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.

Lower back pain–an update

iStock_000011564018XSmall

On Saturday 24 September, over two weeks ago, I did something to my back that left me barely able to stand let alone walk. I am still on the mend.

Folks who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will know a little of what I’ve been going through for the last couple of weeks but this is a longer post with more details.

What happened

I suspect that a number of factors contributed to the intense back spasms that left me immobile that day, including sleeping badly in the spare room bed while on Isaac-watch, carrying both toddlers at the same time, an increase in the amount of cycling I’ve been doing and cutting the grass at the back of the house, that fateful Saturday afternoon, was probably the erm… straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

With the grass cut Isaac came out to sit on on a rug in the middle of the lawn at watch me while I pottered around finishing off tidying up the edges and trimming a couple of bushes; Reuben and Joshua both insisted on ‘helping’ me with the secateurs. Those were a nervous few minutes while I encouraged them to not accidentally chop their own fingers off.

Within a couple of minutes the boys had ran off to help Jane round the front of the house where she was now cutting the grass. I sat down on the rug and chatted with Isaac for a moment.

When I got up: I couldn’t.

Stubbornly, I put the garden tools away in the shed using the Dutch hoe as a support. I ate dinner and then, encouraged by Jane, went to lie down in bed to rest my back.

I’ve had back twinges before which have gradually eased over the course of the week with applications of a heat rub ointment, a little massage, a hot-water bottle over the stiff area and painkillers. So at that point I wasn’t overly concerned.

NHS 24

After a short sleep I got up to go to the loo. Only I couldn’t move; at all. My lower back went into the most excruciating spasms, whenever I tried, that felt like my back was trying to snap me in two.

It then took me the next 25-30 minutes to literally crawl to the en suite bathroom. A distance of about six metres.

Jane phoned NHS 24 (0845 4 24 24 24), Scotland’s health information and self-care advice line, for advice. Their advisers were busy but would phone us back within three hours; it was about 19:45 at this point.

At 11:15 they phoned back, and said that they would send out a doctor to my bedside straight away.

The doctor arrived at 01:15. Five-and-a-half hours after we’d phoned; that’s quite a long time to be lying, immobile in pain. The doctor apologised saying that the message had only been passed on from NHS 24 to the St Andrews Community Hospital shortly after midnight.

Voltarol and morphine

I have to say that the doctor was lovely. I’d seen him before at the out of hours service, that time for what turned out to be a chronic prostate infection. He listened, was gentle, sympathetic and gave me a whacking great injection of Voltarol in my bottom to address both the pain and inflammation.

When he left I drifted off into a drug- and exhaustion-induced sleep.

Only to wake about two hours later; I was desperately needing another wee. This time though I only managed to get as far as standing next to my bed. I couldn’t move any further without inducing the most horrific pain. I ended up weeing into a bucket that Jane kindly balanced on my bedside chair!

With me back in bed she called NHS 24 again, around 03:15. The same on-call GP, Dr Bird, turned up around 05:15 and this time gave me a shot of morphine into my bottom.

It didn’t really touch the pain but it did allow me to relax enough to fall into a longer sleep. I came to around 10:00 on Sunday morning. Thankfully I wasn’t scheduled to conduct any services.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday

On Sunday afternoon, one of Jane’s friends who is an osteopath visited and spent around two hours with my back, gently converting me from a plank of wood into an old man.

Over the next few days I rested, alternately applied ice packs and hot-water bottles to my lower back, stumbled around and generally tried to follow the advice I’d been given by the doctor and osteopath.

I obviously over did it on Wednesday because by 17:00 I was lying on my bed once again screaming in pain as my back went into spasms.

I was screaming so loudly that Jane had to close our bedroom window in case passers-by or neighbours thought that I was being murdered! I was also aware that I was frightening Reuben and Joshua who, bless them, despite their fear wanted to stay around and “help daddy”.

Jane phoned NHS 24—with me screaming in the background! They said that they would call back within three hours.

I couldn’t wait that long.

“Help me!” I pleaded with Jane. Knowing, actually, that there was little she could do to instantly relieve me of this pain.

Jane grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, and that coupled with an electric, ‘buzzy’ back massager that Jane had bought for my Christmas years before brought the spasms under control.

Jane called NHS 24 back, nearly two hours after calling them, to cancel the request to phone us back.

Thursday

I got an emergency appointment on Thursday (29 September) morning with one of the practice GPs; I rarely get to see my own these days.

He offered me Tramadol. I gently declined as it gives me hallucinations; and not the happy kind.

