DBS Diary 11: The day of surgery

Okay, this is out of sequence but I thought I would tell you roughly what I remember of the surgery for DBS. I don’t know whether you will find this reassuring or unsettling so I will throw in the usual scattering of caveats – if you don’t want to know the score look away now.

We are four in the ward. Adjacent to me is Mark, who has Multiple Sclerosis incidentally but, more specifically, has had a brain tumour removed. A gentle mild man with kindness and generosity of spirit where you might have expected him to rail against the injustice of life. A model patient. Not surprisingly the physiotherapists love him. Whatever they ask of him, he does. Determined to make progress and almost infinitely courageous. I salute him. Diagonally opposite me is Terry. An engineer by training, he has had DBS surgery exactly a week before me. I watch him closely for signs of improvement – a bit like skipping ahead in a novel. Lastly there is Joshua, a Nigerian with a tendency to grumpiness. When I discover that he has a spinal tumour which gives him almost constant pain, I try to be a little more accommodating. It turns out that he is also a painter (artist not decorator) and has painted some very stylish African scenes. Nor is he the only artist amongst us. Terry is a wood turner and makes beautiful bowls from maple, pear, ash. I make a mental note to speak to him in more detail. [I have since purchased a rather beautiful 18″ bowl in maple].

Surgery day begins at midnight when they withdraw all fluids. Not a major hardship except for the fact that hospital wards are, in my experience, rather overheated so your lips tend to dry out I am told. Speaking as someone whose skincare regime is, to say the least, cursory, I am unaccustomed to applying lip balms and so on.

I sleep poorly anyway and obviously the anxiety of impending surgery contributes to that. I finally fall asleep around four only to be woken by one of the nurses trying unsuccessfully to insert me into a pair of flight stockings. At some 84 kg (me not her), this is never going to happen. She summons Kingsley, a strong Kenyan this who completes the task with a flourish. I head to the shower to complete my ablutions, consisting of Hibiscrub top to bottom. Literally.

I can see the tagline – “Hibiscrub, because I’m worth it”.

A little after 8 o’clock the porter arrives to take me down for my operation. He chats briefly with the ward staff, even going so far as explaining the minutiae of my upcoming procedure. He seems very knowledgeable about modern neurosurgical practice. It finally dawns on me that he is not a porter but, in fact, the professor of neurosurgery. “Yes” says one of his registrars “he likes to pretend”.

In a strange sort of way it is reassuring. We chat at ease for several minutes. It turns out that he trained with Prof Peter Richardson who had the office four doors along from me when I worked in the anaesthetics department at “the London”. Small world. For those who would like to meet him, this is my neurosurgeon, doing a TED talk.


For those of you unfamiliar with a neurosurgical operating theatre (and I hope that’s most of you), the first thing that impresses you is the sheer number of people. About as many as would crew a Flying Fortress. It’s all bustle. I seem to remember around ten people busying themselves with pre-flight checks so to speak.

Brief introductions – I will never remember their names – and smiles. “I will just get into my pyjamas and we’ll get going” says Prof Z. Funny, I use theatre scrubs as pyjamas at home too.

It is one of the most dislocating aspects of general anaesthesia that one has no sense of the passage of time. I remember the anaesthetist implanting an arterial line because “Parkinson’s patients have autonomic instability and notoriously variable blood pressure”. My next recollection is of a nurse gently whispering sweet nothings to me in recovery. I reach up to my head and feel hair rather than stitches. Obviously they have shelved the procedure because of some as yet undisclosed problem. They have not even shaved me.

The nurse tells me sharply to leave the staples alone. I am confused. No time has passed yet the clock in theatre shows 4 PM. I have lost some eight hours along the way.

A porter takes me back to the ward. Evidently Prof Z has come through his career crisis and decided he prefers to be a neurosurgeon after all.

I remember making some feeble efforts to telephone the family but cannot even remember how to unlock the phone, so groggy am I. I probably make no sense at all… Don’t say it!

Just then the dinner trolley arrives. I struggle to remember what I have requested. Not that it would have mattered. Hospitals are not known for their catering and one beige slurry is much the same as any other. Many believe that hospital catering is there to discourage long-term bed occupancy. And in that role, it performs admirably.

By Friday I am much improved. As are my other fellow inmates. Sorry, patients. In one fell swoop, they are all discharged leaving me alone over the weekend.

This turns out to be one of the stranger experiences – a little like being in a holiday camp out of season. My table is piled high with newspapers and magazines. The Observer, the Guardian, the daily Mirror, and others. More reading than I can possibly need. Their choice of reading matter seems pointed. Time Out (particularly ironic since I cannot spend any time out, National Geographic Traveler (as if they hadn’t made their point already) and finally Countryside magazine (all of which is beginning to look deliberate).

Queen Square is deserted at the weekend. The usual bustle of taxis and ambulances is quiet. Like a ghost town. Obviously I failed to notice the zombie apocalypse.

By Monday I have negotiated my parole (sorry I mean discharge) and I am released into the tender mercies of Joe, the taxi driver to take me home. A man of few words but a penchant for speed and evidently in the process of making what appears to be an attempt on the world land speed record for a Mondeo. And to think that I was afraid of the surgery!