31 March 2009

"I'm just going to give you a little prick..."

Steve, bless him, has tonsillitis at the moment. I hope he doesn't mind me mentioning this and I hope he gets well soon. Fortunately, a surgical procedure when I was eight prevents me from ever suffering from this unpleasant ailment.

I suffered frequently from ear infections as a child, exacerbated by the chlorinated water which would regularly enter my ears as I was a competitive swimmer and was therefore in a pool most evenings. Eventually, my GP referred me to a specialist - an ancient but kindly lady called Dr Calder - who rammed various narrow sight aids down my ear canals, tutted a lot and then announced to my parents that I would be better off without my tonsils.

Immediately, I wondered why tonsils - which I knew were somewhere in my throat - were somehow responsible for ear infections. I couldn't see the connection, figuratively or literally. To be truthful, I'm still not entirely sure to this day. I also got a little scared, as this meant hospital, an operation, pain, discomfort. I'd been hospitalised with croup in 1978 and I hated it so much. I went on the waiting list and forgot about it for a while. Then six months later my NHS call-up papers arrived through the letterbox.

As I was only eight, the surgical summons was addressed to my parents and they, bless them, kept it secret as it was mere days before Christmas and they didn't want me to spend Christmas Day being frightened. My brother and I unwrapped an Atari games console as a joint present on Christmas morning - though his self-appointed status as head sibling purely by accident of birth meant I barely got to play on it except when parental intervention forced his hand. We fell asleep on Christmas night, happy at another really enjoyable festive day. On Boxing Day morning, after breakfast, my dad quietly sat me down and showed me the medical papers, informing me I was going into hospital that day.

I was upset and it was quite a shock because I'd genuinely forgotten all about my impending surgery. Maybe I was hoping that Hull Royal Infirmary had forgotten too. A few tears were shed, as I was petrified, but then things calmed down and my mum packed my hospital bag. We all travelled in together and I was then left behind to settle into one of the children's wards.

The paediatric department of HRI was on the top floor of the building. I assume it still is. HRI is a vast, imposing place, easily visible from most second floor windows in the west, north and centre of the city. I wonder now, when they structured the departments upon the building's inauguration in the 1960s, if the children's ward was deliberately placed on the top floor so there would be a mild element of excitement about being so high up for the sick kids who had to go in there. It was so thrilling to be so high above the ground, as we all discovered when looking out of the window. It's only ever adults who are scared of heights, after all. My mum once took me on the big wheel at Hull Fair and only one of us was nauseous and as white as a sheet upon dismounting, and it wasn't the child.

In my room were four beds and I was given one near the window. Two other boys, both a little younger than me, were in the beds on the other side of the room and for precisely the same reason. The other bed remained empty for the next 24 hours then, briefly, a girl slightly older than me was put in it, seemingly with the 'flu. Even at the age of eight I knew that you didn't normally get hospitalised with the 'flu. My dad reckoned she was in because her 'flu simply wouldn't go away. Anyway, she was shifted after only a day or so and the bed became unoccupied once again for the rest of our stay.

Now, everything you read in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (or it might have been Growing Pains... - I can't remember) about having your tonsils removed is true. The pre-op care involves frequent medicine doses, nightly baths where a nurse stares at you in order to make sure you don't drink the water and, otherwise, total boredom. When my dad had his stay in hospital the December before last, he was furnished with a tv, radio, games console and internet access, all above his bed on a natty pulley system. Clearly the latter of these was unavailable in 1981, but there was also no tv or radio in the room. There was a play room up the corridor with a tv (and a box of really crap toys, covered in dirt and scabs) but you needed nurse permission to get out of bed for any reason other than to go to the lavatory, and most of the time there was no nurse about to ask. Back in those days kids, ill or well, recognised authority...

We each had to have two days of checks and tests before our operations. The three of us, if I recall accurately, each had a moment where we got frightened and shed a few tears, which was understandable. I remember one of the other lads getting really upset when he was the only one whose parents hadn't turned up at visiting time, so my dad went over and told him a few daft jokes to get him smiling.

This hospital stay also introduced me to the concept of nightshifts. Until this point, I though a night nurse was that weirdly-coloured liquid the tv told you to take before bedtime if you had a runny nose. I thought literally everyone went to sleep at night, simply because I did. But we had proper night nurses on duty, wandering around the wards while all the young patients slept. I remember wondering how much work they actually had to do given that everyone in their charge was away with the fairies. I wasn't aware of the concept of admin in 1981...

Finally, the day of the operation came. Now, although I was the eldest of the three boys, I was also last alphabetically, and so the other two were wheeled out of the ward first, one at a time. The first lad was brought back after his op, totally zonked out by the anaesthetic, and the second lad gave me a small wave, rather poignantly, as he was then taken away. We all had to put on a strange gown and shower cap and remove our pyjamas. I remember protesting a little at having to remove my Casio digital watch (with calculator) but did so anyway.

The trip to theatre was quick. I was wheeled out, taken down the corridor, into the lift and downwards, but only briefly. Then it was out of the lift, through two lots of double doors and into the theatre itself. The surgeon said hello, asked if I was okay, told me not to worry and then said the immortal words "I'm just going to give you a little prick". This moment is as vivid as any, even though it was seconds before I dropped off the edge of the world. I'm pretty certain I wasn't asked to count to ten, and I suspect I'd have made it to no more than three...

The next thing was me waking up in the ward, with mum and dad either side of my bed, reading. The two other boys, de-tonsilled before me, were already awake and chatting with their families. To this day I don't know how long the operation lasted or for how long I was unconscious. All I remember from that point is how sore my throat felt. It wasn't a standard sore throat, it felt more like a fire eater's throat during his apprenticeship. It felt burned and incredibly tender, and instantly mum handed me some water - not hospital tap water, which we'd all previously discovered to our cost was wholly undrinkable and quickly regurgitated - and I sipped away while trying to come to terms with the pain. The nurse quickly arrived with some painkillers.

The next three days were spent sipping water, eating sloppy food and taking pills while trying to stay reasonably entertained. I read the same comic over and over again - some BBC tie-in thing featuring drawn versions of Barney Bear and Basil Brush - and my mum brought me my Paddington books. Slowly but surely, the throat was healing. Ice cream formed a staple part of the post-op diet, being cold and soothing and I happily devoured masses of the stuff. However, on New Years Day 1982, my day of release, I had to eat a large bowl of cornflakes as a final test of how well my throat had healed. I did so, at a struggle, and then got dressed and was taken home.

Finally, on January 2nd, I got to play that Atari console on my own, and was soon beating our kid at Space Invaders and finding the white key in Adventure. I never felt my throat again - except when standard sore throats came and went - and my ear infections never returned.

Get well soon Steve.


Jon Peake said...

I was in hospital aged eight (1974), too and I actually quite enjoyed it although I refused to eat any food. My mum had to bring dry bread in for me (my favourite childhood food). This post brings it all back. Doctors keep telling me I should have my tonsils out but at my age, I just can't face it. And I still wouldn't be able to eat the food.

Charles Nove said...

Your tale of puzzlement at the apparent inspection of the tonsils via the ear'ole puts me in mind of a visit to the vet, many years ago, when one of our cats had an infected bite on the top of his head. The kindly old vet went to take the cat's temperature in the time honoured manner. The cat emitted a perplexed squawk, and the vet said: "I know, I know, you've got a sore head and you think I'm going for the wrong end, but trust me, I know what I'm doing!".