I’ve felt better…

At this point I feel I should admit something. I am no longer relying on my own memory for this. I can’t, I was unconscious at this point. However, one of the good things about Intensive Care is that the staff advised Mary to keep a diary of my time there so that I could make some sense of what had happened, provided, of course, that I survived. My only recollections of the time are the weird dreams brought on by 2 weeks of sleep and sedatives and a few tiny snippets of the real world which managed to pervade them, some of which were entertainingly surreal, others were plain disturbing.

So, Mary got back to the hospital at about 8 the following morning. By that time I was still no absorbing oxygen, had a dangerously low blood pressure and a dangerously high temperature and pulse. On top of this my kidneys were packing up. Basically, my body was shutting down and I needed another operation to have my “insides thoroughly washed out”. The surgeon explained to Mary that it was extremely risky and that he had never operated on somebody as ill as I was. In other words, without the operation I would die, but I was possibly too ill to survive it as well.

Here lies a cautionary tale for all doctors. When discussing your patient’s extremely low chance of surviving an op, don’t do it in front of the patient, no matter how sedated and unconscious they may be. As I said, some bits of reality fought their way into my brain, and the conversation regarding how to break the news to Mary was one of them. That’s not a conversation anyone should hear, or be aware of. I’m not sure how accurately I heard the conversation, or how accurately my brain interpreted, but I do know that I was determined that dying wasn’t on the agenda.

That determination was one of two things which saved me that morning, the other was the prayers of everyone at my church whose Sunday morning service coincided with the timing of the op. I know that many people, including some people reading this, see Christians, or any adherent to a religion, as irrational nutters who ignore evidence, facts and reason for superstitious nonsense, but I don’t work that way. Sometimes the best evidence you have is that of personal experience; it doesn’t convince anyone else, necessarily, but it’s good enough for the person involved. That is how I approach a belief in God. I always believed before this, but this strengthened it and confirmed it. Without Him and the prayers of friends, family and a lot of people I didn’t even know, not just that morning, but throughout the whole ordeal, I’m not sure I would have got through this.

Anyway, I did survive the operation (obviously, otherwise I’d have a job on my hands writing this blog!) and was back in ITU at about 12.30, just before my Mum and sister arrived at the hospital. It can’t have been easy for any of my family to see me in that condition. I was basically a mess of wires, tubes and machines, as you can see.

.Throughout the day the level of oxygen I was on was reduced from 100% to 55% and my blood pressure gradually rose from “dangerously low” to “low”. I was also placed on temporary dialysis, so at my lowest ebb I was having the piss taken out of me (apologies for the poor standard of humour).

I started to improve the following day to the extent that the sedation was withdrawn and I was expected to start coming round in the next 24 hours. Unfortunately, overnight my temperature rocketed again as I had developed a chest infection. I had swabs taken by a microbiologist and it was decided to delay waking me up. There then followed several days of increasing and decreasing temperature and oxygen levels, tubes being changed, physiotherapy (which essentially involved being shaken to loosen any mucus in my chest and keep my circulation going), beeping machines and what must have been a degree of tedium for everyone. On the Tuesday and Wednesday I moved a little, including biting the finger of a doctor who was changing my breathing tubes, and I was trying to breath by myself, but I was still out of it. Then on Thursday the microbiology results came back. On top of everything else I also had MRSA.

Not looking good

Agony. No exaggeration, drama or typical male overdoing things. It was the worst kind of pain. The type that leaves you unable to move, talk, even think properly. It went from my abdomen, all the way up my left hand side and down my arm. I honestly believed I was having a heart attack. I knew that I needed to get to hospital.

My breathing pattern and moaning (at least, I think I made some sort of noise) thankfully woke Mary, my wife, up. She called the ambulance, which didn’t have too far to come, and gave me some Oramorph (A morphine based painkiller which I’d been given to take home after the operation) which seemed to at least take the edge of things. The ambulance arrived and the paramedics were left with the quandry of how to get a 15 stone man down the stairs when he can’t move himself. Arguably, being carried down the stairs in a chair whilst in this state was one of the scariest parts of the whole night.

The ambulance ride did not live up to my childhood expectations. When I was a kid I imagined excitement at the speed, sirens and flashing lights. All I got was difficulty breathing and screaming pain, especially when we hit a bump in the road. It was thankfully short and I found myself in Poole A&E. On a Friday night. With all the injured drunk people. It was a long night.

Not so long for me, though, as I slept for much of it after the painkillers kicked in. I do have a hazy memory of a girl who was three sheets to the wind and in need of a tetanus shot after coming off worse in a fight with a pavement, screaming at a doctor about not liking needles. Although in a few more words than that. Mostly beginning with the letter F. And really loudly.

After some really close care and attention (please note: the last statement may contain ridiculous amounts of sarcasm) I was taken up to a general ward and hooked up to some oxygen. Again, my memories are a little hazy here. I remember needing the loo, having a commode brought to me and taking what felt like half an hour getting from the bed to it only to find that I didn’t have the strength to, well, push. I also remember watching the football results coming in on teletext, paying particular attention to Liverpool (my team) and Wimbledon (Gary Lineker once said they were best watched on teletext, so I thought I’d try it. He was right).

