The general

The hospital sent me a letter and told me what to do. Eat one piece of toast and drink one cup of coffee before 7am. Drink one glass of water at 10am. Do NOT eat or drink anything after that. No sweets, no gum.

It was a minor procedure. I would be in and out on the same day.

I got to the hospital at 12.30pm. By 12.45pm I had taken off my ordinary clothes and put on the surgical ones. I wore a white dress that had no back, two blue mesh booties and a fluffy white dressing gown – half boxer, half 5-star hotel. My hair net was in the pocket of the dressing gown.

I had a hospital wristband on my left wrist and a matching one on my left ankle.

My clothes were in a blue plastic bag stamped Patient Property. This sat at my feet, close to the foot rest of the dark blue Jason recliner.

I was last on the list. All I had to do was wait. I had already seen a nurse who had told me what would happen while I was under the general. Then I met the surgeon who explained all that again.

Last but not least was the anaesthetist. He drew the blue curtain behind him so now my chair was a throne in the centre of a cubby and he was the white-coated king. “If you drove here today you took a much greater risk than you will face in surgery,” he said.

“People worry about two things,” he said. “They worry they will not go to sleep and they worry they will not wake up but you will go to sleep and you will wake up and I will be there to watch you,” he said.

Having surgery was like flying on a plane. “There is very little chance of an accident but if things do go wrong, then it is very serious,” he said.

The cubby vibrated. My terror rippled off me, like heat misting bitumen. I had never had a general before.

Next to me was a young woman who had lost a baby. She showed the nurse photos of her three-year-old. Opposite were four other women, also in white gowns. A nurse took one of them off to the theatre. “I want her back,” a man said. “You bring her back to me, alright?”

The room emptied. I kept waiting. Finally, it was my turn. I got onto the trolley and the nurse put the sides up. I was a frozen toddler in a big cot in a cold white room. The clock said 4pm. It ticked.

I had already sent a text to my partner telling him that I loved him. I then told the nurse about my three daughters. I went through each of them by name and explained what they were like and what they were good at. Once I expressed milk, now it was pride. Unlike me, the nurse was a single mum. She told me she had lost 10 kilograms this past year.

She left me alone. Behind the swing doors, people laughed. I heard things being rolled around, metal objects rattling in a drawer. The theatre lights were misty white suns, waiting.

At 4.20pm the anaesthetist put the needle in my left hand. They wheeled me in. A man in a patterned bandana and a mask leaned down close to my face. “We’re going to give you some champagne,” he said. “Do you want some champagne? Do you like champagne?”

His eyes were wild and deranged. Was champagne a sort of baby-talk code for a sedative? I said I liked champagne but I also liked sedatives when the moment was right.

This was such a moment.  

I wriggled onto the operating table. My brain was icing up just like my body. I was an invisible woman, an outline, a body on a slab. Sleep awaited and maybe something more permanent.

Suddenly, I found myself talking. I said that although I had never had surgery before I had watched surgery being performed. In fact, I had witnessed open-heart surgery and major abdominal surgery and key-hole surgery during my time as a newspaper reporter. I said the blood didn’t bother me at all but I had been shocked at the stamina required of every person who worked in theatre, at the punishing hours that were often required.

The anesthetist looked at me with genuine interest. “They don’t tell you that at medical school,” he said.

He held up a syringe full of milky magic goo. The nurse put a mask over my face. I began to take five deep breaths. I was awake, still awake, swallowing, breathing. I was here but soon I would be gone. The witness relaxed, the watcher left. “You are going to sleep,” the doctor said.






About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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