“So how’s the training going?”

Since I announced I was entering the London Marathon last autumn, I have been asked this question at least once a week and on the assumption that no-one is actually interested, I tend just to answer with a wry, ‘It’s going…!’

Training for the marathon has been all-consuming. The amount of hours of exercise per week is probably less than 6, but somehow it seems to expand to fill all my available time…

October – Season of mists and obsessively preparing for training

My marathon preparation begins in the same way I begin everything: reading. I buy a copy of Runner’s World magazine and devour online articles on how to train for marathons. It quickly becomes apparent that thousands of pages of running literature boil down to five articles:

  1. ‘Training Tips to Improve your Speed/Form/Endurance/Race Plan etc’;
  2. ‘The REAL Science Behind Running’;
  3. ‘Quirky Race-Related Factoids’;
  4. ‘The 3,847 Injuries Every Runner Gets’; and
  5. ‘This Is Why You’re Still So Fat Even Though You’re Doing So Much Running’.

I appreciate a lot of people take up running to lose weight, but it’s still insulting to read No 5.

The injury stuff makes me more anxious. I didn’t even know I had an iliotibial band, yet ITB Syndrome is one of the main causes of knee problems in runners! That’s before you even get on to PFPS, aka patello femoral pain syndrome, aka the dreaded runner’s knee. Then there’s the even more dreaded plantar fasciitis, inflammation of the muscles on the sole of your foot. I could get Achilles tendinosis. I could get piriformis syndrome, which makes your bum hurt. I could get a stress fracture! I immediately start googling ‘strength training for runners’ and ‘strength exercises to protect the joints’, and rush to Holland and Barrett to stock up on glucosamine and cod liver oil.

A physiotherapist once told me that her busy season, if she had one, was Spring – four months seems like a long time to train for a marathon, but not if you’ve never done much running before. I’m trying to run a couple of times a week, and I’m attending ballet classes at the gym as well as my usual bikram yoga to keep my feet and ankles strong. I’m trying to get my strength and fitness levels up, so that I’m not starting from scratch when I begin training proper. I have an 11 day break in October to Uganda and Dubai, and I even manage a couple of 30ish minute runs in Uganda.

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Taken on one of my runs. I paused to cross a road and a boda boda driver shouted at me, ‘Not yet! Only when you sweat!’ I was sweating profusely.

I plan to run in Dubai too, with wanky ideas about the bragging potential of ‘training all over the world!’ But this never happens, due to some unforeseen binge drinking.

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This is more typical of my holiday activities
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This was the most I managed to exert myself

November – the adventure begins!

Since I’m entering the Wokingham Half Marathon first in February, I download a beginner’s half marathon programme and carefully count back 12 weeks from race day, to begin with great fanfare (if only to myself) on 21 November, five days after Run in the Dark. I’m sore after the 10k, but pleased that I’m not as sore as the previous year. My time was a little bit faster, too!

Initially the runs are short, no longer than 30 minutes, and the first couple of weeks feel like I’m embarking on an exciting new adventure. I rise early and run to the Wolf statue in Greenwich Park and back; the mornings are dark and misty and magical. A giant oak rising out of the fog spooks me, like a ghost ship in the night; the view across London makes me feel like Rocky.

The weekend ‘long runs’ are not very long – I feel quite smug at having completed the 10k (about 6 miles) before starting, since it takes a few weeks to build up to this distance under my plan. A new element for me however is the ‘tempo’ run – running at a ‘comfortably fast’ pace for 20 minutes. These can feel hard, but in a good way – quite satisfying. Even these early morning tempo runs on the treadmill are exciting: I’ve got up to exercise before work in the past, but never with the purposefulness of race training.

In late November I attend a residential training course, which involves the usual ‘networking opportunities’ in the evening – but like Cinderella, I disappear from the bar before midnight, to be up for the hotel gym at 6am the next morning.

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At least my early starts are rewarded with some beautiful sunrises!

December  – Tis the Season to Exercise, and Drink in Moderation!

By the beginning of December, my knees are starting to cause me a little pain. But I swap out running for spin class and yoga for a week, and it seems to sort itself out.

Christmas rolls around and I feel ridiculously pleased at nonchalantly informing my parents that I won’t arrive at their house until late on Christmas Eve, ‘as I have to do a 7 mile run in the morning’, as if I’m some sort of professional athlete. I’m even more ridiculously pleased to arrive and announce casually that, yeah, I’d run 7 miles. Even my mocking brother has to acknowledge that ‘that’s more than half a half!’

On Christmas Day, I drink as normal, except I don’t pointlessly stay up drinking red wine and Baileys while watching a rubbish late-night film with my brothers. Instead I’m in bed before midnight, since ‘I have to do a run tomorrow’ (as I might mention a few times during the day). For the first time in my life, I go for a run on Boxing Day. It’s only 40 minutes, but it’s miles in the bank. And I feel exceptionally wholesome!

In another first, between Christmas and New Year, rather than merely eating Quality Street and shuffling round the house in between Agatha Christies, I actually make it to the gym.

January – the real work begins…

According to my training plan, I’m supposed to do an 8 mile run on New Year’s Day. Well, that’s not going to happen! I do it the following day instead, on bank holiday Monday.

