John McLellan: Wait for surgery a real eye-opener

Cardiac surgery is a big leap forward from sports injury tidy-up operations. Picture: Julie Bull

Cardiac surgery is a big leap forward from sports injury tidy-up operations. Picture: Julie Bull

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The greeting was welcome reassurance. “You’re in the wrang place, you look far too healthy,” said my room-mate for the day.

The room was in Ward 102, the cardiothoracic surgery unit of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which will have been my home this week while I undergo surgery for a leaky heart valve. A murmur as it’s benignly known.

It’s a wee murmur which without the op turns into full blown-heart failure. So no choice really.

Just back from a week’s holiday in the scorching Cyprus heat, I can’t say I felt unwell at all as I arrived at the ERI. And by the time I’d passed the usual limbless, cigarette-smoking sentries outside the main entrance and into the department I felt positively tickety-boo.

As if somehow it would demonstrate that treatment wasn’t really necessary for me, which several tests had shown quite clearly was not the case, I insisted on using the stairs.

Going onto 102 to be shown to my bed for the night, I felt a bit of a fraud, seeing some of the poor souls lying asleep as they recovered from their operations. Most of us will go through the process of going from regular hospital visitor to patient, but it’s still something of a shock when you make the leap.

Sports injury repairs like knee cartilage up at the Murrayfield bear no resemblance to big stuff like heart surgery in a major NHS institution, and having been through more hospital wards than I care to remember as a visitor – especially as my gran reached 101 before the inevitable last year – I knew well the feeling of sorrow at seeing the seriously ill combined with guilty gladness that it’s not you. Not this time, pal.

Some of the patients were not recovering but waiting. My welcome was from a chap who had actually been in for a fortnight since a suspected heart attack and he was kept in while the tests and preparation for bypass surgery were made. He, too, looked a pink picture of health and was also due to have his operation the following day.

And as if to reassure himself, he pointed out another patient. “Look at the auld yin over there. He was like death warmed up when he came in and look at him now. If he’s OK you’ll be fine,” he said.

Hospitals, I had been warned at my pre-admission appointment, were not places to relax and recovery was better done at home They are places of bustle and industry, one clear difference being that the raw material has a direct interest in the outcome.

And so the cheery bustle is if anything reassuring. The male nurse who showed me to the bed took some blood, joking at how easy it was to get into me veins, and then another nurse was soon over to check details, some of which she happily admitted were just for her own interest. Why, for example, if I enjoyed the occasional cigar I didn’t develop a craving for them like cigarettes? Just one of those things, I was only able to say.

And then there was the coincidence she was going to a wedding in Coral Bay, where we’d just been.

“Is there much to do there for 14-year-olds?” she asked.

Then nurse number three, Alexis, had the dubious privilege of carrying out my pre-op shave, an experience as far removed from the Turkish chap in Morningside Road as is possible to imagine.

“Is this a punishment duty?” I lamely joked as she quickly got rid of the admittedly pathetic results of 53 years of growth on my chest.

It will not have been the first time she’s heard that kind of line, and she might be used to it, but what do you say to a woman you’ve never met before as she trims your public hair? I resisted the temptation to ask if there was a choice of wax or gel.

After a shower with the special disinfectant shampoo – and no, no-one does that for you – the next visitor was a fifth-year medical student carrying out research into the effects of anaesthetic on patients hooked up to heart-lung machines.

His interestingly-worded information sheet explained the machine meant the normal signs of patients regaining consciousness during an operation weren’t always obvious, leading to the obvious conclusion that sometimes people woke up, so they needed to do more research.

I wasn’t particularly keen on watching while surgeon Renzo Pessotto did his stuff with my ticker, no matter how expert he may be, so I thought the least I could do was to contribute to the research.

Soon after the man whose job it is to keep me asleep – and to make sure I wake up again at the right moment – was on his rounds. Did I have any questions, asked the laconic anaesthetist?

Had he anaesthetised me before, was about the best I could think of, on the off chance he was one of the chaps who had put me under up at the Murrayfield. It was an unequivocal no, and as it turned out he lived just round the corner from us I could only think I must have seen him getting the Saturday morning milk and rolls at the Scotmid.

A very chipper Irish junior doctor called Finbarr was my next caller, his job being to check the drugs I was on, and then Alexis was back to take the order for supper.

“Would you like haggis, Quorn cottage pie or quiche salad?” she asked. Quorn pie or quiche salad? Haggis for me, thanks.

Before you could say school dinners, supper duly arrived. I don’t know if it was Macsween’s finest but it wasn’t too bad. And just as I was wondering why they hadn’t put a bit more salt on the mashed turnip I reminded myself we were on the cardiac ward.

And bang on cue, just as I was tucking in, the main man himself appeared. Mr Pessotto looked like he’d had a successful day, which I suppose was a good thing, although a wee bit of me reasoned that the more successes he had the more the odds tipped against me. Yes, I can be a selfish b****r.

I just hoped his good spirits continued through the night and into the afternoon; no domestics, no unexpected letters from the Inland Revenue, arguments with parking attendants or anything which might put him off his best game when my moment of truth came along.

“Are you OK for tomorrow?” he asked, to which I replied “Looking forward to it,” without thinking that mild irony might not be the best way to keep him onside.

“Any questions?”

“None that you can answer just now,” I said.

“Great. See you tomorrow,” he said, giving me a breezy thumbs-up. And he was gone.

There was only one last word from Alexis before visiting time.

“Here’s your bottles of shampoo, boys,” she said, dropping the supplies for those of us with theatre tickets for the next day.

All that in less than four hours. After evening visiting it was nearly time to settle down for the night, not before the Scottish night theme of the haggis supper was continued with a tot of whisky. A bit like the rum they used to give out in the trenches.

Four or so hours would also be the time my life would be entirely in the hands of Mr Pessotto and his team. About which the whisky was meant to stop me contemplating.

After the op I was looking at about two days in intensive care with morphine literally on tap, so this piece was wrapped up before the big appointment. Needless to say I have never looked forward as much to writing a follow-up.