Silent Suffering

Once the lift reached the floor below we exited, and I remember blindly following the strange procession down a number of corridors with little idea of the direction we were going in. Eventually we stopped, seemingly in the middle of the darkened corridor. I wondered why, until the Irish doctor came over and told me that the scanning department was not yet open as we were still waiting on the on-call radiographer to arrive. We were literally standing in the hallway outside the door to radiography, waiting for a member of staff with a key and the knowledge to work the scanner.

It felt desperately wrong to have to stand and wait when Marc’s life was hanging in the balance and the scan could provide the answer to what was actually wrong with him. The doctor and Claire kept on reassuring me that it wouldn’t be long, and I think it was only a matter of a few minutes before Marc was able to be wheeled into radiography for the scan which I was hanging all my hopes on. At that point, Claire told me that the scan would not take long, but that I couldn’t go into the scanning room with Marc due to the risk of exposure to the harmful X-rays. Instead, she suggested, she would take me up to ITU to wait for Marc, as that was where he was headed after the scan had taken place.

Reluctant

I was reluctant to leave him really but, unsure of what else I could do, I went with her. By this point Marc seemed barely conscious that I was by his side and I understood that I wasn’t allowed near the scanner. It didn’t seem like I could be of much support to Marc anyway at this point and I was desperate to contact both Marc’s mum and my own parents to fill them in, as I knew that they would all be worried sick. I felt very responsible for keeping them updated, and guilty that I had not called them the instant I got to the hospital. I was unsure of what I was going to tell them, but felt that at least I could call or text them from outside Intensive Care with some kind of update.

I told Marc where I was going (with no real idea of whether or not he took it in) and walked away, following Claire down another maze of shadowy corridors and up a flight of stairs until we reached ITU. The next day I had no recollection of where it was located, so I must literally have plodded after Claire, paying scant attention to the direction we were taking. On the way, she explained again that Marc would be brought straight up to ITU once the scan was complete, but that it might take a little time to ‘settle him in’ so I needed to be patient. She showed me into the waiting room, a room I would come to detest intensely, and I think she brought me a cup of tea from a machine. She introduced me to the ward sister on duty ITU that night, who was called Lesley. I remember several conversations with her that night and am unsure of their order really, but I think initially she just told me her name and reassured me that, once Marc arrived, they would do their best to keep me fully updated on his progress.

Preparing for the worst

I know she repeatedly told me how ill Marc was, even before having met him. I presume she had been briefed on the state of the man that was coming into ITU that night, and I believe that she was preparing me for the worst. Once she had introduced herself and she and Claire had checked that I understood what was going on, they left me for a while with my plastic cup of tea and my thoughts.

The waiting room in Intensive Care is one of the worst places on earth. No joke. Over the next few months I was to spend far too much time there and although it can appear different depending on the time of day or night, it is always a tense, unhappy place. No one is placed in Intensive Care unless they are fairly seriously ill or recovering from an operation where they need certain crucial drugs that can only be administered in the ITU environment. The Intensive Care ward is constantly air conditioned, which is nothing like other hospital wards where it can be stiflingly humid. These air conditioning units are housed in cupboards in the waiting room area of ITU. They throw out heat constantly, so the room is always unbearably hot.

Severe shock

That night the waiting room was empty. I felt extremely hot, dizzy and quite sick. Sitting alone, I had a little time to process what was happening and consider myself for a moment. I really didn’t feel at all well. I remember trying to lie down on some of the easy chairs in there (none of your plastic, hard-backed chairs in ITU) and covering myself with my coat. Sitting perfectly still in once place. Standing at the one small window, staring out and trying to gasp at some fresh air. My stomach was churning and nothing I did seemed to stop it. I began to believe that I was coming down with the same mystery illness that Marc had: it was a few days later, I thought logically, I had been caring for him for the past few days. I could realistically have contracted the illness and be just starting with the same symptoms.

This was the thought process I followed, and once I did, I couldn’t get it out of my mind: I have the same illness. Marc is going to die. After that, I will get worse and I will die too. Who will look after our children when we are both dead?

