Surgery day

My surgery was planned for 17th, but after the TWOC fiasco they decided to bring it forward.

So surgery actually happened on the 6th. The night before I wrote some notes on my broken phone, just in case things came out badly. Just a few little messages for my mum and girlfriend, and a final invitation for my brother to fuck off.

I’ve deleted them now. They were very sentimental, which isn’t like me at all.

The show started at 1pm, so in the morning I watched everyone else eat Weetabix, and then had a nap on the bed. If I was worried, it wasn’t preventing me from sleeping.

Am I a sociopath?

Brother arrived at 12:00 and told me he’d wave me off for the operation, and welcome me back afterwards. He must be concerned, he’s never been nice to me before. Mum isn’t coming because “she doesn’t want to get in the way”. We laugh about this. Typical: she worries about everything, and now she thinks that her presence in the hospital will somehow put off the surgeons? She’s an absolute nervous mess.

I read for a bit, and then the porters came in and wheeled me down. En route I was overtaken by my surgeon. He’s so confidently blasé about it all, the polar opposite of my hilariously terrible GP. An operation this big probably happens to 1 in 10,000 people, and is an incredibly big deal for me. But for him it’s every day. Probably twice a day. It’s a job.

Prep was unexpected, but then I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it before. It’s a small ward of perhaps 20 beds, with a constant turn-over. I was there for maybe 35 minutes, and in that time the entire population of the ward changed twice. It’s a production line. We’re not patients down here, we’re a bunch of malfunctioning machines.

I’m asked the same questions 5 times, once every 5 minutes. I guess they have to be very certain they’re doing the right thing to the right person:

  • What’s your name?
  • What’s your date of birth?
  • What’s wrong with you?
  • What surgery are you having today?

I like saying “right radical nephrectomy” rather than “right kidney removed”. It gives me that same sense of belonging that you get when you manage to use a few words of French in Paris.

The anesthesiologist told me they’re going to give me an epidural so I can cope with the pain after the surgery. Odd: I hadn’t even thought about pain after surgery. I’m glad he has! So I’m wheeled in to pre-op and made to sit on the side of the bed. An assistant sticks a huge plastic sheet to my back and makes a small hole in it. I’m asked to arch my back as much as I can, so my chin is pressed on my chest.

I try, but I’m a rugby boy. Thick set, sturdy, inflexible. I can’t bend enough to make a gap between the vertebrae, and he keeps trying and trying. He’s put the needle in 4 times, and still can’t get into the epidural canal. I can feel him getting frustrated behind me.

The assistant holds me by the neck and pushes my head down as far as he can, but this just isn’t happening. So they give up and tell me they’ll work out a different pain regime for me while I’m under. They tear off the plastic sheet, and I feel like I’m being waxed.

I lie down. A drip or two go in, and a bunch of cardio sensors on my ankles, chest and neck. I’m perfectly calm, I notice. Am I a sociopath?

The anesthesiologist gives me a cord to hold with a button at the end. He tells me not to press it, and suddenly I’m reminded of Dougal in Father Ted, being invited into the cockpit and seeing a big red button marked “Do Not Press”. They’re bustling around above me.

And… nothing.

What happens next

Scene: Interior, day, hospital ward. The young urology consultant is visiting Mole Rat, who lies in bed with a book

Consultant: Good morning.

Mole Rat: Hello there.

Consultant: Well, that was a bit of a surprise!

Mole Rat: What was?

Consultant: …. your cancer?

Mole Rat: Oh yes. That. Sorry. Yes, yes it was.

(Consultant has notes. He consults them. The clue is in the title.)

Consultant: It says here you don’t smoke.

Mole rat: Correct.

Consultant: Smoking is the major cause of kidney cancer.

Mole rat: I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Consultant: Do you work with chemicals.

Mole rat: No, I make websites.

Consultant: Chemical exposure is another major cause.

Mole rat: Not much of that in website design.

Consultant: I imagine not. Has anybody explained to you about the surgery?

Mole rat: You’re going to remove my kidney.

Consultant: That’s right. We’ll do an open surgery. I just wanted to let you know before we take you down to theatre.

Mole rat: I hope it’s not as bad as the last time I was in theatre.

(Consultant consults his notes, once again living up to his reputation)

Consultant: I’m sorry, I can’t see when you were last in theatre.

Mole rat: We Will Rock You. It was awful.

Consultant: Oh I see. Very good.

Mole rat: Sorry.

Consultant: Was it that bad?

Mole rat: I haven’t seen it, I just liked the joke.

Consultant [long pause]: We’ll try not to hurt you.

(Mole Rat suspects they will try to hurt him. It really was a terrible joke.)


My catheter has been in for 3 weeks now, and it’s been horrible.