It’s gone 3pm by the time I set out, since I fail to get up in time for a morning run. I must be still feeling the effects of the New Year’s Eve champagne, as the run is not in the least bit enjoyable – every mile is a struggle. It doesn’t help that I don’t know were I’m going – I intend to follow the Thames path from Cutty Sark to Deptford, but the presence of old wharves forces the ‘path’ (more a ‘route’) inland and after running down several dead ends that finish abruptly on the river, I’m jogging nervously around an unfamiliar council estate as dusk is beginning to fall. I run back along the river to Cutty Sark but it’s still not enough miles, and by the time I run past the Trafalgar pub it’s properly dark, which is properly depressing. I eventually make it home feeling a long way from my pre-Christmas enthusiasm. But I know it’s probably down to the New Year’s excesses, which I vow not to repeat until the marathon is over.

Sunday is Long Runday

The following Sunday is a 10 mile run and this time I decide to take the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and run north of the river. I’m very excited to try out my Christmas present, a Garmin Forerunner. I switch it on while I’m warming up – it seems to be taking an awfully long time to ‘locate satellites’. I give up waiting and leave anyway, relying on my Strava running app to count the miles.

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Canary Wharf. This would be why I couldn’t get a GPS lock!

I run to Westferry Circus, then back around the other side of the Isle of Dogs. It’s going well but the stairs on my way back through the foot tunnel are a killer, and I can’t quite recover enough before tackling The Avenue, the big hill in Greenwich Park which is fated always to be the penultimate mile in my long runs. I manage it though and make it 10 miles to the bottom of my road! The Garmin doesn’t still hasn’t located any satellites, and won’t until the fog clears.

I get home, do my stretches, eat lunch, then something strange happens…I had planned to do some housework and possibly even some decorating on my return, but I just need to sit down for a bit. After half an hour I give in and settle in properly on the sofa, incapable of anything else. I lie on the sofa watching television for hours, paralysed. I lie on the sofa so long that the message comes up telling me the TV screen will automatically switch off in 30 seconds if I don’t do something about it.

This becomes my weekly routine: get up, run, then rest on the sofa for the remainder of the day, incapable of tackling even the smallest task. My house is in the middle of being decorated – boxes are piled up and the living room and hallway chock-full of painting detritus; it is destined to stay in this unfinished, unsatisfactory state indefinitely. An ever-thickening layer of dust and grime has appeared on every surface, and my holiday clothes from Dubai are still sitting in the ironing pile.

One of those weird people who run to work

Midweek, I complete two short (30-40 minute) runs and a bikram yoga class. In order to fit them in, I have to do at least one of the runs before work. It seems a bit of waste of time to run from home and back before heading out to work, so I decide to experiment with running to the office.

I have bought a specialised ‘leanweight’ running backpack for the purpose, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. The first time, I fail to fasten the straps tightly enough and the bag bounces around on my shoulders, which is annoying as hell. I have also failed to distribute the weight of its contents evenly, and something in the top pocket swings around and rattles noisily. The next time, the straps are done up too tight and I can’t breathe properly. But running to work only takes about 40 minutes – about the same amount of time travelling in by DLR does – so using my commute to fit in a run is a no-brainer.

Bye bye social life…

I attend The Red Shoes at Sadlers’ Wells with two friends one Tuesday evening, as a belated Christmas treat (loved it). I drink four glasses of wine over the evening and while it doesn’t feel excessive at the time, the next day I’m too sluggish to run and skip a training session. I admonish myself sternly: this can’t happen again!

That was more or less the last time I did any sort of socialising after work. From thereon in, my alcohol intake is reduced to one decorous glass of red wine on a Friday evening, when I don’t usually have a run the next morning.

My only non-work, non-marathon activity is now weekly choir practice with Blackheath Choir. We’re rehearsing Handel’s Semele for a concert in April. Being required to concentrate on learning the music for two hours means my mind can’t wander off to my next run as it usually does.

Lunchtime = Runtime

I usually manage to get up to run to work on a Tuesday, but as the week progresses I find it increasingly difficult to get out of bed. At the suggestion of a colleague I experiment with a lunchtime run in the gym, blocking out 2 hours in my Outlook calendar, so as to be able to stretch properly and shower. It turns out to be a pleasant interlude in the middle of the working day – I take to listening to the Serial podcast while on the treadmill – but I feel guilty at taking such a chunk of time away from the office. Afterwards, I’m always starving, so the next half hour gets taken up with finding and eating lunch, which makes me feel even more guilty as I’ve already taken two hours. After that, I should obviously be diving back into my work at top speed, but what I really feel like is taking a little nap. I make up the time by staying later, but that doesn’t really help with the tiredness.

But by the end of January, I’ve stuck to my plan and run a whole 12 miles.

February – the shortest month feels like the longest

At the start of the month, I can look back with a certain amount of pride at having got through January’s brutal training schedule, but it is taking its toll.

Lateness at work and cravings for Crunchie bars

I need energy and focus to do my job well. I work for a firm that endeavours to promulgate a ‘high-performance culture’ – I have actually attended training delivered by sports psychologists, who have coached professional athletes and are paid by my employer to impart the high-performance techniques of top sportspeople to us corporate workers. I have been lectured on the importance of getting enough sleep and eating well just for my day job, which involves no physical exercise whatsoever.

My marathon training schedule is the thief of energy and focus. The early morning starts, the guilty lunchtime gym trips, the decimating weekend runs are threatening to turn me into a zombie. I have long since abandoned any hope of getting to work before 9.30am, the latest I am technically allowed to arrive, and I am embarrassed to admit I often arrive later. I haven’t nibbled on a Crunchie bar since I was eight years old; one afternoon, I crave nothing else and eat two in a row (in between a Bounty and a KitKat).

