So, let’s allow the memories to come alive. It is May 2009, I am in the University Hospital of Wales, Ward C6 in the main building, Cardiac Surgery, to which I have been admitted as an emergency.
My aorta – the large artery that carries the blood on the start of its journey round the body – has doubled in size, like some great big playground bully. My heart can no longer cope, but only protest silently in wheezy, tearful breathing, like any other poor little victim.
The technical description is that I am to have open heart surgery for a repair of an aortic aneurysm and replacement of the aortic valves to my heart; the reality is that I am totally at the mercy of professional strangers, albeit ones from my own ‘tribe’ of the medical profession.
I’ve had a couple of weeks of tests. It’s been very restful with lots of concerned and kind visitors; now the operation is scheduled for tomorrow. It’s almost exam time for the students. How well I remember that, though it is over 40 years ago!
I count 22 young people who have sidled through my door over the fortnight and asked, very nicely, if they could examine me before my interesting medical signs vanish. What fun! I become an expert in my own case, showing them exactly how to place their fingers at my wrist to detect the collapsing ‘water hammer’ pulse, and telling them bits of my personal history.
This place is full of bittersweet memories. My husband, Ken Rawnsley, was Professor of Psychiatry here. When I started work as an SHO in his department in the early 1970s I had no idea that we would be together for 20 years and have two children, nor that a new Psychiatric Unit, built in the grounds, would be named for him after his death in 1992.
Lying passive and patient, my heart is full of memories of myself as a young doctor. “If I walk out of this ward and down two flights of stairs and turn left, I will be on A4 where I am a lecturer in Ken’s department,” I say quietly to myself, willing it to be so.
But of course I can’t do that. The ward is now something else, and the Rawnsley Unit is out across the grounds.
I cry quietly in the night and fall asleep listening to the iPod on random shuffle, that Rupert and Amanda, my children, in their care for me have filled. A Bach chorale. Elvis singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Elgar. Jazz. Bryn Terfel’s voice: ‘If I should ever leave you.’ Little snippets of my favourite bits of the Goon Show and Under Milkwood.
Sometimes you need surgery of the open heart if it is to heal fully.
In my dreams I take that walk down the stairs to Ward A4, catching repeated glimpses of myself in the dark windows. A young woman in all the absurd glory of 1970s clothes. Knee-high boots and a green minidress, crisp as a lettuce. A baker-boy hat over a ruffled shirt and black leather waistcoat. A wide sleeved blouse in an angular pattern of turquoise, lime and orange. My, don’t I look good!