On Life Lines

I remember the day I first started Chemotherapy. Thankfully not like it was yesterday, but I remember it all the same.

It all started with possibly the most painful part of my diagnosis up until that point.

I had to get a Hickman Line fitted.

For those of you who aren’t up to date with your high dose intravenous chemotherapy standards, a Hickman line is a delightful plastic tube with a number of lines coming out the end (mines had two) that goes straight into one of the main veins of your heart. This is because the Chemotherapy is so toxic it can damage veins and tissue, so putting it into a large, strong vein like the jugular vein, and into the vena cava (which has a little less to do with sparkling wine than I would like) is safer for a lot of reasons. Mainly to stop you getting stuck with needles all the time, which can introduce foreign bacteria to the body; dangerous if your immune system has decided it’s not playing any more. It’s also just pretty irritating to get stuck with cannulae regularly, and you’d be surprised how easily a vein can break down, even if you’re a relatively fit 27 year old.

Image courtesy of MacMillan

I remember a nurse coming in to explain the procedure to me, only to be interrupted by my Consultant, as he was imparting some more devastating news to me. He seemed to believe that if he hit me with enough bad news in a short space of time I’d eventually become numb to it. He wasn’t far wrong. It says quite a lot for his plan that I can’t even remember exactly what piece of terrible news we got that day. All I know was that the nurse never got to fully explain the procedure to me. And that’s probably just as well.

Before I knew it I was shivering in a cold hospital corridor, picking at my delightful gown waiting on being admitted to the X-Ray theatre, so they could watch the line as it snaked around my veins to make sure they got it in the right place, and they didn’t start delivering chemotherapy into my lungs, or something equally strange.

The anaesthetic was just as painful as it usually was, but it was bearable. “After everything I’ve been through in the last few days,” I told myself “a couple of injections in my chest is nothing. Nothing at all. “ I even managed to stay calm when the nurse asked me if I wanted to listen to some Doris Day while I got my procedure. I chose Fleetwood Mac instead.

Then the cutting and pulling started, and I couldn’t really feel it. It was more just uncomfortable as the doctor pulled my man-boob around like it was a particularly juicy bit of brisket. I think I was still calm right up until the bit where they cut into the nice, full vein on the side of my neck and I felt the spurt of blood arc over my shoulder like a macabre bra and pool in around my hair. It lasted for probably about two seconds, but I can still feel it to this day. I didn’t know it was normal. I wasn’t expecting it. I panicked, brayed like a demonic horse and my blood pressure dropped all at once.

Then, in what was either an incredibly touching moment of human kindness, or a very thoughtful piece of hospital theatre convention I felt a gloved nurses hand curl into mines and the owner of the hand asking me very reassuringly to take some deep breaths, because it looked like I was going to faint. This calming influence could not have come at a better time, because the strangest feeling I have ever had in my life happened after that. I felt the end of the now accursed Hickman Line moving around in my veins and I freaked out.

I don’t mean that I started writhing around on the table like a demon straight from the bowels of hell, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to. I probably would have if I wasn’t so acutely aware that there was still a hole in my neck where a particularly well moisturised patch of skin used to be. I wanted to escape, but instead I kept a grip on my sanity, took some deep breaths, and before I knew it the doctor was stitching me back up and telling me I was all done. I sat up on the side of the operating table and collected myself and before I knew what was happening I was walking back to ward with two shiny new plastic tubes swinging from above my right nipple that my dad would eventually start affectionately referring to as my Predator Dreads.

An accurate representation of how I looked during chemo

Later that night, feeling like I had been punched squarely in the chest by Buffy I looked down at my new appendage and was struck by how handy it actually was. I could now sit and write, type and draw without worrying that the movement in my hand was going to stop one of the veins letting what ever magic potion I was getting in.

In time, over the months, I became to be incredibly grateful for my Hickman Line. It definitely made transfusions and getting blood taken every day a whole lot easier. I didn’t have to sit through needles getting stuck in my hands and arms all the time. When it eventually had to be removed because I had developed an infection in it (an incredibly common thing to happen, no matter how careful your nurses are) you feel genuinely lost and irritable without it. You soon remember how irritating and at times painful cannulas can be. Over time you even forget how bizarre the entire situation of getting one fitted is. And when it comes round to getting another one fitted for your final round of chemotherapy, you’ll take it all in your stride as you remember just how much it benefited you the last time.



Then, when you go back to your every day life and you’re no longer worried about it coming out in the shower, or someone pulling it out when they hug you, when you can finally sleep through the entire night without having to wake up every time you roll over to move it out the way, you’ll catch sight of the scars you’ve been left with and remember it and how much of a life line it was for you.

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