Thursday, 20 September 2012
My flare-up was over, but there was still the MRI to get through. I decided I might as well have it, as it would tell us if there was anything going on that I should be worried about. Not that I particularly wanted to worry about anything, but I liked the idea of finding out I didn’t need to. If you see what I mean.
The day came. I wasn’t in pain any more. I wasn’t in the mood for schlepping to the hospital, drinking something horrible and hanging around for several hours either, but it had to be done. Husband drove me there, and went off to wander around Paddington for about the thousandth time since we first met. (He wants you to know there's fuck-all to do in Paddington, though the coffee buying options have improved slightly since 1988.)
I went to the wrong unit, of course – I went to MRI/Acute Imaging, down in the dark bowels of the old part of the hospital, when I should have gone to MRI which was at street level, with floor to ceiling windows (the reception bit, that is – not the MRI room). When I got there, they were indeed expecting me. There was one other person waiting – a young woman – and I smiled at her as I sat down. A nurse came out and told us both we were going to have to drink a litre and a half of water containing something called Mannitol, which was supposed to make the bowel easier to photograph. I’d had it before and knew it to be almost disgusting. It kind of tricks you, in that it tastes like ordinary water and just as you’re thinking, ‘ooh, that’s fine’, the sickly aftertaste hits and you realise it isn’t fine at all. It’s quite a long way from fine; it’s actually quite revolting. I smiled sweetly at the worried looking young woman and told her it was fine. I did tell the nurse I had a bag, and wondered if that maybe affected how much I would have to drink, what with having no colon and all. She agreed that I would probably need to drink less, and I tried not to look too smug as I encouraged the worried young woman to drink up. We started to chat as we sipped, and she turned out to be Portuguese. She’d recently started having bowel issues and this test was supposed to tell her if she had Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis. She was clearly scared, and I tried to be positive, telling her how Crohn’s could be quite benign if she was lucky, and that I was unusual in having ended up with a bag. I didn’t want her to be frightened, and I reassured her that I’d lived with Crohn’s for 28 years before having said bag, and that anyway my life was so much better now I had it. I wanted her to feel safe; not to be so frightened. She was young, with two small children, and seemed very sweet. At first.
She told me about her kids, her husband, how she’d moved from Portugal because her husband had been offered a better job here in the UK. She kept interrupting herself, giving in to her fears of bowel disease, and I kept trying to make her feel better. At one point, I was waxing lyrical about the value of a good GP, stating that mine is excellent, and she looked undecided for just a split second, before telling me that her GP was useless and clearly didn’t care about her. ‘She’s ….’ She said. I didn’t catch the second word, because she said it under her breath, almost whispered it. I leaned in closer and asked, ‘She’s what?’ This time, she was only slightly louder. ‘She’s Indian.’
What do you do? What do you say? She was scared for her health, and about to undergo a procedure she knew little of, which also frightened her, but really … how could I let that go? ‘I don’t see why that would be relevant,’ I said, after a very long pause during which I had to try to work out how I wanted to handle this. ‘My doctor’s Asian and she’s absolutely brilliant.’ You’d think that would be enough wouldn’t you? Enough to make it clear that I didn’t share her opinion and that she should perhaps move on. Apparently not. ‘She’s fine with people like herself,’ She continued, ‘But if you’re white, she’s not interested.’
I couldn’t get into a fight with her; what would the (white) receptionist think? He was alone out here with just the two of us. Anyway, I knew from experience that I was no more likely to change her mind than she was mine (I’ve met an extraordinary variety of bigots over many years of hospital internments). But a plan did occur to me. All that reassurance about Crohn’s I was doing – it was time to change tack. ‘The bag leaks sometimes,’ I told her, ‘It can happen any time, anywhere … so embarrassing.’ And I moved my hand under my top, as if making sure it wasn’t leaking now (of course it wasn’t). ‘There are some pretty debilitating drugs they’ll probably try you on,’ I added. ‘You know, as a first port of call – steroids for instance ..’ And I told her about all the side effects of steroids – the puffiness, the weight gain, the thinning of the bones, the hair loss and – contrarily – the hair growth in areas a woman doesn’t need any hair growth. The crumbling teeth and inflamed gums … the mood swings and the constant hunger … By the time I was called in for my MRI, the Portuguese racist was looking terrified. And I didn’t mind a bit. It wasn’t like I’d lied to her; I’d just decided to go with the negatives. And I’d let her off quite lightly really – I hadn’t talked to her about the endlessness of chronic disease; the days of exhaustion and misery; the frustration of invisible illness, where nobody can see you’re sick so they find it hard to accept that you are. I didn’t even get started on Atos and benefits. But I’d done enough; I was satisfied.