I walked away with a prescription for Co-codamol 30 mg/500 mg (that’s codeine and paracetamol) and Diazepam 2 mg (1 or 2 to be taken three times a day), and the advice that. despite my kidney condition, I could also take Ibuprofen for a short period if I needed it.

They’re not called patients for nothing…

And so I wait.

No lifting, no bending, no stretching, no sitting for extended periods of time. I just need to find a balance between rest and activity and gently allow my back to heal.

Jane’s osteopath friend returned on Thursday (6 October) and spent about an hour with me, which again really helped.

I do feel my back getting slightly stronger each day but the slow progress is frustrating.

I want to get back to work but I’m still feeling quite spaced out from the Diazepam and when I tried to do a full day yesterday, Sunday, getting up around 07:30 and not returning to bed for a rest until after 18:00 I was absolutely exhausted. I fell asleep on the sofa around 19:00!

I just need to be a patient patient.

I’ve been banned from the maternity ward!

Joshua and Reuben asleep.

This afternoon I got banned from the maternity ward.

Let me explain.

Insect bites?

A couple of days ago I noticed what looked like a cluster of nasty-looking insect bites on my chest. They were red and swollen, and quite typical of my reaction to insect bites.

While many thousands of people have idyllic experiences of the isle of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, my memories of it are distracted by the recollection of 350+ infected midge bites which made me feel like my arms, legs and torso had been repeatedly slashed with a scalpel. That’s the kind of typical experience I have with insect bites.

So, with that in mind, I didn’t think too much about them, assuming that it was perhaps some wee beastie that the cats had brought in, and gave the ‘bites’ a liberal application of Anthisan (an antihistamine cream) and went to bed.

That didn’t bring the relief that I’d hoped for, and by yesterday a few had developed into nasty looking (and feeling) blisters. Hmm … maybe it wasn’t an insect bite after all.

Allergy to antibiotics?

This morning I woke with the most incredible pain across my chest that started underneath my left breast and extended in a line beneath my left arm and onto my back, finishing beneath my left shoulder blade. It felt like someone had taken a jellyfish wrapped in nettles out of a bucket of acid and slapped me on the chest with it. It felt like a chemical burn (it still does!).

At this point I was suspecting an adverse reaction to the antibiotics that I’m currently on to treat a kidney-related infection that I developed nearly two months ago. The information leaflet that came with the Ciprofloxacin says about possible side-effects:

The most common side effects involve the gut and the nervous system …

  • Skin rash and itching can occur in less than one in ten but more than one in a hundred persons
  • Peeling, blistering or crusting of the skin

That sounds like what I’m experiencing. But the leaflet advised that I contact my GP immediately.

NHS 24

I telephoned NHS 24 (0845 4 24 24 24) and explained my symptoms. The NHS 24 nurse agreed that it sounded like a possible cause but said that she’d ask a doctor to telephone me. Within 10 minutes I had a call from a GP at the out-of-hours service in St Andrews.

Cobbles!

Nothing could have prepared me for what she was about to say. “It sounds like you’ve got Shingles, she said.”

Here’s what the mighty Wikipedia has to say:

Herpes zoster (or simply zoster), commonly known as shingles, is a viral disease characterized by a painful skin rash with blisters in a limited area on one side of the body, often in a stripe.

The initial infection with varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes the acute (short-lived) illness chickenpox, and generally occurs in children and young people. Once an episode of chickenpox has resolved, the virus is not eliminated from the body but can go on to cause shingles—an illness with very different symptoms—often many years after the initial infection…

Most people are infected with this virus as children, and suffer from an episode of chickenpox. The immune system eventually eliminates the virus from most locations, but it remains dormant…

… until this flippin’ week, of all weeks!

About two to three weeks ago I was in contact with a couple of children who had chickenpox. A couple of children who were, of all things, twins!

Banned from the ward

During the blistering phase (which is where I am currently) I am extremely contagious … but only if someone who hasn’t had chickenpox comes into direct contact with the rash, which is extremely unlikely given that it’s on my mid-torso.

But, still, as a precaution the hospital have had no alternative but to ban me from the maternity ward.

I cried when I realised that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see Jane and my beautiful children for the next few days.

In other news

Meanwhile in Dundee … Jane and the babies are doing fantastically well. I did manage to see them briefly this afternoon, as I broke the bad news.

Feeding has been going better overnight, as Jane and the midwives made an executive decision to supplement feeding with bottled formula. A tremendous decision which has really helped Jane.

For the few moments that I saw them they looked contended and beautiful. It’s going to be hard not to see them for the next few days, but it’s more important than ever that I get sleep and well rested before they come home early next week — still no definite date.