Family & Education

From the cancer ward to a wedding dance

The best-selling novelist Sue Margolis was diagnosed with cancer in January. She wrote this last summer, just before her son’s wedding. Sue died this month


I’m woken by a distant, heavily accented voice attempting to sing Moon River. The terrible singing gets closer. Now I can hear the chink and clunk of a trolley being wheeled in. Enter a small plump Filipina, her short back and sides do covered in a blue hairnet. She positions herself at the centre of the ward.

“OK,” she bellows. “Right hand up if you want porridge.”

This feels like an episode of Tenko with rolled oats.

Four of the six women on the cancer ward, me included, raise our hands. My neighbour in the next bed asks me what I think would happen if we raised our left hands by mistake.

Breakfast is doled out. “You want toast with that?” she shouts.

Finally, job done, our “waitress-commandant” disappears. “When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie …”

The cancer women are indignant. They’re complaining bitterly to one of the senior nurses about the terrible service. But the whole thing is so Kafaka-esque, I can’t help laughing. It’s been a bleak week and the breakfast Nazi has made my day.

Almost a week ago I was admitted for a lung drain to my good lung. It seems that it is now protesting at what’s been going on and fluid has built up. The bad lung meanwhile is doing well. The tumour has shrunk by another centimetre.

A lung drain takes 20 minutes to insert. The lung is left to drain for a few hours. Once it’s finished, there is a CT scan to check all is OK. The whole process should take twenty-four hours max. I have been in hospital for seven days.

I was admitted on Friday morning and promised I would be drained that afternoon. I stressed how important it was that I am out the next day. My daughter, son-in-law and their kids are arriving from the US for my son’s wedding in eight days’ time.

The drain doesn’t happen. Since it was a Friday, I had a feeling it wouldn’t. Then comes the weekend. The radiology and scanning departments don’t operate. On Saturday evening the doctors take pity on me and say I can have day leave on Sunday. I go home, take a shower and spend a few precious hours with my grandchildren who have just flown in.

On Monday morning there’s more bad news. They still can’t fit me in for the drain. I burst into tears. Not something I am prone to do in public. I blub about the American grandchildren, my son’s wedding. It’s promised for Tuesday morning.

I spend the rest of the Monday shopping online from my bed for sparkly wedding sandals. I’ve already sent back three pairs. Since the deep vein thrombosis in my left leg, my foot is always a bit swollen and finding stylish shoes that are wide enough is becoming a problem. As I wander around websites, palliative care doctors rock up onto the ward to talk to a couple of patients who have reached the end of the line, treatment wise. The moment you hear a doctor telling you the way forward is to make you “as comfortable as possible”, you know you’re about to kark it. I reach for my headphones, to block out the death voices.

Jonathan arrives at lunchtime with M&S sarnies. I have a bit of a cry as I tell him that the drain isn’t going to happen until tomorrow. He says he’s going to see the hospital administrator now and demand some action. I beg him not to make a fuss. We’re in the middle of a row when the hospital chaplain presents herself at the bottom of the bed. There’s no dog collar, but she’s wearing black — like she’s got into her funeral gear early so as not to waste time. Do I have any spiritual needs? Sorry, Jewish atheist.

I expect her to take this as a hint to bugger off, but she doesn’t. Turns out she’s happy to chat to anybody, whether they’re believers or not. Lucky old me. But we end up gossiping about a mutual journalist friend and for a moment it’s all very summer drinks party on the lawn. Then I ask her about her job. What’s the question she’s asked most?

“That’s easy,” she says. “Has God given me cancer as a punishment for being a bad person?”

“What do you tell them?”

“I tell them I can’t answer that.”

I look at her. I have no words. Sick, vulnerable people, possibly at the end of their lives come to her for comfort and this is what they walk away with — the possibility that him upstairs is, indeed punishing them. I’m not going to confront her. I’m too tired and miserable. Somehow I manage to bring the conversation to a polite conclusion. Jonathan who has been sitting quietly, listening puts his arm around me and tries to excuse her.

My lung drain is finally inserted on Tuesday afternoon and I am sent back to the ward to let it do its stuff. By evening it’s done. All I need now is a CT scan to check all the fluid is gone. Then I can go home. This doesn’t happen on Wednesday or on Thursday. The nurses are full of apologies. There has been the usual breakdown in communication between doctors. Nobody is even sure if the scan has been ordered. The nurses are devoted, beyond kind and committed to the NHS, but each one I speak to admits that the system is broken. I have been bed-blocking for a week, costing the NHS heavens knows how much, but no manager, nobody in authority has noticed.

On Thursday night I throw a wobbly. A junior doctor appears at my bedside and I tell her that at one o’clock on Friday, 18 members of my family will be arriving at my house for a pre-wedding lunch. Under no circumstances am I going to miss this. She speaks to her boss. A scan is ordered for first thing the following morning. I want to hug her.

Around seven the next morning, as I’m clearing out my locker, the frail old soul in the bed opposite toddles to the loo on her walking frame. I smile and say “morning, Beryl.” She manages a wave. When she’s finished, a nurse helps her back to bed — whereupon Beryl has a seizure. Her entire body convulses. The nurse presses the call bell. Nothing. Then, forgetting to close the curtain she runs to get help. Moments later nurses and doctors come tearing in. Beryl’s bed is surrounded. The woman in the bed next to her, who like me is watching everything, has a panic attack. She comes rushing over to me. She says she can’t breathe. I get her to sit on the bed and I take her hand. Come on, you can do it. Just take some gentle, slow breaths. It takes a few minutes, but finally I talk her down.

Breakfast is served. Nobody seems to have any problem downing their porridge and toast with Beryl’s dead body a few feet away — although by now the curtains have been drawn around her bed. A few of the nurses refuse to hide their tears. Hugs are exchanged and it all feels very human. Then a couple of them go behind the screen with water and flannels and start the business of washing Beryl’s emaciated little body. There’s a student with them. He looks about 16. This appears to be a first for him. Judging by the expression on his face, the poor lad is bricking it.

I get my scan at 10. All is well. I make the lunch. But decompressing from the past week isn’t easy. That night I take a couple of diazepam.

Twenty-four hours later, still feeling a bit wobbly, but dressed up to the nines, hair cut, roots covered, nails polished, I am dancing at my son’s wedding… in the perfect extra-wide fitting, sparkly sandals.

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