I was obviously in shock. Considering the situation rationally, all of the symptoms I was suffering from could be easily attributed to the overwhelming stress of what was happening. The room was hot and was making me sweat. I was dizzy through lack of sleep and the hot atmosphere. I felt sick and my stomach was churning because I was frightened, the same way you would be before going for a job interview or sitting an exam, just multiplied by a thousand.

Melodramatic

Looking back, it makes perfect sense why I felt the way I did, but at the time I sat there, terrified that our children were going to be left parentless; that we didn’t have an up-to-date will which would instruct anyone what our wishes were; that I would never get to see them grow up. Writing this now it seems melodramatic, and I wish I had shared my worries with someone, as they might have been able to give me some reassurance that it was extremely unlikely that I had the same illness as Marc. Instead I sat and stewed for I don’t know how long, and waited for Marc to come back up from radiography.

I called Marc’s mum and updated her, feeling guilty and desperately sad that I didn’t have more positive news. I called my mum, or perhaps she called me, and we agreed that she and Dad would drive to the house where she would stay and babysit and Dad would bring Marc’s mum to the hospital, as she should be here too. It was her son whose life was in danger after all.

Occupying my mind

Once those calls were made, I busied myself emailing work, explaining that I would not be in the next day, and instructing my colleagues what tasks to set for my classes. Again, the word ‘surreal’ comes to mind. Sitting planning lessons on ‘Of Mice and Men’ and descriptive writing while my husband’s life hung in the balance seems ridiculous, but I was alone for a long time in that waiting room, and sending the emails gave me something to occupy my mind and stop the terror from taking over. I also called the work cover line, which I knew was a recorded message, and and explained why I would not be in the next day. I can’t imagine what I said. I’m certain the cover supervisor was surprised by the message the next morning. In amongst the usual ‘tummy bugs’ and ‘flu’ preventing teachers from coming in, a message at 3.30am stating that a staff member would not be in due to her husband’s hospital emergency must have come as quite a shock.

After that there was little more to do than wait. Wait for Marc to come up from his scan, desperately hoping for some kind of answer. Wait for my dad to appear with Marc’s mum to reassure me. Wait for the night to be over, with some kind of resolution to the hell I found myself in.

Trauma in the early hours

I pushed open the doors to the ward, certain I would be greeted by chaos and panic. Instead, it seemed at first to be as dark and silent as you would expect a hospital ward to be at night. I was uncertain what to do, but headed instinctively in the direction of Marc’s room. As I got closer I was approached by a nurse, who asked who I was. Confirming that I was who I’m sure she had been told to look out for, she took me by the arm and steered me into a small alcove at the side of the nurse’s station. As she did so, I began to notice that there were a lot more people on the ward that would be normal at night time. They were all clustered in and around Marc’s room, just working quietly, presumably trying to minimise disruption on the ward.

Just as we were heading into the alcove, the nurse was stopped by another person who was in a different uniform, one I couldn’t particularly identify, aside from to say that it looked medical. Again, she confirmed that I was Marc’s wife and said she would take me straight in to see him. I think the other nurse had been intent on heading me off before I got there, either to protect and prepare me, or to prevent me from getting in the way of all the personnel who were working on Marc. The second person had other ideas and seemed to be more senior.

She was very calm and very nice, and explained as she led me back out of the room and towards Marc that he was very ill, but that he had been asking for me and that she wanted to take me to him as soon as possible. Her name was Claire, the same as mine. To this day I am not certain of her job title. She was some kind of trauma medic, not a doctor (but I don’t think she was nurse either), trained specially to deal with particularly stressful and traumatic situations. She had been called down to the ward when Marc had ‘crashed’. She was with a man who filled the same role, and they had both been called to the situation, which should give a clue as to how much danger his life was in at that point.

