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Friday, 24 October 2014

Not Waving, But Frowning: Cast On, Cast Off: Recovery Part 1

It's hard to believe that it's only three weeks to the day since I had my final operation to repair my olecranon fracture (elbow tip). I had to lose the oromorph to get out of hospital, I knew, and deal with just the four different types of pain killers instead to get me to the drizzly world outside and into the car. The temperature plummeted from its hospital high and the hand rails were gone. Relying on the fact that Herman the anaesthetist had put my arm totally to sleep and that my fingers still felt completely alien, like warmed up dried chipolatas.

I shuffled to the car and grimaced and eased my way as best I could into the seat. The hardest part of the journey home was that to complete it I had to climb the very flight of stairs thanks to which I owe all of my present physical injuries. With apprehension I climbed each step, planting my working right arm firmly on the wall where no banister exists in the hope that I would get up those steep stairs, though every step was a mountain, and finally reach the top and rest.

First few hours at home, getting used to sub-hospital temperatures

It's difficult to write about the first few days. I was trying to get through them, and that was about it. I've never been particularly fond of hospital beds, but suddenly missed the remote control function to let me raise the head of the bed to try and find some position, somehow, that was a bit less uncomfortable - and the most I could hope for.

Beautiful flowers, lifting my spirits every day

The weekend was lovely because both Mat and my mum were with me, helping me get through the many difficulties: sitting on chairs which weren't the same height as the one in hospital, using the techniques taught by the physiotherapists (both sitting down and getting up were challenging); Washing myself was a lengthy task, requiring a chair, two towels, flannels, antiseptic wash and patience - the latter always a personal challenge, all to keep my cast dry. And my hair - I couldn't wash this at all because I had to keep my cast dry, so Mat became my personal coiffeur (or, to be more specific, laveur). He learned how to help wet my hair, gently massage it with shampoo and rinse the suds off. (In fact he was so scared of hurting me that it was almost too gentle - I ended up learning to use my good arm and hand to help lather my locks.)

Bath 'Chair' - Prepped for washing

The constant dressing and undressing of layers to warm my pneumonia-chilled / sweaty body was tiresome in the extreme, and I felt weaker still for the necessity of constant adjustments to my clothing to accommodate my body's particular need for heat / cold at any given moment. All in all, I was exhausted by each of these activities. My arm's feeling returned with a painful gusto only partially numbed by the copious pain killers with which I'd been discharged. And the only position I could lie in with the thing was on the elbow I had damaged itself, supported by pillows, and forcing me to look constantly as if waving at something from my bed.

Not waving!

After the weekend my mum had to head back home and Mat to work. I sat up in a chair in the living room, supported by cushions and pillows and looked around the room. There were get well cards and beautiful bouquets of flowers, all for me. I felt the pains all over my body as I regarded these gestures of love and good wishes, and all of a sudden I realised the truth behind all the pain and these beautiful ornaments in my living room.

You almost died, I thought.
You almost died, and you were almost paralysed forever. But you are alive.

And with this realisation in the silent room, my eyes began to haemorrhage tears. Streams of tears of fear, loss, acceptance and fear again, flowed out as I sat in that room. I must have been holding them back through every procedure, every irritating encounter with a snotty nurse or orderly, or with a kind one, with the anaesthetists I joked with as I waited to be ushered in for my anaesthetic before my spinal fusion operation, or the one with whom I watched the massive needle be inserted into my arm to numb it completely as the first step towards the operation to fix it. Finally, through that first weekend at home, where there was company and I wanted to be up and about for it. I was exhausted and - I think deliberately - had made no time to dwell on such an insignificant detail as proximity to my own death.

The tears came and went that Monday, but finally they dried and another day came, and rehabilitation really began.

I was nervous about moving for the first few days, and sleepless nights didn't help. The pneumonia made me sweat in the night and I was disgusted to awaken in damp sheets and sweaty t-shirts. Grimacing with the pain of log rolling out of bed solo, with only one working arm, I put a towel down over the damp sheet and tried to find sleep again, possible only if the pain medication had been taken late enough the previous evening and was still numbing my arm and back. I was tired walking a short number of paces, where in hospital I had confidently (nearly) marched down the corridors to prove my mobility. No seat was comfortable, but the pain of lying increased over time also, so I had to keep moving, if only to change one type of discomfort for another.

The outside world. A step and a marathon away.

Finally I made my first journey outside, It was a trip born out of necessity I felt: since arriving home I had discovered that apart from a couple of sleeveless vests the only items of clothing that would fit over the cast on my arm were Mat's t-shirts and an old, extra large jumper he never wore. Now then, perhaps you will ask, what's wrong with that? My answer is I am Jessica Carmody, and I don't do  scruffy and unkempt (with the possible exception of during DIY activities) even if Anna Wintour's edit says so (and, note, she never does it. QED.). So I had to go out to look for clothes that would work - the activity a positive for strengthening my back through exercise, and for maintaining by a thread my sanity through the search for sartorial nirvana (or just plain acceptable).

