I nearly died from complications arising from osteomyelitis when I was a kid. Osteomyelitis is a disease of the bone or marrow and it’s quite nasty. In my case, it seems to have been caused by some bacterial infection latching on to a trauma to my shin. Someone kicked my shin really fucking hard a few days before I got ill, so it’s assumed that was the trauma. I don’t know where the infection came from.
Anyway, I was very ill. I had a very dangerous fever, pain like you wouldn’t believe, a leg that was as swollen as and the colour of a space hopper and a feeling I can only describe as acute sadness. I just wanted to cry all the time and I don’t think that was just because I felt ill. I think it was a symptom.
My parents thought I was making it up and sent me to school. School didn’t like the look of me on little bit and send me home again. My mother – I have to say, in very bad grace – took me to the doctor. I had heard the phrase ‘visibly paled’ but hadn’t seen it before. The doctor visibly paled and sent me directly to hospital. He said my mother should drive me because it would take too long for an ambulance. This was surely hyperbole: the doctor’s surgery was five minutes walk from the hospital. But I expect he was trying to impart the seriousness of the situation. I’m glad he did. Within minutes of arriving at the hospital I was hooked up to a drip and rattling from the number of antibiotic pills inside me.
I’ve no doubt that the doctors at the hospital saved my life or – at the very least – my leg. But when I look back at it decades later, I see some extraordinary things about my treatment, which concern me.
First, on the day I was admitted, I was flitting in and out of consciousness. When I was conscious, I was scared. My mother had to go back to work and my dad was at work too, so I was completely alone in an entirely unfamiliar environment. I expect this is not uncommon, but the staff didn’t seem to notice. They didn’t tell me what would happen to me. They didn’t tell me the rules. How was I supposed to go to the toilet when I couldn’t get out of bed? Well, you ask the nurses, of course, but nobody told me I could. They seemed to be doing really important things and I felt that I should just know this stuff and was stupid for not knowing it. I guess the nurses and doctors assumed the same sort of thing. So this is the first concern: there was no orientation. Nobody told me that if I needed something I should just ask. Humiliatingly, when I was finally desperate enough I did tell a nurse that I needed the toilet and she brought me a bottle. I didn’t know that what I really needed to ask for was a bedpan. You can speculate how that worked out. But I just didn’t know any better. I was alone and scared and didn’t know how these things worked. It seemed stupid to me, but I’d been to school so was used to nonsensical rules.
Then the doctors treated me. They certainly saved my life and I have no complaints about that. But they never told me what they actually did to me. They seemed to assume I didn’t need to know because I was a child. Decades later I asked my parents what the doctors told them about my treatment but they couldn’t remember.
They told me nothing at all. I was instructed to not eat or drink anything (but not why) and then had an operation. I still have no idea what that operation was. I expect that it removed some necrotic tissue and possibly marrow. But nobody ever told me what was going to – or had been – done to me.
These days, that strikes me as odd. I hope things are better now, I hope doctors and nurses orient children better when they get to the hospital and explain to them what they’re going to do to them and why. Perhaps they assumed my parents would do that, but they didn’t. I don’t feel fear very often, but I felt it then.
I hope kids today aren’t as scared as I was. Do you want to know what scared me most? I’ll tell you.
After my operation, my leg was in plaster. After a few days a doctor came to tell me that he intended to put a window in my leg. HE WANTED TO PUT A WINDOW IN MY LEG. IN MY FUCKING LEG. I thought that he wanted to put a piece of glass in my leg so he could look inside. I did not want that. But I didn’t know I could object or even ask about it.
It turned out that he just wanted to cut a section out of the plaster on my leg so he could look at how much my flesh was rotting. Which was a relief at the time, but doesn’t seem like that now I come to talk about it.
But anyway, I hope that these days kids get treated like himans when they go to hospital. I didn’t feel cared for, I felt scared and helpless, at the most vulnerable time ot my life.