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One Saturday afternoon, without warning, I collapsed unconscious in my flat. As I was alone, I had no idea how long I was out. Confused and battered from the fall, but otherwise in reasonable shape, I visited the local hospital. They found nothing wrong with me, so I rested and then returned to life as normal.
As more than a week passed, I assumed it was a one-off. But was it?
Note: this is the second article in a series that begins with Passing Out.
If you work in a place where you’re a technical person amongst mostly non-technical people, it is generally assumed you’re the one to consult regarding anything with a plug on it. They’ll ask why the microwave is making a funny noise; which button to press on the dishwasher; why their mobile phone won’t charge; or why the light in the ladies’ toilet is flickering. Even though you haven’t the faintest idea, you’ll be the one who applies common sense and figures it out. My remit had therefore become relatively broad, and, for the most part, that was fine. Many such problems are an easy fix, and therefore a source of valuable house-points.
But there is one office appliance I loathe and despise above all others. One so unreliable, so low quality, so difficult to use, so difficult to diagnose, so expensive to run and, above all, so redundant that it should have been drop-kicked into the history books years ago. The fact that these things still exist isn’t a mark of their success but a failure on the part of us so-called technologists to do away with them. I am writing, of course, about the facsimile machine.
Faxes shouldn’t have made it into the twenty-first century. The simple truth is we no longer need them. True, when they were first available, they were a relatively fast and efficient way of moving a document from one side of the globe to the other in minutes, but now we have spectacular data networks and millions of far more capable end-user devises spread around the place. Not only are there now many ways to move data around ludicrously quickly, all of them are better than facsimile in every imaginable way. Faster, quicker, more reliable, negligible cost at the point of use, and with practically zero loss of quality.
I had already removed more than half of the company’s reliance on fax machines. Inbound faxes (from those strange sadomasochists who’d still rather fax than email) were converted to email attachments and dropped into the inboxes of the intended recipients, rather than being spewed out of conventional fax machine and lost in an unruly heap of curled print-outs on the floor below. There were no longer odious instances of machines jamming nor needing paper or toner. It also meant the only reason for retaining one last fax machine was for sending outbound faxes—-those sadomasochists who’d still rather receive fax than email necessitated its continued, unfortunate, existence.
But, once again, word came from across the office: the fax machine was broken. With rolling eyes, and muttering something about sadomasochism, I rose from my desk and trudged over to the offending appliance. In my experience, something being “broken” could mean one of two things: either the thing was actually broken, or the user was being stupid. In the case of the fax machine, I’d made my contempt well-known: those incapable of stuffing in a piece of paper and dialling an eleven-digit number were often subject to hackneyed public ridicule. This meant I could more-or-less rule out user error. What sardonic delights was this foul and piteous contrivance holding in store for me this time, I wondered. What incomprehensible and undocumented message would be displayed on its tiny screen?
No sooner had I arrived in front of the machine, I could feel myself collapsing. Unlike the previous episode, I can remember the experience vividly. I can clearly recall thinking how strange it was I should be falling over without good reason, and also how I seemed incapable of doing anything about it. I could neither reach out for something to steady myself nor call out for help. None of this was in any way scary though, nor even the least bit unpleasant. It made me want to giggle. I could feel a smirk breaking out across my face as a vague, euphoric and otherworldly feeling broke out. It felt almost like a dream, kind of separated from reality; like awakening from a dream. Just before losing consciousness, I remember landing on the floor to the sound of someone screaming.
When my eyes opened, I was quick to realise I was lying on the floor of the office where I had fallen, only now I was on my back and surrounded by concerned-looking colleagues. Bugger, I thought, they’re going to make a fuss.
I regained full consciousness quickly, but nonetheless my colleagues decided I should go to hospital. So another day was spent in A&E consuming Lucozade, and still nobody was any clearer about what had happened. I had hoped, as there had been numerous witnesses, that it would be easier to explain this time. Indeed, a close colleague who had seen the whole thing accompanied me to the hospital and recounted events in detail to the various medical staff. And yet, frustratingly, it still seemed unexplainable.