Unfortunately fur gillets (fake/otherwise) don't suit me. Believe me, beneath this photo I look like a goat with a boob job.

Fortunately in Teddington I am blessed with a nearby dress agency which came to the rescue that first week. I was able to reach it in few paces, and I know the owners Valerie and John, who have previously helped me purchase a number of gorgeous things 'nearly new' and 'naughty' that were just about the right price. Their dress agency, The Clothes Horse, takes in new or barely worn clothes, bags, shoes and accessories from the upper high street to designer brands. I highly recommend them as a treasure trove of fashion delights - just watch that your credit card doesn't take the lead in your relationship - or - if you let it, be prepared for the bill to arrive!

The Clothes Horse, Teddington - a veritable treasure trove of designer, discounted delights

Here I found items I could work with: a comfy short sleeved loose polo neck sweater in my favourite shade of grey; a sparkly woollen tank top in case I had to be sparkly (or just plain felt like it) and more. It was wonderful to feel dressed again in clothes that were my size, instead of apparently nicked at 4am from the bin bags outside Save the Children.

Fat Face short sleeved jumper. Warm, flexible, stylish. Thank you Fat Face!

I kept my walking expeditions very short that first week, so afraid of being knocked over, and knowing that there wasn't an equivalent button to 'Baby on Board' for me: "Just had spinal fusion surgery and elbow op - if you knock me over I might be paralysed so please don't. Cheers." I know, it doesn't quite have the same ring to it, and if paying by the word I might be facing a whopping bill.

Gradually, though, I grew a little stronger. On Saturday 11th October I made it to the end of the High Street; on Sunday to the lock and then back. Small, shaky steps, with much help from Mat, but steps all the same, and at the end of the day an attempt to sit up for dinner and then a slow, engineered manoeuvre into bed.

Autumn leaves shading the pavements

For all the physical knocks, my confidence had taken a severe blow and I knew I had to get back to doing some exercise out and about again, albeit slow. On a further retail therapy mission, I want to praise to the skies the customer service of our best beloved John Lewis.

Jigsaw dress (left) - not quite; North Face gillet (centre) - cosy; Mango Tee (right) - perfect!

Shuffling around the already overheated store in Kingston last week, I asked for a little help putting items into the changing room and was rewarded instead with a personal shopper in the form of Adrianna, who clearly had a good eye for people about to collapse spectacularly because even their own coat is too heavy to hold. She was so superb - friendly, professional, just lovely. Above are some pictures of the purchases that would cooperate with my cast - and some that would not.

Fabulous Adrianna. John Lewis, she deserves a raise!

Inspired by this trip, and emboldened (I was still alive, still walking, this was all progress!) I made it to Richmond the following day on a mission to investigate clothing available to the injured or disabled. I concentrated on clothing my arm, and here are the results:

Stella blanket coat (left), Drome reversible coat (centre), Osman top (right) gorgeous. All - SUPER PRICEY!

However, I do wonder: how easy is it to buy clothing if part of your body is behaving in some way that is out of the ordinary? Fluid swellings, casts, external metal work, wheelchair restrictions etc. don't appear to feature on the cat walks. All right, Heather Mills and others have strutted down the cat walk with prosthetic legs in some outfits, so it's not an impossibility. However, can fashion dare to wipe the sneer of its face and design for real people living with problems more permanent than mine? I don't think they've tired of sneering yet, and I'm tempted to start a sneer campaign back.

Limited disabled fashion coverage - Principles 2012; Carrie Hammer show NY Fashion week 2014

After these trips to investigate and purchase wearable clothes, I also changed my hair to be more manageable, and am the proud owner of a much shorter 'do' which I was able to wash myself, as long as the shower head was left in the bath, by kneeling on a towel and not caring too much about showering most of the bathroom in the process.

Finally, yesterday, I had the cast removed, twenty days after the operation was performed. (Later, I was told, than desired, but the only available date in the fracture clinic.) Again, hospital, and this time able to walk I navigated the various rooms in the process of the appointment: X-ray, then surgical consultation:

"You're doing okay."
"You are at high risk of developing arthritis and you can't do anything to stop it."
No, No. Not good.
"You will need to have another operation in 6-12 months to remove the pins."
Great. At least this time I'll be paid for my sick leave.

From free fracture to fixed fracture

Then a dressing change, a look at my snaky bendy elbow scare, and last but not least physiotherapy.

In the physio appointment I learned a few exercises for the alien object passing as my arm. It won't straighten at all, and the bump at the end looks artificial in my clothes, as if I'm wearing a clown's red nose on my elbow - my bicep muscles in that arm have atrophied from disuse and are painful to use, and hanging my arm down is physio in itself.

Getting better - my snaky scar and wrinkled arm from the cast

My thanks to Claire the physio for her help - but also for being the first to illuminate the extent of my back surgery. Having included a photo in the previous post of a spinal fusion screw, I can now confirm that in fact I had the following:

"Posterior screw and rod fixation across the fractured T12 vertebral body with bilateral transpedicular screws in T10, T11, L1 and L2."

