While I was sinking into unconscious oblivion in Australia, back in London my parents were experiencing the antipodean state (pun intended).
After I regained consciousness, I had a morbid wish to hear the story from my family’s perspective. However, I can’t say I’m sorry I don’t recall exactly how they spent the hours following the hospital’s phone call, although I’m sure I would have been told at the time. I do remember that within minutes my mother had packed a suitcase, miraculously retrieved her rarely-used Australian passport from the household clutter and declared herself ready to go (although it transpired the next available flight was not available until later that day). At some point it was agreed my mum would fly out alone initially, and my dad would stay at home with my three younger brothers as well as his business.
It was my mum’s custom to arise early and wake everyone for school with a cup of tea, before leaving the house for her job teaching secondary school French. That Monday morning, as she brought tea to each of my brothers, she broke the news to the them individually. The eldest two responded with stoical young manly ‘Don’t worry Mum, she’s going to be okay’; the youngest, who was only 14, refused to acknowledge the news at all: he curled himself into a tight little ball and turned away.
My paternal grandmother drove up immediately, ‘beside herself’, to help out. Somehow, the boys were hustled off to school and my mum embarked on the long journey from Hounslow to Nambour QLD, courtesy of British Airways.
Suffice it to say that her novel proved unreadable, and the inflight movies failed to provide their usual distraction. At some point between Heathrow and Singapore, an air steward approached her in her seat. My dad had managed to get a message to the plane: “Critical but stable”. My mum, who had been blubbing in a low-level kind of way to herself, promptly burst into tears. Once the cabin staff knew her story, they were extremely kind, and the steward who had brought her the message told her he would light a candle for me at church when he got home.
At Singapore, a friend in Australia had arranged for Mum to be upgraded to First Class, so that she could get off the plane quickly (Sigh! What a waste of a first class experience!). The same friend met her at Brisbane airport and drove her to the hospital.
On arrival, the doctors explained I had been ‘intubated’, that is hooked up to a ventilator via a tube, to assist with breathing. To this day, Mum says she was grateful for her own ignorance: had she heard the words, ‘Life support machine’, she wasn’t sure she would have kept it together.
Next, Mum was informed without further ado that the doctors would need to amputate all my fingers, as my blood was not flowing and the risk of gangrene was increasing.
“But you can’t – she’s a musician!‘ cried Mamma.
(I cringed with embarrassment when she told me this afterwards. I mean, I played the cello and various other musical instruments, and I did Grade 8 and everything and I wasn’t terrible, but look, if I had been rendered incapable of playing the cello ever again, it would not exactly have been a tragic loss to the music world.)
However, while I might cringe, I am eternally grateful to my mum for lobbying the doctors not to chop my fingers off. They agreed to wait a little longer, and mercifully the risk passed. (I’ve always wondered whether, had my mother not been there to protest, I would have awoken having been needlessly maimed).
My mother’s aunt Barbara flew up from New South Wales to be with her. They stayed in the Red Cross Rooms, accommodation provided by the charity for relatives – much needed in a remote location like Nambour.
After a few days, my condition was unchanged and they settled into something like a routine, moving between my bedside and the rooms. Mum phoned home twice a day from the hospital to update my dad, and would hold the phone to my ear while Dad ‘chuntered away’ (as she put it) to me. Once a day or so, she would visit Nambour Computer Terminal, the local internet cafe, to send and receive emails.
After a few days, my story caught the attention of the local press, which ran a series of articles tracking the meningococcal outbreak.
I had numerous blood and plasma transfusions. Mum said they knew my legs must still really hurt because at one point, someone touched my leg and I sat bolt upright, in my coma. ‘The blood is literally exploding through her veins!’ was how one of the doctors explained it.
Various distant and very kind relatives materialised from the surrounding area, and in between visits to the patient took it upon themselves to take Mum and Auntie Barbara out for ‘a change of scene’. On one occasion, mother and aunt reluctantly allowed themselves to be taken out for the day to see local attraction The Big Pineapple. I don’t know if The Big Pineapple is still a thing, but at the time Sunshine Coast locals were mad keen for you to see it. I think pineapple might be an important local crop. In case you’re wondering what The Big Pineapple is, it’s a big pineapple. Mum’s sense of bewilderment was still evident when she recounted the visit to me weeks later.
The world turned. Posh and Becks got married. My condition hadn’t changed, and the day after the Beckham nuptials, Mum was once again persuaded to leave the hospital for a bit of sight-seeing.
Unfortunately, it was during this excursion that I had what would be referred to as my Big Setback.
My mum returned to Intensive Care to be solemnly taken aside and informed of the worst: I had developed a secondary lung infection as deadly as the meningococcal, and now had shock lung (now known as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome). I had also developed acute tubular necrosis, which meant my kidneys had stopped functioning. I had a globally enlarged heart, which meant that it was so swollen that the valves that pump blood were stretched too far apart even to meet. Antibiotics were blasted into my system like scuds, arrangements for dialysis were set in motion. My lungs were so bad that the doctors said that if I’d been a smoker, I’d certainly be dead.
(When news of this filtered home, several of my friends and acquaintances gave up smoking on the spot).
Devastated, Mum phoned home with the bad news. My dad coped by phoning all our friends and family and passing it on.
I’m not sure how long it took, but eventually the antibiotics started working. Apparently I was ‘minutes’ away from dialysis when there was a minute improvement and it was decided not to dialyse me.
The worst was over.
Over the next few days I continued to improve gradually, until the doctors started to talk about ‘lightening me up’, and bringing me out of my coma.