Come Smile With Me - Episode 3
Some journeys through life are difficult but make us as we are.
Although we all loved our house, we very soon started to grow out of it, and we are transferred to a bigger house nearer to the centre of town. My school is a fair distance from home so I travel by bicycle, something that I really enjoy although as the years go by it is becoming very exhausting.
I am thirteen when my local GP confirms that a specialist consultant at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, in London should see me.
It will soon be Christmas and mum has promised that after the consultation we will spend some time looking around the many, highly decorated stores that London is so famous for.
Today is the dreaded day and we are to make our way by train. I am anxious this time as before, but for a much different reason. My spine has been twisting around together with my rib cage and this is making my breathing very difficult. The specialist is going to see what can be done to correct it.
One of my teachers at secondary school always picks on one of us during his geography lesson. He is a strange character. None of us actually dislike him. In fact he can be a bit of a joke and is often seen grabbing a chunk of chocolate bar from under his desk when he thinks we aren’t looking. He then makes strange burbling noises as he gradually dissolves the chocolate in his mouth. He reminds me of Mr Pickwick in Charles Dickens' writings.
I seem to be the butt of his comments at the moment and whenever he is near me, he whispers in my ear that unless I sit up straight I will grow deformed. I want to explain that I can’t sit up any straighter, but I never get the chance.
Arriving at the London hospital we find the appropriate waiting area, announce our arrival to a very insincere receptionist, and wait. It seems like hours when, suddenly, we are called into a rather dingy consulting room decorated entirely in hospital grey with two rather ornate fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling by steel links. We are face to face with the specialist consultant.
He looks a serious sort of guy, but with a kind face displaying a friendly smile. A nearby nurse introduces us, explains our reason for attending, and the consultation begins. I am guided down a long winding corridor where I have an endless number of x-rays taken; followed by a series of lung function tests and we are soon back in the waiting area.
I am beginning to feel as though I am part of an elaborate experiment and my head aches through the lack of air, and the strange smell that seems to penetrate every part of this building. Hospitals have a peculiar smell that lingers everywhere, constantly reminding you of where you are and what goes on here.
My name is once again called and more than two hours since we first arrived I am back in front of the specialist. Apparently I have a severe form of spinal scoliosis and unless something is done very soon the situation will become much worse. I don’t totally understand what is going on. In fact I don’t really care. All I wish for is to get out of this dreadful building and get home.
I gather from the conversation being held with my mum, that I shall have to come into hospital sometime early next year and it could be a long stay. Things do not look too good. We look around many of the shops and try to forget the earlier events, for a while at least, and are soon heading back home.
Christmas comes and goes and soon after my fourteenth birthday, the dreaded day arrives. I have to report to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, Middlesex, and mum and dad drive me there in dad’s car.
On arrival, I am taken to see the Staff Nurse who shows me where my bed is and where I can change my clothes, etc. This has to be the most frightening day of my life. The ward is like an army barracks with very high ceilings, lights suspended from the ceiling, long stretches of tall windows, and that smell. Spaced on all sides and down the centre of the ward are young kids like me, in all forms of plaster casts. Some have got arms and legs hanging by wires and pulleys and look very uncomfortable. The guy in the bed next to mine is covered in plaster from his neck to his waist and yet seems remarkably happy. Perhaps he is going home soon.
It is time to say goodbye to mum and dad and I feel awful. I know I am going to cry – I can feel it building up inside me and it is going to boil over. I don’t want them to leave me here. It’s terrible. It’s frightening.
They have gone. I am absolutely alone, miles from home and no one to talk to. I can only run into the toilets down the corridor and cry my heart out. What happens to me if they crash on the way home? Nobody will know that I am here? I might not see mum and dad ever again. Why am I here? I want to hold mum and dad as tightly as I can. I didn’t say goodbye properly.
I am guided by a nurse back to my bed, told to change into a special gown and wear some appalling sort of thong, and wait for the doctor to visit. I am embarrassed, scared, alone, in fact over the next few hours I go through every conceivable negative feeling.
My surgeon is very friendly and tries to put me at ease. Mum and dad will be up to see me at the weekend (that’s nearly five days away), and I have lots of tests to go through. The first one is tomorrow morning and the nurse will be with me all of the time. Now I can have a meal, watch some television, and try to get to know my companions. I just can’t forget mum and dad. I want to see them. I want to see my brothers. I want to go home. The tears well up again and I can’t stop myself from crying. I don’t want anything to eat. I don’t want to watch television. I just want to go home. I am not ill. I can run and walk and play and jump as good as any of my friends, so why am I in this dreadful place?
