Recovery, a dinner party, and a lot of sleeping

R2-D2 cake by Jane Bakes Great...

R2-D2 cake by Jane Bakes Great…

On Friday evening I managed to escape the house for the first time in weeks when Jane and I attended our friend Andrew’s 40th birthday (dinner) party near Stirling. It was great to be out of my bed and amongst friends for an evening; although I am paying for it now in terms of energy.

Recovery

It’s now nearly eight weeks since I came down with viral meningitis which affected my eyesight very badly and landed me in hospital for six days.

My recovery has been slow but generally steady. I’ve been back and forth to Victoria hospital for various ophthalmology tests and at the last appointment I had with the consultant she was satisfied that my eyesight issues were related to the meningitis and that I should continue to see steady progress.

I saw the GP last week too who gave me new painkillers for the ongoing headaches, which he thinks are partly related to the meningitis and partly to do with the eyesight issues.

What I’ve been doing

One of my work colleagues asked me on the phone last week what I’ve been up to while off sick. The first couple of weeks I spent mostly sleeping. My energy levels were in my boots, and my eyesight was so awful I couldn’t read, so I mostly lay in bed listening to Chain Reaction interviews on BBC iPlayer Radio on demand.

During the next few weeks, as my strength grew and my eyesight improved a little I pottered around the house tidying. The house is now the tidiest it’s been for probably years. I’m now turning my attention gently towards the shed and the garden before winter overtakes the lawn.

Of course, some days I’ve over-done-it a little, as I try to find what I’m capable of. Usually, I’ve been able to sleep it off the next day.

I’ve also spent a lot of time with my three boys, Reuben (5), Joshua (5) and Isaac (3) which has been fun. Exhausting at times but definitely great fun and nice just to hang out, be silly, and bond.

What I’ve not been doing

Because of my eyesight issues (unable to focus properly, flashing images, double vision, and blind spots) I’ve not been able to read very much. I love to read, and with so much time available it’s been quite frustrating not to lose myself in a book. If nothing else this experience is teaching me to be patient.

My phone has been quite a lifeline, and even at the height of my eyesight issues I was able to make out words on my smartphone if I held it very close to my face, and closed my right eye. Ironically, it was only as my eyesight was improving that I discovered the Android accessibility tools.

I’ve not been on my computer as much as I normally would, either. Again, this has been linked to my eyesight issues. About a month ago I was able to use my computer only if I either reduced the screen resolution (how many pixels you can see on the screen at once) from 1920 x 1080 to 1024 x 700, or if I used the Windows built-in screen accessibility tools and zoomed everything to 300%.

It’s been a bit easier to use my PC over the last couple of weeks but my eyes get really tired more quickly, and I suspect that also affects the headaches.

I did manage to move my email to Gmail, though, which felt like a massive success, given the circumstances.

And I’ve not been able to cycle, which has been disappointing. We’ve had some beautifully clear days. I love to cycle in the early autumn when the air is clear and dry but the temperature is lower and the roads are not yet strewn with fallen leaves.

I have been trying to get out for a walk every few days though, and gently build up some stamina. Although my GP told me last week that he expects it will take me 4–6 months before I’m fully fit.

And so to last weekend…

Thanks to Jane’s parents and younger sister we were able to get away for an evening and overnight stay to attend our friend Andrew’s 40th birthday gathering near Stirling (about a 90 minutes’ drive from Anstruther).

It was great to be out of the house and not going to a hospital appointment. It was great to be amongst friends, for some fun chat and silliness, and to eat Jane’s delicious R2‑D2 cake (photo above) that she’d made for him.

We stayed the night in the nearby Dunblane Hydro, where I spent an uncomfortable and largely sleepless night, and in the morning we invited another friend, Rich, over to join us for breakfast.

When I got home I felt exhausted but happy. It had been a good 24 hours.

And today… well, today I mostly slept.

Viral meningitis is a pain in the neck!

My bed at Victoria hospital, Kirkcaldy

My bed at Victoria hospital, Kirkcaldy

Earlier this year I decided to blog more honestly about what’s really going on in my life and in my head.I haven’t done much of that, although I’ve wanted to. The reason is this has been, in many ways, the hardest year of my life both physically and emotionally. It culminated in me being admitted to hospital a couple of weeks ago with a suspected brain haemorrhage that turned out to ‘only’ be viral meningitis!

Skipping back a couple of months to the start of May I visited my GP feeling very run down, and suspecting that I had a mouth infection. I did. My GP looked really shocked at just how run down I looked and he signed me off immediately with stress.