My spinal fracture - just seen on the CT (left) and almost impossible to see on the right (x-ray). But, to summarise, it's a hot mess. Can't wait to see the screws.

So, a body full of metal then. First thought: I wonder if I can enter Robot Wars?

I was just planning my next outfit - cast off and free - when the hospital fire alarm went. Thank goodness all my appointments had been taken care of. Mat and I made a swift (okay, not that swift, for me) exit. And the rehab continues. Watch this space for the next post. And depending on how things pan out, you'll become aware if I decide to capitalise on my status as a bionic woman and am to be seen in a black twisting chair with a fluffy white cat on my lap. Till next time...time for champagne.

Celebrating cast off!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Fractured Existence Part Two: Surgeries, Sandwiches, Pill Popping and Homeward bound

The tale of the trauma, continued...

I think we left off with me awaiting an ambulance, or almost in one. Lovely paramedics Sebastian and Amanda came to transport me, catheter, ripped and (as yet) un-ripped clothing and all, to St George's hospital, Tooting. I will forever be indebted to these two noble professionals, for their kind words, Sebastian's Netflix recommendations, and last, but by no means least, the suggestion that, for the duration of the journey, I should be much more comfortable with unlimited use of gas and air. Recommended for all you pregnant women out there. That stuff is good.

Yeah baby. I talked even more than usual (apparently that is possible!) and as a result of said recommendations have now watched the whole of Whitechapel. (I pass on this recommendation - it's great - history, forensics, heart ache and corruption. Just like Jane Austen ...maybe...without the forensics.)

Even if you don't fancy Rupert Penry-Jones it's still REALLY GOOD.

Now then, a note to ambulance designers and engineers. You are not making fort lift trucks here. The jolt at the top when the ramp stopped was agonising in the extreme, and the one at the bottom was pretty excruciating too, so please - please - consider a gentler approach for spinal patients like me. Just because, well, I suppose, I have this vague notion that the purpose of an ambulance is not to make current injuries worse. But, you know, totally your call.

On arrival at hospital I suddenly had a bird's eye view of the set of Grey's Anatomy ER, Casualty and all those other shows: ten or twelve medics - ER doctors, surgeons, nurses of varying levels of authority. Neck brace, head blocks, More cannulae. More groin interest (oh yeah, they were just as interested in that here too. Freaks). Aside from the heroic and dedicated interest in my wellbeing, though, here's something about this level of activity that happens in the NHS. This is an organisation where everyone is overworked, underpaid, and consistently operating in an environment that's understaffed and unhappy.

Such a sexy look. Why don't I go out like this more often?

This can mean that, unfortunately, where the patient in concerned, things tend to be missed - mis-communicated or not communicated. Here's on: I tried my best to participate in helping with the information about my case. I was sent for an X-ray I didn't need because the CT (another CT because the one from Kingston hadn't been sent over) hadn't shown my elbow adequately. I told them this but was told I was wrong. We went there. The x-ray nurse said, "You don't need this it's on the CT."
"Yes," I said, I know. Back we went.

On the plus side I had a change of ceiling. On the down side, whoever designed hospitals put WAY too many bumps in the floor. And no one could decide whether I was nil by mouth or not. Wet sponges only take you so far.

Mine were pink. I was in too much pain to make feminist statements at the time. Sigh.

The second CT confirmed the nasty fracture in my thoracic (12) vertebra. I needed spinal fusion surgery to my thoracic region to move the vertebra away from my spinal column, to where it was dangerously close, to secure it in place with screws and glue. I hope they don't use Uhu, I thought, that stuff never worked that well. Other options were lying on my back for the next six weeks or wearing a back brace. Since both also carried the same risks as the surgery but with an added dose of extra pain and little mobility, I opted for surgery.

Illustrating where and what I was to have done. Not my x-rays. However an example of my later-in-life tango with piercing fetishism, albeit internal. 

I spent the night in A&E on a stretcher since no beds were available on any wards. I did offer to take a place on the children's ward, but I guess the criminal records bureau check would have taken too long. Ha. I thank Maddie, a brilliant therapist from The Priory (you know - celebrity haunt for rehab - that was where I hung out for my depression hospitalisation, but no celeb sightings sadly) for teaching me deep breathing. At this point my pain was unbearable and I had synchronised breathing with pain-expressing sighs. It really, really hurt.

There's not much to say about the following day. I continued to breathe and sigh with pain, and continued to have morphine that didn't come close to reducing the pain. And finally the operation after another wait in the recovery room, which seemed so ironic - they were still waiting to take me into the anaesthesia room and instead of being there I was with everyone for whom it was all over. Thank you nurses and doctors for your patience where the woman in the bed is actually moaning.

Finally, I had the operation. I managed to tell my wonderful anaesthetist to try not to make me throw up post-op, and that I was really vain so to take care with the scar. And then I was out for the count.