This is not fair.
Last night I cried my self to sleep and am woken by one of the many nurses telling me that it was time to have a wash ready for breakfast. Apparently it will be brought to me on a tray, but I can take it to the table at the end of the ward if I would like to. Curtains are being drawn and I can see out into the gardens that surround the ward. Actually in the morning light it looks quite pleasant, and I can see loads of small birds scrabbling around on the grass for the early worm. Breakfast is scrambled egg (which I quite like), and toast and jam, and we can have tea or orange juice. I said that I didn’t really want orange, so was given a small mug of hot, sweet tea.
Nurses (or orderlies as I found out later) are already polishing the floor and screens surround some of the beds. I found out to my horror what was going on behind these screens a few days later. Breakfast is soon over and nurses visit us all. My nurse takes my temperature and pulse, and then asks me if I have emptied my bowels today. I hadn’t, and this was noted on a chart that was attached to my bed.
It is now nine o’clock, and I am taken through the rubber doors at one end of the ward and into a small laboratory type area. The walls are littered with instruments and equipment that don’t look as though they have been used for years, and glancing at some of them, I hope they never are.
I am told to stand on a small wooden box with my back to the wall and my height is measured. From this moment on, and for what feels like the entire morning, I am subjected to a myriad of different tests and experiments until eventually I am told that it is time for lunch. To be honest, the food in the hospital wasn’t bad. It was very similar to that at school, but with larger portions and more variety, although for the first few days I ate very little.
Three o’clock and it is visiting time and the fear and misery returns. I have no visitors. As far as I can tell every other patient has at least one visitor, their mum or dad, or perhaps an aunt or uncle. They have books, magazines, fruit, bottles of drink and more importantly a hug. The torment continues for at least an hour. The visitors are given tea and biscuits, and I can hear laughter and chatter filling the ward. I feel really desperate. I have read my magazines. I can’t watch the television as it is at the other end of the ward, and I feel sick. I gather that there is another session for visitors in the evening.
I have a visit from my surgeon who is reading my notes and discussing the next moves with the staff nurse at the foot of my bed. “Well Peter”, he says, smiling, “ On Friday you are going to get fitted for the first plaster cast. It won’t hurt, in fact some patients actually find it fun”. I bet they do.
I sleep better tonight and am beginning to reconcile myself to being here. It won’t be for long, hopefully, and I can be back home again. “Have you emptied your bowels today?” I am going through the now familiar early morning get you up routine and finding the question less embarrassing. I answer in the affirmative and this pleases my nurse. I shall have to go soon, but I just don’t seem to be able to at the moment.
The walk to the plaster area is quite long and I am being taken by a friendly Indian porter who knows his way around the hospital like the back of his hand. He is telling me all sorts of stories about what he has seen. I am not certain about a few of them.
We have arrived and I am asked to remove my top and lie down on the longtrolley parked in the centre of the room. The trolley is covered with a maroon coloured rubber mat and is cold to the touch. There are two nurses in here, and a guy who looks like a doctor, but I am not sure if he is or not. I am given a sort of string vest to wear and layer by layer the ‘doctor’ is wrapping me with strips of wet, cold, plaster. One of the nurses holds my head back and the plaster is taken up under my chin and around the back of my neck. The cast sets very quickly and I feel trapped in a plaster straitjacket with holes for my arms to poke through. There is a small gap that stretches around just under my ribs, and then a further cast that extends down to my hipbone. I can move nothing above my hip except for my arms, sticking out each side like a tailor’s dummy.
I am taken back to the ward on the trolley and deposited unceremoniously onto my bed where I lie absolutely demoralised. I am shortly to discover what goes on behind the screens, as I ask a nurse if I could use the toilet. My bowels need emptying now! How degraded I feel. This is the first time that I ever remember seeing a bedpan, and to have to ask a nurse for assistance I felt completely embarrassed. If only I had known this before, I would have tried much harder before the plaster episode. The smell seems to hang around and I know that everyone in the ward knows what I am doing. I am as red as a beetroot, covered in balls of sweat and wish that I could die, NOW. The situation seems to be getting worse and worse, surely it can’t continue?
