Who needs their hands? Reflections on being a patient

I have a confession to make: up until a month ago I was a surgical virgin, never having experienced anything more intrusive than the extraction of four unwanted wisdom teeth. Which meant that when I signed up to have operations on both my hands I didn’t have a clue what was in store, but comforted myself with what I’d always told patients: that it was just a small operation, done under local anaesthetic and over in less than twenty minutes, so there was nothing very much to be concerned about.

What I didn’t know was quite how frustrating it is to have your hands out of action. There are irritating things, like not being able to cut up your own food; logistically challenging things, like getting out of a bath; and downright undignified things, of which I’ll say no more, other than acknowledging that access to a bidet can come in handy.

None of these things will, thankfully, last too long in my case, but this minor foray into the post-operative world has at least got me thinking. Thinking about what it must be like to be old, when the problems I’ve encountered, oh so briefly, are a constant given, and thinking too about how easily and thoughtlessly doctors, nurses, and other health professionals use the word just in everyday conversation with patients. As in ‘you ¬†just need a scan /some blood tests/ to see a specialist, and it’ll just hurt a little/ take a couple of weeks/ be a matter of time’. As if patients were somehow too stupid to realise that tests are ordered and referrals made precisely because something rather worrying might be going on, and as if coping with all but the most minor of illnesses were ever anything other than hard, and sometimes even life changing, work.

Well just to let you know I’m doing fine now. Thanks to an excellent surgeon, the judicious use of a few painkillers, and the fact that unlike many of the people for whom cutting up their food, getting out of the bath, and wiping their own bottom simply isn’t an option, I’ve had more than my fair share of helpers, plus access to all the necessary bathroom fixtures and fittings. It’s not a lot of operating room experience I’ll admit, more of a first date really. But enough to make me appreciate just how fortunate I am, and to make me determined never to use the word¬†just again, or at least not in vain.