I’d forgotten how enclosed the MRI machine was. How they tuck you into it, like a parcel in a package that’s a tad too small. I remembered the noise – the incessant banging, the cause of which I’ve never quite understood. It’s so loud. They usually offer you headphones with music, but the only time I tried that, I could still hear the banging, which was kind of worse. This time, the headphones were so that they could tell me what to do – breathe in, hold it for 15 seconds, that kind of thing. The nurses in there were lovely, and – bizarrely – all white with blonde hair. I grimly thought to myself that Ms Portugal would be happy with that. In the machine, I tried to find a Zen place to put my brain; I noticed a digital screen with my information on it above me – my weight, my date of birth, hospital number. That was new. I tried to find the capsule womb like; the colour was wrong, but I managed it. I’m not generally claustrophobic, and I can cope with these things fairly easily. What I can be a bit neurotic about is my bag. It was probably my own fault for bringing it up with Portugal woman, but I became convinced the bag was leaking. There was a weighted cushion thing on top of it, and I was paranoid that it was forcing poo out from under the flange and onto my stomach; at times I was convinced I could feel warm poo dribbling down my belly. I didn’t mention it, because I was too busy holding my breath and trying to imagine I was in a womb, but it was winding me up no end. After a while, they told me a doctor would be in to give me an injection of Buscopan, which is an anti-spasmodic. It’s an anti-spasmodic you can buy over the counter; it’s advertised on television, so why I needed a doctor to inject it I don’t know. Of course we had to wait for said doctor and when he arrived, I couldn’t see him, but the nurse said ‘Dr Bannerjee will inject you now’ and it was all I could do not to holler with glee at the thought of Portugal woman hearing that same sentence.
A few more minutes back in the ‘womb’ and it was all over. They took the weighted cushion off of my bag, and I was relieved to find nothing had leaked out from anywhere. As I lay there being unstrapped and subsequently helped down from the conveyor belt bit I’d been attached to, the screen above me changed from my details to Portugal woman’s. The bitch weighed a full 10lb less than me. Perhaps racism’s good for your weight? More likely, she did have Crohn’s. I once went down to five and a half stone when I was very sick. Luckily for her, the NHS treats everybody in this country. Even racists. Even racists from other countries. Of course, all that is about to change, but it won’t be people’s views that exclude them from healthcare. It’ll be our finances. Thank you so much Messrs Lansley, Hunt, Cameron and Clegg.
Racists and the dissolution of the NHS aside, I was feeling awful. I felt tired and ill, and I could still taste the disgusting drink I’d had to force down. I wanted to be home and in bed.
On the way back to meet husband at the car, I passed a guy on the phone outside the main hospital entrance. ‘He just went in for a routine surgery,’ he was saying, ‘then he got an infection and they had to amputate his leg. He’s on a ventilator now, but it’s looking quite positive.’
I remembered then how lucky I am. How lucky we all are as long as we have the NHS. How very horrific our lives could become if the Tories’ plans to sell it off to Richard Branson keep on going, unchecked.
Having said which, there are flaws with the current system – I’ve said it before – and the better thing for any government to do would be to fix those flaws, rather then sell them off and make them somebody else’s problem. In my experience, a large percentage of those flaws come down to administration. For instance, that MRI was on July 6th. I still haven’t had the results. I wonder if the Portugal racist’s had hers.