Going downhill fast

She told me that medically, Marc had gone downhill incredibly fast since earlier in the evening. He had a raging temperature, an elevated heart rate and his blood pressure had ‘gone through the floor’, so much so that one of the night staff had called in the trauma team to deal with him. They were currently giving him medication to stabilise him but, she told me, it wasn’t working and his blood pressure remained dangerously low. She had been with him for at least an hour, possibly longer, and they had worked on Marc for a good while before calling me, presumably believing initially that they would be able to sort him out and return him to normal without the need for the middle of the night ‘panic stations’ call.

All of this just brought home to me how serious the situation was. I honestly don’t believe the the staff would have called me in unless they feared for Marc ‘s life. And they did. They had called me in because they were not sure if he would live through the night, although I’m not sure that I completely comprehended the level of danger he was in at that point. Claire walked me into his room. I think she introduced me to those who were working on Marc. I don’t know how I responded. (How does someone respond to a group of strangers who are performing potentially life-saving treatment on their nearest and dearest?)

There were probably between six and eight people in the room. Some of them must have been nurses who were on the usual night shift on the ward. Some had obviously been drafted in from elsewhere due to the emergency. There was Claire and her male counterpart, both dressed in a white uniform with trousers, seemingly not doing anything especially medical, but overseeing what was going on and, I believe, primarily there to check that I was kept informed and knew what was happening. I know there was at least one doctor, an Irish man who was introduced to me and tried to explain what was going on. I’m pretty sure there were others, but I couldn’t tell you who they were or what they were doing.

Asking for me

I do recall that the room looked a complete mess. Again, I can’t remember exactly what kind of rubbish was scattered about the place, but the overriding feeling was one of the medical staff having to act very quickly, and not having time to tidy up after themselves. Claire explained that Marc had been holding her hand and refusing to let go of it for the past hour or so, which told me how frightened he was. She also said that he had told her over and over that his wife was also called Clare, and that he had been asking for me repeatedly.

Marc was pale and looked small on the bed, surrounded by all the medical personnel. I wasn’t sure what to do, not wanting to prevent any of the medics from doing their job at such a crucial time, but Claire guided me to his side and I took his hand, unsure of what else to do. I think Marc must have spoken to me. I have no idea what he said. I wish I could recount the vital words he spoke to me during those few moments – the last time we would be able to converse with each other with any real meaning for a long time to come – but I presume that I was in such a state of shock that my memory just wasn’t functioning normally.

Shifting shadows

I think Marc conveyed that he was frightened. Certainly I understood this above all else. It was exactly the way I felt too, but I also felt under immense pressure to remain calm and not show my fear. Marc doesn’t remember anything about that night. My own memories are often shifting shadows which refuse to take a concrete shape as I sit here trying to remember the facts. The effect that emotional shock and trauma can have on the body and mind is incredible.

I know that the Irish doctor took me to one side and spoke to me. I remember thinking how young he looked, thin and pale with glasses and a kind, intelligent face. He did give off an aura of confidence, despite his appearance of youth, and his dealings with me were calm and confident. I did not doubt that he was doing all he could for my husband. He told me that they were not sure what else to do, as they had administered drugs to boost Marc’s blood pressure to no avail. They knew that his body was reacting to some kind of infection, but kept coming back to the fact that they had no idea what the infection was. Without that vital piece of information, were unsure how to treat him.

Terror

They were already administering broad spectrum antibiotics, ones which they hoped would help to kill the infection, though without knowing the cause of Marc’s symptoms, they were guessing at the correct ones to give him. He must have had IV lines going into his arms, but actually at that point, I remember very little, other than Marc’s face and his expression of terror.

The doctor explained to me that they needed to do a CT scan of Marc’s body to see if that would show something up which would give them a clue as to what was wrong. I think I nodded. He told me they would be taking Marc down for the scan as soon as possible, but that they were waiting for the radiographer to come into work, as the CT department was closed at night and no-one was on duty to operate it the scanner. I must have reacted with panic, because I remember the doctor telling me that the radiographer was ‘on call’ and lived very close to the hospital, so wouldn’t take long to get there. He reassured me that they had contacted her and that she was already on her way.