Wires. Lots of them. There were more than this apparently, but I thought I would post this super-attractive selfie to illustrate.

I didn't wake up in recovery, as the anaesthetist really had done a stellar job on putting me out; I jerked awake in the dark, dazed and began to notice all the wires and tubes everywhere, including one down my throat.
"Hello Jessica, you're alright, we've just got a tube down your throat so don't try to breathe yourself."
"..."Am I okay? How did the operation go? [No sound is coming out, why is no sound coming out?]
"Everything's okay, just try to relax, the breathing tube is breathing for you."
"..." Oh right, but can you tell me about the operation? [Why can't I talk? Have I lost my voice forever? What's going on? I want to talk!]
"She's panicking, let's take the tube out."
"..." Get this thing out of me, wait, ow! That hurts. Maybe don't do that. Damn it, I want to talk! "Sorry, I was just panicking because I couldn't talk,"
Yep, never mind the back injury, I just want to be able to gas on endlessly. Plus ça change.

I learned I was in intensive care. But it had gone well and Mr. "McDreamy" Laban had obviously listened when I had pleaded vanity.

A pretty neat job. (The other holes were for fluid drains by the way.)

Mat had just gone home, as the operation had taken over five hours and it was nearly midnight. But not after a quick chat with my very own McDreamy, Mr. Laban, They covered the basics: operation was a success - good.

  1. I lost six pints (3/4 of the blood in my body) during the operation so things had been a bit hairy - not so good.
  2. I was nearly paralysed - pretty bloody not good at all.
  3. And then they got on to more important things, and had a conversation about Leibniz. (Update - I spoke to my surgeon last week and while we did discuss my back he also asked after Mat. I promised to try to bring him to my follow up appointment so they could continue their discussion on 17th century philosophers. Bromance made in heaven apparently.)

What? I need spinal fusion surgery? You go right ahead. Swoon.

Life in ICU was made much easier by the fact that I had now had the operation. Despite the gruelling five hour procedure, pain levels were now just about breathable, and I also had a magic button delivering morphine every five minutes as desired. And I did desire it. Oh morphine, how did I love you, let me count the ways...

Button of bliss.

The only downside of morphine is the rather unpleasant side effect. I'm not going to go into too much detail here, as it's not the most pleasant of topics. Suffice to say that suppositories were eventually involved, for all the good they did. The only point of note in relation to this topic is that even ICU staff gets tired and forgetful: I was put on a bed pan at 5 am and told to wait it out. I waited. And then I dozed off. Somewhere in this time I think the shift workers changed and at 11 am I finally woke up and asked for help because by that stage in addition to my scars, cannulae etc. I also had an attractive mottled cardboard imprint on both buttocks. Thanks - NHS - another freebie. I'll be showing it to all my chums. Bedpans. Really, really, not a fan.

I took my first steps in four days in the ICU, using muscles that had clearly been sleeping for most of my life, judging by their virulent objections to my wanting to get out of bed. Once I was 'mobile', though, happily this indicated the true success of the op and I could be moved to a normal ward - when a bed was available.

I was an impatient inpatient, but I did try to keep calm

The next week passed in a blur of pain relief and gradually increased mobility, while I waited for my elbow operation, I waited longer, because, in addition to the nearly dying / blood loss aspects covered above, I also contracted pneumonia during my operation so had to wait longer and take even more drugs. (At this point I'm a walking pharmacy. If you'd listened closely you would have heard me rattling walking down the corridors.) I had a near brush with surgery on a Wednesday afternoon, but the anaesthetist turned me down because of the risk of death from having pneumonia (fair play - death wasn't really the objective of the operation). I was told that I had to wait till Monday because the only surgeon available the next few days specialised in feet and ankles. I thought about it, but then realised that having a foot joint in my elbow might limit my sartorial selections, so I decided to
wait it out.

Pill popping to the max

What else did I learn in hospital?

  1. London hospital food is not that great. I liked the Rice Krispies, but that was about it. Nottingham does it better (or at least they used to).
  2. You can be moved wards with no notice if they need the bed. I was moved 3 times. By the end I basically didn't know (or really care) where I was. 4am,'s moving time Jessica.
  3. Whatever they tell you, having anti-coagulant shots in your stomach is not less painful when you get the terrible bruises that sting for weeks afterwards. I'm an arm-shot woman all the way.
  4. Thanks for the cannulae. At one point I had four. Fun times.
  5. St George's has a Marks and Spencer downstairs and after 4+ days of nil by mouth their sandwiches were really my saving grace
  6. It's not just for home. On my first night on Brodie ward after ICU I demonstrated my unique ability to snore like a brontosaurus and also talk absolute nonsense in my sleep. Luckily this was entertaining for the other patients and we all had a good laugh about it the next day.
  7. You can laugh - you have to laugh. My ward mates had - variously - brain haemorrhages, brain tumours, broken ankles where they'd tried to take their own lives, and more. But we were somehow in this together which made things easier. And we had all left our dignity at the door, all of us. So whatever we did, it really didn't matter. Keep calm and carry on.
  8. Don't use hospital razors. My left leg looked like something from a horror movie after I shaved it using one - just be hairy and go with it.
  9. Some wards do allow flowers; some don't.
  10. Nurses can spill your blood all over your bed when they mess up using your cannula. Don't expect an apology, even though the blood goes all over your own cushion, slippers and cardigan. 
  11. (Some) hospital nurses like to make up rules as they go along:
"I'm just going for a walk."
"You can't go now, we're doing a handover."
"The handover isn't for another 1 and a half hours. I'll be back by then."
"Tsk." [goes back to making up rules for patient she was with at the time].
If you need something, ask for it 45 minutes beforehand to have a chance at getting it: especially for people with incontinence this is vital if you want to avoid having your bedding changed because the nurse didn't get to you with the bed pan in time.

