Tangerine, lemon and lime striped curtains partially revealed the four patients of Ward C. The murmured hush of sympathy-laced greetings and forced jollity were intermingled with the sounds of machinery monitoring us via clips on our index fingertips.
I never knew who, if anyone, would visit. That Thursday I was ready; confidently smiling thanks to the nothing-to-report doctors’ round that morning. I’d also been given a promise that I was well enough for a day visit home that weekend, after my nine-day stay. Andrew, a new friend of just six weeks, pulled the armchair to my left closer to the bed and sat, precisely when a work colleague, Jacquie, and her husband arrived. We waited as they found two plastic chairs, metal legs scraping the floor as my friends dragged them over.
In an unexpected and noisy flurry of white coats and machinery, an authoritative group pushed in tall computers on wheels. All eyes on them, the four men commandeered a central position in the ward, facing my quarter. I swallowed and looked up from where I sat on my bed.
“I have some results!” the tall, dark-haired, middle-aged doctor announced loudly to anyone and everyone within earshot, while looking straight at me. He then lowered his voice a little as he spotted Jacquie and leaned forward in her direction.
“Are you close relatives of Emma’s?”
“No, we’re not.” She barely finished speaking before she stood up, grabbed her husband’s arm and headed for the exit.
I reached for Andrew’s hand and he remained seated. Without thinking, I pulled my knees up to my chest, covering them with the waffle weave blanket, and hugged them with my free hand as I looked up at the doctor. My heartbeat quickened yet I processed what happened next in slow motion.
The computer screens were turned towards me, each with bright and multi-coloured images of what appeared to be my brain in cross section. The Head of Neurosurgery scrolled quickly through hundreds of seemingly identical scans, until he found and seemed to be satisfied with one image on each computer. My heart thumped against my ribs even harder as my mouth went dry.
During the previous week, I’d had four scans, and during daily morning rounds I’d heard the words ‘possible lesion’ and ‘skull base’. I thought it meant I had something small and unidentified at the top of my neck or thereabouts. I was actually hoping it was something garden-variety, easily fixed, but not so easily that I’d feel guilty about all the attention I’d been receiving in hospital.
I looked at the images. There was clearly a large lump there that had no right to be in the middle of my head, pushing into my brain and squashing its white matter. I heard the word ‘tumour’ and in my state I could only hold on to those two words. Brain. Tumour. I had read the Cancer Council booklets in the Neurosurgery ward waiting room. I knew what this meant. I had a brain tumour.
Andrew asked if we should take notes. The way he wrote clear, neat words in bullet points looked like sorcery. I could only watch and try to breathe. The blood in my head departed in the direction of my stomach and all four limbs now shivered, tightly hugged together. I felt like a distant onlooker watching television. This couldn’t have anything to do with me.
“We don’t know what this is, but it’s very rare that a hospital this size can’t help you.” the doctor stated. In my gutted state, he seemed almost chirpy, like this was exciting news!
He said I was going to be referred to a specialist outside the hospital, a skull base neurosurgeon.
Then the band of merry men departed the ward and I was left in tatters. I hadn’t asked when I might see the neurosurgeon, how urgent my case was, or what the consequences of this hospital’s ‘can’t help you’ might be. I was going to have to get smarter.
That wait for the surgeon was the longest four days of my life….