Up and down with the doctors


When you get down to it, for most of us going to hospital is like going to court – at least for the punter, either the patient or the client.

First, no sane person wants to be there.  The occasion of the visit is usually some hurt to you and some consequent pain.  At the very least, there are other and better things that you could be doing.  Resentment is never far from your surface.  Neither is suspicion.  How far are the agents of the system who are on display complicit in or responsible for your predicament?

Then, the moment you walk through the door, time seems to stand still, and you feel hopelessly out of place.  You know what it means to be a ‘displaced person.’  The markings of foreign distinction are everywhere in uniforms, furniture and equipment.  They have their own impenetrable coded language, hierarchy, and rituals.  You may feel displaced, but you are constantly reminded of that fact.

Next there is the uncertainty.  Unless you are very badly advised, you will be told two things about any medical procedure or legal trial.  First, each involves risk.  Secondly, the result of neither is predictable.  You can be very badly hurt in either.  Hospital might be the only source of death, but in either a court or a hospital you can take a hit that will ruin your life.  And yet you have to make decisions on matters of such consequence in a chamber that is at best unreally strange – and yet both imposing and threatening.

Finally, and above all, there is that sense of loss of self-control or that sense of disempowerment.  From the moment the drawbridge goes up, you feel that you are a prisoner of the System.  You are subject to the power of others.  You sit there helplessly watching its agents play with your mind.  Will it ever end?  How in the name of God did I get here?  Even the gown they put you on is degrading.

The word ‘domination’ is interesting.  It comes from the Latin dominus – lord.  We might have a queen, but we don’t have lords down here, and only Poms into kinky sex go in for domination.  Too many professional people do not understand the dread that so many descendants of convicts have for any form of authority.  Recent events in the UK and the US show that well educated people have not understood those who are not so well educated – and you end with a black hole like Farage or Trump – or One Nation.

These reflections came to the surface over the last few days.  On Tuesday I had a bronchoscopy at Royal Melbourne.  I did yet another scan first.  I arrived before ten and left well after five.  The procedure involves looking at the affected area while the patient is under anaesthetic or sedated to the point of unconsciousness.  (Don’t ask me what the difference is.)  I was warned that mine might be difficult because of the location of the lesion.  I’m now told that it was and that they spent fifty minutes doing the probe.  That is why I felt punched up after it.

They did not get affirmative proof of the malignancy of the lesion but the good news is that there was no evidence that it had spread.  Surgery, the preferred option, was still on the table.  They wouldn’t let me go until my blood pressure had settled.  I’m afraid I may have got a bit difficult – but I felt hopeless and powerless.  I felt imprisoned.

I finally escaped into the wet and bleak Melbourne evening.  A mate from school kindly picked me up and drove me home and stayed the night.  And boy do they police the pick-up.  That must be physically supervised by the System – what Ken Kesey called ‘the Combine’.  In the name of God, please keep me away from anyone like Nurse Ratched.  (I see that in writing about that great book, I said that ‘McMurphy has balls and Nurse Ratched wants them.’)

On the way home, I started to feel an ache or pain in the middle of the chest that seemed to move to the right.  It affected my sleep and stopped me from sleeping on the side.  It seemed to me that it was within the range of predicted consequences, but I thought that I should check with base.  It occurred to me also that my breath was shorter.  That being so, I was advised to go to my local doctor and get an X-ray.  I attended on him at 2.15.

A physical examination revealed an asymmetry.  I went next door in the hospital for the X-ray.  That meant I was within the clutches of the System again.  I must have had a premonition, because I normally take the Wolf to town, but now I had left him at home – alone and palely loitering.  A concerned looking radiologist said that the doctor would be down to talk to me.  A procession of equally concerned nurses asked me about my breathing.  They seemed surprised that I was still standing.  I had been arrested again.  They kept getting the run-around on the phone at RMH and they could not make contact with those who had done the procedure.

I can well understand why they thought RMH should look after what looked like a collapsed lung.  That sounds worse than the technical term pneumo thorax.  It involves an irregular placement of air.  I hurriedly and worriedly made arrangements for good neighbours to collect and look after Wolf.  That had problems – one of them is currently undergoing radiotherapy for a similar problem.  Then I was off, all strapped up and hooked up in an ambulance.  I was back in RMH within 24 hours – almost to the minute.  What an absolute bastard!

Well, at least I would be able to see firsthand how Casualty works in one of our overloaded public hospitals.  And that would prove to be educational – for want of a better word.

I was driven down by Mat and looked after in the back by Al.  I had very informative discussions with both of them either en route or in Casualty.  They both struck me as very professional people who were both sensible and caring.  We discussed the problems of young people with drugs and the accidents that can happen on the freeway – or the areas notorious for heavy injuries, including a recent death, caused by roos.

