So it turns out that at the age of 36 I’m not as bulletproof as I thought.
I’m not normally one to write stuff down and although I love reading about technology and the people involved, I’ve never seen my story as being interesting enough to share. Perhaps it’s a typical ‘millennial’ piece of self-indulgence, in which case please forgive me, but I figured that if just one person benefits in any way then it’s worth doing.
This story actually starts about 4 and a half years ago when I was rushed in to Tunbridge Wells A&E with severe chest pains, shortness of breath and an elevated temperature. Whilst initially feared to be something heart related it was diagnosed as a pretty hardcore case of ‘indigestion’ and after a night of oxygen, morphine and the professional equivalent of Gaviscon I was packed off home. The main talking point regarding cause was a possible ‘1 sausage too-many’ at the George & Dragon that afternoon – certainly no indication of anything more sinister.
Fast forward to a couple of Tuesdays ago — 12th June 2018 — and for the first time in 12 years of working at Avios I sent myself home ill citing a bit of a temperature and increasing abdominal pain, similar to that of 4 and a half years ago. Now, I’ve never been a napper (daytime sleeper, not sheep rustler…) but it was clear something wasn’t quite right as over the next 48 hours I think I slept for 40 of them and by Thursday afternoon I wasn’t in great shape.
It has been pointed out to me that if you’re going to be sick then best do it during the World Cup group stages as there is plenty of football to watch on TV. ‘Silver linings’ and all that aside, I’ll certainly remember specific fixtures as mental markers with the tournament opening match (Russia vs Saudi Arabia) somewhat appropriately kicked off the point at which things got a bit serious. Whilst watching our Siberian comrades school the Saudis on the pitch I felt a very severe pain down my right side, like somebody stabbing me with a hot knife.
Lydia, my wife, was out at the time but when she returned we discussed what to do next. “I’m sure it’s just a stitch” was my conclusion and nothing that a good night’s sleep wouldn’t fix. Laying very still with controlled deep breathing seemed to dull the pain from an 8 to about a 5 but sleep was never really going to be an option. The following morning (Friday) we drove to TW A&E.
After a quick check-up in ‘triage’ I was progressed through to ‘resus’ (resuscitation) where work began on diagnosis and treatment. We moved through various options including pneumonia and heart attack but after a bit more prodding, poking, blood tests, x-rays and CT scans it become clearer that I had a particularly nasty infection and that my gallbladder was especially upset about it. I was moved up to a surgical ward where fluids, antibiotics and morphine fought the infection (and the pain) but to little effect. Overnight to Saturday my temperature rose over 40° (ideally 36°–37°), my blood oxygen levels dropped below 90% (ideally 95%+) and my heart rate was akin to a German techno DJ pushing 140bpm. It’s safe to say I was quite unwell.
Mr Okaro, my surgeon, gave me the standard run down on the risks of surgery early Saturday morning. To be honest I was still so out of it on morphine, antibiotics and a lack of sleep that he could have told me the sky was green, gravity was fake news and that England had won the world cup without the first hint of a challenge from me. I do however remember suddenly becoming very aware of my own mortality. Later that afternoon I was prepped for surgery and taken through to be sedated — it was game time.
4 hours of surgery and an additional 12 hours of sedation later I ‘woke up’ in ICU. Most people I’ve spoken to about going under general anesthesia have similar stories to tell; the thin line between reality and non-reality, the random conversations about complete nonsense and how closing your eyes dumps you in to a new world comparable to a scene out of Ready Player One.
The next few days post surgery in the ICU were the hardest.
ICU’s are naturally very stark environments, noisy 24/7, full of people in particularly distressing situations and as a result not very restful. In many ways whilst my body was fighting the infection post surgery the larger battle was going on in my mind. It’s well documented that mental and physical health are connected but I’ve personally never had such a clear example of this. I was at all out war with myself, convinced I was going to die, simultaneously terrified and angry at that fact. After the event I understand how this was largely the various drugs floating around my body but much like how a beer or two leads to more ‘honest’ conversations, it felt like my deeper, inner and unguarded self came to the surface whilst coming off the sedatives.
