The school of life

The school of life embodies a compulsory education that no man escapes. – George E Woodberry

The hospital gown. The great leveler. I opened the cubical door and closed it behind me before removing my clothes, folding them up and placing them neatly into the small tray. The blue gown was becoming all too familiar as I slipped it on over my underwear. I removed my jewellery and put it all into the locker before moving along to yet another waiting room. We sat there, all of us, in those same awful gowns, young and old, men and women, all of us vulnerable. Social, economic, racial inequities all stripped away as our names were called one by one. I wondered why the others were there, let’s face it no ones being scanned for good reasons.

My name was called and I made my way down to the scanning room. The CT stands for Computed Tomography, the machine works by taking X-rays from different angles and then a computer puts them together to make a 3D image. I’d taught the physics of how they’d worked for years, without ever giving a second thought to how it might feel lying there. Funnily enough, the textbook doesn’t mention how the contrast medium you’re injected with to make the images clearer races through your body and into all your extremities like you’re being filled with hot water from the inside out. It doesn’t mention how your abdomen feels hot and how some people get a metallic taste in their mouth. I was partly fascinated by all this and partly scared out of my mind about what was showing up on the screen. I wondered if the technician knew as they sat behind the glass looking at their computer whether it had been caught early or whether we were too late. I studied their face as I got up and made awkward conversation before heading back out into the hall, if they did know they gave nothing away.

After the scan me and your dad left the hospital and went out for lunch at one of our favourite spots in Westerham. We went back over the conversation we’d had that morning with the consultant and tried to digest all that had been said. Things seemed to be moving forward quickly now and the confidence I’d lost the week before in the medical team was returning. On Friday morning the oncology team would meet to discuss patient results and their subsequent treatment plans. Although they would then normally invite you back in to the hospital for a meeting Dr Townsend knew how anxious I was and so had promised to ring me straight after a decision has been made. One way or the other, I’d know the results by Friday and what my own treatment plan would be.

At six o’clock we were back at the hospital for the MRI scan. Another gown, another chamber and a chance meeting in the corridor with an old football friend of your dads and his heavily pregnant wife. It was exactly what I didn’t need and luckily your dad managed to reign himself in and cut the chat to a bare minimum. I didn’t know the couple and haven’t seen them since but that moment remains significant because it was the first of many bittersweet smiles that I forced upon my face. A coalescence of genuine happiness for the family to be and the feeling down deep inside of my heart breaking all over again.

I was already familiar with the MRI scanner, Sir Peter Mansfield was a Physicist at Nottingham University and while I was there won a Nobel Prize for his work on their development. My fourth year project, which was pretty much chosen for me, involved mapping the data thrown out by the machine onto images of the body. At the time I wasn’t particularly enthused or interested in what I was doing and I certainly never thought that in just over ten years time I’d be lying in one of these myself and relying on Sir Peter’s work to help save my life. The magnets used are incredibly powerful and I remember as a student visiting the scanner and feeling a tug on the buckle of my boot as I walked across the room. What I didn’t recall was the incessant banging noise they made while they were scanning or imagined how difficult it was to stay so absolutely still for such a long period of time. (It’s amazing how many body parts you want to itch when you’ve been told you can’t move.) The dire choice of listening material also led me to believe that whoever chose it had never been cacooned in a machine that is about to determine your future while your lying there with nothing to occupy yourself other than own thoughts.

By the end of the day I was done with scanning and playing the waiting game once more, at least this time we knew that by Friday we’d finally know what we were up against. Until then I’d decided I’d rather not be home alone and in a bid to take back some control I would return to work. For the first time since the operation I would be coming face to face people other than hospital staff and family members and I braced myself for the questions that would undoubtedly come from both staff and pupils.

Forever and always


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