I have a friend, Jaime. He is Bolivian, which explains the spelling of his name, but has been living in Oz for a few decades.
I first met him some years ago, and he has been living at my place for the last two years.
He was hard and tough and wiry - just the sort that won't say die - There was courage in his quick impatient tread; And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye, And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
Anyway, about nine or ten months ago he wasn’t feeling too hot, so he went to see the doctor. The doc sent him to hospital for some tests, and when he came home he was a bit quiet; bad tempered too.
Bad tempered wasn’t unusual, but quiet? That’s never been known to happen before. On one occasion (I timed it) he followed me around the house talking, non stop, for an hour and a half before I said anything. It was when he got to the point of telling me the life history of his friends girlfriends cousin I decided that enough was enough.
Eventually he told me, he was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive scaring of his lung tissue, and had less than a year to live.
He was in denial for a while, it wasn’t happening and all would be ok. Then he went through an “all doctors are bastards” phase. They were uncaring SOB’s to a man, and woman, and he was damned if he was going back to them. Didn’t make any difference to his lungs though.
Eventually, acceptance came, although in a pretty abstract way. He wanted to go home to Bolivia to die, but by then his breathing was so bad that no airline would have allowed him on board. He was, nonetheless, determined to die on his own terms. He was not going to go into hospital, he was not going to spend his last days surrounded by cold, hard and indifferent clinicians, alone and with his family thousands of miles away. He even considered, when the end was close, packing his car with flammables and driving over a beachside cliff, going out in a Viking pyre.
Lung transplant? Not on your nelly mate. Again hospital, alone, not going to happen.
Anyway, I live in a second floor apartment, and Jaime’s breathing got so bad he could not negotiate the stairs. By this time he was using an oxygen concentrator at home, and carried an oxygen cylinder, with breathing tubes into his nostrils, when he had to go out. His lungs were operating at about 12% of capacity, and even with the O2 feed he had to stop and rest, exhausted, after a single flight of stairs.
He moved out, and in with another friend in a small single floor bungalow. He kept getting worse, and was making regular trips to the hospital. By this time his scruples had gone by the wayside, and he was being tested for the possibility of a lung transplant. He came down with a respiratory infection, just a mild flue, but that put him into intensive care. When I saw him he was in an isolation room with a personal nurse assigned to him, and I was dressed in a hospital gown, my hair was covered, and I wore a surgical mask. Nonetheless, he was pretty chipper, despite having been told that any infection at all would render him ineligible for transplant.
He wasn’t happy at being ineligible for a transplant, but he had fallen in love with hospital staff, all of them. Rather than finding them cold, hard and indifferent, he hadn’t been shown this much care and affection for a very long time.
At that time I had just met the current love of my life, and she was taking up most of my time, so I didn’t visit him as much as I guess I should, but there you go.
Anyway, once he was out of ICU and back home, they kept him on track for the transplant. He couldn’t drive, although he insisted on doing so regardless, but the transplant unit was in Brisbane, and we were here, on Queensland’s sunny Gold Coast. Problem was, the buggers acted as if he lived around the corner, and could come and go as he pleased. That it was a ninety km drive, and he couldn’t breath, didn’t seem to be a factor. He would be given an an hours appointment with one person, then next day, an appointment with someone else, and so on. As for walking around the hospital? Ten metres was Jaime’s limit, that left him gasping for air. He needed someone to push a wheel chair.
I drove him up on Tuesday, two weeks ago, then I took him up again on Thursday, when he was introduced to the transplant surgeon. Jaime met the surgeon, but, to my surprise, both I and another friend of his were invited into the consultation as well. Then he got the bad news.
Jaime’s most recent blood test had come back positive for nicotine.
It is true, Jaime had been a reasonably heavy smoker, and giving up had been a blow, but on the other hand, his lung capacity was 12%. He simply was incapable of smoking, and had been for months. Imagine, five seconds after finishing a marathon but done at a sprint. You are lying on the grass by the finish line, grasping every oxygen molecule you can get your claws into, but still light up a fag and start puffing. Could you do it?