With the infection on the retreat and all indications showing that the surgery had been successful; on the Tuesday evening (thankfully) I was moved up to a surgical ward from the ICU to rest further and recuperate before being fully discharged on Thursday afternoon. Getting home to Lydia, Cobi and Maggie was by far and away the best medicine yet.
So what was wrong?
My discharge notes indicate I had Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) with Sepsis (just generally very bad infection) and Necrotic Gangrene (lack of blood supply causes tissue to die) in part of the gallbladder with severe Omental Adhesions(scar tissue formed around bowel loops causing obstruction).
So why write about all this?
As I mentioned at the start, perhaps this is all a touch self-indulgent but bare with me as I share a few thoughts from the events of the past 2 weeks.
- The NHS
- Mental Health
From the moment I set foot in Tunbridge Wells hospital I was cared for. I wasn’t part of a machine or just a number with a set of issues but rather a human being in pain and who needed fixing. From the triage nurse and A&E doctors who quickly and calmly diagnosed me to the ward nurses who fought throughout the night to keep my temperature down and reduce my pain. From the surgeon who skillfully cut me open, removed the bad stuff and put me back together again to the ICU nurses who tirelessly supported me as I ‘rebooted’ my body after sedation. I simply cannot put in to words how much admiration I have for these people — each of whom does so against a backdrop of reduced funding, lengthening hours and some bureaucratic inefficiencies that would drive me to despair.
What is perhaps more amazing is that I received all this care (100+ individuals taking in to account the cleaners, anesthetists, cooks, porters etc…) without one single request for ID, no credit card payment upfront or challenge as to whether or not I’m “eligible”. We have something truly special in this country — something worth fighting for.
To anybody who works in the NHS, I salute you and I thank you.
I’m blessed to have such great family and friends. I was rarely actually on my own whilst in hospital between visits from great friends and family, whether it was a conversation about how I was feeling or simply sitting with me watching a random World Cup match. I had daily visits from my parents and near hourly messages of ‘get well soon’ from various people I know. We were gifted a freezer full of “cook” meals by our church (an amazing story in itself, feel free to ask me about it) and received enough offers of babysitting to have Cobi looked after until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Without this amazing support from the whole community I’m convinced that I would not have recovered as quickly as I am— I’m sure there is a medical study out there to support the hypothesis that a positive supporting community of friends and family accelerates the healing process, if not then it needs writing.
A special mention must go to my Mrs M who simultaneously had to deal with a broken husband, 4 month old son, 5 year old dog, driveway being dug up and a faulty freezer (among other things). I’m fully aware of how awesome she is, it’s why I married her, but the past 2 weeks have really affirmed to me that she’s 1-in-a-million.
To everybody who’s been there for us, however small or large, I thank you.
The human body is an incredible machine. Working in and around technology for the past 15 years I’m very aware how difficult it is to create, maintain and operate complex systems but the human body, along with our mind, is a true masterpiece.
I’ve been fortunate to have relatively good physical and mental health over my life with only a few minor bumps and bruises along the way but the few days in the ICU following surgery gave me a small insight in to a life with real mental ill-health. Not just a case of sadness but helplessness, anxiousness, irrational thinking, paranoia and an overall foreboding sense of darkness invaded my mind and quite frankly terrified me. A week on from having surgery the ‘stress’ I feel related to my trauma is still very real and something I know I will need help to resolve in time, possibly through professional help. Writing this down has already started that process.
Those few days of darkness for me are nothing in comparison to the mental prisons that I’m sure so many others feel locked up in. My trauma was short-lived and as already mentioned I’m fortunate to have received treatment from arguably the greatest healthcare system in the world and support from a community of the greatest friends and family — I know this isn’t the case for everybody.
For anybody who has or is struggling with their mental health then please, please, please talk to somebody about it. It doesn’t have to be a big thing and could start with something as simple as a chat with a friend but the vital thing is you talk about it. If not a friend then give The Samaritans a call on 116 123 or visit your GP.
If you’ve made it this far through then thanks for reading. I’d love to know what you think.
Whether or not any of this rings true with you?
Have you had a similar situation? Let’s talk.