Work was crazy, I wasn’t sleeping, I hadn’t had a proper holiday since October 2013, and my relationship with Jane was in a pretty bad place for a number of reasons. I don’t want to say too much just now about the problems that Jane and I were facing except to say that they were pretty serious, and that I cried in a way that I hadn’t done since… well, since my dad died in 1998.

Things are much better between us now, I’m happy to report. Relationships Scotland have been a good resource and a good support through this crisis. I’m sure I’ll blog more about it in due course.

Headache

Fast forward to the afternoon of Wednesday 23 July. At work, I noticed that I had a headache. I don’t get headaches very often, except when I’m particularly dehydrated and being the carrier of a kidney condition I’ve learned over the years—not least following a rather terrifying visit from two Leningrad medics approaching me with a scary smile, a mouthful of unintelligible language, and a loaded syringe at my bedside on a school trip to the then-USSR in 1988; the UTI/kidney infection that they had come to diagnose prevented me from attending what would have been my first NYC course at Darley Dale (#2) in April 1988—to keep myself well watered particularly in the heat. And boy! hasn’t it been hot of late? Our office was unbearably hot, we had just acquired a new web developer and he had been squeezed into our already overcrowded office. With five desks in the room now it was getting cosy in both a literal and metaphorical sense. I took a couple of swigs of water, hunted for a couple of painkiller tablets from my rucksack and determined to sort it out properly once I got home.

The following morning (Thursday 24 July) I woke up, reached for my glasses, checked the time on my phone and then noticed that I had what looked like a small flashing square in the middle of the field of vision of my left eye. I put it down to having looked at my phone in the dark. It felt like the effect of when you stare at a bright light, like the sun (just in case you couldn’t think of any examples of a bright light… a torch might be another example. Or a mobile phone screen. Or the illuminated bulb from a lighthouse. I digress.)

It’s fine, it’ll pass.

A couple of hours later I was sitting at my PC at work and mentioned to my colleague Steve that I was struggling to see properly. The small flashing square in my left eye had grown a little and was really beginning to affect my ability to focus clearly. Maybe I was just too tired? Perhaps it was related to my high blood pressure, although the renal people seemed to think that it was under control. Never mind, I had an appointment to see my optician the following afternoon, she’d be able to look into my eyes and determine if there was a problem.

Optical migraine?

Friday 25 July comes and the optician is satisfied with the health of my eyes. My prescription hasn’t changed again (I am still using my prescription from 2010, which is unheard of—from 1979 until 2010 my eyesight has steadily deteriorated, until now. Oh the irony!), and I managed to see beyond the flickering blob, now about ten times the size it was the previous morning. Emma, the optician, wondered if I was experiencing an optical migraine.

This was the first time that someone had offered a diagnosis. I’ve never suffered from migraines in the past so that explained perhaps why I was unfamiliar with the symptoms. I looked it up online and learned that they could be brought on by stress, heat, dehydration. It was all beginning to add up. The article explained that they affected only one eye and would last a maximum of 72 hours.

Fever

I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, very early on Saturday (26 July) morning, my teeth were chattering and I felt frozen. I was so cold, but sweating. I was clearly in the middle of a fever. This wasn’t good. I stayed in bed on Saturday morning but by lunchtime my condition had worsened and Jane phoned NHS 24. After about three hours of pestering them they organised an appointment at the out of hours’ service at St Andrews community hospital, and Jane drove me there.

I saw a kindly but slightly dishevelled GP who examined me, and from my generous gift of a small pot of wee, coupled with my medical history, he diagnosed a urinary tract infection. The eyesight distortions he reasoned was caused by “untreated sepsis”. Armed with a filled script for antibiotics I returned home to bed.

More GPs

Sunday (27 July) I got worse. More fever. More headache. More chest pain. More… everything!

Monday (28 July) I saw a local GP. She changed my antibiotic and gave me something for the migraine. “If that doesn’t work in 24 hours,” she said, “come back tomorrow.”

Guess what?! On Tuesday (29 July) I returned and saw my own GP. He reckoned that we hadn’t broken the migraine. We were now seven days into the headache, which had now moved from the left hemisphere to the right, and my right eye was now affected. He sent me away with a two day prescription for a very strong painkiller.

It didn’t work. I got worse.

On Thursday (31 July) I was back in the health centre waiting room and saw a fourth GP. While sitting in the waiting room at the health centre I mentioned to Jane that the last person I saw who looked as bad as I felt was an ex-girlfriend who had salmonella septicaemia which she’d acquired from licking the bowl of uncooked cake mix!

