Orange Juice is not a Starter (my two week hospital vacation)

Published June 28, 2018 by Naomi Rettig

I can think of better ways to spend a fortnight, beach holiday, city break, meditation retreat, chilling out at home, but no, my body thought it would like a two week stay in Neville Hall hospital battling acute pancreatitis. No warning, no niggly little pains leading up to it, just full on ‘one of my internal organs is about to explode’ pain in my abdomen at 5 am on the morning of the royal wedding.

I don’t remember the ambulance journey or arriving in A&E but I was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis and admitted to a ward, my home/prison for the next two weeks. Now, of course I am grateful for being looked after and mended by the NHS, and I do have a few positive things to say, but my overall experience was horrendous. I heard someone say ‘I’m in the best place’, that was a lie, a better place would have been the Nuffield private hospital in Hereford, but I don’t have private health insurance so I was stuck in the National Hellth System.

I’ll get my negative experiences out of the way first. Some are trivial but when I’m in extreme pain and coping with sleep deprivation my mind upgrades everything to ‘end of the world’ status. I vomited a lot during my stay, violent ‘let’s have a look at your stomach lining’ vomiting, it looked like swamp water and smelled much worse. Now I don’t expect nurses to come and hold my hand or rub my back whilst being sick, but no one ever came to check if I was ok, one of my fellow inmates rang her buzzer one night at 3am informing the nurse that came that I was being sick (it was truly like a scene of the Exorcist) only to be told ‘she has a bowl’ then walking away. An hour later I buzzed to ask if someone could remove the sick bowl from my table as the stench wasn’t nice for the others in my room to have to inhale. This request was responded to with an irritated sigh, as were most requests.

Urine collection was another bug bear of mine. My urine output had to be monitored and having the choice between having a catheter fitted or weeing into a cardboard bedpan for the nurses, I chose the latter. The idea was you’d take the bedpan to the toilet with you, use that, then hand it to a nurse to measure and record the amount. Straightforward. Well it would have been if you could either find a nurse at the nurses’ station, or you could interrupt their chatting and catch their attention if they were there. How they couldn’t spot me waiting most of the time I don’t know, I looked like the ghost of Christmas past lurking in front of them. Thus, I would leave my bedpan of urine on the desk top if there was no one there and get told off. I wasn’t just leaving it there to be a rebel or annoy people though, walking to the toilet was such an effort I’d be about to pass out so leaving the bedpan on the counter and collapsing back into bed was preferable to passing out at the nurses’ station and my urine ending up all over the floor with me. When I did try and explain why I’d left it, I got told to leave it on the toilet. That’s not practical when at least seven other patients are using that toilet, I didn’t want anyone else’s urine topping up my measurements. ‘Can I give you this please’ I said to one nurse, ‘what am I supposed to do with that?’ she asked me in an accusatory manner. ‘Measure it and record it on my chart at the end of my bed.’ Jeez. Why ask the patient what you’re doing?

Suppository in the dark was another lowlight for me. I was on morphine hourly but when that wasn’t working for my pain I could have a diclofenac suppository, which worked well for me as it knocked me out. One time at 3.30am I buzzed for one of these, I got one of the miserable nurses who went off to get it with grumpy sigh. If you choose to be a nurse and you choose to work nights, don’t take it out on the patients. She came back with the suppository and the attitude. I curled up into position. ‘Your light’s not working’ she complained to me. I don’t know where she was expecting me to produce a light bulb from. More sighing ensued followed by the unwrapping of the suppository. ‘Wrong place!’ I quickly said. ‘I know’ she growled. If she bloody knew, why was she trying to shove it in the wrong slot?! ‘I’m going to have to put the main light on now’ she hissed. The main lights went on, fluorescent tubes pinging into life and lighting up the room like a football stadium. Hallelujah, I got my pain relief. Did she turn the main light back off? No. Now I know she didn’t just forget to, it was nearly 4am and the rest of the bays on the ward were in darkness. I presume she left it on in spite, but I was out of it in about 15 mins thanks to the diclofenac, so it was only my three fellow inmates that suffered from the bright light torture.