Surreal

I can’t remember any other conversations at this point. Looking back, all I can picture is the staff in Marc’s room readying him to go down for the scan, in the middle of the night. Sorting him out so that all his IV lines and the drugs could be transported with him.  It was a very surreal experience. Claire kept me constantly informed of what they were doing, and reassured me that I would be able to go down with him to the scanning department. She then told me that after the scan Marc was not coming back to the ward, but instead being admitted to ITU, the Intensive Therapy Unit or Intensive Care, because of how sick he was. I’m not sure if this reassured me or increased my concern.

Soon after that point a porter in a blue uniform arrived and we set off: Marc being wheeled on a bed, the Irish doctor, the two trauma specialists and possibly some others, out of the ward and down the corridor towards the patient lift. I know there were ward nurses who stayed behind, and I suppose they went on to tidy up and probably heave a huge sigh of relief that their part in the trauma was over. I imagine they went home to their families and told their colleagues the next day of how chaotic and dramatic their usually quiet night shift had been.

As I stepped into the patient lift surrounded by strangers, I envied them. I imagined the great sense of peace which must have fallen once Marc’s trolley had left. I wished I could remain behind and feel like my part in the emergency was over too. But it wasn’t.

Mounting Terror

I struggled to understand what was being said to me, partly because I was still half asleep and partly because things had seemed so much better before I had gone to bed. It seemed difficult to comprehend how things could go from a state of being ‘fine’ to one of dire emergency in a mere four hours. But clearly they could.

I have heard that sometimes, when people are seriously ill, they become suddenly brighter or better, and ‘pick up’ a little just before they become severely ill or die. I have no scientific proof of this. No medical evidence or expert knowledge to support it. But looking back, it seems like this is perhaps what happened to Marc. He had gone from being really ‘out of it’ during the afternoon to seeming so improved by bedtime, to both myself and the nursing staff, that it seemed completely surreal that he had now gone so far the other way that I needed to be there at two in the morning.

No protocol

I must have sounded panicked. I know stuttered something about having two children asleep in the house with me and no one available to take care of them. I remember my mind racing as I tried to take in what was happening and work out the logistics of the situation. Crazy thoughts went through my head, like could I leave the children alone while I popped to the hospital? (Ridiculous.) Did I need to wake them up and take them with me? (Also pretty ridiculous.) None of these thoughts were sensible, but there is no protocol on how to act in that kind of a situation. The nurse on the other end of the line calmly asked who I could call to come and look after them. I know she told me to calm down and not to panic. She then repeated that I needed to find someone first, and then come to the hospital as quickly as I could.

My mounting terror threatened to overwhelm me as I realised they would not have called me at two in the morning, knowing I had children in the house, unless it was very, very serious. I hung up the phone after agreeing I would find a babysitter and then drive to the hospital. Shaking, I dialled Marc’s mum’s number. She answered pretty quickly (she doesn’t sleep very well). I think I just briefly explained that the hospital had called, Marc was very ill and I needed someone to take care of the children. She said she was on her way and we hung up. The entire conversation can’t have lasted longer than a minute.

Seeking reassurance

Next I automatically dialled my own parents’ number. They took longer to get to the phone. I needed to hear their voices and feel reassured, but in this case they were as much at sea as I was and not sure what to do either. Once they established that Marc’s mum was on her way, they told me to go to the hospital and call them once I was clearer about Marc’s condition. Looking back, my dad says he doesn’t know why he didn’t just get in the car straight away, but I think we were all in such shock that no one really knew how to react.

I got dressed and may have brushed my teeth. I grabbed a bottle of water, car keys and phone and checked that the children were still sleeping. Wishing I was too, I went downstairs and stood on the driveway, unsure of what to do next. We have several neighbours who we know fairly well. Our next door neighbour is a pensioner and I had no wish to give her the fright of her life by banging on her door at 2am. The other side were an option, and our neighbours across the road even more so, as we probably know them the best. I stood on the drive in agony. Shivering (with shock, as it wasn’t cold) and indecisive. Should I wake someone up?

