I've never been in hospital before, not really. I had the five babies, but with the first two I had so little clue what I was doing I spent my hospital stay engrossed in them and didn't notice anyone else in the ward and for the last three I left hospital within 24 hours of the birth so had no time to befriend anyone. When the purpose of your hospital stay is childbirth, by definition you have a companion throughout your stay!
So, at the ripe old age of 50, I went in for my first operation. There were a number of stress factors: I'd never had surgery, I'd never had an anaesthetic, I'd never been in hospital, they had told me they weren't sure what they'd find but whatever was cut out would be sent to pathology for cancer screening, I'd been given high odds it was cancer (60%), my family were in pieces and I wasn't exactly looking forward to leaving them having to step up to doing all my jobs as well as their own and visiting me at the same time.
I was to come in for 7-30 on the day of the op, fasted and ready to go. Although I wasn't scheduled to be on the table till 14-30, they wanted a standby in case the 9-00 didn't show. I was shown into a ward and made to sit on a bed with the curtain drawn. There was someone else in the next bed, but I couldn't see her. A student nurse came to check us in. I was asked loads of questions - was I on any regular meds, had I ever had an anaesthetic, did I take drugs, was I an alcoholic, was I allergic to anything, did I know why I was there that day etc, etc.
Then they moved on to my neighbour. I worked out from the date of birth she gave that we were the same age. This put me at ease already as I had only been to one group meeting before the op, where the procedure and post-op physio was explained. In the group there were about fifteen women and even the youngest was old enough to be my mother. I had come home with the distinct impression that I didn't belong there and fate was taking the piss.
My neighbour was asked all the same questions and gave similar answers to me... similar until they asked if she knew what she was in for, when her reply was 'well, I'm hoping it's a boob job!', the student nurse sounded flustered, started leafing through her notes and trying to find the simplest way to explain it was actually a hysterectomy. She was so busy trying to do her job well, she hadn't noted the cheeky tone in my neighbour's voice. She burst out laughing and explained she was pulling her leg but added that if they could see a way to fix her boobs while she was under anaesthetic anyway, she'd slip her a cheque!
The nurse left and we sat behind our curtains, quiet for a few minutes. It was 8 in the morning, we were both hungry and thirsty (we weren't even allowed water) and we had at least six hours ahead of us. I went to the loo and keeked round her curtain to say hello. A beautiful, and much younger-looking than me Pakistani woman was sitting on the bed, her long hair in pigtails. We started to chat and the next six hours, that I had been dreading, passed too fast and in fits of laughter and camaraderie. She'd had operations before so could put my mind at ease, she told me she'd negotiated holding on to one of her ovaries (I couldn't as both had tumours on them) as she remembered her mum being so unhinged during menopause, she'd often thrown plates of curry at her dad and she'd had to try to scrape the turmeric stains off the walls! She told me her parents had arranged her marriage at 16 and she'd had three boys by 19. She told me her husband was a lovely friend but she didn't fancy him at all so she used to make up gynae issues and tell him her doc had told her to avoid sex for six months, when in reality he'd said a week! She told me the secret to her youthful looks was some dodgy Botox cream her sister bought on holiday in Turkey and since she'd started using it her wrinkles had all gone! She mentioned the boyfriend she had had since her divorce who asks her to marry him every year at the bells, so she's started avoiding him at New Year to save the embarrassment of saying no again cos she just wasn't into him enough for that! She had me in fits of laughter and I felt I'd known her my whole life. It's weird to think we were both there terrified we might be dying and having what felt like a ladies' spa day. I can honestly say I enjoyed that morning more than most social occasions I've had for years!
After the operation we came round to find ourselves in a ward of five. Interestingly, the ages were much better than at the pre-op - well, from a social point of view, at least. I am 50, so was my new friend. There was a 40, a 56 and a 76 too. It was the dreaded oncology post-op ward. We all knew that but a snooty older woman in the end bed hadn't quite sussed it. We were all post-operative and fairly helpless for the first twelve hours. A nurse came round carrying cloths and a basin and asked who'd like to be freshened up first. Mrs Snooty on the end actually came out with 'Well, I deserve to be washed first as I am having to deal with the fact I have cancer, unlike you young things!' The youngest of us all calmly replied 'This is the oncology ward, we are all waiting on pathology reports, so you're no different to the rest of us!' That was met by a tut and a 'Well, it's harder at my time of life, my husband is in a terrible state and so is my daughter and her kids' to which the youngest again replied, ever so calmly 'I realize, it's not what anyone wants at any age, but your child is fifty, mine is ten'. Silence fell and as my pre-op friend and I bonded with 40, and 56, 76 sat chewing a wasp in the end bed!
It really was a strange experience. I was thrown in with a group of people I would never normally have met - a teacher from Ayrshire, an NHS administrator, my pre-op friend who ran her own letting agency, and the grumpy granny on the end. We shared a highly intimate experience, both of post-op pain and of whiling away the waiting time till the pathology reports came in. We sat in hospital gowns and no make-up, showing our true selves in a way you never do with strangers and bonded in the best and worst of circumstances. We laughed our selves silly every night trying to identify what the food was, we cried together in fear for our futures. It was a truly incredible experience and one I'll never forget, obviously. We even got to the stage where we could hug grumpy gran as she left and genuinely wish her well.
When I came home, the kids were watching I'm a celebrity - a group of people who knew nothing of each other thrown into the jungle, make-up free and eating the oddest of meals and I thought to myself - I've actually just been through exactly the same experience - well, I didn't need to eat worms or spiders but the rest was fairly similar.
Since I've come home, I've heard from the others that I was the only one whose pathology came back negative so their stories will all continue, but we've kept in touch so I'll be there if they need a chat.
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