“Ambulance!” I gasped. I didn’t even let him go through the options. I didn’t need any more.
“Ambulance?” he repeated, just to be sure. I nodded, while at the same time grasping the edge of the table to stop from falling over in pain.
“Yes,” I croaked, “Ambulance.”
From then on it was just a matter of gathering my things and then sitting, gasping in pain, as I waited for the train to stop moving and the ambulance to arrive.
It wasn’t how I had expected my day to begin…
I was on The Ghan, one of Australia’s great train journeys, on my way down from Darwin via Alice Springs to Adelaide. It’s a three day trip, and we’d just spent our second night trying to sleep in the incredibly uncomfortable cheap seats. In fact that’s what I thought was up when I awoke that morning. I thought I’d slept funny and got a cramp or twisted a muscle or something.
It was about 6am, and I could feel this sharp stabbing pain in my groin. It wasn’t always there, but every now and then it would just well up and become very uncomfortable indeed.
It kind of made me want to pee too, so I did that, hoping it would alleviate the pain. In fact I did it three times in the next 45 minutes, each time taking a moment to walk up and down a bit, hoping that would help too. But each time neither action brought much relief (or not for long anyway).
Then the pain moved. I started to feel rather uncomfortable in the area of my left kidney; on my lower back, just below the rib cage. Again it just felt like the kind of stiffness you get when you’ve been sitting too long. I tried twisting and moving about, seeing if I could loosen it up, but it didn’t help. And steadily the pain got worse, and worse, and worse. It wasn’t long before I realised I needed some help.
I made my way tentatively to the buffet car, which was just behind the one I was in, where I knew I’d be able to find a member of staff. Thankfully there was someone there, a guy sat chatting to another passenger. I’m afraid I felt the need to interrupt.
“Excuse me,” I managed to croak out, surprised and worried by the pained sound of my own voice, “Is there a doctor on board?” I didn’t really expect there’d be an actual train doctor of course, but I thought maybe one of the passengers would be a doctor or something and might be able to help me. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies.
“Nope. Sorry. No doctor I’m afraid. Why? What’s wrong?”
I told him, being at great pains (no pun intended) to point out just how agonising it had become.
“Well,” he said, “we’ve got a few options. We can get you an ambulance…”
And the rest you know.
It seemed a very long time as I sat there waiting for the train to stop and the ambulance to arrive.
(Actually, I don’t want to forget something. I had to go to my seat and get my stuff. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it would have nice if one of the staff had offered to help me. In the end I had to ask another passenger to get my bags down for me, as there was no way I could have reached up there and get them myself.)
I sat in the buffet car rubbing my back in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pain, trying hard to breathe normally as my abdomen was so constricted I was having trouble catching my breathe. There were tears in my eyes, I felt a little light headed, and part of me really wanted to throw up. It was quite simply one of the most agonising experiences I’ve been through.
Thankfully, by about 7:30am, the ambulance was there.
This time a member of the train crew was kind enough to take my bags out to the ambulance while the two paramedics came in and checked me out. They checked my abdomen, pressing here and there and asking if it hurt. I guess they were looking for internal injury, like a burst appendix (which is what I thought it might be), but no matter what they did the pain remained the same; no better, but no worse.
“On a scale of one to ten, one being ok and ten being the worst, how bad is the pain?”
“I dunno,” I gasped, kind of bemused at the idea of having to rate pain on such an arbitrary scale. “Bad enough to call an ambulance,” I offered.
Eventually there was nothing left to do but get me outside, onto a stretcher, and into the ambulance.
On the way I was hooked up to monitors to check my heart rate and things like that, and I was given this big green whistle to use as pain relief. Penthrox it was called (the device was anyway, I don’t know about what was in it). It tasted kind of like the stuff you used to get at the dentist. You inhaled it just the same, and it had a similar effect. And best of all, it worked! Pretty soon my pain went from an arbitrary 6 to an arbitrary 1-2.
I’m not one for your recreational drugs these days. Barring a Hobbit sized beer at The Green Dragon seven weeks earlier I’ve been completely sober for a number of years. So it only took a few deep puffs before I was flying. I at least was able to have a bit of a chat and a laugh with the paramedic in the back of the ambulance. She told me some people start singing after a few puffs on the big green whistle. She also agreed that the pain scale thing was a bit silly, and it was the hospital bosses who liked to have numbers that they can note down, not them.
