A Medical Experience


It was Easter 1998 and very heavy rain led to the locality of Far Cotton In Northampton being flooded.  Six classrooms of thirty Y5 children each, were under water in the school’s annexe. Nobody was available over the bank holiday to help save the children’s work and records, so I did what I could for three days.

I will not describe details of the misery suffered by so many local families who I was proud to regard as friends. During this time I only smiled once. I met a parent and friend who had been flooded. She described how she looked after an elderly lady next door and had a key. Having been woken by flood waters in the night it was necessary to rush round to this lady knowing that she slept on the ground floor. My friend let herself in and said, “Come on Mavis we’ve got to go there’s been a flood.” The reply was, “Oh. Thank goodness! I thought I’d wet the bed.”

The school was eventually taken over by an expert who insisted on wearing combat fatigues, I know not why. He gave me a huge dressing down when I told him about trying to save the children’s work. I felt like a naughty schoolboy, as he reeled off the dangers of the sewage contaminated flood waters. He insisted on asking me whether I had touched my eyes in the last three days, as that was an obvious point of entry for anything “nasty”. I hadn’t got a clue. It turned out I must have done.

Not long after I was admitted to hospital. The whole right side of my face dropped whilst that side of my mouth was stuck open. I was deaf in my right ear and (worst of all) my eyelid would not close so I had to hold it shut. My speech was slurred and anything I tried to drink dribbled straight out of my mouth. The only humour I could find in the situation was to repeat something like, “Gottle o’ geer” to myself to mimic the rather poor ventriloquists that we sometimes saw on TV.
On entry to the hospital I was amazingly lucky to be met by a fresh faced intern who had just come on duty and, as nobody else had been admitted, he talked to and examined me for a full 40 minutes. A little while later the consultant came along, took one look and said, “Bell’s Palsy, give him steroids,” to which my new medical friend took his future in his hands and said, “Excuse me sir but I don’t think it is.”
If you know the word frisson then you will understand the next few seconds before the consultant asked, “Well, what do you think it is?” The reply came, “Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.”
The consultant then barked an order, “Off to the kitchens with you then,” and my young friend trotted off. I tried to ask, “Whaaa goi og?” I was told that the test for Ramsay Hunt Syndrome (RHS) was to put salt on the tip of the tongue and if I couldn’t taste it, then it was positive. It turned out I couldn’t and I was immediately moved into a small room, which I couldn’t help but notice had a sign on the door as people left. It said, “Now Wash Your Hands”.

During the rest of the day and following night I was treated with three huge bags of liquid that dripped into my system intravenously. The only instruction I received was, “Hold that eyelid shut otherwise your eye will dry out and you’ll lose your sight.”
At about 10.00 a doctor came and told me that I was cured of the virus and that I could go home. I slurred out a question of, “Wha necst?” He told me that it would be three months before we knew if the nerves had survived and would recover, in which case my face would spring back into shape. If not he said, “…then we can do marvels with plastic surgery these days.” I was horrified and wanted to know more but that was it. I was left pondering that my (already desperately disadvantaged) looks were now going to take a turn for the worse! I began getting ready to leave when my friendly, young intern, who was still on duty, popped in and asked if there was anything he could do. After a few minutes of slurring he understood that I would like my right ear syringed so that I would know immediately if my hearing was coming back. He said he would see what he could do.

Just then, three very smart gentlemen came into my room and introduced themselves as professors of medicine. I was asked if, as I was involved in education, I would be willing to stay for three days and be a question in some medical exams. It seemed my condition was considered hard to diagnose (thank you sooo much to my young intern) and the hospital was about to host the exams for doctors who wished to become private consultants and be called “Mister”, a very important and well paid title in medicine. It seemed the key in my case was to look inside my right ear to form a correct diagnosis. I immediately agreed. I was hungry for information and it seemed any extra time spent amongst experts could only be a bonus.

My things were put in a bag and I was walked to a ward, whilst holding my eye shut. I was told to leave my things there, as it was my bed for the night.
I was then immediately taken to a room where three other people sat watching a TV. Each had a medical complaint that was difficult to diagnose and had volunteered to be a “question”.
The Football World Cup was on and it proved to be a blessing. I couldn’t make much in the way of conversation so, in between being examined by a variety of doctors (whilst the professors took notes) I would sit with my head in my hands keeping my eyelid closed and listening to the games.