Dr Mitchell called me into his consulting room. I told him my sorry tale and he looked worried. I always seem to see him at my worst. Dr Mitchell gave me what I discovered later was a full neurological examination, phoned Victoria hospital in Kirkcaldy and had me admitted immediately. After packing an overnight bag Jane drove me there.

Visual distortions

Having never knowingly had migraines, which I guess really means that I’ve never had one, the visual distortions were quite beautiful at times. “They are very pretty,” I told more than one GP, “but I really don’t want them.”

As I’ve already said the main effect that I see is a flashing shape in my primary field of vision. This is now in both eyes. The one in my left eye currently looks like a stretched out group of islands; the one in my right like a ragged oblong. Both create a blind spot that makes it hard for me to focus on anything particularly well.

At the centre of my vision it feels like I’ve been staring at the sun, so everything is much brighter, except for this black, flashing spot in the centre.

Then I’ve also experienced random flashing lights across the whole width of my vision, plus what I can only describe as multi-coloured glitter that randomly scatters itself across my view. And if that’s not enough I’ve also been experiencing small crosses, like plusses + mapping their way across my view of view. Like I said all very artistic and at times mesmerizingly beautiful but also quite unwanted.

Admissions

Following a blood test and a CT brain scan I saw a consultant who told me that it definitely wasn’t a UTI, he suspected that I had viral meningitis. Not bacterial, he assured me, that’s the deadly one. To be honest, I felt quite relieved that this condition had a name. At least I knew what we were fighting.

Ward 43

View of the car park from my hospital side room on Ward 43.

View from my hospital side room on Ward 43.

That night around midnight I was moved upstairs to a ward. I slept surprisingly well.

Friday morning ward round and another consultant swept into my side room with his entourage of junior doctors and nurses. He was kind, and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders—I felt supported and cared for. A few moments later though he took away my certainty in almost everything for the next five days. He was doubting the diagnosis of viral meningitis. He’d had a chance to examine my medical history and was beginning to wonder if I’d had a brain haemorrhage.

The word that had haunted my family’s medical history since 15 March 1983—beware the ides of March!—the date that my dad collapsed in Nottingham (his birthplace) having just delivered the 1982–1983 ITT/IEE Faraday Lecture, and actually mid-interview with the BBC. Needless to say that interview never got transmitted.

Over the course of that day the plan on how to investigate my condition changed three times. The telling of the final version was interrupted by someone coming to take me for two further CT scans of my brain (one of my veins, the other of my arteries).

“Sorry, I’ve just phoned to cancel that,” the junior doctor told the porter.”

“Has he just stolen your punchline?” I asked.

“Yeah, and he’s thrown my flow… what was I saying?”

He was telling me that they’d decided that three CT scans in two days was exposure to more radiation than I deserved. That would have involved me being injected with a dye, waiting for it to pass through the veins in my brain, scanning that, waiting again for the dye to clear, then re-injecting me to do the same for my arteries.

Lumbar puncture

Plan C was to give me a lumbar puncture that afternoon, and wait for Monday to poke me into the MRI scanner to do both veins and arteries at once, using magnetism rather rocks that glow in the dark.

The lumbar puncture was less painful than I had feared. I was rather delighted to learn that the other name for a lumbar puncture is a ‘spinal tap’, the name of a spoof rock band from the 80s, whom I saw live at Wembley at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert in 1991. They closed with the bassist, Derek Smalls, walking up to the microphone and shouting, “Goodnight Wimbledon!”

Slow days

Saturday and Sunday were very slow days. I had a lot of time to think about what was going on. If it was a haemorrhage was I at risk of having more? My dad had had three. What if that happened? At worst I would die. I didn’t want to die. I thought about Jane, Reuben, Joshua and Isaac. I thought about my mum Rosalie, my sister Jenni and brother Eddie. I cried. What if it left me disabled, or brain damaged, as it had with my dad? I thought about losing my job, about the possibility of needing to move house. I had to stop my imagination running off before me, concocting all sorts of tragedies.

In the end I decided not worry about it. Whatever had happened had already happened. Besides whichever path I explored quickly ended with “…and then the doctors would need to do something but I don’t know what that is due to my lack of medical knowledge”.

Saturday and Sunday became quite peaceful from that point onwards.

LEGO Star Wars X-Wing micro fighter and card.

Something to alleviate the boredom over the weekend. A gift from my friend Gary.

