In Sickness and in Health: My alphabet of medical care, from comas to hacks

Last year, Rebecca’s husband Nick was hit by a car and seriously injured. Here, in one of a series of columns, she writes about the aftermath of his accident

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The Independent Online

Here’s part two of my post-accident A-Z, the words and phrases that entered my life as Nick nearly exited from it.

Glasgow coma scale When a loved one has any sort of medical emergency, they and the people who care about them find themselves in a strange new world (be it the intensive-care unit, trauma ward or the cheerily painted, optimistically named and utterly dread-inducing children’s ward). In these places, the rules and established knowledge are very different from life outside. The staff look at the world in a different way, through the prism of their specialism, and the key texts that are so much a part of their professional lives are alien works for us civilians. For me, the Glasgow coma scale (GCS) was the surest sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

The GCS is a score sheet that doctors use to assess how severe a coma is. Can a patient open their eyes spontaneously? Can they do it to respond to speech? Do they open their eyes when they’re in pain? What is their best motor response? Can they respond verbally? The patient is scored out of 15. I can’t remember Nick’s initial score, because the world I found myself in was so strange, and the magic numbers were so frightening.

Heterotopic ossification Speaking of frightening, HO is the stuff of nightmares. It’s the name for bone tissue growing outside of the skeleton. It can occur after traumatic brain injury, or trauma to the body (rather than the brain), and it restricts movement. It also doesn’t go away, and there’s no real treatment for these lumps of mystery bone, although in some cases, they can be surgically removed at a later date. Nick has HO in his knee, hip and elbow. I can’t tell you how much I hate these words.

Inco sheets Another name that I mangled for weeks and weeks. Silly me – Inco stands for incontinence. These disposable sheets have a waterproof backing and an absorbent top layer. They are put underneath patients to catch any unpleasantness. Grey and crinkly, they are deeply unsexy, but are the laundry department’s best friend.

Junior doctors It took me a long time to get my head around the hierarchies in the three hospitals that Nick stayed in. I didn’t realise I could request meetings with his doctors, nor that to catch them on their ward rounds, I had to break the rules and appear outside of visiting hours. So I think I rather alarmed the junior doctor I found, sank my claws into and dragged off to interrogate. Still, he helped with some of my questions and explained a bit about the labyrinthine route to get information out of anyone useful. Sorry about that, Dr Owen.

J is also for journalists. Since I am one, many friends are, too. It’s only when something interesting (well, you know what I mean) happened that I realised how bloody nosy they (we) are. Some of the things that pals and colleagues asked me have alternately made me laugh, or left me speechless. Sex, death, terror: nothing is off limits. Still, I’ve never felt the need to bottle up my feelings, and hey, everything is copy, right?