Friday, 28 April 2017

From a field near Cambridge

Buxton to Madingley, 151 miles, 

Progress - A field in Cambridgeshire
Right now it's evening, the modest Caravan Club certified site we are staying on is rather lovely in a quietly understated sort of way. It's situated down a shady lane called 'The Avenue' which meanders through a landscape of broad wheatfields and little copses. The air is full of the scent of hawthorn which is just starting to blossom, birds are tweeting merrily in the hedgerow, though the nearby A14 provides a reassuring background roar, enough to remind us that actually we are sitting in a real field in Tescoland, rather than featuring in a soundtrack from an episode of 'The Archers'

Next morning - a mild morning in late April - one of life's small pleasures.

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Hallelujah!  We are on our way, trundling slowly towards Dover, and it feels great. Sorting the van after winter storage took us longer than expected. Given that we have lived in it over the past three years as much as we have lived in a house, you would think we might actually know what we are doing. No, it took us five attempts to remember which way was best to store the bikes on the rear rack, and we only succeeded after consulting some photos.

By now the neighbours have accepted every departure means a traffic hazard

Note to selves: Gill's on first handlebars towards the ladder, , Pete's next, the opposite way round - simple!
This morning it seemed to take me forever to pack. At least we won't starve. The prospect of impending public holidays on both sides of the channel prompted an outbreak of panic buying on our part over the past two days. We have pre-Armageddon levels of supplies. Our stock of breakfast crunchy alone must render the van overweight, and for reasons neither of can fully explain we appear to be attempting to repatriate an astonishing number of Morrison's quiches back to their homeland.

"We seem to have a lot of food..."

"Its amazing what you can squash in here..."

Departure, ...
Looking out over the fields on Cambridgeshire at twilight, I feel so lucky to be doing this, as woven into the big challenges of the past three months has been a personal minor sub-plot involving a health scare of my own. There follows a somewhat sorry tale, which in truth has little to do with our usual random anecdotes of motorhoming life, apart from the fact it placed the entire enterprise in jeopardy.

In early January we decided to book four days in Malta in a month's time to help us through the gloom of our first English winter in three years. As Gill's Dad's health declined we considered cancelling, however, since he was in respite care in mid February we decided to go ahead as it was uncertain at that point when we might be able to go away again. At the time Gill had to put up with some horrible accusations about abandoning her father - which made dealing with an already difficult situation doubly stressful. 

Despite everything, we had an interesting few days staying in a quirky, but stylish flat overlooking Valletta's old walls with a great view of the harbour. It's amazing how much of the island we managed to see in such a short time, not only the main island, but a day trip to nearby Gozo too.

My personal glitch occurred even before we took off. Our flight from Manchester was at 10.00am. so we were up well before dawn. I had just stepped out of the shower when the right side of face from my ear to my jaw went suddenly numb. The sensation felt exactly like a dental local anaesthetic, then the sensation spread to my lower right leg and hand. It was quite alarming and very inconvenient, given I was due to catch a flight to Malta in less than three hours time. However, although the strange sensation did not diminish, everything else seemed to be working perfectly, my perception was unaffected, grip and dexterity normal, I had no paralysis - apart from feeling slightly panicked, I was fine. So I drove to the airport, hopped on the flight and enjoyed a short break in Malta, studiously ignoring the fact that the left side of my body felt distinctly different to the right.

When we got back we were straight into rushing up to Tyneside and dealing with an ever more serious situation up there. It was about three weeks later that I presented myself at our GP's and explained my mysterious numb moment. He took the symptoms far more seriously than I had. I found myself on blood thinning drugs, pills to control hypertension and an emergency appointment in four days time at Chesterfield hospital's TIA clinic. I have to admit that until this moment I had no idea as what a transient ischemic attack might be, apart from sounding like one of those fuzzy clouds that appeared regularly on the front screen of the USS Enterprise to scare the bejabbers out of Messrs Kirk, Spock and Bones. When I found out what a TIA really was, I have to admit, it scared the bejabbers out of me.

More popularly known as 'mini-strokes', TIAs are neurological disturbances triggered by blocked arteries in the neck which starve the blood supply to parts of the brain. As the blockages tend to be caused by temporary clotting, the effects are transient, hence the name. Repeated attacks can cause brain damage and the NHS fact sheet that I was kindly supplied with mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that over 50% of people who suffer repeated TIAs go on to suffer a full blown stroke. 

