The sky was grey, the streets were silent, and my skin was bleeding, on the day that my life changed.
The day before, my friends and family had told me that they were worried for my health. I laughed at them, telling them it was ironic, considering I was a Doctor. But I felt my stomach sink when my Mother told me that for a man of thirty years old, I looked fifty.
The next day was a Sunday, the one day of the week when I had no responsibilities. Furthermore my wife was away visiting her parents in Romania. I stumbled out of my bed and looked in the mirror. I inspected my gaunt cheeks, rotting teeth and tired eyes. I coughed up some phlegm and spat it into my hands. I ran my hand slowly over my throat and breathed, acknowledging the wheeze of my lungs like an old bagpipe.
After breakfast, I considered rolling a joint. But decided against it when in the bathroom, I saw the flecks of dried blood and white powder coating the sink.
I made a promise to the man in the mirror "Today – no drugs" I believed the bloodshot eyes, and the crooked smile was still charming. I picked up the powder covered bone chisel on the sink and cut the dried blood from my nostrils. Then took one Paracetamol and one codeine.
I decided that I would walk the distance of London. I cancelled plans with friends, took my watch off, and left my mobile phone at home. I felt the force of my life, dragging me along like an undercurrent in which I was struggling to breathe. It was time to face up to something, and to take stock of my life and my health. I started power walking.
Walking through London bought together a series of incoherent memories. I walked through Camden and remembered the streets into which I had vomited as a medical student. I remembered drinking nervously on corners before I entered bars, hoping that I'd be able to carry a conversation with the other students, or get into bed with whichever woman I had fallen in love with that particular week.
In Euston the streets were littered with lost souls and lost bodies. Haggard Irish and Afro Caribbean men sat on piss stained doorsteps down forgotten alleyways drinking cheap cider whilst badly rolling cigarettes. As a teenager I would stop with these men and offer myself to them. Anything I could do to take away their pain. This is how I tried my first cigarette, they told me it would help me with my nerves, and for a time it did.
I felt my skin itch as I set foot in Soho. Memories of Heroin, LSD and worse sent shivers down my spine. I swallowed hard as my heart thumped through my chest. Blanking out dark memories with still darker thoughts I scratched at the side of my head like a dog with fleas. I stared at red buses and black cabs and wondered what tire marks felt like on skin.
Trafalgar Square saved me.
I stumbled across a protest to save the NHS. Northern accents screamed over the P.A to Southern bystanders. At the end of each statement the crowd cheered in weary anticipation. Picket signs obscured by cigarette smoke.
As I walked away I came across a stall. A small group of Chinese people stood in a row performing hypnotic movements. It looked healthy. I stopped and massaged the knot in my neck. As I stared a woman approached.
"We are practicing Falun Gong, an exercise promoting health, happiness and compassion."
I nodded absent mindedly and wondered if I had any Lithium to calm my nervous system. After a moment I came out of my thoughts.
"We're trying to raise awareness. In China, the government is persecuting practitioners of Falun Gong; who make up 66% of all political prisoners in the country. They keep them alive in prisons for organ farming".
"Organ farming?!" My daze lifted and was replaced by a surge of adrenaline.
"Yes, organ farming. Practitioners of Falun Gong are very healthy, so their organs are prized. The government is paranoid because there are more people doing Falun Gong than there are people that support the Communist party. They are kept alive whilst their organs are removed. They don't use anaesthetic."
I wiped the tears from my face and looked the woman in the eye. She looked at me and winced, before looking back at the leaflet she was handing me.
The rest of her speech was a blur. As I signed petitions, nodded and accepted pamphlets, the horror swept over me. I had heard individual stories, but never such a blatant disregard for medical ethics in the modern world. As Doctors we are there to harbour life, not steal life from the living. I imagined a nodding line of grim reapers, wearing sterile white jackets, their skeletal jawbones grinning as they used their scythes like scalpels to peel the flesh from the living; cigarette smoke rising from where their lungs would be.
The image stuck with me like residual echoes of a bad dream. I scratched at my skin, and ignored the bursts of adrenaline as my body cried for a quick fix, a way to forget all the violent images. But no, today, I must be sober.
Later, I flicked on the radio and stared at the horizon through my window. White walls, black chair, grey sky. My whole life I had been self medicating, trying to numb my pain from all the suffering I had seen from medicating the pain of others. Now, my own health was suffering, but there were people out there who hadn't damaged themselves and needed new body parts. And as I had learned today, there were those who were providing them, without any choice.
I was older than my years, I knew that. But my body still had its uses.
The moon reflected the city lights, and glimmered off the scalpel twirling between my fingers. My whole life I had been trying to help people. But no matter how many people I fed drugs, sewed up or probed inside of, there was still a hole in my soul the size of London itself.
I stayed awake and saw night turn to light. The birds in the morning, the foxes in the evening and the cats fighting over sex and territory. I was part of an ecosystem, whether I liked it or not. Ashes to Ashes, life to death, the only route to perfection. As I healed bodies, my own body crumbled and my soul was left untouched, unsatisfied, unrepentant.
I was dying. I just hadn't admitted it till now.
I admired the effortless recycling of nature. It gave me inspiration, and I realised that my own life could be used in such a way. I cackled at the bin men as they picked up waste at dawn. I laughed out my secret onto the streets below.
How could I have been so half hearted?
On Monday morning I called in sick to work. Sally, the receptionist sounded stressed. The practice was already under pressure and patients would be turned away.
I hung up the phone and put on the radio. Johnny Cash's "Hurt" was playing. I walked over to my medicine cabinet and took out the scalpel and some alcohol. I lined up each piece of surgical equipment I had and placed it on the kitchen table, neatly, in a row. I placed a knife and fork by the forceps, just in case I felt inspired.
How could you hold healthy people against their will?
I mean, at least I'd chosen to suffer. I'd offered myself for the betterment of others. Day after day, inspecting bodies, feeding minds with sweet pain relief and a new perspective. Sure I had made mistakes, plenty of mistakes, but at least they were my own. A severed toenail, a botched boob job, hell even the time I left scissors in that geriatric, all mistakes! All mine.
I cleaned my lancet and trocar with rubbing alcohol and a cloth. I opened the red curtains so a thin strip of light illuminated the table, just enough to see what I was doing.
I climbed on the kitchen table and lay carefully next to the equipment. All I could see was the light bulb and a cold white ceiling. Now I knew how my patients felt. But by God. at least they had a choice. I tried to put myself in their shoes, but there was no way I could capture the pain of those people. I cried when I realised I wasn't even close. At least my patients had anaesthetic, but the Falun Gong…
I picked up the red marker that lay between the bone chisel and scalpel and drew lines across my naked body. Marking the battle lines between rugged clefts and saggy skin.
I rubbed the alcohol around my heart, and following the lines, cut deep.
(Based on this Story Jam)
Fruit from this Jam:
Descent by Benjamin
pari libra by Envy
"They do not use anaesthetic." by Jan Flisek-Boyle
Morning Cereal by H.L.W.
The Unexpected by appylord57
Past Life by Vivian Peng
Out of Season by RichardLakin
The ethics of genocide by kouq
Them. by ustink
Dangerous Path by Zita Barlai
the disease by
Duck...Duck...Goose by Ameya
Ashes to Ashes by Jess Fechner
Cardinal by a-bigler