I decided I couldn’t. Stupid, looking back. Any one of them would have been more than happy to help after getting over the initial shock of being woken up so late. I think it’s a sad state of affairs nowadays, when we know our neighbours so little that we feel unable to ask for their help when we most need it. Or perhaps it is a fault of my own personality. I don’t like to rock the boat, cause trouble, be impolite or upset anyone. So I stood on the driveway for what seemed like an eternity, willing Marc’s mum to hurry up, knowing that she would be hating the drive (she dislikes driving at the best of times, but definitely in the dark), desperate to know how Marc was, yet at the same time wanting to crawl right back into bed and refuse to deal with the reality that was facing me.

Ghosts

Eventually headlights spilled down the street and Marc’s mum arrived. We passed each other like ghosts, knowing the phone call in the middle of the night meant nothing good. I told her I would call when I knew anything. She went into the house. I got into the car and drove.

The roads were quiet and the trip to the hospital took far less time than it had done earlier that day when I had driven there at rush hour. I realised with a start that this would be my third visit to the hospital that day and the fifth that week, after years of our only contact with the hospital being the single occasion when I gave birth to my daughter there. I worried about crazy things like whether I had enough cash to pay for the car park.

Have you ever been in a situation in adulthood where all you have wanted was for someone else to take charge? I was dreading what I would find when I got to the hospital. It felt like arranging for childcare, getting ready and waiting for Marc’s mum to arrive had taken forever. In reality it was probably around twenty five minutes. But what could have happened in that time?

Deserted

Reaching the hospital entrance I was struck by how deserted and eerie the place seemed at night. There were barely any cars on the usually jam-packed car park.  I debated how much money to put in the machine. £3 for three hours. £5 for twenty four. Having no idea how long I would be required to stay, I opted for £5, just in case. Later one of the nurses was incredulous that I had taken the time to pay for the carpark. I don’t know why I did. I think I was just going through the motions, doing what I would have done under normal circumstances, despite the fact that circumstances were about as far from normal as they could ever be.

The sound of my coins rattling through the pay machine seemed to echo loudly enough to wake anyone in the surrounding area. I winced at the noise. I walked across to the hospital’s main entrance to find it locked and only then remembered that the nurse on the phone had said to come in through the Accident and Emergency Department. I think in the end I went in through the ambulance entrance.

Running away

Inside, the hospital was even more deserted and frightening. I avoided the busier waiting area of A & E and the rest of the hospital corridors were silent and echoed with my footsteps. I managed to remember my way to the ward where Marc was, my feet feeling heavier with every pace I took in that direction. If there had been any kind of choice at that point to run away and not face whatever was coming, I would have taken it.

Instead, I focused on placing one foot in front of the other until I reached the darkened ward. Taking a deep breath, I pushed open the door with no idea what I was going to find on the other side.

A Brave Face

After leaving the hospital I went to collect the children from after school club. I must have fed them somehow, though I can’t remember whether we went home for a snack or whether I resorted to McDonalds. Either way, we set off for what would be the last visit they had with their dad for the next four weeks. None of us knew this at the time, obviously. I am of the definite opinion that the ability to see into the future could never be a good thing. I have no idea if I would have coped had I known what was in store for us all.

The evening visit was actually marginally better than that afternoon had been. Marc seemed more ‘with it’, although I think the previous dose of morphine had worn off somewhat, and he was able to make more sense than he had done previously. We were told that, in addition to using the hand sanitiser on the way in, we had to wear aprons and gloves to go in and see him, to avoid catching or passing on any infection. In the afternoon I hadn’t been asked to wear either, so it seemed a little odd to be doing it now. Anyway, we went ahead with it and at least it provided a little distraction for the children, who found the huge adult-sized aprons hilarious and spent around ten minutes trying to adjust them so they didn’t trip over at every opportunity.

Needing distraction

I may have brought in something with me for the children to do. Hospital visiting is stressful and dull enough for adults, but for a four and seven year old it is almost torture. After spending a few minutes asking what all the strange equipment in the room was for, opening and closing the little locker which held all Daddy’s things, moving the stand holding the drip without realising that it was attached to his arm (and being shouted at for doing so) and giggling at the seat-which turned-into-a-toilet, they became bored pretty quickly and needed to be distracted.