Thanks to everyone who sent me beautiful flowers, enjoyed on the wards that allowed them!

I finally had my arm surgery, by Mr. Trompeter - whom I'm mentioning by name because, well, with a name like that I could hardly not, and he was a super chap and another excellent surgeon. Thank you again, NHS, for laying out the red carpet for me. I had an olecranon fracture at the tip of my elbow, so they numbed my whole arm for this procedure.

McDreamy mark 2 - Trompeter - ortho surgeon extraordinaire. 
(I got this from his public LinkedIn profile. Pretty sure that's allowed, but will take down if not.)

When they do this, you have to have an ultrasound on your arm to ensure that the ENORMOUS needle doesn't nick an artery while going in. I got to watch the whole thing. Probably the closest I'll ever come to watching  a scan like an expectant mother. And I'm happy to report that there was no foetus in my upper arm. I'm sure we're all relieved to hear that. House wasn't available for a diagnosis so good job I kept things relatively simple.

Totally gratuitous shot of House. This is turning into a Dr. Crush blog...

The surgery was also a success. They wrapped my arm up very unattractively, though, like a mummy, as I only have to have the cast on for two weeks. Hard to accessorise. Hard to wear much over it. Ah well. The next day as the feeling gradually came back to my arm (and the not-missed-in-any-way-not-in-the-slightest pain came back) I was finally allowed to go home.

My mum arrived to help and Mat came over to collect me. He did a great job for my return home: he bought pork belly for dinner. Unfortunately he forgot to bring me any shoes, so I shuffled through the car park in white hotel slippers which weren't particularly designed for walking on wet tarmac...but heigh ho. Like I said, he still wins all the "absent-minded" and "clumsy" prizes in my book. Home. The journey through mending my broken body was complete, and the recovery could begin. More on that soon.

Now, please take care! I've tried to have all the accidents possible for this year, but please, please watch out. Particularly on the first two stairs, anywhere.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Fractured Existence Part One: A Fall, A Rip and A Car Wash CT

In my last post I promised to write about my recent health travails, so here goes. The thing is, I'm not the clumsy one in our household. That title belongs - still I would argue - to my esteemed, beloved, absent-minded and cack-handed husband.

My husband - and me - both contenders for this to be our avatar

This is the man who once, casually, called me on a strike day during my teaching days "...just to let [me] know that he was fine now" after accidentally closing our kitchen sash window with some force onto the draining rack containing a blade up sparklingly clean "World's Sharpest KnifeTM" onto his lower arm, stabbing himself. This is the man by virtue of whose existence we have two extra large storage crates under our bed filled with replacements for most of our wedding china and glasses. (As a side point, thanks, John Lewis, for stopping the line of dinner ware I selected for our wedding. At least this affords me variety in my next choices when the remaining eleven dinner plates are gone. Rubber plates are looking pretty good right now.)

See?! Sheep. Terrifying. They're plotting their attach, I can tell

Anyway, back to me. I'm not always without my clumsy episodes either; I've broken my wrist whilst falling out of the back of my own car (back seat, old style seat belt, just enough alcohol to make it worse). And I seem to have countless unaccounted-for bruises. I think I've absorbed some clumsiness by marital osmosis so chair edges, pianos (owww) and tables attract my knees, arms and head like small domestic lightning conductors.  Or one of those scary blue buzzy devices that zaps flies. Yuck.

But it was mainly bruises. And I've made it through some challenges unscathed. Climbing Helvellyn (and some Welsh peaks too) in blizzards. Without falling off, being blown away. Without being attacked by cows or sheep. (Okay, that's a lie. I was attacked by both. Separate times. Those darned farm animals. Husband thought it was hilarious both times. Reminded me to wear a bullet-proof vest when on country walks.)

Anyway,shame I wasn't wearing them a couple of weeks ago, when, totally clumsily and accidentally, I fell down two - TWO - stairs in our shared entrance hall.

I fell far right - thankfully not onto the fire extinguishers - otherwise I would probably be dead. 

