The broken machine

Things were going rather well at the Tolworth Recreation 5-a-side match and I fancied my chances of turning my man with a swivel of the ol’ snake hips. Then bam! He kicked me. I heard a loud crack, felt the impact and turned angrily. I could tell from the absence of contrition on his face that something was wrong. He had not kicked me, he wasn’t close enough. In any case, my brain was telling me to stand still because the particular type of pain travelling along my synapses has been reserved from primordial times to let us humans know when it is time to lie down and be eaten.

“You okay mate? Do you need to sit this one out?”

Even before I got to casualty and learned that I had a full rupture of my Achilles tendon I knew that I was possibly going to be sitting out the rest of my football days. You know you are not going to be playing competitive sport for a while when your doctor summons his junior to observe your sad carcass, because you present the textbook example in a manner that can only mean that up until then all other ruptured tendons were poor imitations of the real thing.

“You see,” evil one said to the young medic, who nodded and smiled in acknowledgement of his benevolence, “when I twitch the calf like this there is absolutely no movement of the foot. It is completely severed.” I lay face down while junior copied his master and did his own twitching of my calf. While I am pleased to have made a contribution to medicine and the progression of junior’s career, I now know what it feels like for a worm being fed to a clutch of fledgling birds.


Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene describes human beings as survival machines and this is nowhere more obvious than in a hospital. Trying to get to sleep at 02:30 the sounds of broken machines all around me, cogs whirring ineffectively as the gears failed to click, filled the ward. Survival is a tough business and there is a steep gradient between doing well at it and teetering on the edge. The 90 year-old man next to me, who needed his hip screwing back together, suddenly started hollering because his catheter wasn’t working and his bladder was about to burst. In the clanging and bashing that followed as the nurses tried to sort him out, the senile old man in the far corner began to rant about the bad week he’d had at work. Trust me, the last time he worked Queen Victoria was on the throne. All night, beds rolled by as broken ‘machines’ were shuffled between A&E, X-Ray, Orthopaedics and the wards. Somehow it was all made much worse by the fact that it was at night, and at night it becomes patently obvious that human bodies break on a pretty much continuous basis but the repairers are not nocturnal creatures so there is an obvious shortage of them in the wee hours.

As if to prove the point about our nocturnal nature, it seemed that only seconds after being woken at 06:00 to have my blood pressure taken I was woken again at 08:00 by a consultant and a whole gaggle of medics, all of whom were clearly far better qualified than anybody I had met the night before! Apparently all the medical minds that had appraised me until that moment had been misguided. I did not need surgery because I had come to hospital so speedily and the nurse who had placed my leg in a cast had done such an excellent job of manoeuvring my foot into a position where the ends of the tendon could naturally fuse back together.

You’d have thought I would be pleased by this news, and in truth I was. I couldn’t help thinking however that it had been a hugely frustrating waste of time because my leg had been in this very same cast 10 hours previously, nothing more was now going to happen for a week, and don’t ask me how but I had just known that being admitted, filling in three questionnaires that asked the same things, having my blood pressure and temperature taken four times, being swabbed for MRSA and then being hooked up to a saline drip just because I was not supposed to eat or drink while I slept, would turn out to be a waste of time.

I did learn something though. I learned to be grateful that for the time being my survival machine has only sustained slight damage. Of course it is rusty, slow and not as appealing to look at as it once was, but I resolve to take better care of it from now on.


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