This big plastic pager isn’t mine. It came into my possession today for about half an hour, at the Imaging Reception on the third floor of the Whittington Hospital in Archway. It’s a queuing innovation, I guess - they give you a pager, you go and sit down in the large, open mezzanine with it’s view across North London, and a while later, it springs to life suddenly, and starts vibrating and tweeting at you angrily like a flightless robot bird. That’s the signal that you can now go and join another shorter queue, outside the ultrasound room.
I’m here for a scan on a sore leg that probably has a thrombosis inside of it; that is, a congealed clot that’s obstructing the blood flow. I’ve had these three times before, and am now on medication for life to stop this happening, so why it’s there now is currently a mystery to me.
The first time this happened, my doctor misdiagnosed it as a sporting injury, because of my status as a “healthy young man”. Protesting that the only sport I’d played since leaving school was International Superstar Soccer on Playstation made no impression, and he sent me packing. It got worse and worse until one day I was dragging my leg so badly, I had to sit down in Birmingham City Centre, and just burst into tears. Something serious was wrong, and I knew it. Soon after, I was standing in the bathroom at my parents’ house looking in the mirror when I felt a violent, painful palpitation in my chest. I went downstairs and my mother shot up out of her chair and said with alarm: “what’s happened? You’re as pale as a ghost.”
The GP was called, and then after a brief examination, so was an ambulance. A piece of a large untreated blood clot had broken off, and passed through my heart. If it had become lodged, I’d have been found dead on the bathroom floor that day.
I was in Stafford hospital for a week, on high-dosage painkillers. During that week, 9/11 happened. It was surreal: everyone stopped working and stood around the TV set watching the towers collapse in shock and disbelief. Nurses, doctors, patients and visitors alike stood, hands over their mouths, as it became clear that this wasn’t an aviation accident but something much worse. I was on such high-dosage painkillers, I thought it might be a surreal hallucination, and had nightmares afterwards about being trapped in a hospital ward in a crumbling tower block, watching the room on CCTV and unable to get out as the floor subsided in flames - and even then not knowing if the terrifying scene was real, or a hallucination.
It was frustrating to be imprisoned, but I tried to always be polite and appreciative of the nurses’ care. I only occasionally vexed them by hijacking a wheelchair or a walking frame and making a break for the reception to buy a Guardian, impatient for the trolley to come around and hungry for news.
After a while, you sink into the quiet, amniotic lull of the ward’s rhythm and become accustomed to events drifting by. Pale blue walls. Warmth. Nurses buzzing around. Muted chatter. Meals that come and go, patients that do the same, and the long daily visits from my wonderful mum and dad. The doctor would appeared now and then, like a visiting celebrity, bearing secret knowledge that could resolve everything, frowning at a clipboard and talking rapidly into a dictaphone.
After a course of medication, I got back to normal, but a few summers later it happened again. This time, I was living in London, and had to handle it alone. It was the pit of a hot summer, and the World Cup was on. I felt that familiar pain and with mounting trepidation went to the nearest hospital - the sprawling Victorian antique that is the Royal Free Hospital in Whitechapel. I was there for the day, taught how to inject myself in the stomach to save a daily return trip, and sent home. I got back in the evening, to a street party on my road, flags waving and bottles of Dragon Stout lining the yard wall. Ghana had got through against the odds and the local Ghanaian population was going wild.
This latest onset is still a mystery as I type. It seems there’s something in there, after the ultrasound - a “suspected non-occlusive thrombus” - a blockage that doesn’t entirely block the vein.
I have little doubt that it will be an embolism, aneurysm or a stroke that kills me one day - it’s been pretty firmly established that I am a chronic case, at high risk due to a congenital clotting disorder. Also the course of therapy I’m on - pills called Warfarin - prevents normal clotting, so even a small cut from a kitchen knife can take a long time to heal. If I was in a serious accident, there would be a chance of bleeding to death quickly, my blood-clotting defense system having been undone for my own good. In high dosages, Warfarin is used as rat poison, making them spontaneously bleed to death.
I wonder sometimes if such things are inbuilt, evolutionary - if nature weeds out the weaker specimens and strikes them down with disease. If my body is in essence, trying to stop working. A next-level natural selection that changes the meaning of “survival of the fittest” dramatically; every birth a self-regulating experiment in DNA combination.
It’s a strange thought that I am almost certainly only alive because of medical technology at this point - that my life has been artificially extended. But it definitely draws the finite nature of life into sharp relief, and makes me question what I should be doing with the limited and uncertain amount of remaining days, weeks, years or decades ahead.