MRI scan

On Monday my MRI was postponed until the afternoon, and then about an hour earlier than I’d been told a porter came to collect me. It seems that my scan had been rescheduled yet again. He threw a blanket over my shoulders and wheeled me through corridors, up and down in lifts, to the old part of the hospital which quite shocked me, to be honest. It was tatty, there were holes in some walls, sheets of plastic hanging from the ceiling to shield raw brickwork. I felt like I was being pushed through a war zone! (I was feeling quite melodramatic, and I couldn’t see very well…!)

This was my second MRI brain scan. I enjoyed it just as much as the first, which wasn’t much. I am quite claustrophobic so the idea of being shoved head-first into a tube filled me with dread. The radiographer invited me to lie down on a long, thin stainless-steel tray which I could see would be pushed into the scanner on a track. With my head in the right place she placed a shaped cushion under my knees to make me feel more comfortable; I felt like I was being packed for shipping. Then she gave me a bulb on a long tube.

“If you feel uncomfortable or want to stop for any reason,” she told me, “just squeeze this and we’ll come and pull you out.”

I nodded.

“And don’t worry, it’s been used plenty of times already today, so I know it’s working.”

Perhaps a little too much information? I could feel my heart rate quickening.

The radiographer placed a pair of headphones over my ears, and then lowered a cage over my head.

I was really beginning to panic now.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m really anxious.”

“About the procedure or the results?”

“Both.”

“Oh dear.”

And with that I was moved head-first into the machine. I closed my eyes; I didn’t have my glasses on anyway so I wouldn’t have been able to see anything anyway. Not that there is anything to see, apart from a big old helping of pure claustrophobia.

My head was spinning. I could feel the panic surging within my chest. My stomach was doing somersaults. I could hear a voice within my head screaming at me to squeeze that bulb with all my might. I wanted out. I just wanted out.

And then the rational part of my brain spoke. I needed this scan. I needed to know what the results were. I needed to know if I had had a haemorrhage; even a small one. I’ve done this before, I can do this again.

I took a deep breath. My eyes were still firmly closed. And another breath. Then I began to recite the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”) which I’ve used in the past to help settle myself. And another deep breath. I could feel the panic lessening.

Then the music started. From a sheet in the waiting room I had selected to listen to a selection of the hits of the rock band Queen. I know Queen, they were my favourite band as a teenager. I have a copy of the guitar that Brian May made with his father Harold, manufactured by Burns—that’s how much of a Queen fan I was.

The music was SO LOUD! I began to get anxious again. I’m not sure I can do… And then the scanner began which almost drowned out the music, which immediately made sense of volume.

I have no idea what an MRI scanner does, except that it uses powerful magnetic fields to take 3D scans of your body. If I was to guess based just on the sounds and vibrations that it makes then I’d say that it mostly does drilling. A lot of drilling.

BRRRRRRRR! DZZZZZ DZZZZZ DZZZZZ! BRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! CHACKA CHACKA CHACKA! BRRR!

For thirty minutes.

I lay back and as much as I could, I imagined that I was standing in front of an open window listening to Queen while someone was digging up the road outside. And as much as I could I tried to relax and enjoy the experience. About five or six songs in the music suddenly stopped.

“Gareth, you’re doing great!” said a feint, high-pitched Scottish voice in my head. It was the radiologist. “We’ve got one more scan to do, which should take about five minutes. Then we’ll come and get you.”

On my way out of the scanning suite I was told that the results should be available in about two hours’ time.

I returned to the ward.

These icons annoyed me during my stay in hospital. Why are they not drawn from the same angle?!

These icons annoyed me during my stay in hospital. Why are they not drawn from the same angle?!

 

Results

I had to wait about 24 hours, though, before they were conveyed to me.

The following afternoon a neurologist came to my side room and talked me through the results and then carried out a similar, but more thorough, examination to the one that Dr Mitchell had done with me about five days before.

The MRI scan was clear: no aneurysms. No clots. No brain haemorrhage. No stroke. The worst had been ruled out. A felt myself relax a little. They did find a cyst in my brain, but this is quite common, seemingly, and is nothing to do with my polycystic kidneys.

Given the combined results of the various blood tests, the lumbar puncture, the CT and MRI scans it looked like my wish had come true: I had viral meningitis. I would never have dreamt that I would ever wish for meningitis, but given the other options it seemed to be the most preferable.

Discharged

I was discharged that afternoon, given a small pot of strong co-codamol tablets and sent on my way, with the promise of an outpatients’ appointment at the ophthalmology clinic to examine my eyes more closely and determine whether there was any long-term damage.

Progress since…

For the first week or so since returning home I did little but sleep, up to about 18 hours a day.

