So, how was your March? I hear it was pretty sunny.
Mine was odd. I spent two weeks of it unconscious, a little chunk of it with pneumonia and another little bit of it with a very hot brain, apparently. My family and friends have been through a very, very difficult time and, at one point, they prepared for the worst.
But, thanks to the brilliance (there is no other word) of the surgeon, Mr David Jenkins, and his medical team at Papworth Hospital, I came through.
And I find it hard to describe the size of my respect and admiration for that team of people. They truly have extended my life and they cared. Mr Jenkins visited me many times afterwards and he was always quietly-spoken, friendly and wonderfully caring company.
Slightly embarrassingly, whenever I met Mr Jenkins, I spent most of the time just staring at his hands. I couldn’t help it. The hands that have been inside my chest cavity and my lungs. The hands that have given me this chance. I was obsessed by them.
(For the record, they are well-manicured, quite small in comparison to mine and very smooth-looking.)
I actually stared at his hands so much that I think he got self-conscious and sometimes folded them under his white coat out of politeness.
Anyhow, the operation, thanks to their skill, was a success – but I wasn’t yet. To add to the medical problems, I developed a strange tendency to want to fight the nurses who were trying to revive me. Many times, I was woken up, many times I fought the medical staff and – many times – they put me back to sleep. Understandable.
And, on one occasion, my Mum and brother were taken to a side room and the gravity of the possible situation was explained to them.
But, in the end, after two weeks of worry for my loved ones, I woke up properly and the intensive care nurses were there to coax me further along.
One of those doctors will forever stick in my memory. Here’s why:
Because I had been stuck with a ventilator tube down into my lungs for two weeks, the inside of my throat felt like the sleeve of a cheap jumper.
I was craving drinks, smooth food, anything to ease the irritation. But with an oxygen mask on and very little movement available, it was very hard.
Then, a breakthrough. The doctor in question, (I’ll call him Dr A), gave me ‘chipped water’ through a little tube. It is simply cold water with tiny chunks of ice in it.
Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But when he gave me that basic drink, I believed it was the finest thing I’d ever consumed. It was heaven served from a plastic cup. I would savour every little chip of ice as if it was a fine wine.
So, we came to a deal, Dr A and I. When he wanted to move me, or inject me, or do something painful to me, he would tell me. I would nod and simply point at my mouth. He knew what that meant: “If you do that, I want a mouthful of chipped water.”
It was a great deal. I would get chipped water, Dr A would get his medical procedure done.
Later, I moved on to jelly and ice cream. The ice cream was the bit that soothed my throat the most so I concentrated on that.
Soon, Dr A and I had a brand new deal and ice cream was the new currency. We used it as a similar shorthand for co-operation but sometimes Dr A would eat a bowl alongside me while we sat chatting in the dark hours of the night.
Then Dr A, showing again how much these people care, went a step further. He went home, got out an ice cream maker and started making lots of different flavours of ice cream at home and bringing them in just to feed to me because he knew it was helping my recovery. He knew it was soothing me. He did it out of kindness. Out of his own heart.
That simple act brings a tear to my eye now and I think it always will
There was a slight problem later in the week. As I lay there, Dr A leaned in close to my ear and said: “Simon, I cannot eat ice cream with you today. I ate so much last night when I got home, I was sick.”
Our ice cream buddy movie was over.
After a while, thanks to the care and attention from all the intensive care team, I recovered enough to be moved to a “normal” ward.A ward with other men. All with their own problems. All with their own specific things that they shout out in the night, all with a particular musical tone with which they fart.
And nurses. I was in hospital so long, I pretty much got to know every one of their names.
And we’re back to caring. Yes – nurses are paid to look after you. But the care? Unbelievable.
Some quick examples: the day I was feeling so low, I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed, despite the urgings of the nurse. Before too long, she had wheeled me down to the bathroom, winched me into the hot tub and proceeded to engage me in a water fight until I smiled. It worked.
Or the nurse, no more than 24 years old, who had to deal with me, powerless and feeble, in the most undignified of positions – yet we chatted to each other like we were having a cup of coffee in the office. My embarrassment disappeared as the nurse told me all about her plans to get engaged to her boyfriend and where she wanted to go on honeymoon. She was doing it on purpose to make me feel at ease.
Final one. On another day, that I was depressed, a male nurse noticed and came and sat down. After a small pep talk, he wandered off. But he came back every twenty minutes with a new joke, new quiz question, new piece of trivia or just a little bit of chat – to help me pass the time and engage my brain. At the end of the shift, I mentioned how much he had cheered me up and I was glad he had been on my ward that day. He replied: “I wasn’t on your ward. I was over on another one. But I kept sneaking over to keep you amused.”
These people cared.
And, of course, talking of caring, there’s the huge amount of people who have been in touch with me on Twitter since I went into hospital. (I’m only just back fully online, so I’m catching up).
I wrote the previous blog as an ‘announcement’ to let Twitter and friends know I would be out of action for a while. I posted it at 12.30am on a Sunday night, hoping to sneak it under the radar. No chance – so many of you have reacted with such warmth and kindness, it has been actually overwhelming – and I mean that word.
There’s been kind messages, warm messages, incredibly friendly messages and some, frankly, quite scary ones. That’s Twitter – in all its full colour. I can’t reply to them, of course, but I read them all.
And so many people cared. It’s a little bit strange to deal with.
So this is the second and final “announcement”. I don’t plan on making this a habit, or a medical diary.
I am now in “rehab”. Because I was unconscious for so long, my muscles have wasted away pretty dramatically. My upper body looks like a poorly constructed xylophone and I have the legs of a seven-year-old boy. Don’t make that public. The poor little fella doesn’t know about it yet.
I also have a crowd of incredible family and friends around me, helping and encouraging me on every step. You know I said they are ‘so good it’s absurd’? Well, they proved that and about 1,000 things more on top. I can never pay them fully back.
So I will be working hard to get fit enough so I can take this extra chance I’ve been given.
Therefore, this, the second little announcement, is to say publicly - thank you for your message, thank you for caring and thank you to every single person who helped in any way to make me better.
PS: Here’s a little fact. The operation – called a pulmonary endarterectomy – is only done in three places in the world: San Diego, Paris and Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire.
The hospital that has completed the operation the most is Papworth.
The surgeon who has personally carried out the highest number of the operation is David Jenkins at Papworth.
The surgeon who operated on me? David Jenkins.
So, I figure they were pretty good hands to be in.
I am number 811. The eight hundred and eleventh person to have the surgery at Papworth.