After about twenty minutes, they found a cubicle in Casualty and I was unloaded from the ambulance trolley.  I was very glad for their sensible care.  My view of Paramedics is now very different – I had been inclined to lump them in with firefighters, who are not in my good books.  Al and Mat are truly professional people – we shouldn’t get too snooty about that title.

A youngish female nurse then began the formalities of incarceration, and that awful sinking sensation just got worse.  People in Kyneton had said that I might be there for days!  Then, to my most grateful surprise, the doctor who had done the bronchoscopy, a most capable man from Respiratory, came in.  (He had also supervised one of the bike stress tests and had allayed my terrors of that process.)

He looked at the pictures and was less concerned.  I was not surprised since he had advised me that this was a foreseeable consequence and that they might just decide to allow the irregularity to take its own course – or do something to promote the correction.  Had I lived locally, I may have been sent home, but since I was there – in the clutches of the System – I may as well stay there, under observation, and with X-rays to ensure that the irregularity was not getting worse.  In saying that, neither he nor I was being critical of those in Kyneton – in light of the findings before them, and the facilities available to them there, any course other than that which they adopted would have been foolhardy – not least if I had gone home and carked.

So, I had to wait for a bed.  This did not look to me like a panic night in Casualty, but there was enough hustle and bustle, and merry humour to ensure I would not sleep in Casualty.  I expect that they hand out beds on need, and my priority rating was about zero.  On one view, I shouldn’t have been there.

The hours went by.  I engaged with a medical student, as I had in Kyneton, and would do again in town.  Put largely, they now spend four years on theory and four in practice – a model I commend to the lawyers; along with the fact that most of the professors are in practice.  I had only had a bowl of soup in two days, but I was past hunger, and even scarcely conscious that this was my second AFD of this year.  I felt better when the nurse said that draining the lung over days was an unattractive option that the doctor had excluded.  To that extent, my luck was holding.

I did start to wonder if people suffer nervous breakdowns while trying to survive Casualty.  There was a change of shift, and a very affable male nurse told me that he had switched from being an academic political scientist – a most interesting shift.  Then he came back with news that I had a bed.  Protocol required that I go by wheelchair, and then there were the same old forms and questions.

It troubled me when I heard a kind of wailing, or keening, or banshee –from a very troubled old woman – which I sometimes thought was answered.  Was this perhaps the psychiatric ward?  Had I really been handed over to the Combine?  A very nice nurse of Indian extraction gave me some pyjamas, and to my surprise I fell asleep, at about midnight.

I was awoken many times.  The first was when my cell-mate decided that 2.30 am was a good time to be on the cell phone.  To be fair, she was sotto voce, but not sufficiently sotto not to disturb me.  For about half an hour she then competed with the banshee howls, and those infernal machines that blip so audibly every ten seconds like Chinese water torture.  (I had fashioned some ear plugs from wet Kleenex – they were a bugger to get out next morning.)

The second time I was awakened was for observations.  Well, it is axiomatic that if you want peace and rest, the last place you go to is a bloody hospital.  The third time was when an older woman patient was having a scrap with a nurse right outside my door, and in the most fruity terms.  ‘If you don’t wipe that fucking smile off your face, I will fucking do it for you.’  It was evident that this poor old woman had form for this kind of outburst, and she was sadly full of self-loathing as well as hostility to the System.  But I wondered why it had to take place just outside my door, and I wondered if we were now looking not just at a possible nervous breakdown, but total madness.

Anyway, sleep after that was out of the question, and the object was to ensure my release as soon as practicable – it did not bear to think what might happen if I had to endure another night like that.

Happily my good doctor arrived on time, with a couple of students, and offered me the option of his draining some of the air to promote the process of repair.  This procedure took about 40 minutes and he thought he had got a fair bit of the stuff out.  During that time, I had met the professor who had attended the original process, and who turned up with about ten students in tow.  We put on quite a show for them.

Then I had to wait to get an x-ray, and so I slipped into that form of timelessness, fretting about whether I would get back home in time to pick up the Wolf before my neighbour had to go back to Bendigo for radiotherapy.  Minutes turned to hours, and I was finally taken down on a trolley for the x-ray.  A young lady with the broadest of Irish accents then helped me up toward the frame for the x-ray – and for the second time in two days, I felt like I might faint in that position.  They were able to take the x-rays with my being seated, and I prayed that the notion that I may have fainted did not get back to other parts of the System and give them evidence to prolong the incarceration.

