When you are unable to breathe on your own, with diaphragm and intercostal muscles paralysed, you are also therefore unable to clear your airways, meaning that mucus builds up in your lungs and has to be cleared out otherwise you will drown in bed from your own secretions. There were a number of ways this was done to me every day, twice a day – the euphemistically titled cough ‘assist’, physical airway clearance and hour long sessions with a nebuliser added to my ventilator.
It was one of the main jobs of the physios to perform these on me which they did with enthusiasm, panache and the kind of sadism I had never encountered before and never wish to encounter again. The whole process was made even more disturbing by the fact that they were all, male and female, impossibly good looking whilst apparently harbouring all the empathy of a fully paid up, card carrying psychopath. The first two ladies who turned up at my bedside could easily have made a living on the catwalk. Tall, slender, beautiful, hair and make up immaculate, they smiled angelically at me. “Hello, Tara” they chimed in unison, “We’ve come to help you feel a bit better” and with that they descended on me. Clearly, as well as beautiful, these ladies were regulars at the gym as they threw me around casually, pounding on my ribcage and back, flipping me almost upside down and jumping on me to loosen all the sticky snot in my lungs so that they could then attach more tubes and suck it out. (Not personally, you understand. They had a machine for that bit). They used words like “percussive compression’ as they basically punched me under the ribs, ‘postural drainage’ as they flung me around and the aforementioned cough ‘assist’, which was my favourite. This involved sticking a tube down your throat far enough to activate your gag reflex and start you coughing and spluttering and bringing all the gunk in your lungs up into your mouth where, again, it could then be suctioned out. Once all this was done, they would attach a vial of nebuliser to the tracheostomy tube and leave, still smiling.
(A nebuliser converts a liquid drug solution into a fine spray or mist which can then be inhaled to help the airways remain clear. See – fun and educational!)
I very shortly began to dread the arrival of the physios, despite the fact that they were responsible in large part for keeping me breathing. It didn’t help that my first physio sessions were whilst I was in ICU and largely being held in an induced coma so I didn’t know what the hell was going on. As far as I was concerned at that point I was just being randomly and painfully assaulted by oddly beautiful strangers although, given my chest infection and subsequent pneumonia, their administrations would have been both particularly vigorous and critical to my survival. Later, conscious in High Dependency, I was all too aware of what was coming so I had the joy of anticipation to add piquancy to the whole experience twice a day.
Looking back, I remember that, for me, being in such an extreme position health and ability wise hugely heightened my emotional and physical reactions. As a result the smallest things, whether positive or negative, had a disproportionate effect. For example, I hate artificial banana flavouring but, fed through a tube straight into my stomach, I had no control over what was put in it. One of the things – my liquid dessert, as it were – was banana flavoured. Whilst I couldn’t taste this on the way down since it was bypassing my tongue, it also had the unfortunate effect of repeating on me gently for an hour or so afterwards and THAT I could taste. Having this minor, ironic inconvenience actually depressed me. It was as though things were bad enough that something tiny would feel like the last straw. I was also getting my bloods taken several times a day and I rapidly grew very annoyed by the pain of having needles repeatedly stuck in my arm and hand on top of everything else. I have no idea why they couldn’t have taken the blood from my legs and feet where I couldn’t feel a thing but, again, with no voice, I had no power to make this suggestion or any others consisting of two words, the second of which would be ‘off’. Luckily, the converse was also true. After two weeks of tasting nothing other than faint, repeating, artificial banana, I remember a strawberry flavoured thing I was given to suck to moisten my dry mouth. The flavour exploded over my parched and deprived tastebuds with an extraordinary vividness, as though they were tasting for the very first time.
In this febrile and helpless state therefore, the highly physical and painful administrations of the physios seemed even more shocking. Once properly conscious and able to converse with them, I was not surprised to learn that they referred to themselves as ‘physioterrorists’. It was an apt moniker.
Voice recognition fail: ‘Let’s go for Thursday’ became ‘Let’s give it to you on Thursday’ #awkward