Then there is the distraction of the Sunday long run. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it, worrying about it – where will I run to? What should I eat the night before? What pace should I aim at? Why does my knee feel funny? – and reading those five running articles over and over in various forms.

I feel constantly guilty that I am not giving more to my job, though thankfully my colleagues are very supportive.

Meet the Experts

At the start of February I attend ‘Meet the Experts’, a day of talks and lectures put on by the London Marathon organisers. Among other things, I realise that my extreme fatigue after long runs is probably to do with failing to refuel sufficiently. Remember when I met Coconut Water Man and got really into drinking coconut water after yoga? Since I haven’t yet done a run that takes longer than a bikram yoga class, I’ve been sticking with my trusted coconut water, intending to transition to sick-tasting sports drink only when I need to. Evidently I needed to a while back. I take on board the advice to drink Lucozade and milkshake and eat bananas and muesli bars (“ideally home-made” – I’m sorry, but WHO has the time to make their own muesli bars while training and fundraising for a marathon?), and it definitely helps. Likewise, the advice to walk for a bit after the run, rather than flopping down on the sofa.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel! For 12 February is the date of the Wokingham Half Marathon. It really feels like this is what I’ve been building up to!

My First Half Marathon – “Lucky Omens!”

As previously noted, I had chosen Wokingham as being where my parents live, so that they would be there to cheer me on and carry me home. Plus, my mum’s new cavapoo puppy Bertie would be there!

Except that my parents have booked themselves onto an Arctic Wonders cruise of Norway, and Bertie is staying with his friend (Ralph the shih-Tzu). So I wend my way to Wokingham alone. One dear friend comes over to support me though, so I’m not totally on my own.

The morning of the half marathon I arise early, having slept badly. Fortunately the start line in Cantley Park is only a 10 minute walk away.

I walk into the park and see people jogging around! My heart stops, thinking I’ve missed the start of the race. But it turns out they’re just super-keen!

By the time I’ve checked my bag and found the queue to the portaloos, I’m a blithering bundle of nerves. I notice a sign on a portaloo door that says ‘Loos for Do’s’ – ‘OhmygodIthoughtitmeantthesearethespecificdesignatedloosifyouneedanumbertwoand-theotheronesarejustfor  – but – it’s”do”asin”event”!’ I gabble, giggling hysterically.

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Waiting at the start line. I was hyperactive!

I finally set off, and maybe because I’m used to starting runs with a hill, I realise I’m going much faster than usual. It doesn’t feel like it at all! I have to force myself to slow down.

It feels like I’ve already been going a long time when I get to Mile 6. But after that, the miles go by a little quicker and I’ve kept up my target pace. The last mile seemed to last a long time. But eventually I crossed the finish line!

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Crossing the finish line! Yes, it was bloody cold

I DID IT!!! I feel so proud of myself! I never, ever thought I would run a half marathon! I relish the sensation of walking rather than running, and of pulling on my cosy tracksuit, in the smug knowledge that others are still out on the course. I obediently eat a banana straight away and drink a bottle of lucozade. I’m sure it helps, but the walk home feels very long.

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And breeeeeaaathe…my first medal!

Back home in the evening, I allow myself not one but two glasses of red wine to celebrate, and finally feel calm. It’s gone really well and the first chorus of Semele, ‘Lucky omens! Lucky omens! Bless our rites!’ seems on point!

Sadly, that is all the celebration I’m allowed. Hanging over me is the knowledge that in a week’s time, I have to run even further, then even further the week after that!

The training becomes increasingly gruelling. Those “short” 30-40 minute runs are now 50-60 minutes. I now routinely run 10k midweek. It was not much longer than a year ago that I wasn’t sure I could even run 10k!

I’m still feeling tired all the time. The dusty, half-decorated state of my house is worsening, and depressing me. Things are starting to get a little tense in my personal life.

“Avert these omens, all ye pow’rs”

Two weeks after the half marathon, I’m scheduled to run 15 miles, my longest yet. On that Sunday, 26 February, I will be on holiday – New Orleans for Mardi Gras! – so rather than interrupt my break I decide to get up extra early the Friday before, and do the run before I catch my flight.

But two days before I’m due to fly, I stand up and stretch awkwardly, and pull a muscle in my lower back. The pain is unmistakeable, and doesn’t subside overnight.

I am terrified. It could be a muscle spasm – when I had one in my neck last year it took several weeks, plus several physio sessions, to heal. If that happened, I might not be able to continue with the marathon! I manage a 10k run on the treadmill – perhaps I could still do the 15 miles.

However, I am eventually persuaded by everyone from my boss to my brother (who has run a few marathons) to rest. It doesn’t make me feel any better though – I am still terrified. The morning of my flight to the States, instead of being excited about my holiday I am crying down the phone to my mum. ‘I thought I was doing everything right,’ I sobbed, ‘I’ve been working so hard to avoid injury.’ Congreve’s lyrics in the second chorus of Semele seems heart-breakingly apt

Avert these Omens, all ye pow’rs!
Some adverse god our holy Rites controlls,
O’erwhelming with sudden Night, the Day expires!
Ill-boding Thunder on the Right Hand rolls,
And Jove himself descends in Show’rs,
To quench our late propitious Fires.

I am mainlining ibuprofen, and get on the plane at Heathrow clutching a sofa cushion for additional support.

Laissez les bon temps roulez

(Yes I know that’s not correct French. It’s Cajun!)

By the time I get to the Crescent City, I’ve calmed down. I can’t do any training, so I may as well enjoy what I’m here for: Mardi Gras, baby!