Regardless, the nicotine was a killer to Jaime’s hopes. He, and I, and his other friend, were vociferous and emphatic that this was a false positive (my term, no one else’s), but very carefully polite. After all, the bloke we were talking to had the power of life and death and no one wanted to piss him off…
So, he agreed to do another test. The results would be back the next Monday, and the decision whether to put Jaime on the transplant list would be taken then. The doc made the point that Jaime was close to being in such a bad state that no operation would be possible. When I asked, we were told it could take months for a compatible lung to become available after he goes on the list. In the meantime, another appointment, with another doctor, for another purpose, would be made for the next day, Friday. Another trip up to Brisbane.
I told Jaime that he needed to prepare a kit of some sort. Stuff he would need in hospital, and to leave it somewhere accessible, so when a lung became available he could just grab it. Turned out, that was a waste of breath, mine and his.
I took him home, but driving through Brisbane peak hour traffic got us back to the Coast after six, the air conditioning in my car was broken – and a Brisbane winter can compare with a London summer, and Jaime was exhausted. When we came through the door he collapsed onto the carpet, not drawing deep breaths, because he couldn’t, but constant short breaths, none of which did him any good. He couldn’t even crawl to the oxygen concentrator. I fetched the line, but that merely reduced his condition from insufferable to unbearable.
I could do nothing. My friend was lying on the carpet, dying by degrees, and I could do nothing.
I had to go, so I left him.
Once I had gone, he crawled to the couch and sat, wishing he could die, right there, right then, and that’s where he fell asleep.
That night, some poor bugger died.
At four in the morning Jaime’s phone rang. He thought to himself, “Who are these cunts? It’s four in the morning and I’m dying, fuck em”, and let the phone ring out.*
At five, the phone rang again, and Jaime thought “What fucking rude cunts these cunts are. It’s five o’clock and they think they can fucking ring me.”. So he answered.*
He gathered what little breath he had, and gave them the abuse he thought they so richly deserved. When he paused the caller asked “Is that Jaime?”. When he said yes, they went on to say, “This is the hospital, we have been trying to call you. We have a lung for you. Come up immediately.”
His flat mate drove him up.
When I rang him later, to say I was leaving to come pick him up, to take him for the appointment, he told me he was at the hospital already, and being prepped for surgery. So, Glory to the Highest, I didn’t have to drive to Brisbane again, that day anyway.
Still, it was a shock. Formally, he wasn’t even on the waiting list yet.
I rang and texted a couple of times during the day, and he went under the knife at 5 pm, due to come out at 11. I drove up early next day, getting there about 5 am on Saturday, and was let in to see him but the dude was still asleep. There were tubes coming out of every orifice, and he was surrounded by enough beeping electronics to support a shuttle launch – and he had his own personal nurse keeping a beady eye on each and every moving squiggle and bouncing dot.
I sat a while, but when the eating hole opened I went and had a hospital breakfast…Yum.
When I got back Jaime was finally awake. Unable to speak – those breathing tubes can be a bugger, but, even then, able to write. Well, scrawl anyway.
I yabbered to him about nothing for a while, then we held hands in silence, then I yabbered a bit more, and so it went. I left at about 1 pm, and the next shift of friends took over shortly after.
Next day, the breathing tube was gone, and for the first time in nearly a year Jaime was able to take a normal breath. It hurt like shit, after all, the previous day his sternum had been sliced lengthwise with a circular saw, his ribs had been spread apart and subject to stresses no self respecting ribcage should ever expect to deal with, and he had been gutted like a fish, but regardless, he could breath.
While I was there, about 28 hours after waking up, the physio got him out of the bed, and with an entourage of five people for support, had him do a circuit of the entire unit, not just the ward.
The tubes were still attached, so the drips and feeds and space shuttle launch gear was dragged along after him.
I filmed his perambulations for posterity, smartphones are just the bees knees.
Last Saturday I picked him up from the Hospital, they let him out on day release, and drove him home. As a treat, we stopped at Yatala Pies, where he had his first decent meal since the surgery. Ok, when I say decent, I guess the nutritionist would argue the point, but you get my meaning, and much as he enjoyed it at the time Jaime was as sick as a dog ten minutes after leaving.
Still, he ate, and breathed, and that was good enough for him.
I regret some poor bugger died to make it possible, but my friend Jaime is alive.
* That thought process is pretty much word for word as relayed to me later.