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2 June 2021

Ben goes into surgery and I end up doing what I’d hoped to avoid: pacing and watching the clock

For the last 30 years Ben’s life has had a lot of doctors in it, but still, general anaesthetics and surgery have the power to shake us both.

By Tracey Thorn

This last week has been dominated by Ben having sinus surgery. Or, as doctors prefer to put it, a “procedure”. Such a neutral little word. I suppose it is meant to be reassuring to patients, but it also serves to diminish the experience in many ways, implying that there is no need for anxiety, no risk, no suffering. But that’s impossible, of course; we are human, and our bodies and brains don’t fall into line so easily. Instead, the brain reminds us we are scared, and that this “procedure” is unwelcome, and that we wish it would go away.

Hospitals bring reminders and triggers for Ben and me, ever since his autoimmune disease first flared up in 1992, resulting in a spell in intensive care, several major operations and then a long recovery. For the last 30 years his life has had a lot of doctors in it, and we have become slightly hardened, but still, general anaesthetics and surgery have the power to shake us both.

He sets off at ten in the morning, and I have been told I will probably be collecting him between four and six in the afternoon. So I arrange the day around distracting myself, one activity leading seamlessly into another, hoping that maybe, by three, I will get news from him that it is over.

My plan works, and I stay busy until, almost on the dot at three, my phone pings with a text from Ben, telling me that he is being taken into theatre in about 15 minutes. I now have hours to kill doing what I’d hoped not to be doing: pacing and worrying and watching the clock.

[see also: Men tend to think they’re the authority on music – but I have learned to fight my corner]

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It’s worse for him, of course. He’s been sitting there nil by mouth since this morning, but I have learned now that it’s OK to speak up as the partner of the patient; it’s OK to admit it’s painful and difficult being the one waiting for news.

Three hours later I get the text I wanted, informing me he is back on the ward and I can set off to fetch him. He says he is “a bit bashed up”, which tells me it hasn’t been fun at all. Our medical shorthand is quite understated. He doesn’t need to dramatise in order for me to understand.

It takes me an hour in a cab to get through the London rush hour, and then when I have collected him we have to make our way back out into the traffic to hail another taxi. Mercifully, one appears quickly. Not so mercifully, we have a chatty driver. Ben is pale and trembly, and beneath his nose he has a thick swab of cotton bandage into which he is visibly bleeding. Nonetheless the cab driver decides to make humorous conversation, and is clearly delighted with himself despite the silence from the back seat. In the end it is Ben who snaps, relieving some of the tension of the day by telling the man to shut up. Down, but not quite out, I think. That’s good.

When we finally get home he tells me how horrible the day has been; how he had to wait and wait, how he woke to find himself still in the operating theatre, how a kindly nurse sat beside him as he panicked and gently talked to him about her grown-up children, bringing him back into the ordinary world, dispelling the other, frightening one. For anyone with long-term health problems, these kinds of trials can pile up, and each acts as a reminder of previous experiences. I’m never sure if doctors realise how difficult it all is. At the end of such a day, all you can do is try to turn your mind away from it.

So we go and sit in front of the TV and Ben – still, I think, off his head on fentanyl – insists that we watch the final heat of the Eurovision Song Contest. This isn’t his usual cup of tea, but every time I mute the sound he turns it back on, and seems gripped. As the lights blaze and the music blares we move into that slightly manic state of post-operative euphoria, a weird mood that isn’t really relief – he’s still battered and bloody – but contains an element of triumph, of elation at surviving, once again.

I go to bed thinking how exhausting these days are, but also how they never end quite where you expect.

[see also: Browsing my children’s shelves, I understand how the books we read make us who we are]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West