peaches for nelson

Len is panicking. He pants rather than breathes, and says oh on the outbreath. ‘I can’t….I can’t…’
‘Don’t let your breathing get ahead of you, Len. Remember what we said? You’re doing really well. You just need to slow it all down. In through the nose – and hold it a sec – then out through the mouth. That’s it.’
‘I can’t.. I can’t…’
‘Yes you can, Len. You’ve done it before. I know it’s hard but ultimately you’re the one in control. Just slow it down a touch if you can. It’ll make changing the bags so much easier.’
Len had a major bowel resection three years ago through cancer. He has two stomas – a urostomy and a colostomy. Today he needs to change the bags and stick new bases on for both. I’ve helped him shower and dry himself off. Now I do what I can to make the fiddly bag-changing process as easy as possible. I position the waste bin so he doesn’t have to reach for it, pass him the spray, the wipes, each new piece of rubber fixing, unpeeling the adhesive strips and so on.
It’s difficult to watch. It feels as if any moment he’ll just give up, rip the bags off his abdomen and throw himself headlong into the bath.
‘Almost done, Len. You’re doing brilliantly.’
And finally he is done.
I help him get dressed and lead him into the sitting room.
‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance,’ he says, collapsing into an armchair.
‘You’re not a nuisance, Len. It’s a pleasure helping you out.’
‘I know you’ve got better things to be doing. But listen. If you get into trouble for being here longer than you were supposed to be, just send them my way. I’ll put them straight. I’ll tell them what you’ve done for me here.’
‘That’s very kind of you, Len.’
‘I mean it. Just send them my way.’
‘I’ll just finish the paperwork then I’ll get out of your hair.’
Len has been getting by reasonably well for the last year or so, but just lately he seems to have dropped off a coping cliff. He’ll need a new assessment of his care needs, and re-evaluation by the stoma and palliative teams.
‘The anxiety thing’s very common,’ I tell him. ‘You’d be surprised who gets panic attacks. I used to be  in the ambulance service and we came across a lot. All walks of life. I went to a police marksman once.’
‘He wasn’t shooting at the time, though. He was having a rough time at home and it sort of crept up on him. He thought he was having a heart attack.’
‘I know how he feels.’
‘But the good news is it responds to treatment really well. Once you know what’s going on and sort your breathing out, all those horrible symptoms go away.’
‘You hope.’
‘And then if it keeps on happening, there are always things your doctor could prescribe to help relax you a bit.’
‘Right. Thank you.’
I look round the room. Pictures of warships on an opposite wall.
‘Were you in the Navy, Len?’
‘Twenty-five years. I worked the ferries after that. Till I retired, like.’
‘I tell you what. That’s something I could never have done.’
‘What? The ferries?’
‘The Navy. Probably the ferries too. I get sea-sick.’
‘Oh dear!’
‘I went out with a friend on his boat once. Five miles out, he anchors up and the boat starts bobbing from side to side and that was it. I wanted to jump overboard and swim back.’
‘You didn’t, did you?’
‘I wanted to. And when we did get back, I swore I’d never go to sea again.’
‘You know what the cure for seasickness is, don’t you?’
‘A bacon sandwich.’
‘Yep. Tinned peaches. In syrup. Works every time.’
‘Mind you, they say Nelson used to get seasick.’
‘Nelson. You know…’ I crook-up one arm and put one hand over my eye.
‘Kiss me, Hardy.’
‘Oh. Him.’
‘Yep. Apparently he used to get seasick.’
‘Did he?’
He thinks about it for a minute.
‘Well he wouldn’t if he’d have had some tinned peaches,’ he says.

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