An inner evacuation process has begun. The pup whines, looks confused, and licks the back of my leg in sympathy.
I cannot stop being sick. The retching is happening every five minutes. I am puking blood out of my nose. I no longer have the strength to get out the bed and make it to the bathroom, and have resorted to leaning over the edge of the bed and vomiting onto the tiled floor.
Surely this has to stop sometime soon?
It’s not stopping. After 19 hours of hawking up my guts, I admit defeat. And immediately I realise I have no idea of the equivalent of 999.
Mentally berating myself (who lives alone in a foreign country without knowing such information?) I call my doctor’s surgery, thinking there will be a recorded message saying what number to phone in an emergency. There is a message, but it babbles out in Catalan, with no Spanish option. I get the gist of it, but am sure they haven’t mentioned any number to phone in out-of-surgery hours.
I’m loath to bother anyone at this time of night, but, getting slightly desperate, I text my friend Chris. The message is tersely dramatic. “I think I need help.”
Chris has phoned for an ambulance but the official response is for her to put me in a taxi and head to the hospital on Numància Street. My heart sinks. I’m now extremely dizzy, can’t stop puking, and am balking at the very idea of putting one foot in front of the other, let alone going out in public.
I drag some clothes on and clutch the now fetid basin to my chest.
Chris and her husband loom like phantoms at the bottom of my stairwell. Or it could just be that my vision is swimming. They flag down a cab and we take a tortuous 20-minute ride to the recommended hospital. As the taxi speeds off, something doesn’t seem right. Chris’ husband bangs on the door of the dimly lit Casualty department. It’s shut.
On any other occasion I might have cursed the cutbacks and incompetence of the emergency services, but instead I collapse to the ground, and start to close my eyes. I just need to make it all stop.
Chris’ husband runs down the street, looking for a passer-by or any form of help. Amazingly, he comes across a lone ambulance, with two paramedics at the end of their shift. They are clearly reluctant to assist. But he’s Spanish, and persuasive, and after about five minutes of conversation they come over to eye me up. Finding out I’m in my mid-30s, they tell Chris to put me in a taxi. Needless to say this doesn’t go down well. Chris and her husband plead in Spanish. It works. I don’t have the strength to tell them how grateful I am.
Stumbling into the ambulance, I know that what I really need is an anti-nausea injection and the hydrating effect of a drip. “Please put me on a drip,” I croak in Spanish to the 20-something paramedic. “I don’t have any” she says brusquely, and busies herself with filling out a form. “They’re up there” I reply, motioning to a shelf containing around eight of the plastic glucose bags. She looks irked, and snaps “I can’t understand you”.
I try to quash the the overwhelming urge to start screaming. Don’t panic.
Her male partner, driving the ambulance, calls through cheerily from the front: “She’s saying that she wants a drip”. The girls’ lips purse to a point. “For Christ’s sake”, she shouts back in Spanish, “my stash is already running low!”
She reaches for a drip and starts fumbling with a catheter. She looks me straight in the eyes. “You have shit veins”, she says.
They admit me to the Casualty department at the Sagrat Cor. It looks similar to the ones you see back home – bright lights, everyone dressed in white, thin curtains separating one stretcher from another. I am glad to be somewhere whose sole purpose is to make me feel better. The vomiting is still going on every few minutes. I tell myself that once the drip kicks in, and I’m hydrated again, I will be fine and able to go home.
I spend the night on a stretcher in the corner, next to a Colombian gang member. He spends the night screaming at the nurses, singing Colombian country songs, and swearing about the vengeance he will take on those who beat him up as soon as he gets out. The only time he shuts up is when a nurse approaches with a needle, and he starts whimpering pathetically. He is, apparently, afraid of needles.
I have promptly vomited up the cup of water they gave me in Casualty, after 14 hours on a drip, and the doctor shakes her head at me. “You need to be admitted”, she says, acknowledging that they don’t know what’s wrong with me. With a pup alone in my flat, I am now panicking. As the icing on the cake, my Spanish mobile has gone dead, and I only have the UK one left as back-up. I text my Mum in Scotland, who then starts an international search and rescue operation – thank god for Google – to find someone in Barcelona who can take care of Inca.
Meanwhile, I am transported to a room upstairs, with beds for two people and a shower room at the side. The other bed is empty and I climb into mine, glad of the change of scenery.
It’s official – I reek. Three days of stuff coming out both ends is not pretty. When a nurse appears to change my drip, I ask if she can please help me get washed, in the en suite shower room. “No”, she says, and I wonder if it’s because the tubes of the drip complicate things. “Just to get washed”, I go on, “not a full shower to get the bandages wet”. “No you can’t” she repeats, “now lie there and be quiet”.
“Hooliah!” My non-drip arm is being shoogled, and I groggily wake up. Two nurses inject something into my arm – I have no idea what or what for. They never explain anything. In a more normal state I would be questioning everything, but I simply don’t have the strength.
About a minute after they leave, the most god-awful pain starts pulsing at the back of my neck. It spreads rapidly up the back of my skull, till my head is involuntarily wrenching back and forth in pain. Gasping, I get out of bed and drag the drip pole to the door of the room. I call out in Spanish for help, starting to cry. It’s that sore.
Three nurses are passing in the corridor, and I recognise the eldest as the one who refused me a shower earlier today. “Please help”, I cry, struggling for breath, “you injected me with something and my head now feels like it’s exploding.” The eldest shoots me a vicious look. “Och, you again. Get back to bed”. The three of them saunter on along the corridor.