I don't remember much about this first part because I hit my head on the wall first, then managed to smack my elbow into the ceramic floor and finally fall flat on my middle back. I'm not a religious person, so can only thank goodness and perhaps some of the karma from those evil sheep and cows that Mat (husband) was there too and found me seconds after my fall. One team of paramedics, about fifty x-rays and eight stitches in my head later I was admitted to hospital with the best set of injuries I ever heard for a fall down two stairs: head trauma, check; fractured elbow, check; and potential further damage to be determined.

I wasn't frightened at this point. I was in a daze from all of it - the constant movement from one room to another for x-rays, stitches, arm plaster, and movement from a stretcher to a hospital bed when, at last, after hours of waiting, one finally became available. I managed to sleep a little from the (I imagine) healthy dose of morphine I was administered. For a couple of hours, then, oblivion.

Woken, I entered what to me is a familiar state of being in hospital: that without a care for dignity. After a visit by doctors on morning rounds I learned that - in addition to the above - I also seemed to have two fractures in my back, requiring a CT scan to figure out what was really wrong and how bad it was.

Because of the uncertainty about the state of my back I risked paralysis by any movement, and was asked about every ten minutes (it seemed) to move my toes, my legs, my knees, and (dignity - again - gone) to tell them if I had sensation in my groin. It was clear my groin was front of mind. I think I can safely say that there has never before been such interest in my groin. Well, doctors, whatever gets you through the day.

I was allowed only to lie flat on my back. Moving was strictly limited to turning my head slightly in one direction or another - and doing the leg movement exercises as my party trick for visiting doctors. All fine and dandy. Until I needed the loo.

Humiliation and relief. And somehow the cardboard makes it worse.

"We have to log roll you," the sister said. "That means that we move you without moving your spine, like a pencil."
"A pencil?" Interesting choice. Doesn't sound too bad. And I get help too. Three nurses one side, another nurse on my left side and a sister at my head holding my neck. Clearly some operation for a bed pan to go under me.
"On my count of "Ready, steady, roll" " the sister said, "we will go on 'roll'."
"I'm ready," I think. "This has got to be better than trying to shove the darned thing under me."
Let me dispell that myth now. Log rolling: TOTALLY sucks.

Log rolling - It may mean I'm not paralysed but it really f-ing hurts when your spine is fractured

I don't think I've ever been in such pain. I also don't think that I probably rolled as well as this, what with having my left elbow in a temporary cast, they didn't have too many options. And then the conversation went on.

"You're wearing pants," the nurse on the left said.
"Yes," I said. What's wrong with that? I'm not Vivienne Westwood or one of those Hollywood starlets who can't wait to flash the paps a bit of something extra?
"Tsk," said the nurse. "We'll have to rip those off."
"You can just slide them down," I said helpfully.
"Too late," said the nurse, dangling my formerly quite nice M&S briefs up for my perusal. 
Now, it could just be me, but there seems to be a genuine dislike for wearing pants in hospital. You're not allowed them for surgery and I get that, but is there a criterion on medical application forms for cloth tearing fetishim?

The hospital system. Ripping off clothes, one piece at a time

[Segue - I forgot to say - on admission to hospital they tried the same thing. But this time with a Helmut Lang jacket. And delerious or not, I was having NONE of it. I would rather have amputated my own arm at this point than have my new and expensive (blood-accessorised) jacket taken off. So I managed to move. It's one of those super-human strength moments. When the only thing to be done is to make the save for the good of, errr, humanity.]

Pant-free and able to re-join the community of acceptable patients, I was awarded surgical stockings - gee thanks - able to proceed and things went ahead. (Eventually I had to be catheterised because the whole log-rolling thing was so excruciating that I couldn't actually go. Side note: catheters are not that bad. I think they'd definitely come in useful on big nights out to save you going to the loo, though admittedly I might have some work on the marketing to do there...can't see Lord Sugar backing me on that one.)

All stockings and no knickers. Hospital chic.

By this point I was making good friends with the hospital ceilings. I had no glasses with me and my contact lenses had been removed. Conversations always began with a nurse or doctor saying "Hello" and me doing my favourite Robert DeNiro impression (including a finely honed squint) to figure out whether he or she was, in fact, talking to me.

Going to the car wash, yeah

After being promised an elbow operation and on nil by mouth (which we all know is the worst - dry mouth, dehydration. On top of pain. Yeah, thanks for that.) I finally went for my CT.
Have you ever had a CT scan? It's like being in a carwash, I swear. You get moved in and out, and there are voices or symbols that give instructions. "Hold your breath" (weird picture of cartoon face resembling TinTin appears). "Breathe normally." In and out I go, and the camera swooshes around my body - I try not to look - car washes can make me feel sick. And then the whirring stops and I am slowly pulled out, waxed, polished and shiny. Just kidding, but really - if you ever get a chance to try it, just see if I'm right.

