“Are you ready Luce?” Mat mirrors my nurse.
I nod at them both, excited but nervous to be leaving the familiarity of the gun and knife club. A syringe of clear liquid is connected to a tube at my wrist and a familiar intense, metallic flavour floods the back of my throat. I feel the rush of warmth through my neck, down my limbs and into my fingers and toes, thawing the pain as it travels.
Administering a constant drip of birthday Skittles into my mouth, I soak up the colours, the light breeze on my face, and the chattering voices as I float through the corridors of the hospital, scanning each pattern on the ceiling with captivated interest.
In one seamless magic trick, two smiling men transfer me from the wheels of my gurney and into the ambulance. Snap. The wheels fold up underneath me as I lay – like a china set after the tablecloth has been dramatically whipped from beneath it – completely undisturbed.
“Don’t worry, it’s surprisingly comfortable,” Mum fibs as she settles herself into an awkward squat on a tiny wooden seat beside me. We wave to Mat through the back window of the ambulance as the world gets further and further away, the heating air of inland California my only indication we are headed away from San Francisco.
I stare at the people driving to their places with the ambivalence of watching a videogame, completely disconnected from this buzzing world. Everyone with somewhere to be, something to do.
Shifting my attention to the inside of the ambulance I try to make sense of the machines, wires and tanks that surround us through drug filled veins.
“Ooo, and what does that one do?”
The dentally-challenged man at my bedside moves his focus from a dial to a clipboard and takes a hurried note before looking up.
“That one is in case your heart decides to stop,” he winks at mum.
“Oooo”, I say, eyes wide, mouth open.
I shovel in another fist of birthday skittles.
An hour later, I am snapped back onto my wheels and pushed through the ghostly corridors of Kaiser Vacaville. My nostrils fill with an aromatic blend of antiseptic and stale urine. The lights have an antique orange hue and the air is warm, and muted. It reminds me of my Great Nan’s nursing home, a million miles from the chaotic womb I have left behind.
Scanning the rooms next to the nurses’ station I notice a pink poster of a young girl with a fist full of balloons on one of the doors, with ‘Happy Birthday Lucy’, written in big black letters underneath.
I am wheeled passed the poster on the door and into a sparse, bleached room. A nurse joins us, her hair drawn back into a stern bun at the nape of her neck.
“Happy Birthday Lucy,” she smiles at me.
Having followed in Chase (our car) behind the ambulance, Mat appears at the door as I am transferred back into my bed. He has to work early in the morning so it is decided that he will sleep in his own bed tonight, instead of on the floor next to me as he has been for the past two weeks. I muster a “good idea” and a nervous smile.
My lower back ignites suddenly, burning with an intensity that screams for morphine. Everything goes black.
Dozing in and out for the next few hours I try to escape the pain, waking at regular intervals, alone and anxious. I stare at the ceiling, suspiciously scanning the unfamiliar dark shapes around the room.
“Help me” – a cracking and desperate voice pierces the night from the room next door – “Somebody, please… Help me”.
I don’t know what to do. Should I call the nurses? Surely they can hear it too? But they don’t seem to come as often here. I press my call button and wait for what feels like hours.
I become desperate for more drugs to lessen the burning pain in my back, and to stem the stream of sweat dripping into my neck brace.
I press my call button again. And wait.
I imagine what it must be like for people in understaffed nursing homes, or those suffering in countries with poor healthcare. They must spend most of their time feeling like this. Alone and desperate. It makes me realise how lucky I have been with the incredible care I’ve been given, it makes me feel spoilt and guilt-ridden, it makes me want to do better, want to be better, but most of all, it makes me cry.
Thoughts spill from my head like fractured sentences.
I try to block it all out, and wait in darkness for the sun to rise.