Saturday, and apparently it can. I am fitted with two long steel bolts that connect both halves of the cast and run down each side of my torso. The bolts are plastered onto the cast and the whole assembly becomes extremely rigid.
Sunday, and joy of joys, mum and dad have arrived. This is wonderful. They have not changed a bit. Mum looks a bit tired, but very happy to see me and I cannot explain the joy of seeing them again. I have new magazines, some fruit, drink, and letters and cards from many friends and relations. Even my brothers have sent a present. They are staying with nanny while mum and dad visits. Visiting time is over far too soon and promising to telephone me when they get home, mum and dad leave. I can do nothing but wave them goodbye and sink into a feeling of gloom once again.
It is ages since they left and still no phone call. Perhaps they had a crash. Maybe they are ill, or injured. What can I do trapped in this plaster cast? “Peter, your mum telephoned and they send their love" a nurse passes on the message and the world is slightly brighter.
Yesterday, whilst mum and dad were here, the surgeon had explained the process of straightening my spine and it is to start today. Over the next few weeks, the bolts on my cast will be extended a little more each day, until I have been stretched sufficiently to remove some of the curvature from my spine. Once this has been achieved, I will have an operation to graft bone tissue around my spine to support it in this new position. The operation is known as a spinal fusion and is generally very successful.
This afternoon I have had the bolts extended and I feel taller already. The pressure on my chin is rather an odd sensation, although my ribs and hip take most of the force. I am finding it very difficult to eat, or drink, and prefer using a straw.
I am permitted to get up and walk around the ward, in fact, this is encouraged, but I am finding it a very uncomfortable experience. The bottom of the cast tends to rub on my hip when I walk, and I am already developing a sore.
Sleeping is exceptionally uncomfortable, and I have to turn over as one solid mass using a sort of throwing movement. The bed clothes get caught on the bolts and usually I end up with nothing on top of me which is both highly embarrassing, and somewhat annoying as I have to keep asking one of the night nurses if they could replace them for me. I haven’t yet got to use a ‘bottle’, but I am sure that this ‘pleasure’ will come.
Last Sunday’s visit was a real nightmare for my poor parents. Apparently, some thirty miles from home, their car had broken down and ground to a halt on a lonely road not usually carrying much traffic. The weather, typically, was appalling with sheets of water covering the road and a cold Northerly wind blowing leaves and small objects high into the overcast star-less night sky. They had waited in desperation for almost an hour, when a local farmer drove up in his tractor to enquire if there was anything that he could do to help. Within the hour my parents were being towed home, attached to the tractor by a steel bar through which they felt every bump and judder from the tractor. It was two hours later that they finally reached home, gave the farmer something for his extremely kind act, and retired exhausted to bed.
This coming Sunday, we are all to be told what is to happen next and going by my past experiences I am not going to like what I hear.
Well, now I have heard everything. My operation is planned for next Tuesday; it is a lengthy and complicated process and will last for at least eight hours. Mum is going to stay over night in a parent’s accommodation block next door. Following the operation, I have to stay in bed, horizontal, encased in a full cast of plaster for six months. Six months. This is half an entire year. Surely this can’t be right. Evidently it is.
Tuesday morning and I am back in the world of fear and trepidation. I am not allowed to have anything to eat or drink and I have been given a rather weird pill, which is deposited in a most unusual part of my body. The effects are almost immediate and very unpleasant.
I am now on my way to the plaster room where I am to have the cast removed and replaced by a temporary steel brace known as a ‘Milwaukee’. The ‘doctor’ is wielding an electric rotary saw and I feel that I am about to be dismembered. Grinding into the side of my cast alongside one of the bolts, great clouds of plaster dust are thrown into the air and my immediate thought is how does the ‘doctor’ know when he has cut through the plaster and reached me. I am dreading the fact that I may find out before he does. I think he has noticed the extreme look of panic on my face, as he lifts the saw from my cast and moves it towards his own arm. Immediately the blade touches his jacket, the saw stops. I am so relieved, that I do not notice that the cast has now been removed and is being replaced by the new ‘skeleton’ brace that will hold my spine in place throughout the operation. Wheeled back to the ward I am confused with a combination of fear and some relief.