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Happy Mardi Gras!
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The beautiful French Quarter

hh

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Relaxing on the bayou. This picture has no real relevance, I just felt the need to include some slightly less unflattering photos on this blog
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Nnice. The iconic Spotted Cat jazz club on Mardi Gras night
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The Treme Brass Band. These guys will feed your soul!

It turns out that I really, really needed a break from all things marathon. After a few days of nothing but parades, mimosas, greasy shrimp and amazing music, my back is a lot better and I’ve almost forgotten I’m supposed to be running regularly.

Phew.

They call it ‘Monster March’

Because this is the month when the mileage really cranks up.

At the start of the month, I’m on the second leg of my holiday – South Beach, Miami. My back seems normal so it’s time to get back on track with the training.

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My first run in Miami – nicer than a Deptford council estate
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Running around South Beach. You know, as you do
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South Beach’s Art Deco District

The first couple of runs in South Beach are exciting – I see a lot more of the coastline that I would have done without running and everything is new and highly glamorous.

Then there is no escaping it – I have to run the the 15 miles I missed! South Beach is not as big as it looks on the map, so I figure I will try and run around the island’s perimeter.

Well. I feel good setting out, heading south down the east coast. But once I turn up the inside of the island (the side that faces the mainland), there is no coastal path and I have to make do with whatever the nearest residential road to water is. This is harder than it sounds – without the sea to orient me it’s easy to lose my bearings and I start to lose confidence in where I’m heading.

After a couple of miles, the pavement disappears and I am forced to run on the road, jumping onto the verge every time a car comes past. This makes me feel like I’m running in a very affluent, tropical version of Milton Keynes. Crossing any road takes forever: like all American cities, Miami is designed with the car manufacturers in mind rather than people. How do American people ever get into running? This must be why ‘trail running’ is a thing!

The temperature is in the early to mid twenties, so not hot but considerably warmer than I have been accustomed to back in London.

In other words, it is heavy going…

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…But I did it! And have the perfect excuse to spend money I don’t have in the hotel spa!

Back home in London

Two days after returning home, an even bigger challenge awaits: 18 miles!

Due to jet lag, I don’t set off until late. I decide to be bold and head west along the river, Deptford council estates be darned!

The run goes okay – the moment when I round the bend and see Tower Bridge in the distance is magic – save for a debilitating stitch that holds me back the last three miles. But – once again I feel triumphant: I did it! I’ve deliberately finished a mile from home to incorporate a cool down walk, but sod that. I get an uber home.

Still, it’s good to get back to my regular Rocky mornings:

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Gonna fly now! The Wolf statue in Greenwich Park

New shoes

I’ve been feeling my trainers have become a bit word down, so now is the time to replace them. I just get the same pair again, but make a stupid mistake. I christen them with a 15 mile run, having failed to lace them up tightly enough.

The next day, for the first time ever, the inside of the soles of my feet ache like anything and don’t let up. My knees feel painful too. I buy a massage ball and roll it around under my desk at work in stockinged feet, and at home roll a frozen water bottle under foot. I can’t believe I’ve got this far injury-free and inflict this on myself through carelessness! Over the next two weeks, all I can think about are my feet and knees. Will I be able to do the next long run?

Sick of my soundtrack

Back to the routine…by this time, I have to say I am heartily sick of my musical playlist. I’ve long since jettisoned some of the peppy 80s pop tunes or R&B hits I had originally downloaded. I can’t bear to hear Africa, Magic Dance, Alice Cooper’s Poison or I Gotta Feeling one more time. Even Oliver Twist has to go.

I need music to motivate me. I need to feel the sheer joie de vivre I feel when a song makes me want to dance, as if the music is a shot of adrenalin, that is the reason I wine and palance like crazy at Notting Hill Carnival (people who have attended carnival with me tend to say ‘Wow, Cat really likes to palance’).

(Google it).

This is what I need to tap into when running. Some of the original tracks still work. Most of Dookie. Sonic Youth’s cover of Into the Groove, which marries two of my musical passion. Legs by ZZ Top. St Elmo’s Fire and Fame have stayed the course, as has Roll It Gal by Alison Hinds (as has Palance). Gonna Fly Now, obviously. Eye of the Tiger and The Final Countdown – cringeworthy under normal circumstances, but essential to my run. Music snobbery has no place on a running soundtrack! A rare non-cheesy track is the Pixies’ Monkey Gone to Heaven – though perhaps I should add Gouge Away, in homage to my sports bra. Its predatory straps eat into my skin: I look like I’ve been slashed by Wolverine.

From the classical canon, the gloriously triumphant final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. The overture to Carmen and the CanCan by Offenbach. The 1812 Overture, and the William Tell Overture (for when you need the deep irony of hearing it while crawling at a snail’s pace). Pomp and Circumstance No 1 for a bit of patriotic pride-based motivation (I may question whether I live in a Land of Glory, but I’m pretty sure I live in a Land of Hope).

In the beginning I chose most of my tracks because they have a good beat and a good tune. But as time wears on, I realise the truth of all the ‘inspirational song’ sports psychology stuff. Running up that Hill doesn’t last long on my playlist. Skunk Anansie’s Twisted is a banging tune, but I just can’t take hearing ‘Every day hurts a little more’ and it has to go. Even the Pet Shop Boys’ thumping disco hit It’s a Sin, which has me whirling around the kitchen at home, is too negative.

For the rest of March, I continue with my routine, tapering with another 15 mile and 13 mile run. Having been a bit of scared of running in the direction of Woolwich, I run both of these along the Thames Path to the Thames Barrier around Greenwich Peninsular, and it’s a much nicer route than the opposite direction. It’s high time I started leaving my prejudices about unfamiliar parts of London at the door!