It itches and scratches inside me. It prevents me from lying in any position except flat on my back, when everyone who’s ever tried to sleep with me has found out I prefer to lie face down like a little baby.

And if I do manage to nod off in an uncomfortable position with a pipe scratching the inside of my penis, I’m woken up every 2 hours to have the saline bag changed.

So I’d been looking forward to TWOC day. TWOC is Trial Without Catheter, which basically means they take it out and see if I can pee. Over the last few days the saline has been coming out increasingly pale pink, like a Rosé in a nightmarish restaurant, and now it’s totally clear. It looks like I’m no longer bleeding, and can go home until my surgery.

So they whip out the catheter (deep breath, hold it, then breathe out fast as they pull 30cm of tube out of me). Then a nurse watches me drink 2 litres of water, which I have to pee out into a jug so they can be sure it’s all working, and no more blood clots are present in my bladder.

2 hours later and it’s all going terribly wrong. A tiny dribble and a couple of hard, nasty clots thudding into the jug. Pain is coming back, like it did the day I was admitted. Oooof. This is bad. Oooof. Oh my God. Oh my serious God.

A nurse tries to put the catheter back in to relieve the pressure, but it’s absolute agony. The tube won’t go in, and it’s about 8mm across, and she’s trying to push it a hole that has closed tight. She can’t get my urethra to open up. She shoves harder and harder, but it’s just like being slowly stabbed with a blunt knife in the most sensitive part of my most sensitive parts. It’s clearly not working, and the pain is getting worse, and I’m making noises that are scaring other patients.

After 2 more brief attempts she gives up and calls for a doctor. In he rushes, with a sweat on, and in full surgical gowns – he was just about to start an operation when he was called to me. He’s Polish and unfeasible blonde and handsome. He looks like an extra from something American; I can’t remember what but it’s a programme I hate, and now they’re giving me a huge dose of morphine and examining my cock. I’m naked and hurting and making intermittent squeaking noises that I’m trying to suppress; and there are 5 nurses and a doctor bending over looking at my penis, which has shrivelled to walnut in response to the mixture of pain, fear and cold.

Here comes the morphine. It’s not a high, it’s something else. It’s very nice. It’s a sense of being outside, just watching. Yes, there’s pain, but somehow that’s fine. The Polish doctor pinches my cheek, looks at my eyes, and starts again with the catheter.

Oof. Even the morphine isn’t doing anything for that. He can’t make it go in. The morphine makes his voice seem a long way away, but I hear him say “get a theatre ready”, and I say “I can’t go to the theatre dressed like this”, and he smiles like he’s never heard it before, which perhaps he hasn’t. Did I just make it up? Why won’t my brain work properly?

But the pain is coming back, and he scans my bladder and says he may have to do it here. I later found out that my bladder was in danger of rupturing because of the amount of liquid in it, and he was considering just slicing it open without anaesthetic, right there on the bed, because it’s a safer option.

But then someone brings gas and air, and my morphine haze gets really weird. My ears are buzzing, and someone squeezes the glans at the head of my penis to force the urethra open. Someone says “hold him” and 4 male nurses put their hands on my shoulders and thighs, and everything goes bright and sharp for about 2 seconds. And then it’s over. The catheter is in, and I’ve already filled one bag.

They’re putting another on, which I fill immediately. I’m filled with gratitude, and tell the Polish doctor that I hate him for what he just did, which I assume he’ll realise is a joke, but he looks genuinely offended. I try to apologise and explain, but the morphine is making me nod out, and my mum, brother and girlfriend have arrived to visit.

I found out later that they were stood just outside of my curtained-off bed, listening to me screaming. I didn’t know I was. My mum was in tears, and my girlfriend still won’t talk about it.

It turns out that catheters aren’t supposed to feel as itchy and scratchy as mine did. I had an allergic reaction to the latex tube, and the inside of my urethra had blistered and swollen. When they took out the catheter the hole clamped tight shut, so nothing could come out, and nothing could go in.

I had pain all through the night: bladder cramps brought on by the stress it was put under earlier in the day. A hugely sympathetic and wonderful Filipino nurse sits with me in the small hours, and holds my hand while I have a little cry. I tell her I’m ashamed of myself, and she tells me I shouldn’t be. Medical staff give marks out of 10 for pain. Childbirth is an 7, but bladder cramps are a 9. I ask what a 10 is, but she won’t tell me. I have a ghastly imagination, and all I can think of is the bloody stumps and the London bombings.

I now have an answer for any woman who uses the lazy “agony of childbirth” argument.

They’re not going to try another TWOC. I’m here until the operation. And Doctor Who starts on Saturday. I’ll miss it. Damn.