One Summer Night That Proved to Me the Value of Life

I remember the feel of the air that summer day as if it were only this afternoon. Warm and humid – enough to edge the London Underground towards insufferable amongst the crowds, especially for someone with one leg in plaster. The effort of moving about on crutches was enough to make my clothes stick to me uncomfortably and my head spin ever so slightly. England were playing Portugal in the quarter finals of the World Cup and I was meeting friends to watch the game in a London pub.

I can tell you, even now, that England lost 3-1 on penalties, but I can’t recall any of the details of the match, nor of the conversations I had that evening. I know I felt unwell because I’d felt under the weather for weeks, frequently coming home from work and falling straight in to bed, sleeping right through until my alarm the next morning. Existing on a diet of cereal and painkillers for the ankle injury that had now been unresolved for 18 months. I’d really struggled to recover from surgery almost exactly a month before and a sick, dizzy feeling had become my constant companion. I’d already been readmitted to hospital once for a suspected wound infection, and had spent the month battling severe, intractable low blood sugars. Perhaps it was because I just felt too awful, but I hadn’t connected the dots together, or identified the red flags that, with hindsight, were staring me in the face. So I’d forced myself to go out that afternoon, afraid that I was becoming antisocial and missing out on seeing people who mattered to me.

As it turned out, I’m so glad that I made the effort.

It’s hard sometimes to pick out what I really remember against what people have told me. Where my true memory merges with the pieces coloured in by friends and the medical paperwork. But apparently I left early in the evening, saying I felt unwell. I declined offers to see me to the station, or even all the way home. I insisted that I was fine – just hot, uncomfortable and in need of sleep. I didn’t want to curtail anyone else’s fun.

Less than twenty minutes after leaving my friends, I was lying on a dirty London pavement in full cardiac arrest.

I was twenty-six years old.

When I think back to that evening, it’s hard to deny the existence of luck. I was in a busy place and my collapse was not only witnessed, but witnessed by people who knew what to do. I wasn’t dismissed as being drunk. I was in a public place that happened to be equipped with an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) which is really the only way the restart someone’s heart when it stops beating. Despite the hoards of people out watching the football, and the consequent level of high spirits and drunken antics, a paramedic was apparently on scene incredibly quickly.

The days that followed were a confused blur, and included me discharging myself from one hospital (before walking straight in to another) when a doctor, who was lacking considerably in bedside manner, voiced a suspicion that I was abusing narcotics. The reality was that I had a prescribed – and carefully controlled – pain management schedule for my ankle, which had nothing to do with my collapse. The cause of my arrest, although rare, was subsequently identified and treated.

When I think of how differently it could all have played out, I realise how lucky I am to be alive.

It’s not something that I like to think about much, though, for obvious reasons. And in the almost eight years that have passed since then, I have never written this openly or honestly about the events of that night. My reasons for not doing so are probably mainly down to a misguided notion of self-preservation. I think I believed it would be harder, and more negative, to think about than it has been. My reasons for actually sharing it now are complicated. In part it’s because I continually feel that I need to promote the value of accessible public AEDs and training in Basic Life Support (or bystander-CPR). Because those things really and truly make a difference. I’m living proof of it.

If you wouldn’t know what to do if someone collapsed on the pavement next to you, then please, go and learn.

But what really compelled me to share this now is the fact that it has repeatedly come to mind in the last couple of weeks as I struggle to come to terms with a different reality to the one that I’ve dreamed of. And to do so has been surprisingly positive and uplifting. In the most basic terms, when I remember what I’ve come through, it puts it all in to a bit of perspective.

I’m alive. Every day is a gift.

And for now, that is more than enough.

Seized: A Story I Don’t Often Share

I attended Britmums Live, my first blogging conference, this weekend. It was a great, if a little overwhelming! experience. I met some lovely people and came away feeling inspired. I’m not sure I can add much to the many great posts already out there about the event, however I am feeling ready to share this story today. My motivation is partly from hearing the very inspiring Katie Piper talking about how how you make your own life and choose how to react to the events and experiences that shape you – which definitely struck a chord. I was also prompted by the very amusing Katy Hill, who pointed out what a bunch of over-sharers bloggers are. It occurred to me that sometimes I’m happy to over-share the unimportant minutiae – like the state of my bikini line – whilst keeping some of the things that are really important to me, and about me, locked away.