April is the cruellest month

On Saturday 1 April, I embark like a fool on a ’20-22 mile run’. I have to do it on the Saturday as our Semele concert is on Sunday 2nd. I have a bit of a cough, but it isn’t really bothering me. I set out just before 10am feeling positive and excited: this is my dress rehearsal. For this run, I’ve decided to head west again along the river. I’m still worried about my feet, and have promised various people I will stop running if they hurt.

By the time I’m near Tower Bridge, the enormity of the endeavour is looming. The crowds are already gathering and I have dart around and squeeze past them in front of the London Eye. I shout ‘Excuse me!’ as loudly as I can before overtaking people, but they just don’t hear and the effort of shouting is exhausting. By the time I get to Westminster, I’m not even half way and flagging. I push on all the way past Battersea Bridge, past MI6 and nearly get as far as Vauxhall before roadworks force me to turn back. I run past a man and a woman casually strolling along the pavement carrying rolled up yoga mats, and hate them.

My mouth is full of excess saliva from the gels and chews I’ve been taking; I urgently need to spit it out but there are two many people about. I jog to the chest-high wall on the riverbank and attempt to spit it into the water but my aim is way off – it lands on top of the wall as if on purpose. A woman walking past gives me a disapproving look and I hastily try to brush the frothy spittle off, but only succeed in smearing it further. Embarrassed, I run on.

After about half way, my pace drops and I don’t seem to be able to pick it up again. I should take another gel, but I’ve had a mild stitch for miles now and I want it to go away first. The crowds on my way back through Westminster and along the South Bank are almost unbearable. Why don’t they hear me shouting? I give up on shouting and rudely push past when I need to. I want to cry and I want to stop. I realise I’ve got myself into a negative mindset and I need to break it – I try a soft smile. They’re always telling us in yoga that if you smile, the brain is tricked into thinking you’re enjoying yourself. It helps for a bit, but my pace is so slow I can’t help feeling disheartened.

Running back through Rotherhithe, I wonder blearily if I will ‘hit the wall’ on this run. Then the rational part of my brain wakes up and remembers I am carrying more gels and chews as well as Lucozade and jelly beans, so there is absolutely no need for me to hit the wall. I force the fuels down, stitch be darned. Every muscle in my body is screaming and I still feel like crying. My stomach is cramping, exacerbated by my water belt which constricts my stomach muscles. I’m dying to take it off. 16, 17, 18 miles seem interminable – how will I make it 20, let alone 22? It takes every ounce of mental strength I have not to give up with the disappointment of how badly this run is going. I make a deal with myself: just get back to the Cutty Sark, then I can stop whatever distance I’ve done.

I round a bend and see the ship in the distance. Just a bit further…Just get to Cutty Sark…Maybe I’ll get a milkshake from McDonalds after this…

I make it to Cutty Sark. It’s 21 miles. Physically, I could probably plod along with increasing slowness for another mile. But mentally, the deal I did is too strong to ignore – I’m now at Cutty Sark and must therefore stop.

I stagger to Starbucks to buy a bottle of water – I’ve drunk all mine and feel desperately dehydrated. I have to clutch the counter; I’m barely able to hold myself up. I sit down and order an uber.

I have run 21 miles. I should feel victorious, but I feel like a failure. The thought of running a further 5.2 miles is unimaginable. For the first time, I seriously doubt whether I will be able to complete the marathon.

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My tearful post-run Facebook status

That night, I develop a temperature. My cough has become a full blown chest infection and I am gutted to miss the choir concert the next day. I’d been so worried about my feet and knees, I did not see a virus coming.

There is nothing to do but rest. I’m convinced I’ll be better in a couple of days, but as the week wears on, my cough is no better. I have a week off work, and stay at home doing Vicks inhalations and eating oranges. The following Sunday, I set out to attempt the usual run – 12 miles is scheduled – but am forced to give up after less than a minute, my chest is so bad. I should feel delighted I have a reason for my poor running performance, but I’m too scared I won’t recover in time.

The next week I am still coughing but back at work. On the Tuesday, I go to the gym to attempt a gentle treadmill run.

It’s impossible.

It’s just 10 days before the marathon, I have done no exercise for 10 days and am still incapable of training. I feel much as the penultimate chorus of Semele:

Oh, terror and astonishment!
Nature to each allots his proper sphere,
But that forsaken we like meteors err:
Toss’d through the void, by some rude shock we’re broke,
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.

To get this far, to have got through all the gruelling months of training, to have got through that terrible 21 miles, and for this to happen now! There are more tears, and I come so close to having a complete meltdown that my mum comes over to see me after work, bringing Bertie for some puppy love. I confront the worst-case scenario: that I have to pull out. After all my training, I can’t stand the thought of walking round. If I’m not better, I will try and defer. Surely the training couldn’t be as hard the second time round.

I know I have a virus, so there is nothing medicine can do, but in desperation I visit my GP on the off-chance something can be done. The doctor confirms my diagnosis but prescribes me an inhaler! The theory is it will relax the airways enough so that they stop spasming when I attempt to exercise, and I will be able to train again. She is confident I will be able to run the marathon but I have trouble believing her.