We met a few nurses who were popping in and out to change the drip and remove some of the general detritus from the day (a tray of uneaten food was the thing which concerned me the most). They were friendly, which made for a bit of a diversion, but generally most of my time that visit was spent trying to keep the children from running riot in the room of a man who was in pain and didn’t really need two cooped-up children disturbing him.

Full of questions

Marc seemed brighter. I have no real idea why. It may have been that seeing the children cheered him up, or that he was putting on a brave face for them that he hadn’t managed for me alone. Either way, when we left just before the hour was up, he seemed much more able to answer questions. The cheeriness of the nurses surrounding the ward, coupled with the fact that there were far more people at evening visiting so the hospital seemed a more bustling and cheerful place, I felt a little better.

We left Marc with the promise of visiting again tomorrow, although I was already wondering whether I could get a babysitter and come alone, to avoid having to be concerned about the children being bored for the whole hour. Perhaps, I thought, he might actually be well enough to come home and there would be no reason for visiting. We said goodbye and left the hospital, the children relieved to be leaving but full of more questions about the people we had met, the aprons, the equipment and hospitals in general. It seemed to them like the evening’s visit had been a bit of an adventure, out of the ordinary and fairly interesting, but not upsetting at all. They definitely didn’t seem to realise that anything very serious was the matter, or that they might have to visit Daddy again.

The usual routine

When I got home I went about the usual routine, minus Marc. I had cancelled the rehearsal for a play I was directing with the promise that, by Thursday, I would be ok to block Act One Scene Three, as Marc would surely be home by then. My parents had just arrived home from their holiday, so once the children were in bed I called and spoke to them for a while, letting them know the situation with Marc and asking how their holiday had been. I don’t remember a lot about the conversation, except their surprise that Marc was actually in hospital, and the fact that my mum had come home from holiday with a pretty bad cough / chest infection which she felt quite run down. The conversation ended and I promised I would keep them updated about Marc the next day.

I must have sent Marc’s mum a text to let her know how he was. I don’t think I spoke to her: she had been at work that day and as she works very long days I know she is always shattered when she gets home. I tried to fill her in on the facts without worrying her, and repeated that I would fill her in the next day when I knew more. In conversations since then, she has said that she wasn’t especially worried at this point. She was a little concerned at her son being in the hospital, but hadn’t suspected that he needed anything more than rest and fluids to get him back to normal. I think my own perspective, being the only adult at close quarters for the duration of his illness, was more realistic, but I could only see this as I was witnessing everything first-hand.

He’s fine!

My final communication of the evening before going to bed was with the ward which Marc was on. At around ten pm I called them, asking for an update as I had been told I was welcome to do. I have since learnt that news you receive on the phone from a ward at any given time is completely dependent on who you speak to, and with no prior knowledge of the ward staff, I spoke to whoever answered the phone. To this day I have no idea who it was, but I suspect that it was not a nurse, but a Health Care Assistant who knew little of Marc’s case.

I asked how he was. The woman I spoke to, once she had established who I was asking for, said that he was fine, much better. She even tried to bring him to the phone to speak to me, since his single isolation room was almost next to the nurse’s station where the phone is. I don’t remember actually getting much out of him, but I do remember the woman’s final words to me.

“Oh he’s fine.” she said. “So much better than he was earlier!”

I took this as a good sign and felt comforted, on climbing into bed alone, that he was finally on the mend. I turned off the light and went to sleep, feeling comforted that perhaps he would be home in the next couple of days, and that the nightmare was almost over.

At 2am I was woken by the phone.

I struggled into consciousness and groped for the bedside light. By the time I had answered it, the line had gone dead. I found my glasses and put them on, trying to come to and work out what was going on. The phone rang again. This time I made it. The voice on the end had only a brief message:

“Is that Mrs Littlemore? This is Warrington hospital. Your husband has become very ill. He’s really struggling. The crash team are with him now. You need to come.”