Today, I’m choosing to share something which has had a big impact on my adult life. This is also another post in what I hope will become an ongoing series about “Me, Before Motherhood”.

One day in November 1999, as a 19 year old who’’d just begun my second year of university, I woke up in Accident and Emergency with the mother of all headaches. I’m fairly certain that had I rolled over and pulled the duvet over my head that morning, as I desperately wanted to do, I would have faced a different outcome. If I had not sought help, by the time a flat mate had found me in my bed that evening, I’d possibly already have been dead. Claimed by meningitis.

I came through to the other side, obviously, although it was a rough road. But I can’t claim that I came through unchanged.

Meningitis left an indelible scar on me that mostly remains completely hidden, but had the ability to rear it’s ugly head unbidden, and make itself known to all around me.

The scar is the ongoing tendency to experience seizures.

Or, in other words, epilepsy.

Epilepsy, to me, is a beast that tore its way through my twenties, turning life and relationships upside down. It took away my driving licence and threatened to take away my career plans. I struggled to get it under control, then struggled to deal with the emotional fall out and learning who my true friends were. Finally I fought, incredibly hard, to be allowed to continue to complete my degree and enter my chosen profession.

I’m not ashamed of epilepsy because, much like diabetes, it’s not something that I can help. I did not choose this. But it’s not something I’m particularly proud of or open about either. And that is mainly because of the incredibly narrow minded attitudes and prejudice that persist in society today, which have repeatedly both astonished and appalled me. Whilst I have no doubt that it was the countless supportive people who really got me through the tough times after my diagnosis, it was equally the many cruel, thoughtless people who nearly finished me off. Sadly epilepsy still carries a great stigma.

I know the only way to change this is to talk about it, but, perhaps selfishly, my focus has always had to be on protecting myself and my career.

Since I’m talking about it now, though, I’d like you to know that epilepsy doesn’t have to mean an end to normal life. I’m extremely fortunate that my epilepsy is now fully controlled, although I am unlikely to be able to ever come off medication (I have tried, with disastrous consequences). My seizures are preceded by an aura, or warning, and these two facts allow me to work and participate in activities in the same way as anyone else. I don’t pose a danger to myself or to anyone else as a result of this condition.

If I could choose, of course I wouldn’t choose epilepsy. But I do recognise the things it has given me. It increased my (already not inconsiderable) tenacity and determination. It’s taught me that you can change attitudes and you can be successful even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also taught me a lot about people and saved me from relationships with people who’ve shown their true colours when it was introduced.

I learned first hand that the problem, as always, truly belongs to those people and not to me. Because I’m doing just fine with my life and my beautiful, happy family.

In Which I Was Plastered and Came Home in a Police Car

One day in the May when I was 26 years old, I slipped slightly on my tiled kitchen floor and heard a sickening snap. I knew instantly what had happened, because it was the third time in 18 months that my achilles tendon had pinged apart like a withered rubber band.

My first reaction was to swear, rather loudly. The second was to sit on the kitchen floor and cry. I’d just (as in, two days previously) gone back to work in a new job after spending nine months not working due to the mess that was my right ankle. To know that I’d just taken myself almost right back to the beginning (minus any broken bones, fortunately) was absolutely soul destroying.

Had I known exactly where the journey was going to go in the next two months (a story for another time) I’m not sure if I would have found the strength to get up off the floor. But as it was, get up I did, and that is how I found myself in the overcrowded waiting room of the Accident and Emergency Department of a well known South London hospital.

Approximately four hours later, I was back outside on the pavement. Back in plaster. Back on crutches. And with an appointment to see my surgeon again rather sooner than either of us had anticipated. What I didn’t have was enough cash to get a cab. Since I could catch a bus from right outside the hospital which would then stop right outside my flat, taking the bus home was a far more appealing option that hopping along to the nearest cash machine which wasn’t anywhere near as close as the bus stop.

