Carpe Diem: seiz(ur)e the day

Riki Scanlan took part in a research trial, then they were rushed to hospital

The last thing I remember is the number six. Seconds later, my body convulses for two minutes in the disguise of a seizure. My blood pressure is so low that if I stand, I will faint again; my heart rate is at 35bpm. I have no idea where I am.

What happened is now obscured in a haze, as if struggling to remember a nightmare. I was participating in a clinical trial for a new drug (details withheld to preserve the anonymity of the researchers). To be clear: the emergency ward doctors and the neuropsychologist all saw no correlation between the trial drug and my episode, which turned out to be a “vasovagal syncope”.

In layman’s terms, my heart rate and blood pressure dropped suddenly because of a combination of underlying stress and a centimetre-deep abdominal injection, which caused me to faint. This is not the first time this has happened: when I was eight, I was straining on the toilet, fainted and, when I came to, threw up in the toilet.

Vasovagal syncopes are relatively common, and are a known cause of fainting in people prone to needle-phobia. The complex relationship between psychology and physiology means they manifest differently from person to person. For the most part, they are benign.

Not knowing that is terrifying. I am wrapped in blankets, rapidly breathing, with my voice threatening a low moan every second I am alone. I can barely crunch down on a Tim Tam. I shiver. Organised conscious thought? Impossible – only a jittery feeling rocketing towards the thought how long do I have to live? Am I okay with falling into incomprehensible eternal darkness?

The ambulance is called. I collect myself a little, enough to joke with the nurses staffing the Royal Prince Alfred emergency ward. I smile at the older and frailer patients. The paramedics slot me next to a woman who is in and out of hospital for threatened heart attacks. My left arm is hooked up with a large-gauge needle, which itches incessantly.

They say hospital is boring. It took six hours to receive a blood test and CT scan. But hospital does not only bore you, it makes you ignorant. No matter how good the bedside manner of the doctors and nurses, it remains deeply alienating. Medical professionals whisk in, insert stuff, test stuff, say stuff, and leave. You never know when the next one will arrive until they do. Three radiology assistants appear, wheel me to the CT scanner, and irradiate my brain. I squeeze my eyes shut and confusedly think I can see the X-rays.

I am reminded of what Horkheimer and Adorno say about hospitals. They provide such great benefit yet contain such great horror. The hospital, more and more in the form of big business, presses life itself to its service. The funding is low, the staff overworked, the patients bored, ignorant, and frustrated. Efficiency, the politician alleges on talkback radio, is maximised.