Mum has arrived and looks as concerned as I feel. She is giving me a hug when I receive the ‘premed’ injection and I am all set. An hour or so has passed. A shiny new trolley arrives pushed by a smart looking nurse, and I am gently lifted on to it, say goodbye to mum and disappear through the rubber doors.
I can see a range of brightly-lit lights; shiny steel instruments, highly polished floors, and two or three doctors dressed in white gowns and caps. One of them approaches me and I can see that he is holding a syringe. “Peter, when I ask you, would you please start counting down from ten, and you will fall fast asleep “ With that strange smell filling my nose, Ten, Nine, Eight…
Focusing is a little difficult, and trying to determine what I am doing here, wherever here is, is a real challenge. I can hear voices, and through the mist I think that I can make out some people wandering about. My back is unimaginably sore, and for some inexplicable reason myhips hurt too. My mouth and throat feel like they are on fire, and I would die for a drink. My head aches like it has never ached before and..
I haven’t moved, but I can see one or two objects a bit clearer now that the mist has started to clear. It's just like looking through a dirty window. I know that I am lying on my back and I can move my arms but not a lot else.
I can sense that there is someone beside me, but to move to have a look really hurts, so I will give that a miss. I have a tube filled with clear liquid going into my left arm, and one with red liquid (probably blood) going into the other. I have just realised that mum is sitting beside the bed, but I don’t think she has noticed that I am awake yet. My back feels as though I have been sliced with a ‘Stanley’ knife, it is excruciatingly painful and whenever I move I have a sensation of tearing something.
Mum has spotted me looking and is holding my hand. It feels lovely and I can see a smile forming across her face. A doctor has come into the room and is talking to mum. I am being given a small injection in my arm and soon fall asleep once more.
The operation would (at least initially), appear to have been successful. It had taken just over eight hours and I have been given eight pints of blood since the operation began. The main concern now is that I recover my strength as soon as possible so that I can be returned to the ward. I have never had a major operation before and I am experiencing a whole range of sensations, from being in complete control to frightening hallucinations, and all stages between.
As insignificant as it appears today, over forty years later, the only really solid event that I can remember whilst I was going through this period of recovery, was when I accidentally discovered that if I clenched my fist, I could send streams of bubbles up the two tubes. As my focus improved I would send the bubbles to the top declaring one of the tubes as winner.
Mum is fantastic and soon I am asking all sorts of questions concerning the operation and what happens next. It is within a couple of days, that I am transferred back to the ward and my own bed. The nurses are looking after me magnificently and constantly check my scars, take my temperature, pulse, and blood for testing. I am receiving two injections a day, one in the morning, the other late afternoon, and with the exception of the soreness from the two scars I begin to feel better everyday. Mum went home on Thursday with the promise that she and dad would return Sunday, and this I was really looking forward to.
Ten days have passed since the day of the operation. Sunday certainly did see the return of mum and dad, which was wonderful, and I am havingmy stitches removed later this morning. I have fifty-four of them down my back, and eighteen on my hip, where the bone was taken to graft on to my spine. A nurse is soon here and I am gently rolled on to my front. I feel every one of the seventy-two stitches being removed with almost every one producing tears in my eyes. Some of them have been pulled too tight, and the skin has started to grow over the stitch. These beauties have to be pulled through the scar tissue. The scars are dressed with a soft, warm smelling fabric and I am gently rolled back over. The soreness has certainly begun to ebb and I am feeling a lot more comfortable.
Once the doctors are satisfied that the scar tissue is healing correctly, I am refitted with the plaster cast (this time in one piece stretching from my chin to my hip) and reminded not to try to sit up or move around inside the cast.
Today I am off to the hospital dentist. Apparently the cast under my chin may be pushing my front top teeth out of line (I have never understood this and am convinced it is a confidence trick to get me to the dentist). Some people have the knack of being able to judge a person by the first impression, but a three-year-old child could judge this particular character with not a bad thought in his head. The dentist looked as though he hated his job, his patients, in fact life, and did all he could to express these feelings in the treatment of the poor longsuffering children that he was supposed to help.
I am wheeled by trolley into the surgery and told to lie still (If I could have done anything else – I would have been extremely surprised).
The dentist, muttering under his foul smelling breath (no masks in these days) places a small steel banana shaped container into my mouth and I am asked to clench my teeth together. Biting into a warm mass of molten plastic material is not what I had expected and I immediately panic that I may not get my teeth apart anymore, or if I do, several of them will be left in the plastic goo.
