Third Time Lucky?

The period leading up to the operation took on a wholly surreal quality. I felt as though I was in some sort of weird void where ordinary life had been entirely suspended. I couldn’t stop playing my guitar. That was even stranger, especially as I’m not very good. My singing is even worse. In fact, my neighbours probably hate me by now; I don’t know how pleased I’d be if I had to endure, through a wall, the incessant murdering of Radiohead’s ‘High and Dry’, Green Day’s ‘Time of Your Life’ or The Cure’s ‘Love Song’. Eek!

The week of Abi’s third surgery soon arrived. On the afternoon of April 9th, 2013, Abi, Kara and I arrived at the hospital for Abi’s check-up before her surgery the next morning. I must have looked a little flustered, laden with bags and both children, because a concerned-looking volunteer in a clearly discernible yellow jumper took immediate charge of us and showed us the way up to where Abi had been admitted. The ward was modern, light and airy, which I found reassuring.

We soon got to meet the team who were going to care for Abi. Her surgeon was a kind, gentle man. I don’t think it particularly matters whether I like my the people who operate on my daughter, but the fact that I did helped me come to terms with what lay ahead. Her team of anaesthetists told me about their role. The woman leading that team appeared cold and detached, which I found a little difficult, but I could not doubt her professionalism. I had read that Morphine was not good for cancer patients, and Abi had already had a bad experience with it, so I asked whether, post surgery, Abi could be given an alternative for pain control. She agreed: Fentanyl. Actually, in hindsight, I had no idea whether that was any better for cancer patients than Morphine, but it pleased me that she listened.

We didn’t spend the night in the ward, but rather in a lovely apartment in a rather slick patient hotel directly opposite the hospital. After a restless night, we were soon back on the ward, where I went to see the Ward Sister to let her know that we had arrived. I left Abi playing happily in the playroom. Unfortunately, her playful mood soon changed once a nurse asked her to take off her clothes and put on a surgical apron. She had a massive tantrum: “No!” she shouted, though tears. I recognised the real emotion. Fear. During the four years of her illness, Abi had barely made any sort of fuss. That was the first time I had seen her afraid. Her reaction frightened me too. Perhaps, now she was a little older, Abi was becoming more aware of the enormity of what lay ahead.

At exactly 8.30 a.m., as scheduled, a porter arrived to take Abi down for surgery. I was glad to get it all moving, yet with Abi visibly worried, my nerves were already shot and a long day lay ahead. Abi got even more afraid in the anaesthesia room. She became even more frightened as the nurses started to fuss around her. That was really hard to witness. Nothing Sarah or I said reassured her. I had always been able to find the right words, and it upset me that, on this occasion, I was unable to calm her. But it wasn;t long before the anaesthetists had injected Abi with some white fluid that sent her to sleep. She was then led into surgery, and I was shown outside to begin a very nervous wait.

At the prompting of a couple of friends, the first thing I did was visit the beautiful chapel in the hospital. It is dedicated entirely to children. There were toys everywhere. I wondered about the story behind each of those toys and realised that it was probably fraught. They were a moving testament to the fragility of youth. I don’t believe anything can touch your heart so dearly, or as much, as a child’s fight against serious illness. As I sat there quietly, that thought moved me to tears. Especially as my daughter was one of those children.

Once back up in the main hospital, I found Kara and her two grandmothers, who were looking a little lost. They were trying to locate the chapel, to light a candle for Abi. So I led them back the way I had come and sat down quietly with them for a few moments. I only stayed for a while because I wanted to spend time alone. Especially as I wanted to keep Kara away from my stress. After all, she was more used to seeing a strong, broad-shouldered daddy, not a quivering wreck. So I quickly said a few reassuring words to her, said my farewells to her grandparents, and then went to find somewhere to compose my thoughts.

I filled most of the time waiting for Abi to come out of surgery by sitting in a local coffeehouse, trying not to have a particularly public nervous breakdown. I used their free wireless network to keep friends and relatives informed of the day’s events. It quickly became evident that many people were holding Abi in their thoughts that day. I found that incredibly comforting.

Abi’s surgeon had warned me not to clock watch, but I found that impossible, and by mid-afternoon my nerves were in tatters. I needed reassuring, so I went up to Abi’s ward to ask if they’d heard anything. They hadn’t, but they told me that that was good because they would only hear anything if they needed to make preparations for a medical emergency. That helped somewhat, but I still spent the next couple of hours pacing up and down, waiting nervously for any news. That came at about 5.30 p.m. when I happened to bump into Abi’s surgeon. It was quite a shock to see him because I had imagined he was still operating on my daughter. Yet he was noticeably very pleased, and I sensed his delight at how the operation had gone. How my heart soared! “Surgery went well, Mr. Langston,” he told me. “I think I managed to remove all the tumour,” he said, before sounding a note of caution: “Of course, only an MRI will confirm whether that’s true.” Nevertheless; what fabulous news! “Abi’s been moved into the recovery unit,” he continued. “I’m sure you’ll get to see her soon.” I quickly went and found my mum to pass on what the surgeon had told me. Her nerves were just as frayed as mine. “What fantastic news!” she said, relieved and clearly delighted.

It wasn’t until 8 p.m. that a nurse finally came to take us down to see Abi. After a long and challenging 12 hours, I am simply not poetic enough to describe the joy at seeing my daughter move her legs and arms and hear her stubbornly tell the nurses: “Go away!” Immediately after major surgery, patients as young as Abi are incredibly fragile, so it takes specialist training to make sure that everything runs smoothly. Sure enough, the nurses in the recovery unit were amazing; so professional, very firm, and yet so loving. I found watching them incredibly comforting and the stress of that day began to melt away right there.

Abi was soon moved back upstairs, where, with the help of the fantastic staff on the neurosurgical high dependency unit on the ward, she began her fight back to full health.

Aside from writing, I had spent the day of surgery haranguing the poor woman on the desk of the parent accommodation services. We were only allowed to stay at the patient hotel for the day before surgery, and I had agreed to let Sarah stay by Abi’s bed. Which meant I had nowhere to sleep. Thankfully, my persistence paid off as I was given a small, clean room in the hospital’s emergency accommodation unit, nearby. It really paid off the next day, when an apartment with a kitchen became available at a home close by, run by a charity specialising in providing places for parents who have children in the hospital. That place helped me bring some normality back into Kara’s life because I was able to have her stay with me there. I even managed to prepare us both one or two home-cooked vegetarian meals, which made a particularly pleasant change from the rather hit and miss canteen food at the hospital. The Georgian front room of the house, featuring some beautifully ornate cornice work, was also home to a television, where I even got to watch Match of the Day and witness West Ham snatching a point from Anfield. They usually get a thorough thrashing up there, so that was yet another miracle, to add to that of Abi’s amazing recovery from major surgery.

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