Once Upon a Time in March

Reality check

It was early March. I woke up at 3:30 am like most nights if I had a mug of beverage before bed. On this particular morning, the only difference was I found myself walking toward the bathroom like a drunken sailor. My body didn’t follow my brain’s directions. I had to use both hands on the wall to retain balance; each step was a struggle. Making the situation worse was a strong nauseous feeling. The twelve step journey seemed like an Antarctic expedition, having to carefully place each step; otherwise, I might end up in the icy water.

Before I could get back to the bed, I totally lost my balance. Graham caught me just in time. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly. Subsequently, neither of us could record the exact details of that moment. Maybe Graham was awakened by the noise I made or maybe I called out for help? Either way, I am glad I didn’t fall on the floor hitting my head on the end of the hardwood bed frame; otherwise who is going to tell the story now?

Lying flat in the bed, not able to sit up or move, I remembered twelve years prior I had the feeling of a heavy object pressed against my chest while I was doing my writing on the laptop. Judging by the many thoughts that passed through my mind, it must have lasted more than a couple of minutes. I thought I was experiencing a heart attack. Should I call an ambulance or call my daughters first? To tell them to support each other after their mother was gone and most importantly to remember to tell them that I’m very proud of them both. Another thought jumped into my mind, that I might be having a stroke, so I looked at the mirror and smiled, to see if my facial muscles were still working. They seemed fine! Then I lifted both of my arms up above my head, no problem there either. Next, I started to read my poems and listened to my own voice; it sounded normal too. At that point, the heavy object disappeared so I relaxed. Didn’t seem to have any need to make any call. I got back to my writing routine and forgot about the whole incident. A week later, I mentioned it to my daughters while we were dining out and both of them were furious that I didn’t immediately go to the doctor. To make them happy, I went to my GP and he sent me straight to the hospital. Although nothing was found, my pharmacist daughter asked me to react straight away next time. I promised her I would.

Now in front of Graham, I did the smile, arm raising and talk routine, and was glad that I didn’t seem to have had a stroke, but why couldn’t I control my body? What was wrong with my body, or worse, what was wrong with my brain? In my heart, I was really worried. I don’t mind dying because that’s the end that all living beings face; I just don’t want it to drag on before it actually happens.

My condition was getting worse by the minute if not by the second. Graham measured my blood pressure before calling “Nurse-on-call 1300 60 60 24”, to seek a registered nurse’s professional advice. After a 14 minute Q&A session, the nurse suggested that I should go to a hospital immediately.

Going to the hospital was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t able to stand up, move around or hold my body upright, although my mind was still clear and I was still able to talk. Graham said my body collapsed like jelly; he wouldn’t have been able to keep me safe while driving a car.

We had no choice but to call for an ambulance.

Two paramedics came with bags of emergency aid. They asked for my name, age and the details of the “event”. When one of them asked me to grin, I raised my arm too, just to save some time. They were constantly and professionally communicating with each other, trying to find out what was wrong with me. They were both young, focused and competent; I couldn’t fault them. I felt they were so well suited for stressful emergency medical situations.

I tried very hard to focus on what everyone was saying around me. I answered every question that I was asked. Graham told me later that I even corrected statements that were not quite right. Even though I knew that I was not fully aware of what was going on, many times my brain chose to return to a sleepy state. I didn’t blame it; sleeping is one of my favourite things, along with eating!

Once the decision was made by the paramedics that I should go to hospital, I burst into tears. At that moment I thought that was the end of me, my daughters would lose their mother, my final day had come, and once I was admitted to hospital, I might never return to my humble home again; the home that I had remodelled to be exactly the way I liked and it was my very own.

As the stretcher was not able to come into my unit, the paramedics used a wheelchair instead. They had to secure me firmly into the chair like a psychiatric patient with a straight jacket and plenty of straps.

I remember getting into the ambulance and vomiting into a bag soon after. The journey to the hospital didn’t register in my brain nor did the entry into the hospital. For a long time, I was totally blacked out.