Mary came back that afternoon, having gone home when I was taken up on to the ward. She had stayed up all night in A&E with me so really needed the rest. By that time it was clear that I needed some sort of internal investigation. My oxygen saturation levels were really low and dropping and I was really weak, so I was, after a heated discussion between a doctor on the ward (who said I needed to be opened up) and the surgeon who had operated on me (Who, ridiculously, said I didn’t), taken up to Intensive Care once more to prepare me for exploratory surgery. My clearest memory of this time does not do much for my, already non-existent, macho image. I remember looking at Mary and saying “I’m scared”. I was, I really was. I was right to be.

When I was put to sleep I expected to wake up later that day with whatever caused the problems fixed. Only the second part of that was right. In the exploratory op they discovered a hole in my stomach, which had leaked gastric juices and bacteria. Oh, and fish pie. I was opened up fully, the hole stitched up and I was taken back to ICU hooked up to enough machines to fill the underground lair of a Bond villain. I also had Peritonitis and Sepsis and was about as sick as I could possibly be. Mary had been sent home at about 8 after being told that I would be sedated for the night, but my condition deteriorated rapidly and at half ten the doctors called her to let her know how bad things were.

The long wait

Now, I know the waiting lists can be long with the NHS. It’s to be expected sometimes. However, my diagnosis and placing on the waiting list was in October 2001. At the start of 2003 I still had no word of a date. I finally got fed up of waiting and gave the hospital a ring.
I’m not saying that my file had been misplaced, but the person I spoke to spent a good 10-15 minutes looking for it and, when she found it, offered to call me back. Later that day I had a date, 3 weeks later in a private hospital opposite Poole General Hospital, at NHS expense. Hmmm.
I’ll admit to being nervous at the prospect of being cut open, even with a small keyhole wound. I made the mistake of looking the operation up on the Internet (don’t ever do this. Just don’t). I came to the conclusion that, no matter what happened, I wouldn’t end up in the same condition as the guy who ended up with his stomach in his chest cavity! On the whole, though, it looked as if this really was relatively routine and I shouldn’t worry too much.
So, the day of the op came. I was dropped off at the very, very nice hospital indeed and waited for the knife. When I was finally taken down I knew it would just be a few hours and I would wake up in a very comfy room ready for 3 weeks rest.
I woke up the following morning in a rather different place. My first memories are a tad hazy, but I remember seeing the unfolding of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on the telly and other people in beds next to me. Oh yes, and I was on a ventilator!
What happened was this. After the operation I was taken to recovery. I was starting to come round when the surgeon decided to take me back in to check something out (I still have no idea what). I was given a short term general anaesthetic which was expected to last 20-30 minutes. What no-one was aware of was that I have a condition called Scoline Apnoea, a deficiency in an enzyme needed to process this particular anaesthetic. As a result I just didn’t wake up. Rather than 30 minutes I was out for 12 hours. No-one’s fault, it’s very rare and nobody had any reason to know about it. I certainly didn’t. (No, it wasn’t just me oversleeping due to a lack of desire to get up!)
I was discharged directly from the Intensive Care Unit I had spent the night in, feeling that having been there was a sort of badge of honour, and my wife and I went home. I spent the evening eating a fish pie and watching Midsomer Murders. Rock and roll!
I went to bed feeling a little tender, but quite good, and dropped off quickly.
At about 2 o’clock that morning I woke up and immediately knew something was very badly wrong.

How things started

It was 2001 and I had just started a new, better paid, really awful job with a company providing mobile phones to businesses. I was stressed out with a lack of any training, support, direction or anything else a new employee would expect from a company and this was starting to affect my health.
The first thing I noticed was the need to throw up, quite violently, every morning. It was only in the morning and I was showing no other symptoms so I looked up possibilities online. It turned out I was pregnant. Normally this would be a source of great joy, but it was a bit of a shock to both myself and my wife. There it was, though. Morning sickness and I hadn’t had my period for about 28 years. I was about to give birth to our fourth child and a documentary on Channel 5.
Anyway, once we discounted the diagnosis we decided it was simply stress and I needed to relax more. I tried, but things just got worse, culminating in my boss taking me to hospital with severe chest pains. I knew it wasn’t a heart attack, but it was too painful to talk and I figured it was a day off work. Yes, 6 hours at Bournemouth A&E was more attractive than work.
This resulted in a referral for an endoscopy. I thought it wouldn’t be too bad, just a thin cable down the throat to examine my digestive system. What I got was a cable the thickness of a garden hose shoved down my oesophagus, triggering a gagging reflex while being held down by several nurses. This was nothing in the losing all dignity stakes compared to what I went through much later.
Anyway, diagnosis – hiatus hernia. This is where the top of the stomach comes up through the diaphragm, weakening a valve in the oesophagus and allowing stomach acid to travel upwards. This, especially during times of stress, causes severe heartburn called acid reflux. (NB – I am not a medical expert. Some of the descriptions in here will range from barely accurate to nearly crap). The main fix for this was a routine keyhole procedure called a Nissen Laproscopic Fundoplication. Routine, sounds easy……


Well, I felt that I needed an outlet, probably unread by anyone other than myself, for my view on just about anything.

I’m going to start, probably in a few parts, with the story of how a bit of heartburn led to several major operations, 6 months off work and the loss of my belly button.

Should be fun.*

*For me, anyway.