Of more immediate concern, however, was the information on-line that being diagnosed as at risk of recurrent TIAs can result in an temporary driving ban until the condition is stabilised. At the moment Gill has issues with judging distances while driving due to problems with her contact lens prescription. She feels confident to drive locally, but less so on motorways, especially at night or in rain. Since Christmas we have made eleven trips between Derbyshire and Tyneside. A driving ban for me, given the situation with Gill's dad would have complicated life immeasurably. In the longer term it would have put the kibosh on our wandering life as well.

As it turned out, despite being wired up for a 12 point ECG, an ultrasound scan of the arteries in my neck and a CT scan of my brain, the medics were unable to make a diagnosis. The immediate feedback was that the results were inconclusive but a more considered report would be sent to my GP. So, back to Tyneside for ten days or so, before a one night trip back in Buxton to see the doc. Her feedback was no more illuminating than the consultant's but somewhat more alarming. "The results from the TIA clinic are inconclusive, (I knew that). So they would like you to go back for an MRI brain scan." Now I made an error. I asked for clarification, never ask a doctor for more information than they readily proffer; more information will always make you feel worse. 

"So, what additional information will the MRI scan give?" I enquired breezily. The doctor looked at her screen and replied, "Well, it seems there was a shadow on the CT scan that they would like to take a closer look at,. MRI scans have a much higher resolution." I then commited the second cardinal sin of patient doctor interaction, I invited her to speculate. "That sounds a bit ominous," I mused.

"Not necessarily," the doc said reassuringly, "it could be as simple as a problem with the image itself, then added in her best matter of fact voice, "or evidence of a cranial bleed or brain tumour." "Brain tumour alert! Brain tumour alert!" a voice in in my head repeated to itself in a tone reminiscent of Corporal Jones assuring Captain Mainwaring that panic was unnecessary.

The NHS may be a national treasure, but it moves ponderously. It was a further three weeks before an MRI scan could be arranged. All the while we were visiting Gill's dad in the palliative care ward twice a day, while living out of a suitcase in his house. In truth his situation was so dire I had scant opportunity to fret about my medical condition. The appointment at Chesterfield hospital came through two days after Denis's funeral. I am sure like me, a hospital was the last place Gill wanted to be, but here we were, back in the medical imaging waiting room reading 'The Farmers Weekly' which seemed to be the only reading matter on offer. 

MRI scans are much more impressive than the mamby-pamby CT scan I had previously. The entire procedure was much more hi-tec and vaguely reminiscent of the accounts of experiments conducted by extra-terrestrials on hapless Mid-Western rednecks who all swear blind they are survivors of alien abduction. I can only add one nugget of further intelligence to their testimony. My particular white coated extra-terrestrials seemed to have a previously unreported penchant for easy listening music.They popped a set of headphones onto my head tuned into Smooth Radio, in the hope, presumably, of distracting me for 20 minutes while my head was clamped motionless in the gubbins of an enormous white machine which whirred, whizzed and shuddered, causing​ all the water molecules in my brain to resonate excitedly in response to a powerful electro-magnet. The procedure is quite harmless, allegedly. Certainly, I have suffered no after effects other than a persistent earworm involving random snippets of The Carpenters, 'Yesterday Once More', thus proving irrefutably that Smooth Radio is more hazardous to human health and well-being than bombarding people's brains with magnetic rays 

"How was that?" Gill enquired when i emerged. "Very odd." I informed her. There was a short silence, then she said, "You know, I've just read a really interesting article about the challenges in achieving consistent standards across the EU for organic livestock farmers." "Really," I added, "I've always been sceptical about that kitemark." We drove home.

It took a further three weeks for me to get the result. Back to Chesterfield once again. In the meantime we had begun the grim task of preparing to clear Gill's dad's house and managed to the complete forms relating to probate. It takes about five weeks for these to be processed. What we really wanted to do was head to the South of France for a month, find some sunshine and play with the outside kitchen stuff we had bought ourselves. However, everything was on hold depending upon the result of the scan. 

