Written by Juliette Burton

Health

Operation game

Juliette Burton has a lump that’s growing on her head and it needs removing. To say she’s shit-scared is an understatement.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Osteoma: satisfying to say and uses up a lot of vowels in Scrabble. Also a word that meant nothing to me until earlier this year.

I noticed the lump on my head a few years ago: hard and bony, on the left, about an inch above my ear. I thought nothing of it – perhaps it had always been there and I’d just ignored it. I wanted to continue to just ignore it. But then fashion stepped in and got me thinking.

Hairbands seemed to not push back as far as they used to, because this thing kept getting in the way. When the occasional glimpse of sun lightened my life, I couldn’t rest my sunglasses on my head like the cool dudette that I aim – and fail – to be; the lump had grown so big that they’d slide off the back of my head.

My accessories were suffering so I went to the doctor. I was sent for a CT scan. It wasn’t my imagination; the lump was, is, growing.

The GP said the word ‘tumour’, but that can mean so many things. (Pop that fuel into any search engine and you rocket way beyond comfort on the anxiety meter.)

“This lump was an ingenious way to get men to stop staring at my tits! I wanted people to notice what I had going on upstairs so badly that my head spontaneously blossomed its very own BRAIN BOOB. Maybe.”

This lump, I told myself, isn’t a threat, but something weird and exciting! It was the mound where the aliens had implanted the chip they used to monitor me. It was the miniature bulbous egg from which I was going to hatch my newborn child; my body had found a new way to procreate. My head was pregnant because I thought about cute babies too much.

Maybe it was where all my mental health problems lived. All my conditions – anxiety, eating disorders, depression, hallucinations – had collected and formed an ill little mound. When it got lopped off all that would miraculously disappear. I’d just be me without all that. (But who would I be then?)

One of my friends told me about a girl who had a lump on her head. She too had experience of hallucinations and hearing voices. She was operated on and all that stopped. Maybe getting this unwelcome bulge cut off could be the beginning of a new phase of my life. I think of other unwelcome bulges.

Got it! This lump was an ingenious way to get men to stop staring at my tits! That’s it! I wanted people to notice what I had going on upstairs so badly that my head spontaneously blossomed its very own BRAIN BOOB. Maybe. I couldn’t be sure.

But I sure was scared.

After months of waiting and highly scientific theorising, I get an appointment at the hospital. I head with my friend to the neurosurgery ward. The kindly, tired-looking neurosurgeon tells me the bony growth is an osteoma. It must come off because it is growing. He’s almost totally certain it’s benign. He’s almost TOTALLY CERTAIN it’s benign! ALMOST totally certain it’s benign. I repeat to myself throughout the months as I wait for a date for the operation. Benign. Totally. Certain. Almost.

April passes; May comes and goes; summer is swallowed by the Edinburgh Fringe; autumnal colours seep in as I turn another year older. Pumpkins pop up in shop windows and I get a phone call late one Friday afternoon. Can I come in on Sunday night for the operation on Monday at 7am?

“Soon my own flimsy little flesh puppet body will be unconscious on a table while surgeons slice into my skull. If the worst happened, what would I leave behind? Have I been the person I wanted to be?”

The night before my operation I spend an hour looking at images online of ‘skull osteoma removal surgery’. It doesn’t really calm me. I’m overthinking everything. Should I shower before heading to the hospital hostel where I’ll stay? Should I wake up super-early to shower immediately before surgery? Damn you cleanliness obsession distracting me from really feeling the anxiety coursing through my veins. Damn you and thank you. I don’t think I could do this without you.

At around midnight, I walk into the hospital and try to locate the correct ward to get the key to the hostel. There are a surprising number of people sitting around drinking coffee. I wonder whether they are waiting for a baby to be born, for news of a loved one or if they have nowhere else to go. Beginnings, endings, the in between. All roads lead to the hospital.

