THE LEPER

We allowed for two hours to get across the border but in the end it only took about fifteen minutes. Suzi, my driver, my better half, light of my life, was desperate to go to the toilet and amazingly, the friendly Queensland policeman let her use his porta-loo right next to the traffic lane where we waited while he checked our papers. The rule was that, although we had both tested negative for the virus, because we were from the deemed “hot spot” of northern New South Wales, we nevertheless still had stay to inside the car (while wearing masks) until Suzi dropped me outside the hospital and went straight back home to Byron – no stopping for toilet breaks, petrol or anything else until she re-crossed the border and left the CoVid safe colony of Queensland well behind her. Safer for her absence. I marveled at how quickly the alleged “Federation” of Australia dissolved so effortlessly into its nascent colonial rivalries.

So there I was, two hours early, masked and standing inside the main door of the hospital like a bushranger contemplating an approaching Cobb & Co coach full of gold watches. Waiting for an operation that would enable me to walk without pain again. A pleasant looking young nurse comes to usher me across the entrance foyer. “You’re the leper” she whispers into my ear, smiling as she leads me towards the pre-op waiting room. “But I tested negative,” I protest. “We haven’t had any cases in northern New South Wales for several months – less than Queensland! Five months ago two girls arrived on a plane into Ballina and were quickly isolated and contained…”

It falls on deaf ears as she shrugs and moves me on. So I assume she’s joking. Alas she isn’t. Effectively, my five nights in hospital will be regarded officially as a form of “quarantine”. No one will be allowed to visit me and anyone else coming into my room (doctors, nurses, physios, hospital staff) will all have to wear the full “personal protective equipment” (PPE) required: masks, gowns, plastic screens, with as much hand washing as possible. Some do put the whole clobber on. Some tentatively sneak in and drop the food tray or drugs before rushing out “unprotected”. I understand the reasons why these measures may be necessary (and why they are so frequently ignored) but I soon marvel at the bin next to my door quickly filling with discarded PPE. An enormous pile of paper and plastic waste. But the obsessive use of plastic (and the obsessive documenting on paper of everything that happens) is obviously how it works in hospitals.

Eventually, I’m conducted to a small cubicle where I take off my clothes and put on the blue hair net, blue feet coverings and blue gown with the tie at the back. My bag is taken up to my room and soon I’m sitting in a space with about a dozen similarly attired patients as we all wait silently, and somewhat anxiously, to be called to our various operations – like characters in a dystopian novel waiting to be blessed by the Pope. Inside the adjacent operating “theatres” various saws, hammers and tongs will hack away at our bodies and skilled surgeons will work their magic: restoring hips and knees, removing cancerous growth and no longer functioning organs. Fortunately, the theatres are sound proof. Nobody even watches the daytime television high up in one corner.

I flash back to a scene more than fifty years ago. I’m a first year medical student on a tour of the Brisbane General Hospital as part of our orientation week. We’re taken from the morgue in the basement, through the various wards and up to observe an operation on the top floor. The “theatre” is enclosed by a glass dome and we’re able to walk around the outside of the dome and look back in. What we see is immediately obvious: a man’s thigh is cut wide open and a surgeon is inserting an artificial hip into place. I suddenly have an overwhelming feeling that my career choice is a terrible mistake. I would be incapable of doing this to anyone. Even if I didn’t become an actual surgeon, I felt a doctor should be able to face the possibility of treating people in highly visceral ways. I go home to break the news to my disappointed mother. Her first preference was for me to become a priest. Doctor was a second, but acceptable option. Now I was headed for the dustbin of an Arts/Law degree. She was cooking a steak for dinner. I looked at the frying pan and could only see flesh. I didn’t feel all that hungry… And half a century later I was that patient “etherized upon a table – spread out like an evening across the sky.” I had become what I had most feared. A life changing event, then and now. Hip Op Hooray.