“Open wide” and he withdraws the container as you would scoop out an oyster from its shell. This again is not a good day. It is not so much about what is going on, more about the feeling of complete helplessness trapped in a plaster coffin on a steel and rubber trolley miles from home and civilisation. Here I have no control over what is going on, my questions and concerns go completed unheeded and I have no one to turn to.
Five days later and it is time to have the brace fitted. The same miserable dentist is here and holding my face with one hand, he eases the brace on to my top teeth. It is rubbing on my gum, which starts to bleed. The brace is removed, filed with a tool that looks as though it was used during the Civil War as a weapon of torture, and refitted.
Apparently one of the teeth sections is slightly out of line, so the offending tooth is removed. He has just taken my tooth out! No gas, no painkiller, no warning, Nothing. At this precise moment one of my teeth is trapped in the end of a malicious pair of forceps. I can not believe what has just happened. What has this barbaric man done to me? Without pausing for a breath, the brace is re-fitted, and I am wheeled back to the ward. Definitely not a good day.
Now when I eat, I not only have to try and enjoy my meal lying on my back, or if I ask a nurse, on my side, I have also to suck the food, and prevent it going up and behind the brace which fits snugly into the roof of my mouth. I have had enough of this. I cannot take any more and the brace is removed and hidden under my pillow. I am now going to spend the next six months worrying about the condition and shape of my front teeth. I might not look like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but probably Bugs Bunny.
One of my favourite television programmes at the moment is ‘Emergency Ward 10’. Goodness knows why, but it does cheer me up. This evening it begins at seven o’clock, and somehow I have to arrange my bed so that I can see, and just as importantly, hear it. I am currently at the far end of the ward, furthest from the screen. I have become friends with a number of kids in here, with one of them having his leg stretched.
Apparently it is three inches shorter than his other leg because of a hip problem. He has taught me how to drag my bed up the ward by pulling on each bed as I go by until I get close enough to the screen.
Regrettably, the beds have wheel locks to prevent just this kind of manoeuvring so my first task is to find someone to unlock my wheels. One of the lads across the way is in for a foot operation and is still relatively mobile. It takes very little persuasion for him to release the locks. Pulling on the beds is a bit of a strain and occasionally I can feel the scars twitching, but eventually I roll into position and the programme begins. The staff nurse is never very impressed by this tactical move, but as the other nurses on our ward are part of the night shift, they don’t really seem to mind. I think it must be quite boring working through the night, after all, we aren’t ill, so rarely need anything, except for the dreaded bed-pan of course.
This particular evening the programme is showing one of the doctors playing with a small game in which he has to roll a tiny ball along a series of alley ways, (avoiding many pit holes) to arrive at the finishing post. It looks very difficult but enormous fun. I shall have to try to get one of those.
A week later, a small package is delivered to my bed, and with rising excitement I tear open the wrapping to discover the very game being played on the television last week. Inside the wrapping, a letter from one of the actors, Desmond Carrington, explains that he is very pleased to receive my note enquiring about the game. He goes on to say that the actual game is one of the studio’s props and can’t be forwarded, so instead he has bought a similar one in the hope that I will enjoy it whilst I am in hospital. I just can’t believe it and will cherish his letter for a long time.
Visiting times in the ward are not so depressing now as I am getting a few regular visits from some very kind people that mum and dad met in ashop up here one Sunday. The family has two daughters about my age and they often call in with time for a chat, a laugh, and the latest comics that I read and pass around the ward. Even my old great aunt living in Walthamstowe calls in occasionally during the week, which is a great treat.
I have been at Stanmore now for almost two months and although I am starting to see the nurses, doctors, and fellow patients as one big family, I still want to go home. I have my GCE examinations in just over a year and need to get good grades, as I want to go into the Customs and Excise Department, or Air Traffic Control. We do have a teacher who comes in every day with work to do, or to talk through a particular subject, but it is not like being at school.
Mum and dad have been having discussions with the doctors about me beingallowed to go home, with perhaps a health visitor calling on me once a day. Eventually, an agreement is reached and I am prepared for the journey home.
Saying goodbye to my friends at Stanmore is much more difficult than I anticipated, but I am soon loaded into an ambulance and on my way home.