Jonty Este is a 48-year-old journalist living in Sydney. He was born in the UK and has been in Australia since 1988, spending most of that time as a writer and editor with The Australian. He is director of communications with the Media Alliance, the journalists’ union, where he specialises in researching and writing about the way the news media is changing. This is the third in a series about his experiences with cancer.
There was a moment, on Tuesday morning as I checked in for my bowel operation, that I instinctively knew that things were going to go well.
It was one of those little ice-breaking episodes that lightens the mood from foreboding to a frank realisation that the god who looks after drunks and little children would keep half an eye on me as well.
It happened soon after the receptionist at St Vincent’s told me to follow him and change into a surgical gown.
At that point he could have told me anything and I don’t know whether I’d have taken it in. As it was, he handed me a pile of clothes — a gown, an item of hugely unattractive paper underwear and a pair weird blue plastic bags with drawstrings.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The gown and underwear were straightforward enough — although there’s something unsettling about those surgical clothes that effectively reduce you to the words on your name tag, making you feel like meat bound for the butcher’s block — which, with vast apologies to my surgical team — is effectively what you are.
The months of preparation are over. You are about to hand yourself over to a group of relative strangers to do to you something profound and frightening and completely outside your realm of experience. You are powerless, half naked and weak.
Except that I couldn’t work out what to do with those blue drawstring bags.
I dithered for a couple of minutes and then reached the conclusion that since there were two of these things, they must belong on my feet. So that’s where I put them.
I shuffled out to the reception desk, past which I could see my wife, Maxine, and my sister, Penny, looking pale and choked. This was the point at which I was to say goodbye, and go through the doors past which they couldn’t follow me.
But first I had to get past the group of nurses laughing at the bloke who had put two surgical hats on his feet.
There were no reasons for me to feel silly — there were two of these and last I looked I only had one head — and that still had my regular hat on it.
But the moment gave us all a giggle and I went into surgery with a smile on my face while Penny and Max went off chortling for a coffee.
Suddenly it became less of an ordeal and more something that we’d laugh about afterwards.
Of course, my first thoughts on coming round from the general anaesthetic were not of amusing anecdotes concerning surgical hats. My first thoughts were: “Ouch” and then: “That hurts.”
Not surprisingly I’ve been giving a bit of thought during the past three days to pain as a concept. How does one rate pain?
We all know that some pain is more acute than others, that when your dentist is doing root canal and says this is likely to hurt a little, it is actually going to hurt more profoundly than, say, stubbing your toe or even biting into something cold on the filling you really ought to have had replaced last year.
Since I had my operation on Tuesday, I’ve been asked four or five times a day to rate my level of pain on a scale of one to 10: one being completely pain-free and 10 being … what? Logic dictates that this means something along the lines of “completely overwhelmed with agony, on the point of passing out — a little like that Giordano Bruno bloke in the Carravagio miniseries on TV last week, who was burned to death for heresy”.
According to the SBS drama/doco, Bruno expressed his assessment of pain by screaming rather a lot and, happily for my carers at St Vincent’s, I wasn’t at anywhere that level. But having just removed about a foot of bowel through an 18-inch cut in my abdomen, the team in the recovery ward was keen to find out how effective was the pain relief they were offering me.
A snap judgement told me it was in my interests to let them know that, while I appreciated their efforts and all, it would be to everyone’s benefit were they to turn it up a notch. Or two.
So I said seven out of 10, which is probably a bit melodramatic, if you are judging Bruno’s death agony at about nine out of 10 (is there such a thing as a 10 out of 10 on the pain scale? I don’t think I want to know …)