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‘Am I dead?’ It seemed a very odd question. It had come, in a small, frightened voice, from the elderly lady lying in the bed.
It was 3am and we were in the CT scanning room - the patient, myself, the radiographer and a nurse. The patient was very unwell, although not, clearly, quite as far gone as she imagined.
I remembered clerking her in a few days previously as an elective admission. She had seemed an anxious lady even then, and not very enamoured of being in hospital. Now she was sick and in pain in the middle of the night. No wonder she was terrified.
I tried to imagine myself in her place. A few minutes earlier she had been up on the ward, surrounded by the many worried faces of her relatives, who had been summoned to the bedside at this unlikely hour. The doctors were in and out, fussing around her, looking worried too. Machines were bleeping, an orange light was flashing somewhere behind her head.
Then suddenly we had wheeled her away in her bed, out into the lifts, dropping all the way down to the ground floor, and then along the deserted corridor to x-ray, head-first with the ceiling lights flitting past one by one.
I don’t suppose she had ever seen a CT scanner before. Thinking about it, you can see how it might be a bit reminiscent of those popular images of the near-death experience - tunnels and lights and all that.
Even worse, we had been in the act of wrapping her up in the sheets from the bed. We were only going to transfer her over onto the scanner using the methods approved in the moving and handling protocol, but perhaps in the circumstances, to her mind, it had taken on more sinister connotations.
So maybe it wasn’t quite such a strange question, after all. We stopped what we were doing and took a moment to explain to her exactly who we all were, where she was, and what was happening. She seemed somewhat reassured.
She got the scan, and in fact it showed that things weren’t as bad as we had thought. I saw her again the next morning as I passed through the ward on my way home. She was tentatively setting about some tea and toast.
When you work in a hospital, it’s easy to forget how alien and disorientating an environment it can be - new surroundings full of strange faces, bewildering bits of equipment, unusual smells and peculiar noises, not to mention lots of sick people. As a doctor, all of this, even all the illness and death, comes to seem familiar, even ordinary, after a while. For patients, it’s anything but.
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