We got to the hospital pretty quickly. I have since checked on Google Maps and it’s just round the corner from the train tracks where I was dropped off.
The A&E was empty when I got there. For me, as someone who is used to Carlisle and London and other big cities, not having to vie for attention with unruly drunks and bleeding head wounds from late night fighting came as a bit of a shock. Not that I’m complaining though. It meant I got the attention of the entire staff, who outnumbered me five to one, which was great for me. And I was a bit of a novelty for them too I think. They don’t normally have guests arriving off of The Ghan I guess.
My details and vitals were taken again, compared to what they were before. I was checked over, asked to pee into a bottle, a cannula was inserted, blood taken, and then I was left to wait for the on-call doctor to arrive.
A little while later a nice Indian chap turned up, and I gave him the details of what had happened. He in turn looked at my test results, thought it over, and gave me some three word Latin name for what he thought it might be (which I, of course, instantly forgot).
Basically, he thought it might have been a small kidney stone that had worked it’s way down the urinary tract from my left kidney, cutting along the way, and just being generally a right pain. He said there was blood in my urine, though not much from what I saw, and he also said there was not much they could do for me other than provide pain relief. These things happened, and really all you could do was let them run their course.
He did order a CT scan though, to see if there were any more in there. For that I got wheeled to a different part of the hospital, and put through one of those big noisy doughnut machines. That was at least interesting. The uninteresting part was when I had to pay for it afterwards with my credit card!
AUD$385 it cost me. That’s £235. Now apparently my insurance will cover that, but still, it wasn’t nice having to pay for your treatment whilst it was happening. And I found out later that the rest of it – the ambulance, A&E, all the other tests – were covered by a reciprocal agreement between the British and Australian governments, so why that part wasn’t also I don’t know?
I got to have a bit of a nap waiting for the test results to come through, which I was desperately in need of. It was getting on for 11am when I was handed the phone by the nurse and told by the doctor I’d seen earlier that everything seemed fine and I could leave.
That’s where the hard part started for me. I was in Port Augusta, over 300km from where I had intended to be (and where I had a reservation). I didn’t really fancy the long journey to get down there, but if not it meant spending the night in Port Augusta. It was a possibility, the question was where?
The nurses in A&E called me a taxi, and I got dropped off at the tourist information centre. There I was told the two cheapest options to stay; a bunk room at a caravan park – AUD$40, or a single room at a motel AUD$66. Neither of them sounded that inviting.
There was also a coach at 13:30 and 16:45 to Adelaide, that cost AUD$56 and took about 4 hours.
Armed with this array of information I went to the cafe and thought about my options over a veggie burger. After the morning I’d had I was in desperate need of a cup of tea and something to eat.
The more I thought about it the less I wanted to stay in Port Augusta. I just felt there was nothing there, and staying there until The Ghan came through again in three days time was not a prospect I relished. I could just stay a night or two maybe, then get the coach, but if I was going to get the coach why not just get it now?
Because I didn’t like the idea of a recurrence of what had happened before when I was on the road in the middle of nowhere, that’s why.
So I decided on a compromise. I’d book a ticket on the later coach, and if nothing happened in the intervening few hours, I’d take the coach to Adelaide and hope for the best.
There then followed one of the more unhappy afternoons of my life as I wandered round the town trying to find somewhere to hide from the cold wind as well as the smell of the towns numerous smoking residents. It was not the nicest way to spend the day, but at least it confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing by getting out of town.
I got the coach at 16:45, and spent the next four hours ‘listening’ to my kidney, and hoping that each twinge of discomfort I felt wasn’t a return to the pain of just a few hours ago.
Thankfully I made it to Adelaide in one piece, got to the YHA, and am now safely ensconced in a dorm room with a comfy bed and a decent stockpile of food in the kitchen. There’s been no repeat of the incident, and I’m back to feeling my old self again (just about). My plan is to spend the next few days lying around eating, drinking gallons of water, and just generally recovering before I have to get the train west to my brother’s place near Perth.
It was a hell of a day let me tell you, and not one I’d wish to repeat any time soon. But I can say that everyone I dealt with was kind, helpful and sympathetic, and I thank The Universe for their warmth and compassion. Adversity brings out the best in people, and I’m glad to say that many people felt moved to bestow their best upon me, a total stranger, and for that I am truly thankful.