Two of our foursome had different types of arthritis in their hands whilst the third had to be taken into a darkroom to be examined in the eyes. Over the three days we saw many young doctors all of whom were treated quite roughly by the professors. It seemed to be part of the test. Two in particular stand out in my memory.

The first one asked me (as everybody did) if I could try and whistle, which was impossible because the right side of my cheek and mouth would not shut. After duly failing, this particular doctor asked me if I could try “harder”. I gave him a quizzical look just as the nearest professor said, “Enough!” and marched this chap out. Later, when I asked, “ig ‘e ail?” the answer was, “Of course he failed. Bedside manner is vital.”
The second doctor to remain in my memory was the very last and for a very different reason. It was 17.00 on our final day and we expected to leave. Just then the lead professor appeared and asked us if we would mind seeing one more candidate. We all happily agreed and a very young looking chap was marched in. He was led to the first patient and told, “Here is Mrs Smith, what is your diagnosis of her hands?” Mrs Smith held out her hands, as she had done on every occasion before. However, as the young doctor bent to examine her, a professor’s arm came out very harshly and knocked him backwards. “No touching!” was the command. We were shocked, as everybody else had been able to freely examine us. The young man looked at the patient from a distance and said, “I think you have somelongmedicalname.” Sadly I cannot remember what it was but we were all stunned that had he got it right! Half the candidates had got it wrong even after a thorough examination.

Exactly the same thing happened with the next patient and a different type of arthritis. No touching was allowed and just by looking he got it right. With the third patient the young doctor (quite rightly) asked if there was a dark room. He was firmly told none was available. All of us turned and looked at the door behind him, which we knew led into a dark room and wondered why the professor was lying. However, again, simply by looking (no touching) the young man gave the correct diagnosis. Once again we were amazed and now it was my turn. I felt desperately sorry for this poor chap. On looking at me he (again correctly) asked to look in my ear. Half the candidates had not managed to get that far. An arm came out of nowhere and physically knocked this extremely polite young doctor backwards with the barked words, “No touching, just look. What’s he got?”

After few seconds of looking he said, “You have Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.”

We all sat and stared in admiration, as this young man was marched out of the room. A few seconds later the lead professor came back and said, “I expect you noticed we treated him a bit differently to everybody else.” We nodded fiercely and he said, “He’s the best we’ve ever seen. We just wanted to see how far we could push him.”

As we left the ward to go home we unanimously agreed that we wanted that young man to be our doctor!”

Three significant memories stand out in my mind about those three days.
Firstly, on the evening of the second day, as I walked to a new ward where there happened to be a spare bed, I bumped into my young intern who looked incredibly tired and unshaven. I wondered at my good fortune at having met him just after he had started his shift over 36 hours previously. He asked me if my ear had been syringed and I said no. 30 minutes later as I settled into my new bed he arrived with a bit of paper saying 12.30 tomorrow at Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) department. He said, “A friend of mine will see you during his lunchtime as a favour.” I thanked him and marvelled at both his kindness and effort, despite obviously being exhausted. I duly turned up and the ENT doctor looked at me and said, “Oh yes, obviously Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. I see quite a lot of this.” I was shocked. Here was somebody who knew all about it. I managed to slur, “ill I eed astic urgery?” He replied, “No, you’ll be absolutely fine, in a few weeks everything will be back to normal.” I cannot tell you how powerful this news was to me. Suddenly I felt like singing and dancing. My whole attitude became much more positive. Afterwards I thanked him profusely as best I could and returned to being a medical question. I had a smile plastered across the half of my mouth that still worked.

Secondly, that same day, the lead professor stopped and asked me what I had been given for the pain. I said, “ain? oc ain?” I had no pain whatsoever. Some time later he came back with a bottle of morphine based pain killers. He said, “You’re going to need those. Once the nerves start coming alive you will experience some degree of pain. Just cling onto the thought that pain is good. It means everything is coming back.” About a week later I was extremely grateful for that advice and I used to count the seconds until I could take my next pill.