Easter parade

On Good Friday, two weeks after I came down with the chest infection, I set out tentatively for a 3-4 mile run. At first it’s hard, but then I start getting into it and it feels – fabulous! My playlist has undergone another edit (by this point, I’ve even lost interest in Serial. Is Adnan Syed innocent? Is he guilty? I don’t give a monkey’s) and I’ve added Watch Me Shine from Legally Blonde to my playlist together with various other new and hopefully inspirational tracks – Let the River Run from Working Girl, Proud by Heather Small among others – and get to the Wolf statue with my head held high.

There is no place for the Smiths on any sane person’s running soundtrack.

On Easter Sunday, I run 10 miles as scheduled in my training plan. Then there are two 30 minute ‘easy’ runs, which I do on the treadmill at the gym. Then that’s it: I have completed my training for the London Marathon.

This is it

Now it’s the day before the marathon. I still feel conscious I had two weeks off, and feel like I haven’t done enough. I am still feeling my feet and knees, and both are a worry. I’ve practised and practised running with fuels and water, and tried to eat the right foods, but it still seems likely I’ll get a stitch at some point. The memory of the full dreadfulness of that 21 mile run is still there, although it’s faded somewhat – forgetting the horror must be the brain’s protective mechanism to allow you to do the next long run, like with childbirth or online dating.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds. But I will update this blog to let you know!

x

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My Story Part 4 – My Legs are Full of Holes

Legs 1
How my legs look today
Legs 3
So many scars! No wonder changing the dressings took so long
Legs 2
The big one that needed surgery

After coming round, I became only gradually aware that something was going on with my legs. My primary view was of the ceiling, and when I was sat up, I was covered in sheets and blankets.

When a nurse wanted ‘to take a look at’ my legs, I didn’t understand. When I realised there were bandages on my legs, I still didn’t understand. There was so much that was strange and unfamiliar about being in hospital; this was just one more thing.

After the bed bath phase was thankfully past and I was wheeled to the shower, there was no escaping the wounds that needed to be painstakingly cleaned, but I refused to acknowledge them or even look at my legs. When Sister Maree, the tall and terrifying chief wounds nurse, instructed me to bathe in Lux flakes to soften the tissue, and I was hoisted into a bathtub in a special chairlift (I remember being scared I would fall off), I still refused to look at them. I got so distraught the nurse covered the mirror with a sheet.

(I suppose that means that bathing in Lux flakes is a thrifty hack for beautifully soft skin – but I doubt I could ever bring myself to do it again!)

What had happened to my legs?

The meningitis rash, with which most of us are familiar, had spread all over my body, and resembled nothing so much as a port wine birthmark splashed onto me from head to toe. My face and tummy had little chicken pox-type marks; splotches of various shapes and sizes were everywhere else. For some reason, they were biggest on my arms and legs.

The burgundy-coloured spatter marked the spots where blood cells had died. The rash darkened, became ulcer-like and the splotches were treated as third degree burns. Each “burn” was a cavity wound.

Every day, each individual wound had to be cleaned and the necrotic (i.e. dead) tissue picked out with forceps. Each wound then had to be re-packed with a special seaweed-based dressing, sluiced with iodine and wrapped in bandages.

I had many of these wounds, so this process took up the most of every morning.

I don’t know why I refused to accept this reality, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I knew I’d been ill, not injured. I’d had flu-like symptoms, so why would I need treatment for arm and leg wounds? It didn’t make any sense to me.

At the same time, I had no faculty whatsoever for overcoming my sense of revulsion towards anything ‘gross’. I am not normally particularly squeamish, or someone who faints at the sight of blood, but I just had no stomach for anything. I simply couldn’t steel myself to look at the bloody, fibrous clots of dressing and blackened lumps of skin being eased out, or the raw tissue underneath. The whole notion of it was a horror to me.

(I would toughen up in time, which is how I do know what it looked like.)

I had one very large wound, several inches square, on my right leg. The dead tissue went too deep to be removed in the daily forceps routine, and had to be surgically cut out under local anaesthetic. It was initially proposed I should have a skin graft on it, which gave me more anxiety about possible future pain, but after much debate the medical staff decided I had been through enough. Skin grafts for women are generally taken from the buttocks (it’s the thighs for men – I don’t know why), and it so happened this was the one part of my body that was untainted by the rash. Sister Maree agreed it would be unfair to take this away from me.

As my strength increased, I overcame my revulsion and was eventually able to assist in scrubbing and cleaning the wounds.

“I don’t feel very lucky”

At the same time however, the enormity of the change to my outward appearance was also sinking in.

Of course, the only acceptable reaction to learning you will be scarred for life in this context is simple gratitude that you’re alive to be bothered about it. That you even HAVE arms and legs. From what I can tell, it is almost unheard of for a victim of meningococcal septicaemia to be as seriously ill as I was, and not have to undergo any amputations. I was told this repeatedly by everyone around me. ‘You’re a very lucky little girl’, older adults had a habit of saying to me sternly. ‘I don’t feel very lucky,’ I would grumble back. And I’m not a little girl!

(Being seriously ill is the one time you can be a grumpy git and no-one can say anything.)

I knew, rationally, that I was very lucky to have got away with only scars. But I thought sadly of the dreams I’d had of arriving at university a bronzed goddess. Was it only a few weeks ago that I was planning my suntan strategy?

Obviously, no-one would ever fancy me again. Even the softest of nurses drew the line at suggesting the wounds would heal without trace. I may have won the lottery in the immune system stakes, but I just happen to have the kind of skin that heals slowly and scars badly. I felt ugly and damaged, and that I had been taken out of the running for experiences like love and romance.