Given it had now happened twice, I wondered if my body was starting to tell me something. Maybe it was diet, for example. I had a reasonably balanced diet, but perhaps not ultra-healthy and maybe I had reached an age where I needed to take such things a little more seriously. One of the greatest gifts of youth is the impressive amount of slack your body will give you, even right down to the basics. But, day by day, it grows increasingly intolerant of its abusive owner. Rather than have it lose patience with me altogether, I bought a whole load of fruit and vegetables and began recording what I ate daily. I also made efforts to shake my sleep patterns into shape—-ensuring I went to bed and got up at the same times each day. Nobody had mentioned any of this to me, but it all seemed like a good idea. Besides, it was something to do. Sitting on my hands, hoping I was over whatever it was, was not exactly satisfactory in my book.
All the same, within a week I found myself in the waiting room of the local surgery. In a way it was refreshing not to be complaining of something ephemeral and hard to describe. As time went on the two strange episodes became less present in my mind, to the point I hardly thought about them. Yet here I was, in a room full of coughing adults and screaming infants, failing to find something to read. This time, my ailment was somewhat validated by the fact I could point to it and, when called, pointing to it is exactly what I did.
“What the hell is this?” I exclaimed, gesturing towards my left ear. The doctor wheeled around to my side in her chair and peered. “It’s in my nose too!” Quickly, she returned to her desk, and began to write.
“Been to hospital recently?” she asked, without looking up.
“Uh… yeah.” I replied, surprised at the question.
“The General?” she asked again as she began to poke at her keyboard.
“Umm… yes, A&E… they hauled me in after I collapsed”. It was clear nothing I was saying was in any way surprising to her.
“Hmm. It’s impetigo,” she said, finally turning to look at me, “but if you take these antibiotics it should clear up soon enough”. Hang on, I thought, what on earth has this got to do with the hospital? Unless… wait…
The infection itself had started out as a mildly sore nose, but within two days it had spread to consume the insides of both nostrils, then from inside my ear, and was just starting to fan out around my outer ear and across my cheek. Highly uncomfortable bright orange scabs, no less—-it was not so much that I had them, or the discomfort they brought, but the speed at which it was progressing that had prompted me to show them to the expert. While it was reassuring to receive an instant diagnosis, the connection with the hospital was much now more worrying than the infection itself. I was sure I’d heard of impetigo before—-wasn’t it what primary school teachers would forebode if you didn’t wash your hands?
“So you reckon I picked this up at A&E then?” I asked, adding risk of infection to my mental list of reasons to stay the hell out of there.
“Most likely”, she said resignedly, “that place is a… well… if I were you I’d take at least a couple of showers a day, wash all your clothes, towels and bedlinen, and disinfect all your cutlery and utensils… that sort of thing. Give your kitchen and bathroom a good going over. The antibiotics will have rid of the infection in a couple of days, but you wouldn’t want it coming back, would you?”.
Having collected the prescription from the chemists, I hurried home to find myself transformed into a man possessed by the spirit of some manic domestic diva. After a shower I set about washing all the towels, bedlinen, clothes, cushion covers, tea-towels and anything else with a care label. When the first round of towels were dry, I showered again and washed the towel a second time. Meanwhile the kitchen and bathroom were deep cleaned to the sound of Audioslave and the rest of the flat was hoovered to a bit of classic Radiohead. I even attacked the computer keyboards and peripherals. Once I’d run out of things to clean, I shampooed the carpets and took another shower—-okay, so a general hospital might be packed to the rafters with the injured and infirm, but there was no reason why this single man’s flat needed to be anything other than spotless. Besides, I was doing something helpful. Here was something I could do something about.
Sure enough, within a couple of days the infection was beaten, and had brought with it the added bonus of an immaculate home.
Three weeks later, the uncomfortable infection was as distant a memory as the two blackouts before it. Even though I’d hit the deck twice, there was still nothing to suggest it was anything more serious than a touch of lightheadedness. Then, it happened again. This time while I was queueing outside the sandwich van in the office car-park, and I landed face-first on the concrete. The ambulance had arrived before I regained consciousness and took me in again. Now, it was starting to get worrying. What the hell was causing me to pass out, and how could it be stopped? Nobody at A&E had come up with any answers so far, but I couldn’t keep on dropping to the ground as and when. It was time to reach for the big guns—-time to engage the might of the company’s healthcare scheme and put myself in front of the specialists. It was time to get this thing under control.
More on that… in a bit.