A&E is a strange place to find yourself at midnight. It’s curiously eerie like the half deserted corridors of an airport when the last flight passengers have filtered through and all you’re left with are cleaners and security attendants looking like they’ve lost the will to live.
I have parked outside the entrance and manage to get a bowl under my son’s chin before he throws up. He’s too heavy for me to carry so I go in search of help and quickly find a nurse who brings a wheelchair and tells me to leave my car where it is. With only one other waiting patient in reception we sail through registration. Another nurse escorts me through some doors and I follow, awkwardly pulling the wheelchair backwards as this is the only direction it seems to work. In the paediatric ward my son slides from the wheelchair and lies on a row of chairs while the nurse takes his blood pressure, his pulse and checks his vision with a tiny duck torch that quacks each time she switches it on.
My son is given a bed and a cardboard basin shaped like a children’s party hat which he is sick into as soon as the nurse leaves. I watch the ribs in his back expand and contract from the effort and wonder that there is anything left to come up; he has been throwing up regularly for the last six hours. He hands me back the bowl, lies down and sleeps. After twenty minutes a doctor appears; tall and young, with an easy bedside manner. He checks my son’s head and neck, asking him if he can remember what happened and I listen again to the details I heard earlier from the school nurse; that something had collided with his head during rugby training, that he’d experienced blurred vision and now has a terrible headache and can’t stop being sick. The doctor wants to give him a cat scan but frightens me with talk of radiation and the risks involved. I once read that the amount of radiation from a cat scan is 500 times that of a conventional X-ray.
He goes off to organise this but returns twenty minutes later to tell me the scan has been put on hold as another doctor wants to see my son. The ward is quiet and dimly lit. Attempts have been made to cheer it up; the bright, primary wall colours, the tall, cylindrical bubble lamp, bird stencils on the ceiling. I listen to the medical staff discuss everything from their patients to their private lives with surprising frankness perhaps forgetting that I am sitting just a few feet away. They seem unhappy with the absent doctor’s decision to delay my son’s scan. After a further forty-five minute wait, he finally appears. Large, hairy and reminiscent of a walrus, he has a brisk manner and ignoring me, asks my son the same questions that everyone else has asked him, checking his neck, his eyes. However, he quickly comes down in favour of the cat scan and, throwing a brisk command to a nearby nurse, disappears through a door that only doctors seem to come through. Incongruously, I picture him rushing back to a hidden snug room kitted out with all the mod cons and a film he is half way through.
There is a baby in a nearby cubicle who, for the last hour and a half has been displaying impressive lung power. I wonder how my son can stand the noise but he appears to sleep through it. An anxious looking couple arrive, clutching a red-faced toddler who is coughing. A new nurse pulls across a curtain, screening them from where I sit but I don’t feel separate. I watch the movement of their bodies disturb the curtain, pushing it towards my sleeping son. There is concern in their voices as their child is examined but it soon becomes clear that the cough is not a serious one. Once this is established their mood quickly changes and they start talking more loudly, laughing and joking without any sensitivity to the other patients around them. They have got what they came for – reassurance – and now they can go home. Enviously I watch them leave.
A glance at my watch tells me it’s 1.30am. I try again to text my husband to let him know what has taken place but there is no signal and I don’t want to leave my son. The nurse with the duck torch returns for another check up. She warns me that he may have to be admitted but that they filled the last available bed an hour ago so we will have to go to Brighton, an hour’s drive away.
The ward gets busy, fretting parents moving in and out like suitcases on a conveyor belt and all of them too loud. My son throws up again, babies all around us crying at punishing decibels. I want to sleep. Instead I keep myself awake by playing a word game on my phone.
Finally, a man the size of a tanker appears with a bed trolley. I walk alongside him as he wheels my son down to radiology. He tells me that while he looks like a Rugby player he hated the sport at school. ‘I was a footballer,’ he confides, ‘not one of them egg chasers. Rugby’s a mug’s game.’
We stop at a pair of swing doors with a large sign above which says CONTROLLED AREA X-RAYS. On either side of the words are the familiar three-bladed symbols that warn you of radiation. As my son is wheeled in to the room, he asks for the bowl and is sick again but I am not allowed to go in with him. I spot, briefly, the huge doughnut-shaped machine near the back of the room and then the closing doors swallow him up. Alone, I sink into a nearby chair and listen to the whooshing sound of the machine as it springs into action, imagining all that electro magnetic energy passing through my son’s small head.
When it is over we return to the paediatric ward and I expect another long wait but in the end the results come quickly and show that the scan is clear. I am hugely relieved. I can take my son home. I thank the nurses for their help and we find our way back to reception. Outside the car remains where I left it and, incredibly, no parking ticket. It is 3:30am. As I drive away, my exhausted son asleep on the back seat, I think about how quickly life can upend us. I think about the relentless path of parents and their sick children passing through the hospital doors, the more fortunate in and out, others destined for a more painful outcome. I think about the hospital bed in Brighton that could so easily have been my son’s. As its turns out we don’t need it. The cat scan and its long term affects niggle at me but there is no damage to his brain. He just has a nasty case of concussion. Given the alternative I’ll happily settle for that.