A male’s deep praying or moaning sound woke me briefly. I found myself lying on a stretcher parked in the corridor of the hospital. A woman was near me, she was complaining to someone about her husband, that without her, he couldn’t do a thing to save himself. 

My body felt uncomfortable with a sore back and chest pain. I knew they would be relieved once I got up and moved around but I wasn’t able to, so I chose to focus on the woman’s voice instead of the unpleasant moaning sound. My brain began to process her comments; it had nothing better to do! She must have been serving him like a servant all her married life. That’s nothing to be proud of. If women want to be equal to men, we have to behave equally to men; subservient attitudes don’t help. Marriage is a partnership. Both partners should help and look after each other and neither is superior to the other. Ladies, please stand up for yourselves with self-respect. There’s nothing special about cooking or cleaning. A real man wants a partnership with a real woman whom he can share life with and aim for the same goals. The same goes with men. If you know how to eat, you should know how to cook. You don’t have to be a master chef, get onto the internet and search for any cooking site and learn. If you are not able to use a computer, learn, or go to the library to borrow cookbooks. There’s no excuse for men that can’t cook. Lots of chefs are male and doing so well.

After nodding off for some indeterminate time, I was woken by a doctor or nurse checking my state. They asked questions and checked the heart monitoring tabs on my chest. This process was repeated many times, always asking the same set of questions.

Once someone asked me if I was cold. I was indeed feeling really cold and the blanket he brought helped. To me, he was a compassionate person and I hoped the universe would be kind to him and let him have the good life that he deserved. People like him help others wherever they go.

Although I could hear some voices, my brain was still not in a clear zone. I knew a finger on my right hand had a clip to monitor my heart rate and blood oxygen and my left arm had a cannula put in by the paramedic at home. Come to think of it, I must have looked part human and part machine. You could have called me a huchine or machman, whichever sounds nicer. My brain becomes overactive whenever my body is still for too long.

Someone came around and unplugged all the tabs on me. I tried to help. What I didn’t know was my hand had lost feeling at that moment or my brain was sleeping for I couldn’t pull one tab off. I was wheeled to the CT room, where I had my very first 3D image of my brain taken. Doctors were trying to identify if there was a blood clot or bleeding within the brain.

Around 3:45 pm I was upgraded to an emergency cubical, right opposite the staff office area. At last, I was able to open my eyes to look around and stand up on my feet. “Oh, what a feeling, Toyota!”

A friendly nurse greeted me with a smile and took my details again, this time keying it directly into a computer sitting right next to the bed on which I was sitting. Up to this time, I had not eaten nor drunken anything since the previous day. Usually I have two main meals a day, the last one around 5pm. So I was famished. I asked the nurse if it was possible to have a glass of water and something to eat. She gave me a plastic cup of water; that was the tastiest water I’ve ever had. Soon after she brought me a packet of sandwiches. The nurse was attentive, with a happy disposition. I imagine she would do much good for patients, especially those worrying about their health, feeling restless or overwhelmed.

The CT scan didn’t give the expected answer. I was told an MRI scan would be needed. The resident doctor told me that she thought I had a TIA, a mini-stroke, and said it was lucky that I was healthy. She gave me a few pills to take straight away and a prescription to take with me, then sent me on my way. I had not even had the chance to lie on a real hospital bed yet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I was longing to try the bed.

Graham was happy to receive my call to let him know that the hospital was about to discharge me. Due to pandemic restrictions, no one is allowed to ride in the ambulance except the patient. He was not allowed inside the emergency room for the same reason. There was nothing he could do but take his concerns back home with him. He made many phone calls trying to find out what was wrong with me. In a large hospital, it was not easy to find out what happened to a normal patient. The resident doctor did return his call once; that was really nice of her. I bet that she was non-stop between patients, on her feet the whole time while on shift, watching out for the signs to make the right diagnosis. Emergency departments must be stressful places to work.