My eyesight is still affected but continues to improve in very small increments each day. I do feel as though it’s going to be okay, or at least my optimism is carrying me in that direction whether I feel it or not. Today the blind spot in my left eye has all but disappeared, but still flickers a little; the blind spot in my right eye appears now to be shrinking and becoming less opaque.

I saw the ophthalmologist on Thursday (14 August). That appointment didn’t quite go as I had suspected. He reported that my retinas (in both eyes) were quite mottled, but he didn’t understand why. I’ve to go back for more tests, but I’m pretty sure it’s related to the viral meningitis; a friend who has had this disease reported experiencing something similar.

The GP has signed me off until the end of this month, to give me a good chance to recover without feeling that I need to race back; not that I could drive yet, or see my desktop computer at work.

I am currently typing this on my PC at home with the screen resolution set to 1280 x 1024 (instead of 1920 x 1080) as I was getting tired of using the accessibility screen magnifier set to 300%.

The trial continues…

Update

Tuesday 19 August. I’ve just revised the dates as I realised that I was a week out. This began on Wednesday 23 July, not 30 July.

Signed off

Statement of fitness for work: You are not fit for work

Statement of fitness for work

A few months back I promised that I would write more honest blog posts this year. Last month I blogged elsewhere about mental health in web development. How about a blog post today that combines the two, in a spirit of transparency?

This morning I made a same-day appointment to see my GP as I’d had a sore mouth for a couple of weeks and it didn’t seem to be getting any better. I expected him to take a quick look, make a diagnosis, and send me packing with either a prescription or a handful of advice. Instead he signed me off for a week. (And gave me a prescription.)

I’ve only just read what he wrote: “stress related illness”. That about sums it up.

It turns out that your oral health offers clues about your overall health. And my mouth told my doctor that my general health was terrible and that I needed to be signed off. And when I say “my mouth told my doctor” I don’t mean the speaky bit of my mouth.

What has brought me here is a combination of

  • being hugely understaffed at work (two vacancies, two off on long-term sick, one secondment; leaving our potential team of seven as a team of two);
  • not having had a proper break (being off sick with a bad cold or a chest infection doesn’t constitute a proper break, does it?) since mid-October 2013;
  • the usual night-time interruptions related to having small children;
  • general (and specific!) family stresses and strains;
  • other (probably)

It all came to a focus this morning in that doctor’s surgery. And I cried.

I resisted his suggestion of time off, of course. I tried to negotiate a week’s grace to see if I needed to be signed off next week instead, as I didn’t want to let the team down. And when I say ‘team’ I am now, of course, referring to one person (!?)

I do feel bad about it. I have colleagues who have said during the last few months, “I don’t know how you keep going?” Today I acknowledged that I can’t just keep going. It also highlights very much, I hope, that our current way of working within the University web team just isn’t sustainable.

Something had to give and thankfully it was my physical health first rather than my mental health. But as the GP said it would only be a matter of time if I didn’t stop now. Without exactly saying “a stitch in time saves nine”, my GP responded by saying something along the lines of “a week off in time saves nine”.

In the end, after a thorough examination, bloods eventually coaxed from my veins, and the promise of some ‘tasty’ liquorice-flavoured medicine, I relented and agreed to a week.

Believe me, the irony is not lost on me: weeks of trying to unsuccessfully negotiate time off at work and when the GP offers it immediately and for (please choose) one or two weeks, I hesitate.

So… doctors orders are to rest. I took him at his word, returned home, made a couple of calls, had a spot of lunch and then slept until 3:00pm.

Here’s to a few days of healing.

Two minor operations and one long recovery

scalpel

#1 The eye-watering operation

On Tuesday 2 April I drove north with Jane to Stracathro Hospital (52 miles north of Anstruther, on the A90, 38 miles south of Aberdeen) for what would be the first of two minor operations within a week.

This first procedure, which would see me admitted to hospital for the first time since I emerged into one on a very cold and dark morning on Remembrance Day, November 1971, was for a ‘gentlemanly operation’ to ensure that no more little Saunders’s would be making an appearance in the years to come—at least not from this branch of my family tree; a procedure, under local anaesthetic, which would sever the vas deferens but make a vast difference.

With Jane having suffered from post-natal depression since 2008 it was the least that I could do to remove at least some of her anxiety about what lies in the future. Still, I have a further three months and two samples to go until I’m given the all-clear…

Oh, and there is the small matter of two nasty post-op, NHS-sponsored, iatrogenic infections that have laid me low for most of April.

