There are sounds in the darkness. Machines. Beeping alarms and mechanical movements, regular and methodical. People moving around, their voices soft, words indistinct, almost muffled but soothing all the same. Everything is distant like being in deep fog. Someone moves close by. Coldness runs along my arm. The sounds die away, and the heavy smothering darkness returns.
My mind dances with vivid scenes, none of which make any sense. It’s loud here in my head with words that overwhelm my brain, spinning away on tangents previously unthought of and beyond my comprehension. As I reach to grasp the thought it slips away, replaced by another one, equally bizarre and strange. I move, and pain fills my world. It clears my mind and returns me to reality.
Pain, bone deep. More pain than I have ever felt before. I take a shallow breath, then another. The pain is still there. Pain is good. There is no pain in death. Or beyond it hopefully. The soothing voice is back. I turn my head and try to open my eyes. A figure stands beside me, speaking, and I can hear her words, but I cannot connect with their meaning. They are just noise. I try to move again. The pain intensifies but the figure comes into focus and the words work their way into my brain. I can understand them now.
“We’re just going to move you to the High Dependency Unit, Sally. Once we are there, we can get you more comfortable. This should help with the pain.”
The cold runs through my arm again. This time the darkness doesn’t fall but the pain does retreat. I want to thank the voice, but that is beyond me at this moment. The moment when the memories of the past six months flood back into my brain.
The hospital appointment that started me on this path was the week before the Christmas of 2013. During which the Doctor explained, “One of the tests we monitor is for a cancer marker as you know. We have spoken of this before. The bad news is that the last blood test show it has increased three-fold. It indicates that there are cancer cells there. Until we get the MRI scan done and the results back, we will not know how far it has spread. I’ll see you again as soon as we have the results and we will work out a plan then.”
As he spoke, I pushed down the anger and frustration I felt inside at the situation I found myself in. As a young girl, not yet in my teens. My family had visited my Uncle Jack as he struggled through the late stages of Liver Cancer. The once big builder who would lift me in the air and swing me around had vanished. In his place was a shriveled ghost of a man laid in a bed waiting to die. In the arrogance of youth, I had silently vowed that wasn’t how I was spending my last days. However, this was not the place to allow those emotions to escape. The Doctor and his predecessors had worked miracles over the past twenty-five years to keep me alive and as healthy as possible. Without them I wouldn’t be sitting there in the first place and for that I would always be grateful. I would do all I could to put off the days when it was me laying in the bed waiting for the mercy of death.
There was little I could say. And other than a polite goodbye and wishing him a good Christmas the appointment was done. As I left my thoughts were spinning. I wasn’t surprised by the news. It had always been a possibility. There was no way I was sharing this until it was one hundred per cent certain. I could at least give the family a worry-free Christmas. Twenty-Fourteen didn’t look like being a very Happy New Year at all.
The MRI scan results came, and Liver cancer was confirmed. The news had left the family stunned. They rallied as a dose of Chemo was given during a short stay in hospital. Another procedure was added to my list of things I don’t want to do again. Recovering from the side effects and trying to keep everything as normal as possible we all waited for the results of more blood tests.
The Doctor had explained that even though the Chemo had helped by killing the cancer I was running out of time. My Liver was no longer functioning at a high enough capacity. My only hope was a Transplant. Next there was an assessment to see if I was a suitable candidate. I had to be fit enough to survive the operation and the recovery afterwards. After three days of tests and scans I headed back home to wait for an answer. Which would take longer than normal because of the Easter holidays. Just under two weeks later I was accepted on to the List, and told it could be weeks, months or even a year. A year that I didn’t have. My cousin had had a Liver transplant a couple of years earlier in Germany. Would I be as lucky?
The phone call came, less than a month later. A Friday night at the end of May, just as we finished Dinner. For such a momentous moment it was a very short call.
A Transplant Coordinator informed me, “Hello Sally. It is possible that we have a Liver that might be suitable for you. Could you get yourself to the hospital as soon as possible?”
I was quick to assure her that I would be there as soon as I was able. I wondered in an abstract way how many of these calls she had made over the years. I confirmed that I did know where to go on arrival and managed to thank her before hanging up. Standing stunned for a moment that seemed to last forever. I had a chance, there was a liver. My heart was pounding in my ears.
The rest of that night is a series of snapshots moments as adrenaline took over. I had an overnight bag packed but it lacked essentials such as reading supplies, it was easily sorted.
With both of my children living with us there were no panicked phone calls. A quick conversation and the family decided that my husband would remain at home. His arthritis had become so bad it was difficult for him to sit in a car even for short journeys. Walking through hospital corridors would be even worse. My son would drive, and my daughter would come too so he wouldn’t be making the journey home alone.
I hugged my husband and kissed him goodbye. By this point I felt calm and strangely distanced from things. I recognized it as shock and let it go.
He held me close “Don’t you go dying on me. It’s too late for me to find someone else to look after me in my old age. See you soon.”
Coming from my emotionally stunted husband this was the equivalent of a sonnet, diamond ring and bouquet of roses. He had always been more likely to crack a joke at my expense than declare his affections.
The journey down to Cambridge, in pouring rain. The voice of the Sat-Nav echoed round the car. Arriving at Addenbrooks. The normality of a hospital admission. Strange that that had become so familiar. Tests, a shower and convincing my children to go home so their father wasn’t alone for too long. That it would be hours before anything further happened. Knowing they were both better at doing anything other than just sitting and waiting. That parting was much more difficult than the one with my husband. As I hugged each of them and they hurried away. Neither making eye contact with each other or me. Hoping helplessly to delay the inevitable breakdown into tears. None of that mattered as the door closed behind them and I wondered if I would ever see them again. I sobbed into my pillow and sleep eventually bought me respite.
Being woken up and the trip down to theatre for the transplant. Long corridors with a surprising number of people moving about considering the early hour. The wheels of the bed rattling in and out of the big lifts. Entering the operating theatre and shivering, it was much cooler here. Laying on the operating table preparations being carried out efficiently around me.
“Time to start. Let’s get you off to sleep. “The Anesthetist says. His eyes are kind and he smiled at me.
Cold runs through my vein. The room fades.
I take a deep breath as the nursing staff move my bed and I am back in the present. I may be laying down but, in my mind, I am taking my next steps in my second chance at life. I am still not going down without a fight. I take another breath and there is less pain. I think of the lost life which has given me this chance, this gift.
“Thank you,” I whisper, “thank you.”.