A nurse walked me to the emergency waiting area which was filled with patients. It took me awhile to find Graham. He was patiently standing outside the entrance door and he answered my call.

I had only been away from home for half a day but I can’t put into words how delighted I was to be back home, despite the uncertainty about my medical problem, for I still had lightheadedness, unstable feet and a foggy brain. These symptoms kept me company for about a week before improving.

As soon as my pharmacist daughter knew I was back home, she rushed over, took the prescription and “shot through on the bishop’s bike” to a nearby pharmacy. Now we are in the pandemic times, both she and her husband are essential workers, plus they have two school-age children. I never ask her how she managed. I felt bad adding an extra load on her. It was best for me to simply follow her instructions and ease her worry. She has no time for chit chat. After making sure that I knew how to take the medications and giving me a pill cutter to help me to swallow the larger ones, she was off. How our roles have changed. She was under my care when she was young, now I do what she says when I am old. The difference is she was a beautiful innocent girl with a bright future; I am an experienced, wrinkled old woman trying not to be a burden to my children.

An MRI scan was to be scheduled for the following Saturday. Graham took me to the hospital, but strangely there was no one around that area. I sat in the waiting room. Graham looked around and tried to find out why it was so quiet. After some time, Graham found out that section wasn’t in operation.

We walked back to the reception area at the front entrance and showed the staff my referral. It clearly stated I was to go to that particular area. The receptionist told us there were 4 MRI machines around the area, each in a different building. We walked to each building, changing to the mask they wanted us to wear, rubbing our hands with their sanitiser and so on. I actually love the fact that the hospital is willing to insist on these procedures to protect everyone.

All that running around between buildings and searching for the imaging sections, leaving all of our frustrations aside, at least fit into our daily exercise routine.

The good news was that we found out there was one machine operating that day. I was pretty pleased that we finally found it, although by this time I was an hour late for my appointment. The happiness didn’t last. Soon I found out that I had not been booked in. “Oh, Mr Hart, what a mess!” 

Back to the beginning. Again, we went back to the reception desk. This time there was a different lady behind the desk. Here we go again. She told us where to go, even after I clearly explained to her where we had been. It took awhile for her to switch off answering machine mode and listen. She pointed at the referral and insisted it was in the same building that we had been to. Hello, what was going on here? Was the universe playing a game with me or had some sort of virus spray been thrown at all of us? I walked away to keep my sanity, letting Graham take over the conversation. He has the patience to explain everything over and over again in a calm manner, whether the other person listens or not. In the end, the receptionist was as puzzled as us, couldn’t understand what was wrong. She started to make some phone calls, but it didn’t solve the mystery. “Mr Sherlock Holmes, where are you?”

Nothing changed, only time passed. Walking all the way back to the emergency entrance as the receptionist suggested, we saw lots of people waiting for their turn to see the triage nurse.

Again, Graham had to stand outside the entrance door, while I waited inside.

A young kid about four had a temperature. His carer couldn’t speak proper English and had a hard time expressing to the nurse what was wrong with the child. I felt sorry for all of them – sick child, worried carer and the nurse trying to help.

An old migrant in a wheelchair couldn’t speak English. His daughter on the other hand spoke with an Aussie accent. He understood some English when the nurse was talking but never answered himself, always through his daughter. She probably had her own family but still had to be her father’s interpreter. It reminds me of a true story I heard years ago. A migrant couple drove to their holiday home near the seaside. The husband had a heart attack while still in the driveway. The wife couldn’t speak English so instead of calling an ambulance, she called her daughter in Melbourne to help. No one can say for sure but if she had called 000 instead, he could have been saved.

An old man came in with a bath towel saturated with blood covering his nose, a young woman with him. I told the staff to let him go before me because his need was obviously greater. The security guard said I was very kind. I answered it was nothing to do with kindness; it was the right thing to do. Although I was a little unpleasant to him at the beginning, I did apologise to him afterwards. I said I had no right to talk to him that way even if I was frustrated.

