The worst thing of all

In the “shit happens” category

Of everything that has resulted from my open-heart surgery (in December 2016), the worst thing is without doubt coming out of it unexpectedly dependent on a (highly visible) implanted pacemaker for the rest of my life. For someone energetic and sporty who values their autonomy and independence, that sucks more than I can describe. But I can’t and don’t blame anyone. It was a known risk, albeit an infinitesimally small one. But shit happens. Everyone knows life is not fair.

In the “This is Switzerland and we are perfect” category

The worst unnecessary and avoidable thing was what I went through because of the policy behind the existence of the “Soins continus” ward (Continuing care or continuous care) at the CHUV. The theory behind this ward is that, after one of the most invasive and life-threatening surgeries a person can have, the patient has absolutely no need for peace, calm and a reassuring environment while they are recovering.

Directly after the operation, I spent less than one day in Intensive Care, where the care really was absolutely excellent. Then I was moved to this “Soins continus” place – a ward with 6 beds which is apparently part of the normal progress of the patient from operating-room to general ward.

On paper, “Soins continus” must have looked like a good idea to some droid with no idea what it is like to find yourself as helpless as a baby after a serious operation.

In “Soins continus” each patient is hooked up to numerous monitors and – if deemed necessary – life-support systems. There are 4 nurses on duty for 6 patients. So far, so good.

The biggest Major Fail

Patients who come out of surgery in their right mind – i.e. not hallucinating, panicking, thrashing around, shouting, ripping their tubes out and generally going nuts, are put in this ward together with patients who are indeed going very nuts indeed. (Apparently this is quite common after a serious operation: some people go into a temporary delirium.)

During the day, you can more or less handle this. But at night is exactly when those who are going to be distressed, get distressed. My operation was in mid-winter – 13 December – and night started early.

When you yourself are hooked up to various monitors, with 36 metal staples down the front of your chest where they have sawed open your breastbone, 3 drains leading out of additional holes in your chest cavity, a temporary mobile pacemaker and a urinary catheter, your body is in a state of shock no matter how stoic your mind is telling you to be. You really do not need battlefield-hospital experiences being provided by a patient in the same ward.

There was also an old lady with dementia in the bed next to me, who cried out frequently during the first night, and finally pissed herself, which earned her a scolding from the nurse. That, I could handle. It was not a peaceful night, but I’ve had worse.

I was learning very quickly that the only way to put my experiences in “Soins continus” into any kind of perspective was to compare them with the worst moments in my long, eventful life.

Then there was another old guy in the ward, also not quite fully in control of his wits, who had a tendency to declaim loudly from his bed. Again, during the day, who cares? You can deal with it. But he would also make phone calls to his wife around 9pm, shouting into the receiver, and to cap it all, he would put his wife on speakerphone so everyone could hear not only his voice ringing through the ward, but his wife’s as well! This kind of thing is perfectly acceptable in many cultures, but in Switzerland, apartment-dwellers (which is most of the population) are obliged BY LAW to not disturb the peace between 10pm and 7am. Men are invited to piss sitting down if they have to go during the night, and all are exhorted to not flush the toilet. Taking a bath after 10pm can also get you sanctioned by the company that runs your apartment building.

So when a fellow patient makes phone calls at the top of his voice in the shared ward of a hospital at 9pm, and the nurses don’t raise a murmur, you feel as though you’ve suddenly been transported to Africa, or India, although being in your right mind, you are pretty sure you are still in Switzerland. When I asked a nurse to say something to the shouter in the bed opposite mine, I was the one who got a bollocking: “Can’t you see the poor man is not in his right mind?”

On the night the other bloke was going nuts (the one thrashing and crying and ripping out his tubes) the shouter decided to contribute at one point, yelling across to him for several minutes. Again, nurses did not make any attempt to quieten him. Throughout the night, they mostly stayed at their station, which was at the other end of the ward. I did not have that option. My bed was conveniently opposite the shouting fool and diagonally opposite the thrasher, who proceeded to have nightmares ALL. NIGHT. LONG. At some point his nightmares infiltrated mine, and I awoke definitively as he screamed “Non! Non! Non! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!”

This brought the nurses to his bedside, and helpless, they scolded him for ripping off his oxygen mask, then went back to their station.

Just remembering all this still makes me feel sick and helpless. I’ll have to write more another time.

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