On the day

I was remarkably calm the day of the procedure. I had half expected to be very anxious on the morning of the operation but I really rather enjoyed our drive up to Dundee, crossing the Tay road bridge in the warm morning sunshine and then skirting our way around Dundee to the east to meet up with the A90 towards Aberdeen. It was a pleasant change to have Jane to myself in the car, no children interrupting every few moments, although they are usually very polite in doing so, “Mum! Mum! Mum! … excuse me?” I was also surprised to see so much snow still piled at the sides of the road, when we had had so little this winter and what we received had always melted within hours of falling.

Stracathro hospital was surprisingly far away. (Are we nearly there yet?) It was built in 1939 as an emergency hospital for WWII military casualties. It reminded me very much of Peel hospital, at Caddonfoot situated outside Galashiels between Selkirk and Peebles, built around the same time for the same purpose.

Seemingly the first patients at Stracathro were victims of an air raid on Montrose in 1940, followed by civilian casualties from London, Birmingham, Coventry and other English cities, and later by soldiers from all theatres of the war, all delivered by train to the nearby station at Brechin.

We parked the car and navigated our way to the day surgery ward in time for my 08:30 admission. The waiting room wasn’t much more than a large abandoned ward with a handful of chairs pushed to the edges at the far end.

The operation

“Ah! Hello!” came the cheery greeting from the nurse in charge. “You’re first here, so you’re first on the list that’s how it works here.”

Seemingly Stracathro carries out a number of minor operations for three health authorities: Fife, Tayside and Angus, and on Tuesday mornings they alternate week-about chopping off the bits of men from Fife and Tayside, four men every 90 minutes. That week it was Fife’s turn. And as it turned out I was not just the first to arrive, I was the only one to arrive. Two had phoned to cancel, one just didn’t turn up. Cowards!

In theatre, besides the surgeon there were two nurses. One was assisting the surgeon, the other it would appear was simply there to sit in the corner and talk incessantly about the weather, and the snow, and how she had spent an entire afternoon digging out her cul-de-sac, where all the old folks in the street had stood watching from the comfort of their living room windows and where none of them had made her a mug of hot chocolate.

During the operation the surgeon asked me if everything was all right.

“This is very odd,” I said, grimacing.

The surgeon looked at me.

“Certainly… unusual.”

“I’ll accept unusual,” he replied.

There was a slightly awkward silence.

“I mean… I’ve not had this done to me before.”

The surgeon burst out laughing, stopped what he was doing, looked at me and said, “No. No you wouldn’t have.” He smiled then returned to chopping up my bits and melting the severed ends with a soldering iron.

The nurse in the corner took that as her cue to continue with her epic tale of shifting snow.

And I can tell you another thing. After all these infections, I’m certainly not having another one!

Next!

After a returning to the ward, and once my stats had returned to normal (my usually-high blood pressure was refreshingly low after the procedure) I was allowed to dress and leave. No tea and toast for me. Not even the whisper of a biscuit. Or nuts! NHS cut backs, eh!

I emerged into the waiting room just as the next batch of men were arriving. Well, two of them, anyway. One rather brow-beaten looking man was accompanied by a heavily-pregnant wife and—very obviously—his mother-in-law.

“She’s expecting her fourth!” the mother-in-law exclaimed to anyone who was listening. “So A’ve come tae make share he gets it cut oaf!”

And so the long road to recovery, and back to Anstruther, despite the information sheet accompanying my admissions papers assuring me I’d be well enough to return to work the following day.

#2 The eye operation

My second minor procedure was simply to remove a cyst that had developed next to my left eye this year. I noticed it in mid-January and by the time it was removed it had doubled in size.

This minor op. was done at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, where all three of my boys were born, during the Monday afternoon ophthalmic clinic and by the Charge Nurse. She was brilliant—by which I mean she was very good at her job, not that she was particularly shiny.

And guess what?! No infection. Mind you, I’ve had so many antibiotics this month I’d probably live through another plague. Or even survive a Big Mac meal from McDonalds.

Recovery

Neither procedure, the vasectomy nor the cyst-removal, was particularly traumatic although I did feel rather sore and wobbly for quite a few days afterwards—certainly more than the one day that the information leaflet suggested; but then I guess that everyone is different.

The post-op infections, however, really did knock me for six: everything from pain to fever, shaking and confusion. A skin infection to begin with, followed by a particularly nasty UTI for which I am now on my third course of antibiotics, which will last another three weeks.

Thankfully, though, I am now on the mend and greatly looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow morning.

A retrospective on 2012

My bedside table

A view that I saw far too much of in 2012.