Waiting at the busy stop, I was hot, exhausted, in pain and desperately, desperately upset about the latest twist in the tale of my ankle. What I didn’t need was an inebriated stranger to start chatting to me about where I lived, what my name was, what I had done to myself, how often I got this bus, where exactly I was going… the chatter droned on. Had both legs been in full working order, I’d have moved away. As it was, I deflected his questions first with silence, then with monosyllabic noises and finally with more silence. But he wouldn’t let up.

When I boarded the bus, understandably I think, I opted to sit in the first row of seats. What I didn’t bargain for was a request from the nosy stranger to sit next to me. I think that I shrugged my shoulders. I could hardly stop him, after all. In the few minutes or so that it took us to get halfway to the Elephant and Castle, he didn’t let up for a second. He leaned in to my personal space and began touching me on the leg, the arm and the hand. I shook him away and asked him not to. Told him flat out that I wasn’t interested in anything he had to say. What I couldn’t easily do was get up and move.

My increasing agitation must have become apparent to other people. Well, clearly it was apparent. I was not being quiet or subtle. But obviously it was enough for people to start to abandon the disinterested, staring-straight-ahead London bus travel mindset. A nearby passenger, a little the worse for drink himself, leaned over and asked me if we were together or if this guy was bothering me. And all the emotion of it was too much. I burst in to tears.

I sat there, clutching crutches and a carrier bag containing my unworn shoe, bawling like a baby.

A second passenger became involved. The two of them asked the guy to get up and move. When he refused, they pulled him to his feet whereupon he started up a commentary about what sort of person I must be. I’ll leave his ideas to your imagination (hint: they were not very nice).

And all I could do was continue to sob.

The bus driver, obviously aware of the tussle going on behind him, pulled over and firstly asked, then told the guy to get off the bus. In response, he flew right to the back of the single decker, shouting that he wasn’t getting off the f*#&ing bus. “Why should I?” he yelled.

We entered a stand off. The bus driver refused to move the bus until he got off. He refused to get off. I felt trapped, knowing that if I left I couldn’t go anywhere fast, but I could be followed. All I could think was how I wanted to go home, to take more pain killers and to get in to bed and fall asleep. I felt as though the entire bus was staring at me, feeling that the delay to their journey was my fault. I bitterly regretted my decision not to call a friend to come to the hospital with me. And throughout it all, I continued to cry big fat tears, that rolled down my face, dripping from my chin in to my lap.

A few minutes passed. I don’t know how long, it felt like forever. A few passengers got off and drifted away to alternative bus routes. A lady sat down asked me if I was OK, and offered me a tissue. The original passengers who had got involved offered to flag me down a cab, and even to pay for it. And somehow the small kindnesses of these strangers made me cry even more.

Eventually a police car pulled up, presumably summoned by the bus driver, and two officers boarded the bus.

Faced with no alternative, the stranger finally left the bus. I have no idea what was said to him on the pavement outside. Still on the bus, a female police officer asked me if I was OK.

“I just want to go home” I stuttered, with what I imagine was a very defeated air.

“So let’s give you a lift” she said.

For a moment, I think I thought I was in trouble for inciting this ridiculous shenanigan.

“I’m sorry” I said sadly.

“It’s hardly your fault, but I really think you need to go home.”

I finally looked up. “You can do that?” I asked, as I comprehended what she was offering.

She grinned. “We’re the police, we can do it if we want.”

It’s the only time in my life that I’ve been in the back of a police car. And I was plastered to boot.

I’m virtually certain that every other person who was on that bus that night has completely forgotten the entire incident and I have no idea what exactly brought it to mind for me this week. But when I think of how I sat there and sobbed as everyone silently cursed the delay to their own journeys home, I still flush with embarrassment. I’ve read a few posts lately about teenage awkwardness and cringeworthy moments from adolescence. When I think back to my own teenage years, I certainly have plenty of those moments. This post, however, goes to show that I also have some of a more recent vintage.