I collapse at this point. The drip pole clatters down beside me. I notice that the floor tiles are cold against my cheek.
My roommate is a middle-aged Spanish woman. What seems like her entire family have been clustered around her all day. There’s no restriction on the amount of visitors you can have in Spain (in the UK it’s usually two at a time), nor are there any set visiting hours.
What this means is that all day and all night, I have to drag myself, my drip pole and omnipresent basin (which I’ve learned is ‘palangana’ in Spanish, helpfully) past not only another sick person, but her husband, son, nephew and neighbour’s daughter-in-law, who are generally to be found in a state of animated discussion. In a white hospital gown that barely covers my abdomen, this isn’t much fun. Nor is the fact that the visitors have no qualms at all about using the patients’ toilet.
Meanwhile, the pay-to-view TV on the wall has been blaring for the past five hours, with South American soap operas whose plot seems to centre on a model being in love with the man who killed her brother. The women all wear impossibly large earrings and the men all speak as if trying to convince a jury not to convict them.
Constantly vomiting, hunched under bright lights and full volume television fiasco, I can’t take it any more. It occurs to me that I may actually be in hell.
The nights are the worst. The vomiting is incessant. And I feel utterly – and helplessly – alone.
A nurse snaps on the lights to take my temperature and change my drip. I don’t recognise her but I shamelessly resort to clutching her hand. “Don’t leave me, please.” She shuffles awkwardly. “There are other patients”, she shirks, “I have to go”.
Today’s challenge: how to convince a chief psychiatrist in a foreign language that you are not insane?
The doctor managing my case has called for a psych consult, presumably because she cannot fathom how five days of puking your guts up can be anything other than psycho-somatic. I protest that I really can’t help it, and desperately want to get home to my puppy, but she’s having none of it.
The psychiatrist is a man. It surprises me to find that I am inordinately relieved at this. He’s the first man I have seen so far here – all nurses and doctors have been women. He chats to me for two minutes and quickly concludes there is, indeed, something physical actually wrong with me. “Can you please tell my doctor that?” I ask.
Mum materialises over the head of my bed. She’s flown in from Scotland on a mercy mission to save me, my puppy and my abandoned flat. She brings soap, and a sponge. It’s the first time I’ve been washed in the past five days. I have never been so happy – and grateful – to see anyone in my life.
They’re releasing me. This is inexplicable, because I am still vomiting and still feel like death. “Ánimo!” my doctor breezes chirpily as she signs me out. “You’ll be fine!”
She hands me a prescription for various medicines, and I realise the chemists will be shut – Saturday afternoon and Sunday. I ask for a few of the tablets to tide me over till we can get to a chemist on Monday morning. She looks confounded, and refuses.
I puke all the way home in the taxi.
In a second Casualty department. This time it’s Hospital Clinic, which I’ve heard is a lot better than Sagrat Cor. After three days off the drip at home, getting progressively worse, I have a fever and am on the verge of passing out.
While we’re waiting to be processed into Casualty (this takes around seven hours), they’ve parked us in a corridor. Me perched on the edge of a stool, draped over basin, and my mother standing over me.
It’s at this point that I start to become aware of a ruccus down the corridor. A 50-year-old-looking Spanish woman, lying on a bed, is shouting and bawling, and I realise in disbelief that she’s talking about me and Mum. “This is ridiculous!” she screams, “I was here first!” The young porter is trying to placate her, but to no avail. The screeches get louder. “I’ve not had food for a day! And as for these foreign women!” she’s spluttering now, “these…Germans!”
On this, my eleventh day of endless vomiting, I resist the urge to compare war stories. But the rest I can’t let go. Managing a hoarse yelp of response in her direction (after so long puking, your throat is shot to hell), I rasp “I pay my taxes too, you know.” She snorts. I manage a final parting shot. “And another thing. I’m not bloody German!”
They’re releasing me. But this time, I am hopeful I am actually on the mend. I’ve been in the gastro-enterology ward all week, and the staff here have been consistently nice – and professional. I wish I had been brought to Hospital Clinic in the first place.
Not much has happened of note this week, mainly because the staff have done a great job. There was the time a nurse struggled for two hours to get a needle in my arm (yes, I have shit veins), and exasperated, had all but given up. Then it finally worked, and, in a nod to my Scottish background, cried out spontaneously “¡Viva la independencia!”
Or the night that I woke myself up talking out loud to a stretchered Boris Yeltsin, who kept blabbering in Russian. I sat up in bed and told him to be quiet, I didn’t speak Russian, that his words were meaningless. Slouching back down into the bed, I was aware of the stares through the curtain beside me of the other patient (and tribe of family staying overnight, obviously).
But finally, stepping out onto the streets of Barcelona, clutching my Mum’s arm, the city smelt and looked beautiful. I was finally daring to think it had stopped. Hello Citty:)
HUGE thanks to my mother, who ended up spending two and a half weeks in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language and couldn’t even put on the telly for entertainment. Not to mention dealing with hospital cafeterias that have absolutely nothing gluten free, countless Catalan shrugs of dismissal or looking after an irrepressible Spaniel puppy with diarrhoea.
Special thanks also to my friend Chris for going above and beyond what any friend should have to do.
And of course, my amazing friends and colleagues at work, who gave me such support, help and occassionally, socks. Love you all.