Towards the end of my stay in hospital, the worst of the dead tissue was gone and we were just waiting for the wounds to ‘granulate out’. ‘Wounds heal from the bottom up and outside in. That’s the principle of wound healing,’ a nurse informed me rather primly. I move on from the seaweed packing to special ointments.

Before I leave hospital, the nurses trained my mum and I in how to do the dressings and wrap the bandages (‘Figures of eight, otherwise it’ll fall down!’). I was supplied with a special dressing that can be left on for 48 hours, for the flight home (it was sticky, a nightmare to remove). Once I was discharged, the lengthy morning routine of wound cleaning and dressing continued.

Where were you during the solar eclipse?

Back home in Hounslow, I couldn’t yet stand up in the shower so the bathing in Lux flakes continued. The media was going frantic over a solar eclipse: when it happened, I was visiting the consultant dermatologist at West Middlesex Hospital. I got more types of dressing, including a new type of gel to counteract a couple of wounds that are becoming hypertrophic or keloid. This is where the healing cells get over-excited, and ‘over-granulate’, resulting in the scar being raised. The gels only do so much: I am left with a noticeable keloid scar on my elbow, like a little red cushion, and raised scars on my foot.

You know that funny pins and needle-y feeling you get if you bash your ‘funny bone’ by accident? That’s how my elbow used to feel all the time, for years after it had healed over.

Both sets of scars flattened out after a few years, although the elbow scar still looks messy. A scar on my ankle used to feel very pins and needle-y, and to this day does not quite feel normal.

Over the weeks, dressing the wounds became easier, until the end of September when they had healed over completely. Just in time for university!

Starting university

But I was still miserable. The freshly healed scars were a livid crimson-y maroon, not a million shades away from the original port wine rash, and showed up even more angrily against my pale skin. I still felt ugly, and my legs were ‘ruined’.

Again, I appreciate I should have been simply grateful to have been able to start university on time, which had certainly been hanging in the balance. And if I feel anything now, it is that. But at the time, I felt diminished.

I’m not saying I was right to feel this way, or denying that a large part of my distress was probably due to personal vanity. But I was 19, and just starting university, and my appearance mattered to me. You can wring your hands about what this says about our society, or my upbringing, or me, but I’m just telling you honestly how I felt.

In common with many, maybe even most, people my age, I hadn’t had a great deal of confidence in my looks. My high-achieving girls’ school had more than its quota of girls who modelled professionally in their spare time; Jasmine Hemsley was in my year.

But I had been told many, many times that I had nice legs. Whether or not that had been objectively true, I had believed it. I felt somehow that that had been my one advantage, and now I didn’t have that any more, and there was therefore nothing left that was attractive about me.

It was all very well knowing that I was lucky compared to other survivors that had lost limbs or digits, or their lives. But I wasn’t living in a cohort of meningitis survivors, I was living in a cohort of averagely healthy students. It was them I compared myself to, and felt like an anomaly. I mean, they could hardly be expected to have a frame of reference for the fatality or amputation rate of meningitis sufferers.

For about a year, I wore only trousers or black opaque tights. I felt this most keenly at evening events – the formal halls, club dinners and balls – where my tights added a dowdy touch. I enjoyed dressing stylishly (or trying to), and this brought me down even further.

Then one summer evening I made a bold move. Okay, so my legs would never be what they were. But did they need to be covered up the entire time? Would people really be horrible to me about them?

I attended the Cruise Club Cocktails (a friend was a member) in the Selwyn Diamond wearing a skirt but no tights (as well as a top, for the avoidance of doubt). Despite my friends’ reassurances, I was anxious, convinced everyone would be staring at my legs thinking, ‘Ugh’.

But no-one did. There was one oh-so-hilarious young man who asked me what the hell had happened to my legs, had I been playing football or something? No, I had meningococcal septicaemia. Oh no, I’m not going to catch it off you, am I?

It hurt, but he was so clearly a moron that it didn’t hurt too badly.

I realised that the scars would only bother other people if they bothered me, and they haven’t bothered me since.

Moving on

I can only think of two or three occasions since that night when I’ve even been asked about them. I never mind, because I’m a nosey parker too and would totally ask someone else! Certainly no-one has been unkind to my face. The bigger risk is that I embarrass myself by boring someone to tears giving a blow-by-blow account of the illness!

Since then, I can honestly say I have rarely given my scars much thought. Occasionally I have wondered whether they prolonged my emotional recovery. I was probably in my mid-twenties before I stopped feeling defined by the whole experience, before I stopped calling it ‘my illness’ and instead referred to ‘when I was ill’, and maybe if I hadn’t been left with a visual reminder this would have happened faster. Who knows.

Today, the scars have faded to a pale grey-violet, and since I live in Britain and hardly ever go bare-legged, they are barely noticeable even under skin-coloured tights. In retrospect, I think I just needed time to adjust to such a major change to my physical appearance. I don’t judge my younger self for minding. I think most people would have felt the same way. I’ve known women to get het up if they so much as graze their knee.

When I did my 21 mile training run the other day that went so badly, and when I cried and cried afterwards and felt like dropping out, the only thing that calmed me down was remembering how lucky I am to be able to complain about how hard running is. So many of my fellow TeamMRF marathon runners are running in memory of a loved one they have lost to meningitis. I bet they would give anything to have that person back, complaining they can’t wear the latest fashions because their scars will show. A large part of the work Meningitis Research Foundation does is supporting those who have become permanently disabled through the illness.

Meningitis takes away so much from so many people. Whatever happens on Sunday, however hard it gets, however rubbish my time is, participating is a gift. I may not have been grateful when I was 19, but by god I am grateful now.