Graham spent some time talking to the security guards. They told him some sad stories, like how an older couple who had spent their whole lives together were forced to be parted at the entrance. The agony was not easy, even for those tough guys, to bear.

Finally, when it was my turn, the nurse tried to send me back to where I had already been. I told her that I had been to all the MRIs around here. I thanked her and went back home. 

I called the MRI booking service and the staff managed to fit me in 7 days after the original CT scan. Strangely enough, the lady who booked the first appointment for me didn’t explain that it was in a different hospital, some 15 km away. I held my tongue and didn’t complain at all, thinking it was probably not the individual staff member’s fault; it’s our chaotic healthcare system that needs reorganising.

My CT experience in the hospital was a blur. I couldn’t recall much so I was looking forward to the MRI experience.

The hospital takes the scan seriously. I had to answer a long list of questions, like if I have a pacemaker implant, intracranial aneurysm clips, certain prosthetic devices or bone-growth stimulators. This is to make sure there are no metal objects or electronic devices in my body that would be attracted to the powerful magnet or distort the MRI image. Next, a staff member double-checked each answer with me before I had my very first Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan.

The machine makes a very loud noise. Ear-plugs and headphones provide some comfort. The calming and relaxing pictures above the head and the soothing music playing in the background are all designed to alleviate the patient’s angst.

Cool air gently circled around my face. I closed my eyes and let the rhythm of the music take me to a wonderland. Matching imaginary activities with the sound frequency, like indigenous people dancing in the desert with a backdrop of a rich coloured sunset. Brave young people bare-foot running through the burning charcoal. Some run very fast, some slower to impress others. I counted altogether 160 people by the time that particular sound ended. The old cartoon Tom and Jerry appeared with cheeky tippy-toe sounds. Tom endlessly chasing; no match for Jerry’s wits. Time flies when having fun with my imagination. Apprehension has no interest in an apathetic me. My MRI experience was an enjoyable one. 

Nine days later was my sentencing day. Would they find my brain damaged by the stroke or would I have to watch out from now on for any recurrences? The appointment with the neurologist started with an uncertain feeling, but she set my worries free, saying I didn’t have a TIA, my brain looked good and I should stop taking all the medications. Much to Graham’s amusement, she described my brain as “bright and juicy”.

So, after all of this, I still don’t know the cause of my “event”. The catch-all term “vertigo” is the only “diagnosis” that still has any sway.

At the age of 74, I should be glad that vertigo has only bothered me once. However, later I found out a friend of mine, the same age as me, had blacked out two years prior. Maybe it’s part of being old, I guess. After all the fussing about, there was nothing wrong with me on my medical record.

I am grateful that we have a very high medical standard in Australia. I take my hat off to all the medical workers. They deserve to be treated well and with respect. I have been through many health concerns in my life. One medical person pointed out to me in the past that we all have pain or discomfort inside our bodies. Most of us don’t sense much and won’t be impacted. Only those excessively sensitive people find it unbearable. Wise lady, she summed me up pretty well.

Weeks later, I started to receive phone calls from different people. One person told me I was booked into one hospital for another CT scan and another person asked me to go to another hospital for a CT scan. In between, there were many calls from other people as well. I put a sharp brake on. Hold it; the neurologist already gave me the all clear, why did I need another CT scan? For what reason? I asked to cancel the appointment. 

I can see hospital staff are trying to help the patients but there is no system to support them. Everyone is trying their best to do something and end up just wasting their time and effort. Many patients desperately need an appointment while patients like me clog up the system. A well-organised healthcare system is needed to save time and lives.

March 2022 has been an unexpectedly eventful month for me. The experience has lifted my admiration for healthcare workers. Working to look after sick people is a tough job, physically and mentally! I believe that most people who choose to become doctors, pharmacists, nurses, paramedics or technicians do so simply because they want to help others. A big thumbs up to those honourable souls.

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