Thursday, 24 April 2014

When I last saw you, you were dead

I keep meaning to write about blood. But I'm not sure what I want to say. Or how.

Blood. Or 'blôd', to give the word its original English pronunciation. 'Blood, blood, everywhere, nor any drop to drink', to paraphrase Coleridge. Except that I do know what blood tastes like; I know all too well.

Picture the scene. Early evening in May, young children safely tucked up in bed, sitting watching Mastermind or similar while digesting the evening meal. A curious urge to vomit. Could it be the revenge of the spicy curry? A sudden dash to the downstairs bathroom [actually, just a plain loo, but I have always felt uncomfortable with the unsophisticated terms 'loo' and the bluntly utilitarian 'toilet']. Standing by an open sink, glancing into the mirror at a pale face, wondering whether fingers would be needed to trigger an increasingly essential propulsion of food, when events swiftly overtake me, and a powerful spasm heralds a forceful gush of dark, scarlet fluid into the basin; and not just a short burst of liquid as one normally experiences during a typical throwing-up, but an unrelenting torrent of the red stuff, like rainwater pouring from a gargoyle on a church roof during a raging storm. Soon the sink was full because huge clots of dark red jellylike matter now blocked the plughole. As I sank to my knees, I was handed a washing-up bowl, and quickly filled that too. As my family began to dash about I closed down internally, deliberately blocking-out the external world so that I could cope with the weirdest of sensations, fearful of the adrenalin surges that would soon make me bleed completely out. I slowed my breathing down to the maximum degree of controlled, laboured sloth, and lay back with the bowl on my lap, while the creamy crimson blood sloshed around with the glossy grace of liquid mercury. My clothes were soaked in blood; the floor was thick with blood; my mouth was full of blood.

What does blood taste like? It tastes of death.

For those who witnessed this event, I should imagine that it resembled the scene from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, where blood begins to cascade from the doors of the elevator, engulfing the floor in a tidal wave of thick, surging, haemoglinting foam. I was later given a 'Get Well' card from a friend's daughter who had seen me lying there in that pool of blood, and it simply said "When I last saw you, you were dead, but now you are alive".

"You should call people in to say goodbye," I later overheard someone tell my former wife, as I lay shivering on a hospital trolley, the wheels clanging up and down on the floor as powerful, uncontrollable tremors swept through my bloodless body. It must be bloodless, I reasoned; the evidence was all around.

Passing out as I was rushed into theatre, licking my thirsty lips but tasting only blood, the last thing I remember was the surreal sensation that I was floating on my back, feet first, through a dark, silent void, towards a blinding, shimmering light.

Waking later the next day, blood pressure 80/30, too weak to raise my head, dirty bloodstained clothes, utterly fatigued. A succession of blood plasma infusions and vitamin K injections. Nurses whispering like in the dream sequence from Rosemary's Baby. 

"You've lost a lot of blood. Your stomach lining burst. We've put in seven gastric bands to stem the bleeding."

Glancing up at the drips, vaguely alarmed to see blood plasma with an expiry date of that day. Memories of reaching through to the back of supermarket shelves for the freshest possible stock: was blood expiring today good enough?

Amusement at seeing a plasma bag labelled "Tested for sickle cell anaemia" because of my late father. Had he received such an infusion, he might have employed Alf Garnett-style concerns, apropos of one growing-up in the East End of London after the war. Black man's blood felt good though. It might help restore my mojo quicker.

I have never exchanged bodily fluids with a man but almost certainly I have received blood from several of them. Women too, of course. Technically, I have been intimate with a great many people. My body has welcomed and received their freely-given offering. I can walk down the street and pass complete strangers whose red blood cells and platelets still course through my veins.

My blood is a mongrel hybrid of other peoples' blood. I am no longer pedigree, and hopefully healthier because of it. I have Everyperson's Blood.

I'm not sure how much blood I lost that day but I have a pretty good idea because I saw most of it and tasted the greater part. It is a sight and taste that I will never forget, and the reason why I disfavour rare steak. The internet throws up lots of figures and statistics - the so-called 'Tennis score' guideline being a particular apposite one, which suggests that 40% blood loss effectively means 'game over' - but I am pretty sure that I lost at least five pints of blood. In fact, I am pretty sure that I should be dead. I didn't quite see God but I certainly glimpsed the mystic portal.

Pneumonia, MRSA, blood poisoning, norovirus and a liver transplant were a breeze in comparison. Psychologically-speaking, of course. In terms of sheer physical pain, few things can beat getting on the wrong side of a sadistic male nurse at Addenbrookes, who ensured that I went eight hours without pain relief just a few days after abdominal surgery. It was like reliving live surgery for several hours, and was agonising, utterly, pitilessly, agonising. But on the positive side, I now have a better insight into Post Traumatic Stress.

People write quite a lot about blood. They sing about it too. Vampires, junkies, lovers, serial killers, everyone seems to have a different take. Blood as a metaphor, blood as a stimulant. Blood infected with disease, blood transmitting disease. Blue blood, scarlet blood, blood spurting like a fountain. The blood of Christ. Blood lines. True blood, royal blood, haemophilia. Pernicious anaemia; that's a good one. It has the right timbre.

I nearly saw blood spurting from my wrist once but that's a longer story, and one that I am a little ashamed to speak of.

They say you are safest to only write from experience. If that is the case, then my advice to writers seeking to describe blood loss is to stick to voyeurism, because without an acutely well-developed sense of empathy, you will never be able to truly understand what it actually feels like to bleed out. Speaking for myself, I prefer to be victim rather than perpetrator for reasons of conscience, but on balance, I would rather not have had the insight.

Bloody ungrateful as that may sound.


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