I was expecting the day of reckoning to have a certain gravitas, but of course, what was a big moment for me was merely routine for the medics. Nevertheless, I did not anticipate the farce which unfolded. The neurology waiting room was empty when we arrived and I was ushered by an orderly into an anti-room to have my blood-pressure measured. "That looks unusually high." I observed. "Oh, I know," she agreed, "it's been reading off the scale all morning." She recorded the result anyway. 

Now, the consultant. It was clear from the way he was speed reading my notes as I sat down that he had not prepared at all for the meeting; it was also apparent from the way he held the papers two inches from his nose that he was very short-sighted. Just my luck, I thought, to get the myopic brain surgeon.

After a moment or two he had digested the copious notes. "Have you been told about the results of the CT scan?" he enquired. "Well, not exactly," I replied. The consultant paused, then confirmed what my GP had hinted at. "We are worried that the shadow on the scan may be a evidence of a brain tumour, but the MRI scan will tell us more. So, we'd better have look." He turned to his computer with no more ado and typed in his password to bring up my medical records...

Nothing happened, the machine froze at the log-in page, and we both sat there staring at his screen, which went utterly blank apart from the little white circular rotating icon which in computer speak means, the lights are on but no-one is at home. He tried again, the same thing happened. This time the doctor attempted to relieve tension by making small talk. This did nothing to relieve my anxiety but it did mean the consultant now was fully appraised of my former career, and we both agreed that I was very lucky to have been able to retire so early.

The little icon still whirled merrily. We ran out of small talk. An awkward silenced ensued, then suddenly the consultant jumped up and announced he was going to try the machine in the next office. He disappeared for ages, but returned eventually announcing that the whole network seemed to be down, He was nothing if not determined, he tried the IT technician trick of switching the machine on and off, that did not work either. Next he wandered off to confer with his registrar to see what might be done.

From Gill's perspective sitting on a seat about twenty yards down the corridor all the toing and froing must have appeared very alarming. I had only gone in for a ten minute consultation, now more than twice that time had elapsed, and the consultant seemed to be rushing in and out. I think she was expecting him to reappear gowned-up, with a Black and Decker cordless drill in one hand and a fretsaw in the other, intent on sorting me out there and then.

Suddenly, just as the doc reappeared, the computer clicked into action. With a few deft mouse clicks up came my records. "That's odd," Doc confided, "I can't see your MRI report, when did you say your appointment was?" At this point I was uncertain which month it was, but mumbled weakly, "two weeks past Wednesday, I think...at 1.30 in the afternoon." There you are," chuckled the doctor in his best "oh silly me tone," then bent his head forward so the end of his nose was about six inches from the screen.

I have to admit to being very underwhelmed by the report. I expected full blown 3D modelling of my brain from every angle, in glittering technicolour, like you get with NASA's images from the Cassini spacecraft of the moon's of Saturn. Instead it was just rows of numbers interspersed with incomprehensible techno-jargon. Nevertheless, this was it, the moment of truth, finally...

"Good news!" beamed my new medical buddy, "everything looks perfectly normal. Stop taking the pills, you are more at risk of having a haemorrhage from them than suffering a stroke (I think this was an ill-judged attempt at humour). Don't smoke, don't drink too much - and enjoy your life!"
With that, he discharged me from the dubious care of the neurology department.

As I was heading out of the door, I enquired, "but what about the problem I had in February? What could have caused it? The consultant could give no explanation, without evidence, he explained, I am as much in the dark as you are - it might have been stress related he ventured. I suppose it might.

"Well?" demanded Gill anxiously as I reappeared. "I'm fine, I assured her. "Let's go outside and I'll tell you what happened...It might take a while."

So there you have it. The rambling sub-plot of Pete's brain. I am unsure if the final farce helped defuse the seriousness of the situation, or added to the stress. In the end I think my response was a an odd mixture of bemusement and utter relief. 

We drove home, had a cup of tea, and booked the ferry.

Now, two weeks on, I am still struck by how, for all our plans, there is little certainty in life. The past is irretrievable and the future unknown. All we have is a chain of nows - a catalogue of moments to make the best of. If life is an accident of nature, which I truly believe it is, then we might as well do our utmost to make it a happy accident. Given choice, what is the point of being miserable?

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