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For Equine Vets Everywhere

Five weeks in hospital

My NHS story starts in July 1977. Having finished my second year of the veterinary course, I was at home in Kent for a few weeks doing some fruit picking to earn a little money before returning to Bristol to start my third year studies. During the morning of Sunday 10th July, I had a riding lesson at a local riding school. Having just completed a jumping round, the horse that I was riding slipped and fell on top of me. Although I don’t really remember anything about the incident, I can remember lying on the ground clutching my leg, thinking I had broken it. The next thing I remember (briefly) was lying on a hospital trolley, hooked up to an iv drip, with loads of doctors in white coats and nurses fussing around me. After that I don’t remember anything until I woke up two days later in a hospital bed with my mother and a student nurse sitting beside me. Apparently I had ruptured my liver and needed an emergency laparotomy to patch up my pulverised liver. Ironic that I subsequently “specialised” in colic surgery in horses, and have performed many hundreds of emergency exploratory laparotomies – thankfully I have never needed to attempt to stem the flood of blood pouring from a ruptured liver. Fortunately for me, I had a brilliant surgeon, who the hospital staff described as a “miracle worker”. However, they needed to give me their entire stock of blood (around 18 units, which is about twice the average person’s whole blood volume) during the surgery. The porters subsequently scolded me for keeping them so busy fetching and carrying the blood supplies!

The next few days are a blur. I remember being sedated and on loads of opioid analgesics, as well as iv fluid therapy with drips in both arms. I remember the fantastic nurses and doctors taking care of me, and especially Nurse Wharton, who was especially adept at giving me my bed baths!

I was on a general surgery ward with around twenty-five beds. The sickest patients had their beds positioned next to Sister’s desk (Sister was a large and scary Irish lady), and we would be moved up the ward as we got better. I seemed to stay at the critical end for about a week, not allowed to eat or drink, before I slowly progressed up the ward towards the day room where you could sit and watch TV if you were well enough. I can only describe my fellow patients as a bit of a motley crew. I remember Mr Fosdyke, who worked for the Southern Water Authority, and who kept cracking jokes that caused incredible pain in my wound when I laughed, to the degree that I would pretend to be asleep when I saw him coming towards me.  There was also an old guy in the bed opposite me (can’t remember his name) who kept us awake all one night when he insisted on getting dressed every hour or so thinking he was going home; he was then duly put back to bed by the night nurses. Then at around 3.00 am he started screaming and shouting saying that we were being hijacked by terrorists! Fortunately the terrorists seemed to disappear and all was quiet until he started to get dressed again about an hour later. It was a bit of a relief when the morning shift of staff arrived at 6.30am, and the daily routine started all over again.

Eventually, 17 days later, I was allowed to go home. Sadly, that didn’t last long because during the night I had intense abdominal pain and I was duly taken back to hospital and found myself back in the bed next to Sister’s desk! I don’t think we ever really found out the cause of the pain, despite numerous X rays, blood tests, etc. I remember being given repeated doses of pethidine when the pain got bad – they made me feel as high as a kite, and certainly put me off ever wanting to misuse opioid drugs. My appetite was pretty poor, and eating seemed to make the pain worse, so I was prescribed a pint of Mackenson’s stout every day. Unfortunately, my mother (who had been a nurse all her working life) decided that the best food for me was egg custard – every day when she visited me she would bring in another bloody egg custard – I ended up getting the nurses to help me out eating them! Sister also sneaked a glass of brandy to me at night when I couldn’t sleep. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on which way you look at it) my damaged liver meant that I couldn’t handle alcohol very well, so I would feel quite inebriated and happy after even a small draft. In fact, this carried on for about six months after I eventually recovered, so even when I was back at Bristol, I could get sloshed on half a pint of bitter!

My total stay in hospital was about five weeks. It was an amazing and scary experience, but in other respects quite fun. There is no doubt that the NHS and its tremendous staff got me through it all, for which I will be eternally grateful – so grateful that I ended up marrying a nurse!

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