My third memory was a life experience.
It was my last night of staying at the hospital and I was directed to a ward where again there happened to be a spare bed. I walked in past a few bays (each with eight bays) and happily noticed that the TVs in each were showing Romania against somebody in the World Cup. This was good news. I could sit, with my head in my hands and listen. I went to the nurses’ station and slurred out my name. The girl smiled said, “Oh yes. We’ve been expecting you” and pointed to the bay directly behind me. My bed was third on the right (out of four) and, very sadly for me, as I walked over to it another nurse turned off the football. It seemed I was to be in the only bay where no football was to be seen or heard.

I then noticed a very elderly chap in the next bed. It seemed that, just like every other patient on the remaining seven beds, he was keeping very much to himself. Usually, there is some degree of activity in a hospital ward but here there was a stony silence with only vague echoes in the background of the football on TVs in the other bays. It all seemed odd somehow but, as I was unable to talk, it didn’t make much difference to me.
I sat for a few seconds with my head in my hands when I suddenly heard somebody call out, “Help!” I looked up but could see nothing and with one ear not working it was extremely hard to tell where this cry for assistance had come from. After a few more seconds it happened again but I could still not track it. Then I heard, “Help me. Please help me. I can’t live like this. Please somebody help me.” I looked up. As far as I could tell, it was coming from the bed opposite me. Once again it happened, “Please somebody just kill me. I can’t live like this. Just kill me.”
I looked at the bed and I looked round the bay. Nobody stirred. This was particularly surprising to me, as the nursing station was so close and somebody must have heard. I could see the nurses, yet nothing happened.
I stared at the bed opposite and a head lifted up and looked back. He looked at me and said, “You’ll help me won’t you? Please get help. I’m in agony. I can’t live like this. You’ll help won’t you?” I stood up and said, “es ‘ate i’ll ‘et ‘elk.” I walked over to the nurses’ station and slurred at a nurse. I said, “ecshcushe ‘e ‘ut a ‘an o’er ere ish achkin ‘or elk.” This beautiful girl’s face quickly hardened and she stared at me. Finally, she said, “Well, you’ve asked me to help him now so I’ll have to come,” which I felt was a little harsh. She then came out from behind the counter and walked over to the bed opposite me. I followed and made sure my good ear was pointing the right way. I did not want to miss what happened next. She said, “Hello Mr Brown. What can I do for you?” The reply came, “Could you fluff up my pillow a bit.” She turned and directed an extremely meaningful glance in my direction and my heart sank. My one good eye watched as she finished with the pillow and turned to face me. She started walking my way but had not taken more than three steps before we all heard, “Help me, please help me, I can’t live like this.” She briefly hesitated as if shivering on the spot and fighting to gain control of herself and then walked on towards me. Now I knew why everybody was turned away. She came to my bed looked at my chart and said, “You haven’t been here for the last three nights, have you?” Sheepishly I shook my head and as another cry of, “Help me!” rang out from the opposite bed she said, “It says here you have one deaf ear, is that right?” I nodded and she said, “In that case I would make sure that’s what faces upwards, you just might get some sleep.” The chart was replaced and to a cry of, “Please somebody kill me,” I watched her walk back to the nurses’ station.

I sat on the bed thinking, “Wrong place and wrong time.” Just then the very elderly man next to me stirred for the first time since I had arrived. He very slowly turned and shuffled to the edge of the bed and started swinging his legs over and onto the floor. I thought to myself, “Good chap, off to use the toilet. He’s still got his independence.” However, when he finally stood up, in a very doddery way, he gradually edged round to face me and leant forward to speak. I turned my good ear towards him. He put a shaking arm and finger out and pointed in the direction of the screaming man. He said, “That’s the swine that got the football turned off.” Much humbled, I watched him shuffle back to bed before I tried to settle down to a most unpleasant night.

As a personal post script to this story I will mention two things.
Firstly, on a follow up visit to the hospital a few weeks later, I saw the same consultant.
I was most impressed that he openly told me that, had I been treated for his diagnosis, I would still have been in hospital, as steroids would have made it much worse. I have always admired honesty.
Secondly, I had a huge problem with my eye being stuck open, dry and extremely painful. Everything had sprung back into place but this worrying problem was stopping me from returning to work. Eventually I paid £150 to see a specialist who took one look at me and said, “Go to a chemist and buy some ‘Viscotears’. That will keep your eye moist for hours at a time.” I duly did this on the way home and was back at school immediately. Why did nobody tell me about this cheap but effective remedy?

Morals? Take your pick.