Saturday, 22 December 2018

Christmas Presents

I received an early Christmas present from the NHS this week. It was an appointment for an investigation. And it wasn’t on my list for Santa. Remarkably, the appointment date was just three weeks after my GP had referred me. Given the extra-long waiting lists in NI, which are worse than in Britain, this appointment appeared at the speed of light. At last it seems there is an advantage to the bad medical history I’ve acquired over recent years – I get put to the front of the queue.

The investigation was a gastroscopy, a camera down into the stomach. I needed this investigation because I’d been having a range of gastric problems since the surgery a year ago to repair my diaphragm, and return my stomach from my thorax to my abdomen. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I’d had a gastroscopy seven years previously in the City Hospital and I vividly recalled plenty of gagging and choking.

We had to go to a hospital that was an hour’s drive away, the South Tyrone in Dungannon.  I took an early breakfast then fasted and we arrived at lunchtime. Even though I was having a single investigation, the full admissions procedure was followed: medical history, allergies, next of kin, etc. I was then led from the waiting room into a small theatre. I sat on the table and the doctor sprayed the inside of my throat with anaesthetic. I lay on my side and they put a bib around my throat and connected me up to check my vital signs. I was given a mouth guard to bite on. I began to think of the rudimentary operations that take place in Western films with the patient biting on a piece of wood as their body is cut open. However, the guard had a hole in it and the doctor began to insert a long black tube into my mouth. I tensed myself for the ordeal.

But there was no gagging and choking. The tube slid down easily, almost without sensation. The doctor and nurse were looking at a screen and saying encouraging things to me, like ‘almost there, you’re doing well’. Then he stopped inserting the tube into my mouth. ‘We’re just going to take some samples’, he said. The nurse fed a long thin cable down inside the black tube. ‘There’, said the doctor. The nurse clicked the end of the cable and I felt a slight pinch. They took another sample then he withdrew the long black tube.

The doctor told me that they couldn’t complete the investigation because there was still food in my stomach, despite my breakfast (a bowl of porage) having been over six hours ago. Either I had a slow digestion or it had been slowed by my anxiety about the procedure. They decided I would be rebooked for another gastroscopy in early January, but this time I would be fasting overnight.

What they did find was that I had significant inflammation at the end of my oesophagus. The samples would be sent to the lab to investigate the cause. The most likely explanation was that it was due to stomach acid reflux. But it could also be caused by a range of other things, such as infection. At home I looked up the other possibilities, only to find that the inflammation could also be cancerous. That was a festive present I hadn’t bargained for.

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