Lack of sleep, quality sleep, doesn’t sit well with my body or my mind. I’m sure a lot of my delusions, hallucinations, and unbalanced thoughts I had in there was not helped by the lack of sleep. I know it’s pretty much impossible to get sleep in hospital, it’s a hospital not a luxury spa resort, if you’re not throwing up or writhing in pain yourself you’re having to listen to the others in your room do so. One thing that really annoyed me though was being woken at 7am every day (when having only just managed to doze back off after much vomiting, pain, and having IV antibiotics plugged into me at 5am) just so the auxiliary staff could make my bed.

Now for patients that could get up and about, I kind of understand the need for a routine of get up and sit in your chair. But for patients like me who were too ill to do so and were staying in bed I failed to see the point. It was bad enough having the curtains flung open and being scorched by sunlight like an ancient vampire, and bad enough having two overly cheery valleys ladies chatting about their night out while they did so, without the shrill screech of ‘c’mon ladies get out of your beds so we can make them’ every morning. I’m not a morning person anyway even with a good nights’ sleep, can you tell?

I did challenge the one auxiliary one day. As I stayed in bed rebelling against the order, I asked, ‘Why? As soon as you make it I’m going to be getting straight back into it.’ To which I got the reply, ‘because it’s my job to make the beds every morning’. What a jobsworth.

When she finished making my bed, and not even changing sheets, just tucking the sheet and blanket in, she would raise the bed to its highest setting in an attempt to stop me getting back in. ‘You need to sit in the chair for breakfast,’ she’d say. ‘I’m nil by mouth,’ I’d remind her while stroppily yanking the blanket and sheet off my bed.

Another bug bare was at wash time. The auxiliaries would come around and ask who needed a bowl of water to wash with and who was going to the shower. I’d request a bowl of water, and every day the same annoying woman would say ‘why don’t you have a shower?’ and every day I’d reply, ‘because I feel like I’m about to vomit and faint, I’m in pain, and I have a cannula in my foot that makes it awkward and painful to walk, and I don’t want to risk knocking it as I have collapsing veins.’ She’d then reluctantly bring me a luke warm bowl of water.

‘Quiet time’ was good and bad. According to one of the doctors that came to find one of my veins during a ‘quiet time’ session we were the only ward in the hospital that had it. Basically, ‘quiet time’ was an enforced afternoon nap. After lunch the curtains would be closed, and the lights switched off. Anyone not already in bed would be told to get into bed. Now the nice part was getting some extra sleep, although as my bed was nearest the nurses’ station I often lay there having to listen to details of their holidays as the nurses chatted all the way through ‘quiet time’. The bad part of ‘quiet time’ was being woken abruptly two hours later by the lights going on and the curtains flung open. I would feel groggy and grumpy and can totally sympathise with toddlers being woken from nap time.

The thing that made upset me the most was something very trivial. I was nil by mouth to start with for a few days, then I was on fluids only. The only fluid items on the menu were fruit juice and soup, so for two days I had that. On the third day of fruit juice and soup my tray arrived with only soup. At first I thought the juice had been forgotten, until I checked my menu I’d ticked the boxes on. Someone had written ‘you can only choose one item from the starters’ with the word one underlined.

I was immediately annoyed. Firstly, I could read that rule but as I was only having those two items and not ticking anything from main, main accompaniments, desserts, dessert accompaniments, I thought common sense would indicate that I wasn’t being greedy wanting two starters but that’s all I could manage. The person plating up the previous days obviously had common sense. I was even more indignant due to the patient next to me having a tray so full of food they had difficulty fitting it all on. She’d come in late and was out of it, so a nurse had ticked everything as she didn’t know what she’d like. So, there was Becky (not her real name) having an all you can eat buffet banquet while I had four tablespoons of parsnip and rosemary soup looking sorry for itself in lonely abandonment on my tray.

My second main gripe was, and still is, that fruit juice is not a starter, it’s a beverage. It was a starter in the seventies, when I was seven years old on the rare occasions my family ate out, orange juice was on the menu as a starter, and that was thought quite exciting and exotic. But thirty-nine years later culinary notions have changed, is orange juice listed as a starter in any eatery these days? I protested by sending the menu sheet back with my tray with my reply added to the note: ‘fruit juice is not a starter unless you are still living in the 1970’s’. It probably didn’t get back to the person who had originally written it but it made me feel better in a petty way.