I’ve never been a massive fan of new year, even after my dad died shortly after 1998 began. I’ve always preferred Christmas Day. It’s the reason for the season, so they say. At least, it’s one of the reasons. I never really enjoyed sitting around while my mates got drunk, I never really got into the whole new year resolutions thing, and for me it was really just another day (albeit it one where the shops were closed, and we always ate steak pie).

Health

But twelve months ago, as 2011 rolled into 2012 I decided that this was going to be good year. I was determined that it would be a good year. “This is the year that I get fit,” I decided.

However, 2012 wasn’t the year that I got fit, and not for want of trying. In between periods of intense back pain in February/March and trapping two nerves (C6 and C7) when my twin boys, Reuben and Joshua, jumped onto my neck on the sofa in June, I managed to get out on my bike as much as I could and even lifted my dumbell weights a few times.

But I slowly realised that I was actually becoming afraid of doing any exercise. Whenever I did any kind of moderate exercise I would shortly after come down with a cold, or pull a muscle, or injure my back. It was incredibly frustrating. I even asked my renal consultant about it (I have polycystic kidney disease) but she wasn’t interested and told me quite clearly that that shouldn’t happen. “But it does,” I said. “But it shouldn’t…!” But it does, and it has continued to do so.

During 2012 I spent £420 on private physiotherapy. Having been diagnosed with trapped nerves by a stand-in GP who told me to take some time off work, see if things get better, and if they don’t improve within six weeks come back, I phoned the physio the following day, shortly after both my arms went completely numb.

I felt desperate. I didn’t want to have to wait the three months or so I had to when my lower back went in September 2011. I phoned, explained what was going on and the receptionist kindly said, “I’m really sorry, but I won’t be able to squeeze you in until tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?! That’s brilliant.”

I saw a chap called Clayton Hardisty in St Andrews. He was excellent. I told him what I thought were the vaguest of symptoms and within minutes he had both diagnosed and confirmed what the problem was. And it all stemmed from my bad posture. I’m 6’4″ and for years I’ve apologised for my height. No longer. I now sit and stand tall, and what a difference it has made. I’ve not thought about my posture so much since I sang in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain.

I was signed off work for 60 work days in all, to give my body the chance to rest and recover. I returned to work on a phased return programme: two weeks half-time, two weeks three-quarters time, then back full-time.

Then the week after I was discharged by occupational health, I came down with the ‘flu. Like, proper ‘flu with all the symptoms, and a temperature of 39.8°C. And then a chest infection. And then a tummy bug. Rubbish!

Family

Clockwise from top: Joshua, Isaac and Reuben.

Clockwise from top: Joshua, Isaac and Reuben.

What has got me through this past year of one health frustration after another is my faith and my family.

Reuben and Joshua turned four in November, Isaac turns two later this month (late-January). While we have had our fair share of ups and downs with them (I imagine no more than the next family), particularly as they fight one another and jostle for attention, they remain my little delights. I have enjoyed nothing better this Christmas and new year holiday than cuddling up on the sofa with all three of them and watching films and silly children’s programmes.

And Jane has been amazing this year; I love her very much, and more so each year. As well as living with and trying to manage depression, she’s had to put up with me recovering at home, as well as refereeing children and escorting them from one engagement to the next; they have a far better social life than we do. She’s amazing.

So… 2013. Two-thousand and thirteen, that’s the year I get fit. Oh yes. And the year that I continue to try to be better at putting my family first. Here’s to a much better year.

What would also make it better, or at least neater, would be to always write the year as 0123.

Pain in the neck

Man clutching neck

C6… C7… You’ve sunk my spinal disc!

Well, I think I can safely say that 2012 hasn’t been the greatest year for my health.

After a recurrence in May of the same lower back pain that disabled me for nearly a month last autumn, I managed to trap a couple of nerves in my neck (cervical vertebrae C6 and C7, I am told) about a month ago.

It started as a really sore right shoulder and neck; to the point that I couldn’t move it. I now realise that this was swelling, to allow my body to protect the nerves. This lasted about 1-2 weeks… after which my right arm started to go numb.

I phoned NHS 24. “That sounds like a nerve problem, see your doctor tomorrow.”

I got an appointment with a GP the next morning. “That sounds like a trapped nerve, take painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication and it should settle down in about 6 weeks or more.”

The next day my left arm started to go numb too.

A friend of mine, Andrew, at the University of St Andrews, recommended that I see Clayton Hardisty at the St Andrews Physiotherapy Practice.

He has been excellent. The numbness/pain has now been reduced to just my right thumb now, and occasionally my arm starts to go numb again but dropping my arms to my sides seems to help. Which makes it feel awkward to type but otherwise I’m getting by.