It wasn't all fun and games, though I'm trying to write the funnier side of things here. The morphine wasn't even touching the pain in my back, my bottom was sore from 24 hours in one fixed position - save those excruciating log roll moments - and my breathing was a gasp of pain in, one out, on and on throughout the day. Each breath another burn of pain to my crumpled (yet pencil straight) body.

After the CT results came back things happened fast. After a day of seeing fairly few people, Mat had just left after visiting hours when one of the doctors came to me. "A very nasty fracture on T12 vertebra" the diagnosis. And this meant immediate transferral to another hospital to take further

You can judge the severity of your condition by the speed of the NHS to move and the number of people dealing with you. I think I counted seven people from the ward and two paramedics from St George's, Tooting, who arrived to take me away. That's some trauma. They gave me gas and air and off I went. That's enough for now. Part two to come shortly.

Friday, 10 October 2014

2014: Depression - an illness. Everybody else is doing it, so why can't we?

This is a post about mental health. I hurt myself badly this year through depression. And then I broke myself physically. Another post about that to follow. And it all started with a stubbed toe.

This year we did some major renovations to our flat. When I say 'we' I mean 'I' of course. My husband's idea of a renovation is changing a broken light bulb. or taking down the Christmas tree (in April). (I can confirm that April is, in fact, well after twelfth night, and thus you superstitious types might want to clutch your lucky(? for whom?) rabbit's foot as you continue to read.)

Flat à la Manhattan, and piano (just seen)

I decided to bring a touch of Manhattan to our London home, so with the help of our DIY Tzar Tris, I drilled and took off the plaster from our hall wall, exposing beautiful multi-coloured bricks beneath. I repainted the hall, living room and toilet walls, and framed and hung many pictures, photographs and mirrors to offset the stark white setting I had created. I varnished and stained tables and chairs, bought cushion covers and rearranged furniture. And then, transformation almost complete, one happy Sunday near the end of June, for no reason at all, I moved our piano - as if purposefully - into my left little toe.

Firstly, of course: "OWWWWWWW!"

Definitely NOT walking into the centre

But secondly, necessarily, Google for NHS advice and thirdly a trip to our oh-so-appropriately named 'walk-in' centre for a toe check up - was it broken? Was there anything that could be done, other than grimace and hobble? Apparently not much. Strapped up - my little toe to its bigger next door brother, that was it. However, dear reader, little toes are still very large in the area of pain, and a right royal pain it was - not only literally, but through the subsequent sartorial limitations. I'm talking about SHOES. The mothership of fashion in my view. SHOES. I-COULD-NO-LONGER-WEAR-ANYTHING-BUT- UGGS. Like, total disaster, babe. Tyra dissed them in season 3 of ANTM. Ugh [sic], What to do, yeah?

Uggs? Nooooo!

Luckily I found a pair of plimsolls - coincidentally these were Uggs too  - but shoes not boots - that I could wince - less - around in and off I went. 6 week recovery. Not really an illness at all. Simples.

Unfortunately life didn't quite work like that.

In my previous post I talked about loneliness and moving back from New York. Such was my loneliness and feeling of isolation and lack of support that I began to suffer a severe episode of depression, which started early 2013 and continued well into February this year. During the worst of this time I spent all the time I could in bed, or watching television catatonically.When I wasn't crying from loneliness or just plain sadness, that is. I worked though the struggle to do so was immense, every day a new battle to just survive it. I found social situations exhausting and stressful, and sleeping became fitful at best. Fortunately I found help - a (UK) doctor who prescribed medication and cognitive behavioural therapy to treat the symptoms, while I managed the move back home to the UK. And gradually I felt better and able to go out into the world again: I mostly slept through the night, I saw friends, I exercised.

The road to recovery

At the time of the toe incident, and while still being treated with medication for depression, I was working for a client and having an increasingly hard time. My job means going into tricky situations, this no exception, but the difference here was that two of the people at the place I was working - third party people (i.e. not from my company or the company I was consulting for) - had taken such violent affront to me that life at work became very tough.

Let me just talk about my job for a second. It is to advise. It is to think through solutions and share them, and ask for input. It is to join a team and work with them towards a better company - better outcomes, people, changes. It is to get things done. That is my job. And finally, let's consider that I am not a 21 year old wet-behind-the-ears graduate with the sounds of a sticky-floored nightclub ringing in my ears. I am nearing veteran status as a consultant, I work bloody hard and I know what I'm talking about - or when I don't I say so, or keep schtum.

Making stuff happen. That's what I do.

These two women decided a week and (in one case) a day after meeting me that they did not like me or want me around. Fine. We all meet people we wouldn't socialise with outside of work, but with whom we need to get on with. And, for goodness sake, I cost a lot of money - so it would be foolish not to use me.

Still, perhaps they were fools. Within a single day I was demoted in my role to fill the most junior status imaginable; I was also seated in a building 10 miles from where they worked. Only two others from our twenty-plus sized team worked in this building, and were often elsewhere, leaving me alone, in the Midlands, even though it cost £500+ a week to get me there on the train, let alone hotel costs. I was physically and deliberately isolated from them. If I worked at home I was criticised for not being ' visible': interesting how you can be more physically visible working 10 miles away than 100 - I haven't been able to understand how that works.