Treading softly past beds surrounded by bleeping machinery and dull flashing lights, my heart goes out to every person I pass. Groans echo as tired nurses stand to attention, waiting to be needed. My mum used to be a nurse. She devoted her life to people in need; people like these; real people with hopes and dreams and fears, and their own stories that led them here; people who, perhaps, may never leave.

Any trip to a hospital will, at least for me, prompt musings on mortality. Soon my own flimsy little flesh puppet body will be unconscious on a table while surgeons slice into my skull. My meandering thoughts press down hard. If the worst happened, what would I leave behind? Have I been the person I wanted to be? What of me would live on beyond this?

The next morning at Oh-My-God-What-Time-Is-This-Why-Am-I-Nil-By-Mouth-I’m-Not-Human-Without-Coffee o’clock, I’m led to the ward, asked to dress in the fetching hospital gown, and my bloods are taken, I’m helped into the sexy little knee-high compression socks and the surgeon draws on my face – not for fun, but to show his team where to make the incision. He explains they’ll cut the growth off, then dissolve it to check it’s definitely benign.

We wait. The word ‘almost’ stuck on loop in my mind.

My friend goes to get breakfast and coffee. I’m very thirsty. He brings me a crossword to do while we wait.

And wait.

We finish the crossword. I’m still thirsty. My friend sleeps. I listen to the conversations around me.

The lady in the bed next to me, perhaps in her 60s, is doing the same crossword with her friend as we’ve just done. I want to help them with a clue but the partition is up and I don’t know her. I want to pull back the curtain, tear down the barriers of social etiquette, bond with her over the solution to ‘three down’ and the fact we’re both being cut open today. But I don’t. Because etiquette. Because society. Because curtains.

“I’m NOT the emergency case on the operating table. I’m not the woman who will have to struggle again to find help to look after a husband with Alzheimer’s; I’m not the woman alone, relying on a lift to return here all the way from Norfolk.”

As my friend snores in the seat next to me I hear crossword lady tell her friend how hard it was to find help to look after her husband today who has Alzheimer’s. The lady opposite, maybe in her 70s, is on her own. She has come all the way from Norfolk and had to get a lift. She’s now alone here while her lift goes off on errands.

She waits. They wait. We wait.

The lack of sleep, the lack of a shower, the nil-by-mouth, the fact my friend needs to leave soon to head to work is all crowding in on me. More than anything I don’t want to be alone when I go into theatre or when I wake up. I know it seems silly and sentimental, but I want to make sure I say something nice to someone I love before being sliced open. Just in case. I am aware that is massively melodramatic. But I’m also aware that our time is short. So, just in case.

A nurse comes to my bed with a look of pained apology. She explains my operation won’t be going ahead today. There’s been an emergency that has taken the surgeons to theatre.

Gratitude overwhelms me. I hurriedly put my clothes back on, lament not being able to take the sexy compression socks home, rejoice that in a matter of minutes I can finally drink something and thank every nurse for their kindness, patience and time. I see my mother in their eyes and hope people thanked her.

As I walk past the ward reception Ms Norfolk and Crossword Lady are both grumbling at the staff.

My heart feels like it’s bursting with thanks.

I’m NOT the emergency case on the operating table. I’m not the woman who will have to struggle again to find help to look after a husband with Alzheimer’s; I’m not the woman alone, relying on a lift to return here all the way from Norfolk.

I’m not the poor, underfunded, under-appreciated NHS nurses getting an earful from understandably frustrated patients. I’m not the overworked surgeons who have to slice open humans every day, seen as wealthy gods by some but in reality working ridiculous hours to pay off ridiculous debts. I’m not the patients who aren’t leaving hospital today. There are a lot of things I am not. The one thing I want to be is grateful.

I read in the national news about the pressure put upon underpaid junior doctors and a comment piece about one doctor who is giving up her job. She has huge debts and a huge dissonance between the perception of the job and what it’s actually like. Long hours and lack of thanks all corroborate to mean she wants to give up her vocation.

I have a new date for my operation: 23 November. Today. Whatever happens, I’ll be grateful.

www.julietteburton.co.uk
@JulietteBurton

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Written by Juliette Burton

Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.