So my son dropped me at the doors of Connolly Hospital and I got out, clutching my admission form, my 1970s dressing down and a pair of beige slippers.
“See you,” I said but he was already tearing out of the carpark as though practising for Rally Ireland. Idly I wondered if I would see the car in one piece again.
However there were more important things to worry about. Here I was for my first spot of surgery ever. They were going to perform a lumpectomy (possibly not the correct technical term) on my lower back, a simple day case but, at last and for a few short hours, I was a genuine member of the hospital fraternity and not merely an irritant to be shooed out when visiting time was over.
“Good morning!” I said in kinship to a young woman in a dressing gown, standing at the door with a cigarette in her hand. She stared at me as though I had two heads or indeed a golfball-sized lump in my back.
I glided through registration with ease, despite nearly coming unstuck on the seemingly innocuous question of my GP’s identity. Luckily it was on my referral form, so I got 100% and sailed through to Round 2.
Round 2 consisted of sitting on a chair in the ward without falling off until the nurse called my name. Deploying a masterly sense of balance, I passed with a merit and at last I was in the ward.
“Slip this on you and I’ll be back in a minute,” said a nurse, handing me a night gown.
If my borrowed dressing gown was hideous, this nightgown looked as though it had come straight from the textile factory at Hell. Off-white through a hundred washes, the design consisted of the word ‘Hospital’ arranged into triangles and scripted in reds, yellows, blues and greens. Presumably, this was to ensure nobody took one home, the way they purloin towels from hotels. I murmured to myself that I wouldn’t be seen dead in one and then realised with a start that hundreds of people probably had.
“I meant, that you take your clothes off first and then put the nightgown on,” said the nurse when she returned, drawing back the curtain with a swish. Well she hadn’t actually said that. Didn’t she know I was unused to this sort of thing?
When she came back a third time, she asked if she could have a look at my lump. I thought it would have been churlish to refuse so I stood up and turned around, conscious of the fact that the open-backed nightgown also revealed my backside.
“My God, that’s a large one,” she said, leaving me wondering if it was the lump to which she was referring.
When she was done, she pulled back the curtains and informed me that I’d passed Round 3 and I’d be going down to surgery shortly. Now, hospital was one of the languages I didn’t take in my Leaving Cert but I had a suspicion that ‘shortly’ was one of those irregular adverbs. I prepared myself for a long wait, sitting on the chair and nodding at everybody who padded by, in a spirit of surgical kinship.
I had done the hospital a disservice though because the nurse had been using the English definition of ‘shortly’ and fifteen minutes later I was led down the corridor and into a small room. Here I was handed over to the care of a man and a woman all gowned up who looked at my lump and asked me if I’d be better sitting on the bed or lying on it. Again, this was a question that nearly stumped me but eventually I came up with ‘Whatever’s the best for the doctor,’ an answer which entitled me to the grand prize of a lumpectomy.
The three of us chatted away until the surgeon arrived. The anaesthetist talked about having done a 36 hour shift the previous Friday and Saturday and it hadn’t really seemed as though he’d had the weekend off at all. I thought of my own work and felt very humble.
The surgeon arrived. If policemen seem to be getting younger to people of our generation, my surgeon still appeared to be in secondary school. But she was very friendly and would have put me completely at ease if I wasn’t already as relaxed as I could be.
“I think we’ll have you lying on your side,” she said and I smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand. How could I have not thought of that? She pulled up a chair and either she or the anaesthetist started sticking needles in around my lump. I wanted to watch but my head wouldn’t swivel around that far. I made a mental note to make sure the lump was somewhere on my front the next time.
Now this is what my offspring call ‘the gross bit,’ so anyone with a squeamish disposition just skip the next three paragraphs.
“Right, here we go,” she said and I craned my head back as far as I could. Next thing I knew, I heard a small “Oh!” and I saw what could only be described as a fountain of liquid spurting up to within an inch of the ceiling and then come splashing down. After about a minute’s silence, the surgeon said, “Well, now I think we know what it was,” and left the room.
“You absolutely drowned her,” laughed the anaesthetist, tearing off rolls of kitchen paper and carpeting the floor with them.
When the surgeon came back, in a clean gown, I apologised profusely, adding that it was not really something I did as a habit. She explained that it had definitely been a blocked sweat gland. “Normally, they just dribble out,” she said. “This one must have been under intense pressure.”
Anyway she set to work cleaning me out and then patching me up with a needle and thread, before applying a pad. She asked me if I wanted to see what was left of my lump and I said ‘why not?’ It actually reminded me of something that you clean out of a cooked chicken, thin skin and little balls of solidified white fat. “We’ll send it off for analysis but there’s really nothing to worry about,” she said. “They’ll send the results off to your GP shortly.”
They asked me if I wanted a wheelchair to take me back to the ward which seemed rather odd as they hadn’t operated on my legs at all. As I padded back, I wondered if I should enter the ward moaning loudly and put the frighteners on everyone still waiting but I decided to be charitable.
And that was about that. Plain and simple. I remarked to my wife later that it was such a pleasant experience that I wouldn’t mind going back and she hit me.
I was sent home in time for lunch, barely four hours after my triumphant arrival at the front door. I could see when my son picked me up that he was disappointed that he couldn’t use the car for longer.
After two days I could take off the pad and show off my scar. The consensus was it looked like a zip or a fishbone and that I should get a fish’s head tattooed onto the end of it.
As for the hospital tests coming back, the surgeon caught me out good and proper. Fourteen weeks later and I realise she was using the hospital definition of ‘shortly.’