The last thing I remember was the anaesthetist getting me to bend over as she jabbed the epidural into my lower spine. Suddenly there’s no feeling from the waist down and two hours later I wake up in a small room with an ensuite and a view of a forest to the north west of the hospital. Unfortunately, the window is set at the wrong angle to get any direct sunlight, but the view of the forest is strangely comforting. I watch it endlessly as each day changes from morning to night, the shadow of the hospital passing across the landscape – day after day, like a kind of virtual sundial. A world of nature outside this world of pain.

The second day is the worst. Something they tell you about after the operation because this is the day the anaesthetic gradually wears off. Even the new regime of painkillers (panadol and synthetic opiates) can’t hide the searing reminder that my right thigh has been cut into and re-stitched back up. The femoral bone sawed off at the top and a titanium spike hammered into the centre of the bone left behind. A ceramic ball on top of the spike is inserted into a plastic cup in the pelvis. This is my new hip. A simple “ball and socket” joint. I look down and see an enormous bruise surrounding the entire site of invasion. It feels worse than D Day.

The first night a nurse comes to take my blood pressure every hour; so sleep (just when you most need it) is literally impossible. I feel sorry for her, having to work through the night like this, tending to strangers. I marvel that people: doctors, nurses, physios, are so prepared to put their energy, their efforts, their own health on the line to help people they don’t know (even lepers from the colony of New South Wales). Their generosity and common humanity sits oddly beside the selfishness of so many public figures, politicians and businesspeople who only seem to be in it for themselves. I marvel again that homo sapiens (sic) contains such contradictions. We are capable of amazing achievement and appalling venality.

I remind myself that we mainly exist in order for the universe to become conscious of itself. That seems to be our central purpose in the overall scheme of things. We are the product of all those explosions and chemical reactions leading to organic matter and ultimately life itself. Whose crowning achievement is: us. Yet we can look back and up and around and see where we came from. Of course each creature is conscious of the universe in their own unique way. But it basically comes down to this: we are here to be aware…

But aware of what ? Life in quarantine melds into a series of small liberations. The physio sets the goals for my release up on a white board. I learn how to get out of bed. How to stand up, how to use crutches. How to manage crutches and a colostomy bag. Discovering the literal meaning of a choreographical “balls-up”.

I turn in vain to my copy of Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) lying guiltily unopened on the wheeled cabinet beside me. Camus reminds us that he wasn’t just talking metaphorically about the “infection” of fascism that swept Europe in the 1930s and 40s, but also, talking about the inevitable struggle that arises in any plague between the need to contain the outbreak and the resulting loss of freedom. It’s always about the act of containment. The hero of the book is a GP, a Dr. Rieux, who witnesses the plague in Oran from the epicenter of his medical practice. He notes that throughout history about thirty great plagues have assaulted humanity, and caused around a 100 million people to die. Although Rieux admits the numbers may be rubbery he concludes that “since a dead man has no substance unless one actually sees him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination.” I decide not to ready any more.

Instead, I lullaby myself to sleep with proto-dreams of forming a special commando unit to eliminate the world’s dictators – employing the various means by which they themselves so grotesquely eliminated their rivals. Vlad “the impaler” Putin, for example, would be given a solid dose of Novichock. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman would be dismembered and his body taken away in pieces similar to the way in which he dispatched the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Kim Jong Un would be smothered in another toxic poison by a deluded woman with a large handkerchief – just as he had done to his half brother. Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines will be gunned down arbitrarily, without trial or charge – like so many thousands of alleged “drug dealers” under his dominion. Boris Johnson will get off lightly (no pun intended) – hung upside down by his ankles from a hot air balloon. After a lot of mental wrangling I decide to call it the DAD commando (Delete All Dictators).

On day three, after the catheter comes out, there’s a sudden blockage of the urinary tract so the resident

urologist is called in and scans taken. He colourfully reveals that, whereas the normal size of a man’s prostate is about that of a walnut, mine is equivalent to the size of a mandarin. I take it as a compliment and decline his offer of immediate prostate widening surgery. The ordeal of just getting the catheter out and the resultant feeling of urinating through razor blades makes me yearn for the pharmaceutical option. I’ll take the Tamsulosin and the Saw Palmetto thanks. I just want to go home!

