Learning from Illness 8 – Life and death

My GP had done his best, but without a scan, my illness was going to prove impossible to diagnose with certainty. Given the situation (that I was in regular debilitating pain and I had the money) it was easy enough to decide to go for a private scan. At this stage, the pain had begun to occur during the day as well as night time.

I mention this fact not to draw sympathy – which is irrelevant – but simply to point to the motivating factors that pushed this patient a particular way. It’s an idea that is getting a lot of media attention these days, but rarely is the problem discussed in terms of people rather than in cold, hard data.

I am not being critical of the many fine health journalists who discover and publicise that data, but it does miss several points.

Yes, you can say that so many thousand people are waiting for a scan, but nobody ever asks if any of these people can afford a scan without the State coughing up for it? Out of the thousands, surely there must be some people who could afford it? But we don’t want to talk about this issue because it again raises the huge differences in health coverage between those who can afford private healthcare and those that must rely on public services.

I had to rely on public services, but I also had enough money (€175) to get a scan. I wasn’t happy about the prospect of forking over this money, but the pain made me do it.

But let’s consider the GP in all this. I knew my GP well, and he me. He could suggest the options to me without causing embarrassment or awkwardness and could also give me a realistic assessment of how long each option would take. But equally, he knew that I probably could afford a scan, which made his job easier.

This is what I hate about the Irish health service, and I’m sure it’s what a lot of doctors hate too. Having to be the face that turns down a person in need, because, simply put, there are not enough services there for people if they are not prepared to pay.

And of course, it’s also a delaying tactic. If someone is not prepared to pay for a scan, chances are that it’s not serious enough for them to need to see a consultant right away. But since this premise equates your financial status with medical need, the logic is completely flawed.

Anyway, I arranged for a scan at a private clinic.

It took a couple of days to get an appointment and off I went. I was impressed at the efficiency of the clinic. I was only waiting a matter of minutes before I was seen. I had to lie on the examining couch and the radiographer performed the scan.

“I’ve got good news,” she said after slathering me with gel and pointing the camera at every part of my abdomen, “you’re not pregnant!”

Then she showed me a picture of my insides and there, right in the centre of the picture was a little black pouch which looked every bit like a velvet purse filled with diamonds.

“That’s your gall bladder,” she said, “and though I’m not supposed to tell you, that’s your problem right there. I don’t see any point in having you worry about what it is for the weekend when it’s obvious.”

Within a few moments I had ascertained what would happen. There would be a relatively simple operation and my gall bladder would be removed. There was no cancer. There was nothing else. It would soon be over.

I thanked the woman profusely and called my GP. He agreed with the probable outcome and, though he couldn’t confirm the diagnosis yet, outlined what I would have to do next.

I had a prescription from him for painkillers (big, solid ones with codeine) and he advised me to fill that prescription and take some until I had organised my surgery. There was a pharmacy near the clinic so I filled the prescription.

I got into my car and was driving home. I was thinking about it all. And then the tears came. Running down my face like a child. I still don’t know if they were tears of happiness or just relief, but I sobbed like a baby.

There is nothing more powerful that a threat taken away. I didn’t care about having to have surgery – nor did I care about potentially having to wait to have surgery. The important thing, the only thing was that I wasn’t going to die. Well, wasn’t going to die quite as soon as I had thought.

There’s nothing like that buzz, nothing like that emotional release – and yet I drove along in a 6 o’clock traffic jam, conscious of being one of the many but yet unique. Life was still precious, and capable of being snatched away by one drunk or crazy driver, but the odds had swung massively in my favor.

And then the thought of what that would mean for everyone who knew me. When it comes down to it, we are the five or ten people we surround ourselves with. I thought of the people who would not have to be sad for me. I thought – not of their happiness – but the unhappiness they would now not experience.

And I thought to myself that I didn’t want to experience this feeling ever again. Not the dying. We can’t insulate ourselves against that. I didn’t want to contribute to my own shortened span anymore. I had had a break. And to make that break worth something, I had to live healthier and better. Make life worthwhile.

That’s what a second chance does for you.

I drove home to my small apartment filled with my partner and children and all the little important things that are my life and I do believe I treasured them all that night more than I ever had before, or possibly will ever again.

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