Encouraged by various readers, I've returned earlier than I'd imagined.
“Help me. Call the police. Get me out of here. I’m being held against my will.” His voice was calm, measured, as if he were reading from somebody else’s script and, like a record stuck, these exact words went on with no deviation, the pauses, even the precise tonal changes were retained. Poor man, stuck in a mind bubble between 3 and 4am, when, thankfully, his mind released him and he slept.
Relieved, everyone else could rest as well, apart from those whose pain was too intense; my wife didn’t sleep, suspecting the worst when covid rules forced her to leave me bent double as I’d tried to whisper farewell. Nor could I.
They worked hard, understaffed, overwhelmed by emergencies from across the county. Each person having their own specific job, working as an amazing global team glued together by compassion, purpose and teasing. South Koreans, Phillipinos, Thais, Indians, Nigerians, South Africans, Columbians, Poles, Romanians, Australians supplemented the English staff.
“Without these wonderful foreigners, we’d be closed. Why don’t our young want to work?” Gasped a matron visiting me. “OK, some simply can’t…”
“For half the fit young I know, the dole’s too easy,” a local nurse chipped in.
“It rankles us all that our taxes pay for their indolence,” somebody else said.
“UK Government, stop paying unless they help us!” Laughed an Asian doctor.
Brexit, reduced funding, increased costs, COVID, they struggle through them all and here they were caring for us with concerned professionalism. Laughter down the corridors is the sound I bring back from the quieter ward they moved me to, where they teased us and themselves, lightening our load. “Me Lady-Boy, ToyBoy who pay sex-change now dead, me in his BIG BEEG house!” The naturally female nurse did a few quick-step gay-steps and, knowing that her Asian husband was one of our doctors, we laughed. It hurt, but it helped.
Despite my condition, I was fascinated by the huge, extraordinary machine purring along, dealing with dire difficulties all around me. In bed 3 in our small ward, awed by their gentle efficiency, we watched an emergency team save a professional boxer from an allergic reaction. Not once, but three times! One after the other. They’d not a spare second to draw back the curtains. He lingered, swollen tongue out, upon the very edge, groaning, passing out, eyes rolling. Each time he returned, this rough Liverpudlian on holiday in Somerset would thank them, apologise. As they wheeled him away I gave two thumbs up and a huge smile, he smiled, thumbs up, winked. Bless him. An induced coma grips him, giving them time to work out how to save his precious life.
In comparison, my situation felt lighter. It’s always good to think of those worse off, though mortality had been edgy a little earlier - two hours before I’d struggled to breathe, and cope with intensely agonising lungs. Swamped by cases like his, to stressed doctors my pain seemed less urgent.
The relief of instant-morphine and oxygen! We take breathing for granted. When we can’t, the body reacts; despite years of mental training it was impossible to detach from this extreme physical panic. I could only go with it. Red-herringed by my history, ignoring what I’d been manifesting, it took thirty-six hours for them to discover my partly collapsed lungs. At least the original antibiotics helped. I soon moved to a quieter ward where routines replaced drama.
I’d had a much weaker version of my mother’s final hours; I’ll never forget her body writhing in agony on the floor when we entered her part of our shared home. That’s what those calm professionals deal with all day long. Bless them. Without fail, every foreigner I spoke to praised our NHS in comparison to their own systems. But what expense! It’s why I’d shunned an ambulance and cycled. “Only you’d cycle with a collapsing lung,” a medic friend laughed.
“But think of the cost of all that top-quality equipment, it has to survive hourly bashing,” I said.
“One ambulance trip saved, hardly helps.”
Then there’s the oxygen, warning systems, computers, drugs, on it goes. The NHS consumes 7.7% of our GDP, employs 1.34 million skilled individuals, is by far the world’s largest health service employer.
Those remarkable people love egalitarian, “Classless England!” Although my health was better in sunny France, which we both miss, I’m also happy here. One of those foreign workers, a doctor, a nurse, a helper or one of the colourful characters wheeling me about the hospital for tests, said: “English people don’t realise they live in paradise.”
Back home now with my highly experienced wife proficiently, tenderly, caring for me, this Utopia eases my trauma. Re-inflating my lungs with painful deep-breathing, balancing exercising a tiny bit (the stairs every two hours) with sufficient sleep. Another uphill struggle to rebuild a once great body severely weakened and aged by nine months of dramatic health disasters. The challenge is to be alert to the bigger picture, not to wallow in self-pity. Suffering is eased by our attitude and as you can tell, my mind was busy distracting itself this past week.