This week I even managed to get back to cycling, and set a personal best on the Home – Kilrenny – B9131 – Home circuit. And that was me taking it easy! But it may have had something to do with my posture.

I’ve never thought about my posture so much since I sang in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and we were introduced to elements of the Alexander Technique. At the time I foolishly dismissed it as being irrelevant to me because I wasn’t going into professional singing or drama.

I’ve noticed how often I slouch. I’ve noticed how often I sit (or cycle) with my shoulders pushed up and my head pulled down into it like a tortoise.

And occasionally, ever so occasionally, I get a glimpse of life before this, with no odd sensations. That’s what I’m aiming for…

Cycling in the fat lane

A mountain bike leaning against a milestone

My Giant mountain bike, this morning, leaning against a milestone two miles outside Crail.

A couple of weeks ago I was re-reading Leo Babauta’s excellent book Focus: A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction in which he encourages people to slow down, reduce the number of things you are doing and focus on just one.

That was something I needed to hear again.

My mind had been spinning for weeks with the number of small projects that I was running at the same time; some web projects, some writing projects. I’d reached a point of stalemate, a mental impasse, where I couldn’t decide which one I should prioritise, which I should work on next. They all excited me. I wanted to do them all. And in the end I was doing none of them.

So I took Leo’s advice to heart and began to simplify and reduce, and in my deliberations I realised the one thing that I really needed to focus on to the exclusion of everything else: get fit. My health had to be my number one priority.

Children

Before Reuben and Joshua were born in November 2008 I spent a lot of time on my bike, and with my dumb bell weights, and I lost a lot of weight. I dropped about 5-6″ off my waist. I wanted to get fit so that I could play with my children. I wanted to get fit so that I have every chance of improving my own quality of life so that I wouldn’t die young of heart disease or kidney failure or whatever.

And then Reuben and Joshua arrived, and a few years later Isaac joined them, and I’ve pretty much not slept for the best part of three and a half years (averaging probably around 3-5 hours of broken sleep a night for most of that time). And my weight gradually crept up again as I ate at odd hours, or ate high calorie foods just to keep myself awake.

Summer 2011

Last summer I made the decision to get fit again. We were having issues with who needed the car (we went down to one car after the boys were born) and so I decided to cycle to work. My office in St Andrews is almost exactly 10 miles from our house in Anstruther.

That was going well until…

Back

In September 2011 I was cutting the grass and taking a break I sat on a travelling rug with a ten-month old Isaac… and I couldn’t get back up. My back had gone. I went to bed and fell asleep only to be woken a couple of hours’ later with the most excruciating muscle spasms I’ve ever had.

I was screaming in pain. It took me 30 minutes to crawl the 18 feet or so from my bedside to the toilet. The second time I tried it I could get only as far as the chair beside my bed.

Jane phoned NHS 24 just after tea time, around 6pm.

A doctor from the out-of-hours service arrived seven hours’ later, sometime around 1am. He returned four hours after that to give me a shot of morphine and I finally fell asleep, too doped up to care about the pain. It took another week or so to be given diazepam, which finally helped the muscles to relax, and another four months to see a physiotherapist.

I was off work for about a month, and even when I returned I struggled to walk without pain. It took me until about early May to start feeling better enough to even consider exercising again. I was desperate to get out again.

Back on the bike… twice

Nervously I got back on my bike in early May and rode a short and familiar circuit around a few of the local back roads.

About a week later my back went again. More diazepam, more diclofenac, more 30/500 co-codamol and within a week I was actually feeling better than I had been the previous month. The pains in my legs had gone. I could walk again without feeling that my hips had been replaced with knives.

Last Sunday I went out for a cycle. I made a conscious decision to go easily, to pace myself. Something that I’m not good at, but where has that got me in the past?

I cycled for an hour and covered about 15 miles. It felt good.

Two days later, on Tuesday, I went out again for a slightly shorter run. And I went out again this morning: 14.75 miles in 57 minutes. I was pleased with that.

I’m determined to get fit. I need to lose weight to help bring my blood pressure down, for a start. I’m determined not to overdo it, as I usually do. I’m determined to pace myself. That’s been the big lesson from my back injury: pace myself.

So for the next 4-6 weeks I’m going stretch every day (my physio gave me a bunch of back stretches to do twice a day), and start doing some daily stomach crunches to help strengthen my core, and go out cycling twice a week. I’ll see where I go from there.

But this time I’m hopeful. By this time next year I should have cycled my way out of the fat lane.