The A&E doctor poked her head through a beige curtain into the cubicle and announced, "Your blood is infected." She raised her right eyebrow. "Have you boys had an HIV test recently?"
My husband, standing behind me, concerned and weepy, said, "I did. In May."
"Why?" I could barely form words, my brain was mush and every joint in my body was burning, but I was determined, splayed out on a sweaty gurney, to unnecessarily extend this awkward moment.
"I had a rash, Capurro."
HIV testing is the new lobotomy. It's as simple as a prick and results are almost instant. I'd had a negative result in San Francisco in February, on the corner of 18th and Castro, where test participants, along with a diagnosis, received a Cadbury chocolate egg and a video thanks from Hilary Clinton.
But where was Hils when I really needed her? Not in the Respiratory Care Unit (RCU) at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, which is where I was admitted when a chest X-ray revealed pneumonia. My left lung was marbled with opaque white lines, as if it was submerged in David Hockney's swimming pool.
The X-ray technician let me take a look. I stumbled over to her computer. It was 9pm and I'd been passed around, from CT scanning room to blood test room to here. I was bored. Any image, of anything, seemed an idle and pleasurable distraction from the fever raging above my left eye.
Tech lady however was not pleased. "I prefer a black lung traversed with white stripes, which are the ribs. Obviously your lung is contaminated. Maybe your blood too."
"Do I have tuberculosis?"
I looked from her to my damp husband as I said, wryly, "Am I going to die?"
No one laughed. Awkward moment number two.
No TB, but my blood was septic, polluted by the pneumonia. That's why I went from what I thought were flu symptoms to apocalyptic spasms that drove me, finally, along with my husband's pleas, to A&E. My liver was shutting down and that is how people die at home. They self diagnose. Fucking internet.
For four days, in RCU, thick vials of antibiotics were pumped into my left arm three times a day. I was on an IV of saline because my body was very dry. Blood was drawn almost hourly. My arms were pincushions, but without someone ramming metal into my vein, what else was I to do? Royal London is new and shiny - I watched it being built from my kitchen window in Bethnal Green - but it has no TVs in the rooms. Probably for the best, my roomies were likely to have seen Sex in the City (like having seen the entire series thousands of times is any reason to NOT watch white girls hyperventilate) or maybe they weren't fans. Sacrilege, but all three were over 80 and very concerned with just sitting up.
Actually, two of the gentlemen, in their own pyjamas, which to me meant they'd been there a while and they might not be planning to leave, could stand to pee. Bedside, into a sawed off plastic bottle. The pencil moustached guy across from me, with a chubby wife who came for lunch and ate his food, would fill his bottle to the rim, flatulating the entire time. A two-minute trombone fart, unashamedly, as if he was accompanying his urinary symphony.
Codeine can kill pain but it can't make me deaf. I found myself, between injections, spending hours next door in the visitor's lounge, staring out the window at the Gherkin and wanting to jump. I'd had to cancel my entire Edinburgh Fringe run, a show partially about my mother's lung disease, because I couldn't talk without coughing. Irony is a cruel mistress.
I was also exhausted and weak and angry because recuperating is so fucking uneventful, and visiting hours in RCU didn't begin until 3 pm. There's lots to do. Farting, obviously, as well as feeding, consulting with doctors and bathing.
The nurses drew the curtains to scrub these guys down, and a tiny, gnarled Pakistani to my left had become twisted up in his own catheter. The nurse struggled, through interpreters, to explain to him why she was touching his willy. She slapped away his protesting hand, again and again. Nurses should run the U.N.
My husband finally arrived, with fresh pants, and I told him about the black methadone addict who'd run through the ward naked, wheezing and begging for drugs. The guy was crying and hysterical but well versed in medication and put up a good verbal fight.
The old hippie caught smoking in the toilet was less convincing. "Where can I smoke then?"
"Nowhere!" The nurse shrieked. "This is a hospital, and these people cannot breath!"
"Well no one told me."
On day four of my stay a posh hyphenated specialist swooped in, perched nearby and named my bacteria. It sounded Greek. They just cannot get a break. Then as he listened to my lung, he casually let slip that my HIV test was negative.
"One less thing to worry about," I chuckled/coughed, as his consulting physicians scribbled notes. Awkward moments come in threes apparently.
Mr. Posh said, "Your lungs are still burbling, but you can leave as long as you finish your meds and rest." I would've promised him my nephew (who's in prison, hence available) if he'd let me outta there. The care was great; there was even a tea and coffee cart rolled through our ward twice a day. I wanted to write the History Channel and inform them that the war was not Britain's finest hour - obviously it's the NHS. They save lives for free. No I.D. required. Were I in the states, this sort of care would've cost me and estimated $40,000, which is four times my savings. I'd have been discharged a homeless gay in debt. And one Lance Bass is more than enough.
But a hospital is like a Fringe musical. It's something to escape from. Once home, I felt much less toxic, more human and, staring at myself in my bedroom mirror, realized how skinny I'd become. Silver lining.