Eventually they seemed to understand that I could in fact do more for my money, and I worked on a single piece of deep research. Alone. No guidance - I wasn't granted the pleasure of answers to my phone calls or emails. Fine - not the way I wanted it but I did it. But again, I was isolated. I was disinvited from meetings; I was criticised in the office, or only spoken to to disinvite me from yet another meeting or to comment on my appearance: "I couldn't get one leg in that."

Not the most fun project ever

I'm afraid that now I will stoop to that level of personal comments - which I feel are unprofessional - to help you imagine these two vicious persons I am grateful no longer to be acquainted with. For this I turn to Roald Dahl, who perfectly describes one of this pair (who were both female - I imagine still are) in James and the Giant Peach: "(Aunt Sponge) was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled." Copy this but make the other woman tanned with massive false eyelashes - not, unfortunately, massive enough to complement her chubby cheeks and grotesque exterior, and you have the pair. If doughnut scoffing were an olympic sport, I'd fancy these for the GBR gold and silver.

Sponge and Sponge 2 (No Spiker.)

Shunned by silence on the few occasions I was in the office by these two 'colleagues'; whispered about; isolated and spoken to only rarely, I of course shared this with my superiors, but the fact was this: I was being bullied. When I asked for help I was advised it was 'inappropriate to show stress'; another person said it was 'as much my fault for not bringing it up sooner.' And another has admitted to me since that I could have equally been criticised for requesting to stay and fight it out or admitting defeat and requesting to leave. I felt trapped.

Bullying. Evil. Always has been. Always will be.

As a child, I was bullied at 5, at 10 and at 14, very badly. I thought I was over it. Clearly not. My depression - which had been under good control, no longer needing CBT, seeped back little by little. I found it hard to go to work, knowing an empty office would await me, and little likelihood of much work-related interaction. Knowing I would have to try to speak to those two women who refused to interact with me.

Unfortunately this could only be maintained so long

It got worse and worse. Isolation grows like weeds around an empty gravel patch and suffocates the other life that could potentially live there. I left to walk for lunch and would bite my lip to try to stop the tears coming - every day, and clock watch the minutes to take me home and to bed. I suddenly found it hard to socialise again. Running became a trial, as if someone were constantly pushing at my head. Going out was exhausting. I was becoming catatonic again.

Finally I could barely hold myself together through the day - though I had taken not a single day off - it was becoming harder and harder to start the day at all. I didn't want to go to work. I didn't want to live.

I refer again to the description of myself at work. I am someone whose job it is to get things done, and that is what I did. I made an emergency appointment with my psychiatrist - yes, my doctor is a psychiatrist. I asked my GP to refer me to him (as I had been privately paying for him before) to apply for medical insurance and finally, I asked and agreed with my psychiatrist to admit me to hospital. I could not go on any longer.

Here comes the rub. Mental health as an illness. I was absolutely terrified of anyone at work knowing the truth; I feared stigmatisation after the feedback to not demonstrate stress at work. And I feared it because before I had been shunned after (once - ONCE) crying at work. The next day I was rolled off a difficult project at the end of my term, rather than extended. I wasn't consulted. And I felt sub-human because of it.

I got better, though. Two weeks in hospital and a lot of day patient care and I felt ready to try life out again. The doctors and staff who treated me were amazing. Thank you to my friends whom I emailed to tell of this at the time. You have been incredibly supportive and amazing. You visited me in hospital and brought me wisdom and love - and even though I can't love myself in this state I re-read your emails and keep trying to accept myself just a little bit more.

Today is World Mental Health day and I am coming out. I am someone who has depression. I take medication and get help for it. And I can work and operate as a normal person with that help - and hopefully, soon, as in the past, without it. Please don't patronise me by treating me differently because of this. Please don't make decisions for me. If I had broken my leg, you wouldn't start treating me differently at work. You would sympathise but you wouldn't stigmatise. So please don't. I have an illness and it is being treated. If I need help I'll get it. I don't want it to define me and I don't want to be 'the one with depression'. I'm as funny, intelligent, driven, annoying, ridiculous etc. as I always was - as I was 1 minute ago before you knew. Please think about that.

But workers, everywhere, and mostly, leaders, and future leaders. Please recognise mental health for what it is. Something that is challenging, difficult and takes time to heal, but does not and should not preclude suffers from being just like you. Look around. Maybe there is a leader among you who is excelling in spite of it. And don't send flowers for just physical illnesses. Mental illnesses are just as serious and real.

Depression is the curse of the strong, so it's more than likely that in our country where 1 in 4 people have a mental health problem, you know many people who might be suffering - perhaps in silence. Let's end the stigma together. I am standing up. Please stand with me - and my friends.We are all standing close to you now.