Operation Covid: Emergency surgery during a pandemic

Written by Jordi Hooper, 23.

Doubled over on the floor, trying desperately to muffle my screams so the neighbours wouldn’t call the police, praying for it to end; there aren’t a lot of fun things to do on a Saturday night during a pandemic, and this certainly wasn’t one of them.

No, I hadn’t been assaulted; this was sadly a regular occurrence in my life over the past ten months or so, since I had developed gallstones. Prior to suffering with them myself, I had naively thought gallstones were the result of a fatty diet, happening only to those overweight, with no real appreciation for the havoc they could wreak on your life. Instead, I had ironically developed this condition as a result of losing five stone in weight and eating a low-fat diet, and now found even the most unlikely of foods had me writhing in pain. Unless you have experienced it yourself, it is hard to describe the true intensity of the pain these pesky calcium deposits can cause. Strong pain relief and a very careful diet can take the edge off, but removing the gallbladder altogether is the only true remedy, a procedure I was on the ever-growing waiting list for.

As Brits, we are incredibly lucky to have one constant; our wonderful National Health Service

Ordinarily, an attack of this level would have had me in the local A&E department as I had been several times before; checked for complications, pumped full of morphine and sent home. There was one big difference this time, though – Covid. I know, I know, they’ve said it many times on the news – if you have a medical problem, please still access the NHS. It’s not quite as easy as that in practice, though. As Brits, we are incredibly lucky to have one constant; our wonderful National Health Service. Come what may, it is there for us; the Accident and Emergency department with its doors open 24/7 should we become acutely unwell, GP surgeries and walk-in centres available to rectify our ailments and a constant helpline in the form of 111 should we need it.

Like many things though, Covid has changed the way our NHS operates; it’s had to, in order to survive the pandemic. This fear of the unknown, worry about contracting the virus and reluctance to put more pressure on already strained services has led to me dealing with my ever-worsening attacks at home over the past three months. I soon learned how wrong I was, though – just because the NHS has had to make some changes does not mean it isn’t there for us when we need it; like many businesses, it has simply evolved to meet the new demands of the current climate.

The pain subsided eventually, as it always does. This time though, it didn’t go away completely – I was constantly nauseous, and every mouthful of food triggered more pain. Several calls early in the week to my GP and consultant’s secretary confirmed what I already knew; the only thing that could be done to help me was to remove the gallbladder but, due to Covid-19, ‘elective’ surgeries such as this were still postponed in my area. By Friday, things were dire. I hadn’t eaten for days, had spent my time lying listlessly on the sofa and we were beginning to suspect that my slightly yellow skin was a result of something more sinister than a suntan.

Before I knew what was happening, I was being admitted to hospital in the middle of a pandemic

I knew I needed help, pandemic or not. I called 111 and after a somewhat long-winded process where I was referred to one of their on-call doctors and then back to my own GP practice, I was packing an overnight bag and on my way to the hospital. It all happened very quickly. I was apprehensive, unsure of what I would find in a hospital during Covid, but so grateful there might be an end to this nightmare.

Within a few hours I’d had pain relief, fluids, blood tests and had an ultrasound. My gallbladder was infected and inflamed, a condition called Cholecystitis – and the thickening of the walls around the organ suggested this was not the first time. After repeated attacks and infections, it had stopped functioning entirely. More worryingly, my liver function was also deranged, working so hard to supplement the failing organ. There was no choice anymore – the gallbladder had to come out. Before I knew what was happening, I was being admitted to hospital in the middle of a pandemic.

Considering just a week before I had favoured screaming on the floor over taking myself to A&E, this was a big jump. I needn’t have been worried; at every stage of my admission, I felt safer in the hospital than I do in the local supermarket. On multiple occasions, staff commented how this was the safest place to be. Hospitals are unfortunately familiar territory to me; this time though, the experience was very different.

When I arrived, I was asked to stand at the red line outside of the hospital, while staff adorned themselves with full PPE. I was given a mask myself, which had to be worn in all shared spaces. My temperature and symptoms were checked before I was allowed entry. When the decision was taken to admit me to a ward, I was tested for Covid – not an experience I’d like to repeat in a hurry! – and taken to what is usually the private, non-NHS part of the hospital. This was being temporarily used as kind of purgatory for new admissions, while they waited for the results of the swab. We were in self-contained rooms with our own bathrooms; when we rang our buzzers, the nurses popped their heads in to see what we needed and then later returned in full PPE if assistance was required.

The staff took it all in their stride, providing the very best care

My swab came back negative around 24 hours after my admission and I was moved to a Covid safe ward – although there were still many infection control measures, such as screens between beds and gown changing between patients. When they operated on Sunday morning, instead of being anaesthetised in a side room, I was taken directly into the operating theatre and put to sleep on the table.

After four days in hospital and a successful operation, I am home. Between Netflix binging and enjoying being able to eat cheese again, I have a lot of time to reflect on my experience. I am struck by the resilience of the NHS. The staff took it all in their stride, providing the very best care. They were aware of the pandemic, of course; they’ve seen it first-hand. But that didn’t stop them from caring for other patients. Bar one comment from a nurse who clearly hadn’t read my notes about gallstones ‘not being clinically urgent’, I was never made to feel like I was a drain on resources; in fact, many asked why I hadn’t come in sooner.

It seemed to be the view amongst staff that yes, Coronavirus is dangerous – but people failing to seek help for serious health issues is too. My reluctance to seek help when I so clearly needed it could have resulted in paying the ultimate price. Clearly, with so many things closed due to Covid, the NHS is not one of them - it remains open for us all.

This contribution was written by Jordi Hooper, 23. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.