I’d been lying unmoving in an Emergency Department well-constructed bed with a foam core mattress covered with a fluid-proof, tear-resistant, self-deodorising, easily cleanable, anti-static, and stain-resistant cover for five hours or more. I kept looking at the tangle of electrodes and IV tubes snaking out from my hospital robe, and they caused me to think about the theory and historical practice of electromagnetism. I’d be the first to admit that I don’t spend much time thinking about electromagnetism; the last time was in the sixties when I had classes in Physical Chemistry at Footscray Technical College. But now I was thinking about the combined strength of the Electromagnetic Fields in the Emergency Department and if it could have an undesirable effect on equipment in other hospital departments, especially the Radiology Department. And I wondered if a CT scan would cause body parts, namely the brain, to be reanimated.
I felt my face grimacing because of the pressure spasms caused by being motionless on a foam core mattress. I adjusted my look of pain to intelligence and tiredness and allowed my thoughts to drift from electromagnetism to surgical operations and blood transfusions. My thoughts never fully embraced surgical procedures because a nurse appeared and started pushing my bed through the hallway of doors to radiology; I was either having a CT scan or withstanding another discharge of electromagnetism to my brain. I was soon back in what I was now calling my room, and before I knew it, a procession of doctors began to filter in.
Doctor 1: And how are we feeling?
The number of people coming and going into my room was going to cause the door to fall off its hinges. No sooner had the doctor left when a chirpy person, who I’d never seen before, came in and announced; I’m here to get some blood.
I offered my left arm and waited for the sharp but brief prick. The chirpy person started looking for a vein to poke; I wanted so much for them to thread the needle up my vein instead of pushing a furphy water cart up a steep hill. The phlebotomist had just closed the door; then it opened again.
Doctor 2: How are you feeling, any pain.
Having so many visitors made me feel regal; it was as if I was receiving a royal audience. But as my visitors introduced themselves, asked medical questions, and left, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that they were the members of my Gastroenterology team. I became somewhat over-excited at meeting my GI team, just as I think I would feel when meeting the boys of the bulldog breed. I became so energised that I started to feel the urge to point Percy at the porcelain.
I pushed the nurse call button, and when I explained my need, she asked if I wanted a bottle or did I think I’d be OK walking a couple of doorways down the hallway. I wasn’t sure what the bottle was, so I picked walking. I shuffled along the hallway of doors, sometimes steadying myself with a hand on the wall; I did the same on the way back but had to stop every few steps to take deep, lengthy breaths. Back in my room, I sat on the bed, breathing deeply, waiting for the dizziness to fade and my lungs to stop asking for air. With the cannula back in my nose, the dizziness slowly began to change into light headiness. That same feeling of light headiness I experienced years ago when exploring Darjeeling.
In the mid-seventies, I spent a week or so in Darjeeling. The now heritage-listed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, known today as the Toy Train, took us along the looping, double reversing, narrow gauge track to the quaint hilltop town. I remember Darjeeling as being in transition. It was changing from a refuge where the men and women of the Empire avoided the sweltering summer heat and the crowded streets of Calcutta into becoming a holiday destination for Kolkatans and other Indians, as well as becoming a tourist destination for world travellers.
Darjeeling sits on a ridge that juts out from the basin of the Himalayas. It’s about a thousand feet higher in altitude than Denver, America’s mile-high city. Until you adjust to Darjeeling’s high elevation, walking its hilly, narrow roads and climbing its steep flights of stairs is tedious; you quickly become out of breath and nauseous. I’d travelled to India with clothes only suitable for the warmth of Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma. Winter had yet to turn into spring in Darjeeling, and even though the cold had shifted away from severe and intense, it was still a bone-chilling place. The days were still short, caused by damp clouds replacing the tepid sunshine by the early afternoon. I bought a light blue woollen blanket from a street vendor to shield me from the cold so I could wander the steep flights of steps and the winding streets of the hilltop town. I spent the afternoons acclimatising to the higher altitude by resting in the tea rooms, sipping tea and eating fluffy scones smothered in cream and jam.
The sign to the Darjeeling Zoo pointed up a narrow winding road. I remember the zoo as a large wire mesh cage running along a narrow path. My memories differ from what the zoo is today; it’s now famous for its conservation breeding programs for the red panda, Himalayan salamander, Tibetan wolf, and snow leopard. The wire fence cage I remember housed the zoo’s llama collection. I started walking along the chain link wire, eager to spot a llama; I was stopped dead in my tracks by a Beware of Llama spit sign on the fence. I became consumed by fear. I tried to imagine the dangerous effects of llama spit. Could it cause nausea and vomiting, rashes that attack and feed on your skin, or nervous system disorders that disfigured your body parts; if you swallowed the spit, would it cause your lungs, kidney and liver to ravage and attack your body? I stood staring at the Beware of Llama spit sign and calmed myself by quietly repeating the mantra: fear is only brain chemicals. My fear of llama spit thoughts was interrupted by a cheerful announcement from the doorway: it’s time to get some more blood.
You couldn’t say I was relaxing in my Emergency Department bed. I’ve always thought of a bed as a cocoon made from soft, big blankets, warm sheets, a fluffy eiderdown, and feather-light pillows; a warm place to dream. I found it challenging to think of my well-constructed bed with a foam core mattress covered with a fluid-proof, tear-resistant, self-deodorising, easily cleanable, anti-static, and stain-resistant cover as a cocoon.
I’d been immobile, sitting with my back up against a hard rumpled pillow for close to eight hours, so when a nurse appeared and announced I was moving, I let out a soft squeal of joy. It was a brief joy; my bed and I were only moving into a transit room until a hospital room became available.
The relentless march of time had carried me into a transit room and a phlebotomy night shift. When it became time for my next blood draw, I let my arm hang limply over the bed rail, and just as the needle was about to pierce my skin, I turned to my new phlebotomist and pronounced,
go easy with the needle mate; remember you’re a phlebotomist, not a chippy pounding a nail.
It was the night shift, my GI team had left, and I was alone, sitting in a bed in a small, darkened room. I no longer thought about surgical operations, blood transfusions, and bacterial brain infections. Instead, I thought about counting the number of needle bruises on my left arm, but it was difficult to see the bruises in the dimly lighted room. I was focusing on the bruises on y left arm when my new nurse came in and matter-of-factly said,
your haemoglobin level is below half of what it should be, and we need to start a blood transfusion.
After having infusions every two weeks for a year, I was somewhat comfortable watching liquid dripping into me. But a year of infusion therapy hadn’t prepared me to look at an IV drip bag filled with another person’s blood dripping down a flexible tube into my vein and mixing with my blood. The blood in the bag was a darker red than I thought it would be, and I wondered what I’d feel when it mixed with my blood and began moving through my body. I watched it drip in slow motion into the IV tube. The nurse said it should take a couple of hours for the transfusion. I was alone once again in my dimly lit room, and when I closed my eyes, I thought I could hear the slow drop, drop, of blood entering the IV tube. My nurse came in often to check on me, and on her third visit, she announced I was moving upstairs to a hospital room.