There was a lovely catering lady though, in fact all the catering staff that gave out the food were brilliant, but one lady was really kind to me. She knew I was on fluids only and I enjoyed the orange juice so she would give me an extra juice when serving tea and coffee. I wasn’t being greedy, I wasn’t having tea or coffee. This little act of kindness made a big difference. Also, the evening tea lady remembered that I liked a little cup of milk instead of a hot drink, that felt so nice that someone would remember that rather than just seeing us as bodies in beds.

The best random act of kindness made me cry. And again it’s quite trivial talking about it now but at the time it overwhelmed me. When I was allowed solids, I’d been violently sick at tea time so couldn’t eat my food (not pleasant for the others having to listen to me while trying to eat theirs). A couple of hours later when my anti-sickness tablets kicked in I was feeling hungry, quite a rarity for me in hospital. I asked one of the nurses if there was a spare yogurt or something left over from tea time. She said she’d have a look but doubted it. She came back and said that everything had been taken back down, I thanked her for looking and then she did the most wonderful thing. She offered to make me a piece of toast from the nurses’ staff room if I wanted.

Now to lots of people someone making you a piece of toast is not a big deal, but I was so low and demoralized in hospital that this lovely nurse making me a piece of toast when she didn’t have to was such a lovely act of kindness it brought me to tears. She probably would’nt even remember doing this but for me it will stay in my memory banks in the feely good section. Best slice of toast ever.

The hospital food makes it into my positive section. If I ate it now it might be different, but when you haven’t eaten for days food tastes so delicious. I think one of the catering staff thought I was taking the micky for a couple of days. On eating soup for the first time I told her that it was the best soup ever. Then the four mouthfuls of mashed potato I had was the best mashed potato ever. She thought I was being sarcastic as it was dry and lumpy but to me at the time it did taste like the best mash ever. When she realised I was being serious every day she would join in, ‘best omelette ever?’ she’d ask with knowing look. I’d smile and say, ‘oh yes.’ These were the rare occasions I smiled in hospital, when being treated like an individual human being.

There were four nurses too over my fortnight in there that were brilliant and treated everyone as individuals and not just bodies in beds. I only wish they could be cloned and replaced with the majority that need to rethink their career choices.

Another positive was the wonderful anesthetic doctors that could get needles into my veins. I have stealth veins. They don’t like to show themselves and if caught they collapse and disappear again quite quickly. Hence during my two weeks hooked up to the various IV drips I had cannulas in both crooks of my arms, both wrists, both backs of my hands, and both feet numerous times. For someone needle phobic with anxiety this is a complete nightmare, but there were three wonderful doctors that would be paged when a vein collapsed, and a new cannula had to go in. I called them team amazing as these three would get needles in me when many others couldn’t. I never thought I’d be grateful for someone getting needles into my veins, but I heard someone say I had a good vein in my neck, so I was very grateful they managed to avoid that.

Being incredibly ill in hospital and thinking you might not make it back out puts life into perspective. The consultant told me the acute pancreatitis wasn’t due to my poor diet, but I don’t believe that. Before hospital I was binge eating sugary food, despite my type 2 diabetes diagnosis fifteen months ago. I’d been living in denial and didn’t care about myself or my body. I hadn’t told my family I had diabetes, the first they knew about it was when the paramedic was in my room asking if I had any medical conditions.

I had time to take stock of my life while in hospital and how I was treating my body. Whether or not I had contributed to my pancreatitis by neglect of health, I decided that I never wanted to go into hospital again, and if avoiding that meant I needed to overhaul my eating habits and make my body as healthy as I could, then that’s what I’d do. It was like a switch had been flicked.

I’m now only eating natural healthy foods. I’m a vegetarian, and have been for 40 years, but now I no longer eat processed foods, fried foods, pizza, cakes, biscuits, sweets etc. Basically, if it’s not nutritionally good for my body – it doesn’t go in. I no longer want my body to be a bouncy castle, I’m transforming it into a temple of wellness. It’s going to take a while to undo all the abuse I’ve inflicted over the years but eating healthily is having some good side effects already. I lost two stone during my two weeks in hospital and since then I’ve lost another half a stone, not by following any diet, but just by eating natural healthy food. I’ve turned into a preacher of gut microbes, read up on them if you don’t know much about them, they’re the key to good health!

So, while there were memorable good moments that were outweighed by my bad moment memories, I’m counting my whole experience as a positive. Acute pancreatitis might have actually saved my life.

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