel tingled as he spread it on me, and all three of us watched the image of my pulsating insides. It only meant anything to one of us.
The results came back negative and I was wheeled back to Emergency room to wait some more.
A nurse came round and explained, in Spanish, which was translated by Tory, that I needed a CAT scan. I drank the bitter Barium meal quickly. Tory poured me out another tumbler and passed it to me. I sighed and gulped it down. There was another. And another. Dutifully, I finished it off to the last drop.
The CAT scanner rose up like a huge polo mint. I was propped on the conveyor belt-like bed and then shunted through until I was halfway through and the arch was over my abdomen.
Again, the results showed that nothing was wrong. It was decided to have a closer look – with a fiber-optic camera passed through a hole in my side. I was given another gown to change into and told to wait until an operating theatre became available. We waited…and waited.
It was nearly time to go for the operation. The effects of the pre-med drugs started to take effect. I was drowsy and wept copiously at the merest thought of the kindness of others or the long-suffering patience of my mother.
The forms had been brought to me half an hour beforehand. They were in Spanish, but I didn’t need a translation. Operations needed the patient’s consent and there was a clause somewhere that gave my permission for them to do any other surgical removal/thing if it became necessary during the operation. I cried again, as I realized that I was giving my permission for me to be cut open for the first time in my life. Something inside me knew that I wouldn’t just get away with the camera. I was about to lose my appendix – I was sure. I would have a scar and my flat, unblemished tummy would never be the same again. I handed the forms back to the nurse with tears streaming down my face. She muttered something Spanish to Tory.
‘I’ll be waiting, Mike. I’ll be right here.’
‘You’ll be fine …. I’m sure.’
‘I’ll be right here. Waiting.’
And with that, I was wheeled up to the operating theater.
The double doors swung open and I was wheeled in. I felt peaceful and resigned. I was ill, I needed an operation and I was in the best place for it. The surgeons knew what they were doing. This was a routine procedure for them, anyway. Ecuadorian anatomy was no different to English anatomy. The insides were all in the same place. Plenty of people have abdominal scars and they continue to be loved. It’s hardly disfiguring. So there was no problem.
Someone muttered something and held up a mask.
“No hablo Espanol.’ I apologized for not speaking Spanish.
The face smiled.
‘Relax,’ it said, and pressed the mask over my mouth and nostrils. The ‘someone’ pressed the mask even tighter onto my face and I began to feel dizzy. Finally, I succumbed to the rush in my head.
Moments later, (as it seemed to me) the world swam into view. There was a blue curtain and somebody was sitting by it.
‘Mike? Hi Mike.’ Tory sounded cheery. The sort of cheery voice that someone uses when trying to make light of a bad situation.
‘A bit of a major operation, that. It’s two thirty. You were gone for three hours.’
Oh. I thought about that bit of information. Rather long for exploratory surgery, I mused. So what? It was more than I thought, but I knew I’m going to be alright. It just might take a bit longer than I thought to recuperate.
‘’They found loads wrong. It’s a bit gruesome actually. But the surgeon says you’ll be fine now.’
I knew it: I’d had my appendix out.
‘They had to do more than they thought.’ Tory paused and hesitated, which was something that she never did. My suspicions were raised. ‘I’ll tell you later. But you’ll be fine now.’
‘Thank you for staying.’ I really meant it. I was touched.
‘I’m going to see if they’ll let me stay for a bit.’
I closed my eyes –secure in the knowledge that everything was, at last, right in my world again and that everything was fine. I slept.
There is often a news item about operations finishing and patients waking up to find that a scalpel, piece of gauze or something has been overlooked when sewing up. My mind began to boggle at every twinge that wracked my abdomen. Was that a blade cutting into my intestine? Would my bowels be blocked by a forgotten cotton pad? As time passed, however, the initial pains subsided and my fears eased. But I was still in more discomfort than I thought I should have been in for exploratory surgery. And the throbbing wasn’t where I thought it should have been for a recent appendectomy. Something was amiss….
I awoke the next morning and began to assess my situation. I was in hospital. I’d just had my appendix out. I rolled my eyes around. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a drip. The tubes led into my left shoulder.
Gingerly, I moved my hand over my torso. There was a dressing going up my middle, starting at my groin and going up to my breast plate. At the base of this was a tube collecting fluid from the wound. Just what had gone on?
I spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of consciousness. I opened my eyes and Tom was there. Alone and, I sensed, with the slight nervousness of someone who wants to be elsewhere. He chortled at me.
‘My God, Mike. MAJOR surgery there, eh? THREE hours!’
I grunted in a questioning way.
‘They found more than they expected. It was HUGE DRAMA. How are you feeling?’
‘OK’. I managed a feeble smile. So, they had had to cut out my appendix. Big deal. I could cope.
‘They did an awful lot. That’s what the nurse says.’ Tom paused. ‘I’ll just check again.’
Off he went. I closed my eyes again and he came back in what seemed like a few minutes.
‘Yeah, there was LOTS of pus.’
I expected there to be pus. I’d read the internet pages. I’d seen Casualty.
‘It was a bit of a mess. But it’s all been cleared up now.’ He paused. It was a long pause. And a deep breath.
‘Yeah. They put the camera into you. And – wow, it was all like – there were sacks of pus about to burst. It could have been really nasty. So….they cut out the end of your large intestine. And the end of your small intestine. And then joined them back together.’
Tom paused again for me to take in this latest piece of news.
‘And…there was another sack of poison. It was behind your colon. It was about to burst….stretched to full capacity…it could have been very nasty.’ Tom’s voice faltered noticeably.
‘They couldn’t get to it….not without cutting out….part of your colon.’
I thought I heard Tom sigh with relief as he said his last words.
Now the truth was out.
‘I’ve got to go now. I’ll be back tomorrow.’
‘Thanks for coming, Tom. You’ve been great.’
And, truly, I thought he had been. To have to relate such major news to a relative stranger…. And just be
so supportive in my time of crisis. All three (Tory, Nicky and Tom) have my unending gratitude. Could I
do it? I don’t know. I hope so. But I hope never to be in such a position to have to!