Wednesday, 16 February 2011 14:25

Day One – Groote Schuur

Written by Samantha Jankovich
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Having been told that my operation was being done on Monday, 29 November, I thought it best to check whether or not I should follow a “nil-per-mouth” regime on the Sunday night. 

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So I contacted the Ward Sister who informed me that I was merely checking in on the Monday and that my surgery was actually scheduled for Tuesday.  I was told to come straight to Ward F17 at 08h00.

My mom and I arrived at the hospital at 7.30am, leaving a good half an hour to traverse the vast maze of corridors and arrived with five minutes to spare.  I thrust my letter at the ward secretary, too exhausted to utter more than a mere “Hello”, only to be informed that I first had to be processed through Admissions at the main entrance.  Dutifully, we entered the labyrinth and headed to Admissions.  I was 15th in the queue.  45 minutes later, we retraced our steps to F17.  On arrival, I was informed that I was to head to C3 for tests but that I was not to worry as there appeared to be sufficient beds and I would be assigned one on my return.

Trudging through the endless corridors, we realised that Groote Schuur is equivalent in size to Luxembourg and at 9.30 we arrived at C3, with Nuclear Medicine emblazoned on the outer door and radioactive signs strategically placed for the illiterate.  Another long wait ensued, during which time I caught up with some friends I had made on previous visits to the Combined Breast Clinic.

I was informed that I would be having a procedure called a Sentinel Node Scan, which involved the injection of a radioactive isotope called Nanocolloid into my tumour.  This isotope would then drain into the sentinel nodes around the tumour site in order to give the doctors an idea of which nodes should be tested for cancer during my surgery.  Of particular concern was that I was asked to sign a consent form which stated, amongst other things, that I was entitled to withdraw from the procedure at any point.  Fabulous idea in theory!!  How on earth do you change your mind once the radioactive material is already in your body?

Needless to say, I consented and was led into a room designed by NASA.  I lay on a large machine which was pushed between two large panels which photographed the progression of the nanocolloid.  I was terribly excited to be part of something so technologically advanced, until my arm got pins and needles and I developed an itch on my head.  Suddenly, the whole space-age thing lost a little of its lustre as I was not allowed to move for almost an hour.

We got slightly lost on the way back to F17 and found ourselves wandering through various wards filled with people in every imaginable stage of illness.  The wards are open and as you stroll through, you are confronted with what could easily be the field hospital set of a war movie – without the guns, obviously.

Strangely, we kept bumping into a man with one arm in a wheelchair.  He seemed cheerful enough, but I was beginning to wonder what he had up his sleeve.

At F17, we were told to wait until a bed became available.  An elderly man next to us appeared to have been there since 1973.  He never complained once about the long wait, but did change his sleeping position several times – a good indication that he was still alive.   He was still there on Wednesday when I was discharged.

At 12.30 I was assigned a bed.  I had a good view of the mountain and highway.  At least it would have been, had the window not been so filthy as to make it unnecessary to draw the curtains.  The ward was lovely and clean and my bedding was crisp.  In fact, the industrial strength plastic used on the pillow and mattress was so hard, it might actually have been made from the chassis of a car.  I don’t think they so much wipe down the pillows and mattresses as much as spray paint them between patients.

Unfortunately, this level of cleanliness does not extend to the bathrooms.  The toilet appears to be used less for ablutions and more as a storage facility for bodily fluids.  At any stage, one will find several containers of urine samples on the shelf or on the side of the basin and for the entire second day that I was there, a syringe with blood was left lying in the basin.  Luckily there was another basin in the ward that could be used for washing ones hands and brushing ones teeth.

Having not eaten anything all day, I made the fatal mistake of asking for some of the lunch which had just been served.  I was a little concerned about the fact that the only eating utensil provided was a large plastic spoon.  That is until I realised it was to prevent patients from stabbing themselves to death when they saw the food.  On the plate was a grey stew, dry white rice and carrots that had not gone willingly to the slaughter and were clinging to the plate for all they were worth.  Not even violent jabbing with the plastic spoon could dislodge them.

The nursing staff, however, were extremely kind and helpful.  Although, thinking back, I realise that the one thing they failed to indicate in their “induction” programme, was the access to the “call” button.  These are hidden strategically behind the bed so that they cannot be reached by anybody in need.  Sneaky, but effective.

I was in a 6 bed ward with 5 delightful women with varying illnesses and we quickly bonded.  There is nothing like a discussion of ailments to get most women animated.  From Crohn’s disease to breast cancer to some weird leg thing that started as an ankle pimple and ended as a giant, red leg (none of us could work that one out), we all had a story to tell.

At 4.30 I was summonsed back to C3 to check the progression of my radioactivity.  It should have been much earlier, but the machine had been broken and the technician had had to be called in.  I’m not accepting responsibility here, but given my history of having to have all my tests done twice due to various problems, I have to wonder.

I arrived back at my ward to find my mom, my stepsister, Lucy (who brought me sushi for dinner – gotta love her!!) and my friend, Karen causing chaos, as usual.  I really do need to start mixing with more refined company!

After they left, I waited anxiously for my sleeping tablets.  They finally arrived in an armoured vehicle accompanied by two AK47-wielding security guards, stowed in a titanium briefcase handcuffed to the nurse’s arm.  After handing over three forms of identification, including a thumb print and a lock of hair for DNA verification, I was handed two little disks of oblivion.  Actually, dispensing only required one witness to the handing over of the tablets, but it certainly felt like a CIA-operation! After signing for my tablets, I took one of my room-mates and we ducked down to the trauma unit for a last cigarette with the security guards.  Back in the ward, I tucked my valuables under my pillow and settled in for a last pain-free sleep.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 13:51
Samantha Jankovich

Samantha Jankovich

After years after living in various cities, both in South Africa and abroad, I finally settled in a small Karoo town with my family, believing I had found my Nirvana.  The first 18 months proved me right, as I threw myself headfirst into small-town living, community upliftment and local politics.  It appeared that my life was perfect.

In the middle of September 2010, I found a small lump in my left breast and everything changed.  Suddenly I found myself confronting my own mortality, the public healthcare system and the reality that for every heaven there is a corresponding hell.

I decided to start writing my blog as a means of keeping my friends and family apprised of the situation, but quickly discovered that it was more than just that.  I have found that sharing my experiences has been my own form of therapy, while also giving others insight into the world of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the downside of living in the middle of nowhere, the bizarre side-effects of chemotherapy and my slightly off-beat family and friends.

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