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.

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.¬†Thanks 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.