We are up at sparrow’s today, to be on the early ferry to the city. I have an 8.30 appointment at the hospital to have my main-line fitted in preparation for starting chemotherapy at the beginning of October. It feels strange being back on the busy commuter service, having been keeping gentleman’s hours for the past few weeks. Everybody seems clenched, and hunched as they scowl over their laptops and iPads and mobile phones. Nobody looks like they are having a very good time. I feel like telling them all to lighten up, and that things could be a lot worse, but I know they wouldn’t believe me.
We check in at the hospital reception, and after a short wait, a jolly Samoan orderly escorts us down to the Cardio Unit, where I am apparently to have an ECG before my surgery. While I’m waiting, I examine a display of PaceMakers from the 1970’s through to the present day. The Earliest model is about the size of a cigarette packet, with bulky cylindrical batteries, exposed wires and brass screws and fittings. It looks more like a small explosive device than a modern medical miracle, which of course it was at the time. The design from the eighties looks more like the stainless-steel Zippo lighter I would have been carrying around in my jeans pocket at that time, and by the nineties it had shrunk again to a slim Dunhill. The modern day unit was about the size and shape of a small USB thumb-drive. Amazing what they can do these days, as my mum never tires of reminding me.
In a small room, I’m installed on a narrow bed, and the specialist attaches seven or eight sticky pads to the front and left side of my chest. Each pad has a small tab, to which she clips a wire. The bundle of wires are in turn connected to the ECG machine, which is about the size and shape of a small photocopier on a low table beside me. Cardio-girl presses a few buttons, and the machine silently extrudes a yard of pink graph-paper with my heartbeats neatly and uniformly recorded across its length. I pull on my t-shirt and study the graph. “How is it?” I ask nervously. “All normal,” She says with a smile and hands me the roll of paper.
Buoyed by the news that at least part of me is still working as advertised, we are escorted upstairs to the theater suite where I’m checked over again by a nurse, blood-pressure, oxygenation, temperature, pulse etc, then shown to a changing room where I strip down and slip into something less comfortable. Next we meet the anesthetist, who is clearly a little harassed and in no mood to shoot the breeze. I figure It’s not in my best interests to make his day any worse that it clearly already is, and answer his questions and sign his forms without issue or comment. My surgeon, who comes in next, is a cheerful, fresh-faced Asian who introduces himself as Wai. I’m dying to ask him how old he is, but manage to resist the impulse. Wai is friendly and animated as he explains the procedure and answers our questions. He presents me with a package about the size and shape of a pizza-box with a red logo that says BARD Power-PortTM Implantable Port.(“Feel the new standard of care.”)
The device will be installed under the skin if my right upper chest. Wai pull up my t-shirt and draws a wonky circle in blue marker on my skin to mark the spot. He then draws a line up towards my neck where a tube will run from the unit up and into my right jugular vein, then dawn into my right aorta. It all sounds a bit scary but he assures us that it’s a perfectly safe and routine procedure, and that after a few days, I will hardly notice I am now part man and part machine. “How many of these have you done?” Jo blurts out with all the tact and delicacy of an advancing Panza division. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Wai says with, I detect, a slightly injured tone. He does a quick mental calculation. “About fifty,” he offers, “maybe more?” With Jo satisfied as to his credentials, and an international incident narrowly averted, Wai departs and we return to the waiting area until my number comes up.
A few minutes later, i’m being pushed down another shiny green corridor in a wheelchair, with my pizza-box balanced on my lap. We crash through a pair of double doors and I’m in the Operating Theater. It’s an impressively large space, with a small group of blue and green figures gathered under large circular overhead lamps. I’m helped up onto the hard, cold operating table, and someone pulls off my socks and rolls on elasticated surgical stockings. My gown is untied and pulled down around my shoulders, and the anesthetist goes to work on my left arm. There is music playing, and there is an atmosphere of relaxed conviviality. I’m clearly the only stranger in the room. These guys seem to know what they’re doing, so I leave them to get on with it.
I close my eyes.