I wonder about the names of drugs. Who dreams up these verbal contortions? Atvorstatins, CoQ10, Celecoxib, Tapentadol…is there a department somewhere in Big Pharma with retired linguists moving magnetic letters around a large white board to form ever more confusing and impossible to pronounce names ?

A free copy of the local paper is delivered with the increasingly inedible breakfasts. I marvel at its utter vacuousness. A paper full of complete nonsense. It prompts a recollection that the entire Gold Coast, a city of more than half a million people, hasn’t even got one decent bookshop. It tells you all you need to know about the place. I switch on the TV news and the Queensland Premier is announcing that Queensland hospitals are for Queenslanders only. I wonder who funds Medicare and the national health system ? But then she has an election coming up and a little bit of xenophobia never damaged any Queensland Premier’s prospects… But I grew up in Queensland. It’s a private hospital. My taxes and medical insurance are paying for every cent. I switch off the TV.

All of which only adds to my despondency. A friend tells Suzi that for every hour you spend under a general anaesthetic you end up suffering a week of post operative depression. I start to believe it. My two hours under the hammer so to speak means another ten days like this. I am suddenly, deeply, incredibly unhappy. It’s just not me to feel like this. So down. So lacking in energy. I have dark thoughts about death and dying. I never find life so empty and meaningless. It’s just not me to be so depressed. Yet life is also so fragile, one heartbeat after another, and despite that vulnerability, that incredible precariousness, we use guns and violence on each other almost without compunction. I fall into a deep hole. The sense of isolation and loneliness is acute. Tempered only by the kindness of strangers. These medical angels sent in to bring me back.

My surgeon arrives for his daily check-in, fully masked and PPE’d to perfection. I find it incredibly reassuring that he is always so neatly, even immaculately attired. Something that tells you he’s massively organized and on the ball – straight down the line. Thorough, clean, leaving nothing to chance. Exactly what you want in someone who’s going to cut you open. And apart from the prostate hiccup, everything has gone very well, technically/medically speaking. I am enormously grateful.

Time passes. It’s 5.15 am again and a light smudge falls across the forest as another day starts. But is it day three or four ? When will I get out of here ?

Crutches force you to walk slowly, but you see more as you go. The ground in front of you becomes totally in focus and full of things you’d never otherwise notice. I discover the true nature of floors, a panorama of the world underfoot. I pass rooms with people lying on their beds, like me, recovering, waiting to go home. A pleasant woman engages in idle chit-chat. We compare notes about our operations and progress.

I’m the leper. So no one can visit me. Not even my sister who lives on the Gold Coast can come. Time passes but is filled with emptiness. Time stretches, time bends. Nothing is absolutely quantifiable. Not even this short life we all have.

Light breaks across the forest again, heralding another day.  But for what ? Nothing to do. Without television or newspapers, the two most useful props I’ve brought are my transistor radio and a travelling alarm clock. I listen to the saving grace of Radio National but miss the music on Bay FM. I watch the time pass on my bedside clock. I count the hours. The clock. Tik Tok. But what relation has the sound of a clock to the idea of time itself ? Didn’t I already have this dream ?

And so here we are again. Alone again and awaiting our personal end with not so much, trepidation, as a sorry shrug that it’s almost over. C’est la vie indeed.

I live now between the radio and the toilet. I’m in hospital in the middle of a global pandemic and it’s the smell of plastic everywhere that’s hardest to shake. I look at the physio’s white board. I’ve ticked all the boxes. Why can’t I go home? Is this some sort of trap ? Will I be stuck in this room forever like the astronaut at the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey ?

The word “home” echoes in the dark tunnel of another dream. I wake up.

To find my bag packed beside the bed. I’ve got enough painkillers to last a month. I struggle into a shirt and shorts. Two nurses come to wheel me and my stuff back down via a lift to the foyer. Suzi waits, masked and on time, just hanging there outside the glass entrance doors, like sunshine through a rainbow.

I pay the bill for my extras and am wheeled out to join her… free, free at last!

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