Trials and tribulations of elective surgery in a public hospital

As a Victorian born and bred in Melbourne, the Good Friday Appeal has always been an iconic part of my life. Each year, Channel 7 in Victoria holds a telethon to raise money for the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH).

The telethons feature performances from celebrities who volunteer their time and give ordinary folk 15 seconds of fame by reading out their names and donations.

Another feature of the telecast is the stories of RCH patients. Some arrive at the hospital with relatively minor injuries; other children are battling long-term, even life-threatening illnesses. It’s impossible not to be moved by the stories.

I’ve been lucky enough never to have needed the RCH – for myself or for my children. But this year, on the Friday two weeks before the appeal, I found myself in an adult hospital, and my experience, albeit short, gave me pause to reflect on what it must be like for young children in hospital.

My problem was minor, and more to do with getting old. I’m 57 and was heading in for a shoulder operation in the hope of continuing my cricket playing days for a little longer.

As a long-term believer in our public health system, who has never had private health cover, I attended St Vincent’s public hospital. I hadn’t long arrived before I started to doubt my convictions.

As part of my admission, I had to undergo a rapid antigen test, as did the patient ahead of me. That patient had clear anxiety issues and I suspect (as a father of a son with Asperger’s Syndrome) he may have also been ‘on the spectrum’.

He proved to be quite a handful for the staff who, it must be said, dealt with his idiosyncrasies much better than I would have! Perhaps it was my own anxiety beginning to build, but I had no patience for such behaviour.

As I waited and tried not to let my ‘neighbour’ annoy me, I received a text from my ex-wife: “Best of luck. Scary!” I replied with, “Thanks. More annoying than scary!” I was to change my mind about that later.

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Having passed the RAT, I was introduced to the next staff member, who double-checked my name, address and date of birth (I lost count of the number of times this was required). She also asked a few extra questions, including one I hadn’t really expected: “Religion?”

I was caught slightly off guard. I guess they need to know who to call for ‘last rites’ if something goes wrong. I grew up Catholic but have long stopped believing. I almost replied with “no religion” but decided to be truthful. “Atheist”, I answered.

Did she just raise her eyebrow at me? The hospital is ‘St Vincent’s’ after all. Oh well. I’ve said it now, and it’s the truth.

Next, I was made to discard my clothing and don the silly hospital gown with the ties at the back. Off went my clothes, my book, my watch and my phone, to be locked up and returned to my ward for my post-op overnight stay.

After another wait, during which time I was at least provided with a dressing gown to cover the rather skimpy hospital gown, I hopped onto a gurney and was introduced to the anaesthetist and his team.

He told me how the whole process would work. I’d get the usual anaesthetic plus something called an interscalene block. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “just put me under and let’s get this over with.”

I probably should have paid more attention.

The last thing I remember before going under was being told how my arm might hurt as they gave me the anaesthetic, and me telling them that it was a burning sensation.

Then, at some later point, maybe an hour or two after, my eyes blinked open. There was my friendly anaesthetist telling me everything had gone perfectly.

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What a relief! Now I just had to endure a night in the ward and I’d be off home again to begin rehab and get back to normal. I’d watch a bit of footy and sleep the rest of the time. A nice, relaxing evening.

It didn’t quite pan out that way.

My whole arm was still numb when I arrived in my ward. That was to be expected. But my clothing bag and backpack were nowhere to be seen. Slight panic welled within me. “I’m sure they’ll be somewhere safe,” I thought.

I asked the nurse. “I’ll check that out,” she said. Time passed. Nothing. It wasn’t a huge issue, except that I’d wanted to watch a bit of telly and needed my glasses. But I was also a bit worried they’d lost my stuff, especially my phone.

My phone is pretty much my security blanket. I have regular nightmares about losing it.

Time passed, and I kept reminding the nurse. “Yes, we’re looking into it.” I was not reassured.

With my impatience building, I started to become aware of the other patients in my ward. Next to me was a woman who seemed to love pushing the ‘press for assistance’ button. Something always seemed to be not quite right for her. At one point she even complained that the ‘press for assistance’ button was not working and asked me to use mine!

“What an annoying person!” I thought. “I bet this would never have happened if I’d had private health insurance!”

More time passed. Still my belongings were ‘missing’. As the hours passed and my anxiety levels rose, I became aware of something else. My entire arm was still numb. It was now several hours after the operation. Is this how it should be?

Not only was it numb, though, it was ‘dead’. The only way I could lift it was with my other hand, and as soon as I let go, it would just flop.

This is not how it should be, surely? My turn to activate the ‘press for assistance’ button. The nurse came in. “We know where your bags are but the room is locked and we don’t have a key.”

Well that’s just great. For now, though, I’m more worried about my ‘dead arm’. The nurse looked a little confused, too. She called another nurse. They both looked confused. “Let’s give it a little while longer,” they told me, far from reassuringly.

My anxiety became full-blown panic. Something’s definitely gone wrong. My arm is going to be permanently paralysed! My life is over! My ex-wife was right. This is scary!

I broke into a cold sweat, and my dormant Catholicism welled up from within: “God’s punishing me for declaring myself as an atheist within the walls of St Vincent’s!”

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A moment of partial relief came when my clothes arrived. At least I could watch the footy and call my son. I told him I thought something had gone wrong and there was a problem with my arm. He tried to reassure me, but I now had him worried, too.

Late in the evening, the nurses’ shift ended. A new nurse greeted me. I relayed my fears to her. Somehow, she knew more than the previous ones. “No, you’re fine! With the interscalene block, your arm can be like this for up to 16 hours.” Really? “Yes, by the morning you’ll be back to normal.”

Relief! I still had some doubts, but was mostly reassured. I calmed myself down and began to drift off. As I did so, I listened to the others in the ward. My ‘whingeing’ neighbour wouldn’t be going home tomorrow, like I would. Who knows how long she’d be stuck here?

And the patient opposite me had inoperable cancer in her back. I fell asleep feeling rather guilty.

I awoke at 2.22am. I lifted my arm. It works! The nurse was right! I rolled over and went back to sleep, relieved and thankful.

In the morning I was fine. I’d have to hang around for final checks, but I’d be going home for lunch. The others in my ward would not be.

Had I been in a private ward I wouldn’t have been exposed to the more serious conditions of others in hospital. I’m glad I went public.

For many of the kids in the Royal Children’s, they will have to go through far worse than my one night of inconvenience.

I’ve always found the Good Friday Appeal to be boring. But I might watch a bit of it this year, while I do my rehab. And I’ll sling a donation to the RCH.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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