In the parking bay outside radiology, it was gratifying to see the range of colour and ethnic backgrounds in those pushing and parking the trolleys.  You see it throughout this hospital.  People in England are worried about what might happen to the levels of nursing staff if they get too hard on immigration, and from my experience, we could have that problem here too.

After some mild pestering, a particularly nice young lady of Chinese descent gave me the news that liberation was at hand.  There were still a couple of meters of documentation to go through, but I finally got out – that is, I finally escaped – at about 1 30.  I was determined to get a taxi from  RMH straight to the Kyneton hospital where I had parked my car so I would be in time to collect the Wolf from my neighbour.

I had an extremely pleasant Pakistani cabdriver.  He has three children.  One of them has a degree in mechanical engineering.  The second, the daughter, is about to complete a degree in science.  The third is still at school.  They had all gone to private schools in the western suburbs.  He lives at Taylors’ Lakes.  This was a Thursday, and every Thursday he and about 11 mates get together at the house of one of them for a barbecue.  It is a boys’ only event.  They have the barbecue and then take coffee and play cards.  These evenings run from about 6.30 to 11.  Then they drive home – stone cold sober – because they are Moslems, they don’t drink.  I wish that some of those who get exercised about immigration, and particularly Moslem immigration, could reflect on the success of people like my driver yesterday, and the contribution that they make to the life of this country.

My neighbour told me that the Wolf had had an adventure.  He got anxious during the night, so they brought him back here to sleep.  When they came to pick him up next morning, he had shot through.  The Wolf had done a Lassie!  I don’t know whether he had set off in search of me, but thankfully the Ranger picked him up, and he has since been in a softer and more chastened mode.  I feel sorry for the poor little bugger in being left like he was.

So, I could go home and then start to field calls.  I have to say that I’m afraid I got a little curt because I was feeling, as the phrase goes, a little tired and emotional.

Some people like talking about these things.  I’m not one of them.  When you talk about things that you don’t understand, bullshit is inevitable, and I had got a full serve at lunchtime from my cellmate talking to members of her family about the comings and goings and thoughts of doctors and nurses.  When I started this process, a good friend of mine said that I would be exposed to any number of old wives’ tales, and that I should just endure them and forget them.  That was good advice.  You see it all the time as a lawyer when your client is obviously getting advice over the back fence which is worth far less than what client has paid for it – zero.  If there is no point in discussing what the doctors are doing, because that is beyond our full understanding, there is in my view even less point in discussing your own reaction to the process.  Who benefits from loaded self-psychoanalysis?  Even the pros bugger that up.

I must confess that I have some difficulty in seeing what the fuss is about.  The following propositions appear to me to be inarguable.  We are all going to die.  A major mechanism of that end is called cancer.  When you get to seventy, the biblical age, you cannot in my view complain if you get a tap on the shoulder.  I lost my two best mates to cancer more than five years ago, so on any view I am ahead.  It looks like my cancer has been diagnosed early enough to be dealt with.  I was a heavy smoker for a long time, and my life will be shortened in any event as a consequence.  The question then is whether it may be further shortened by this recent, and most fortunate, discovery.  I live in the best place in the world to deal with that issue.  And because I was an Australian born when I was, I have had more opportunities in life than almost any other bastard on this planet.

These facts of life being what they are, I don’t really see what the fuss is about.  For those reasons, I issue bulletins to the family, but otherwise I would prefer to talk about the usual suspects – footy, or whatever – even politics.

The Wolf and I went to bed in a fairly chastened manner, but I had had the benefit of the best part of a bottle of Leconfield Cabernet, while he had had the benefit of the remains of my ox-tail and mashed potatoes.  Rather to my surprise I had a reasonable night’s sleep.

I have made a mental note to develop a kit to have available for the next time I am subject to random incarceration.  In addition to toiletries, and nickers, it will contain best quality earplugs and sedatives and sleeping tablets.

Finally, may I tell you that my Pakistani cabdriver did not let me down?  Whenever I get one of them, I say that I was there when the Pakis knocked over the Poms at the MCG.  ‘You mean 1992 – the World Cup?’  ‘Of course.’  ‘I was there too!’  ‘Of course!’  It is truly both beautiful and wonderful.  I must’ve been one of the few bastards there that day that was not then or about to become a Paki cabdriver.  As soon as you mention the subject, a bright light flashes across their eyes – just like when Peter O’Toole said to Omar Sharif that ‘We are a long way from Damascus!’

The range of ethnic backgrounds in the staff at RMH is a wonderful thing for a white man from the sticks to behold.  Do you know what the trouble is in living in the sticks in this country?  THERE ARE TOO MANY BLOODY WHITE PEOPLE!

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