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PS: People did fancy me again.

 

 

 

How I went from running refusenik to entering the London Marathon

I remember supporting my brother at the London Marathon in 2010, and having an abiding sense of relief that I was a spectator and not one of the runners, who appeared to be trapped in a world of pain of their own inexplicable making. In fact, spectating itself had felt like pretty hard work. I’d always identified as someone who could simply never run a marathon, and I was content with this status. I could do other stuff. I’ve read lots of books.

For many years after I’d recovered from meningococcal septicaemia, I’d had pins and needles under some of the deeper scars on my ankles, where the nerve endings were damaged. As a student cycling around Cambridge, I learned to push down on the pedals using only my glutes, since pushing down with my knees hurt too much. Running for more than about 40 minutes tended to aggravate both knees and ankles.

And even if I had never been ill, it seems likely to me I would have had this ‘not possible for me’ mindset anyway. People think I look like someone who would be good at running because I’m tall and slim, but I poorly designed feet: low arches, bunions, narrow heels and clawlike toes that don’t sit flat. A day’s shopping and they’re in agony. No, I could never run a marathon…

Whence the change of heart?

Way back in August 2016…

The Dream-Inspirer

As usual, I was hooked on the Summer Olympics – I’d been glued to all sorts of obscure sports, but aside from the Women’s Hockey final and fellow Hounslovian Mo Farah’s repeated double, the event that stuck in my mind was the men’s marathon. I’d watched it, mesmerised, at complete random, gunning for Galen Rupp (who we all know is Mo’s training partner). Mo Farah, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles – they make it look effortless, superhuman. I had never seen an Olympic event before where the effort of the winners was so visible, where the achievement seemed to come at such physical cost.

If they can put themselves through that…But I always get inspired by the Olympics, and never do anything about it.

The Achievable Challenge

Around the same time, I received an email reminder to enter Run in the Dark, a 10k night run in Battersea Park for the Mark Pollock Trust. My colleagues and I had fielded a team the previous November; I decided to organise our entry this time round.

Hmm…now in 2015, 10k had been the furthest I had ever run. I hadn’t even been sure I’d be able to make it round the course, so I was thrilled with my time of 57 minutes. I was however appalled at the suggestion by an athletic colleague that I should now enter a half marathon, and I could join her in the Richmond Half! Pfth. But this time…I would do the same 10k, but I wouldn’t get the same sense of achievement that I’d got the first time. Hmm indeed.

Maybe I SHOULD enter a half marathon! The only problem was,  I found running intrinsically boring.

I needed to listen to music to make it bearable, but I couldn’t listen to music because headphones irritate my ears too badly painfully. I knew I couldn’t do the amount of training required for a half marathon without music, so it seemed my nascent goal was killed before it had begun.

The Game-Changer

Then I made a game-changing discovery: bone conduction headphones, which conduct sound along your cheekbones instead of into your ear directly. After much poring over Amazon reviews I ordered a pair of Trekz Titanium, and although it took a couple of runs to get used to them, the effect was transformative. Running was fun! I could almost pretend I was dancing.

I googled ‘half marathon’ and discovered one in Wokingham, where my parents live. Perfect! They would be on hand to carry me home and give me chocolate. I signed up for it as soon as registration opened.

Then I started thinking…if a half marathon, why not a marathon? Spectating at the London Marathon in 2010, and a couple of times since, I had allowed myself to fantasise about the glory of having completed the marathon myself, before brushing off the image as just that, a fantasy. Of course, I could never actually run a marathon.

Or could I?

The Yoga-Trained Mind

As anyone who meets me finds out fairly quickly, one of my main pastimes is bikram yoga. I could write a whole blog post on why I’m an adherent. But there is one particular phrase the teachers often use, which came into my head: ‘set the intention’.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t run a half marathon, I realised, it was that I just didn’t want to. If I wanted to, I would set the intention and do it. But I didn’t want to. So that was fine.

Except maybe I did want to!

Crossing the Rubicon

I wasn’t sure how to enter the London Marathon. A quick google revealed the ballot was long since closed. Perhaps it was too late in any event. It occurred to me it might be possible to enter directly through a charity. There was only one charity I could run for, and my stomach did a flip when I clicked through to the fundraising page on the Meningitis Research Foundation’s website and saw the call for runners.

I spent a couple of days preparing my application form and sent it off. Everyone was always saying how difficult it was to get into the London Marathon, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get in.

Then a couple of weeks later, the email arrived and my stomach did another flip. I was in!

There was no turning back.

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My Story Part 3 – Waking Up

I am perched in the middle of the back seat of the car, and the Chinese couple who have adopted me (or taken me into foster care, I’m not sure) are sitting in front. They keep turning round and frowning at me, and then at each other; I can’t understand what they are saying but I get the impression they’re both intensely annoyed with me, that I’m not what they’ve been led to expect.

I am in hospital, and the Christmas decorations are up even though it is July. That makes sense, as Christmas happens in summer in Australia. That’s how I know I must have been in a coma for at least a year.

I’m at Lizzie’s house at a sleepover – so they must have brought me back to England after all. For some reason I’m sleeping in her parents’ room, at the foot of their bed. A bedside lamp gives off a pinkish glow as they lean forward to check on me.

I’m being wheeled on a hospital trolley through Tessa and Vince’s hallway – there is the drawing of Vince’s father on the wall, there is Tessa, and now she’s gone away.

Where did everyone go?

I am in the old library on Treaty Road, the one they tore down to build the Treaty Centre. Or maybe it’s Chiswick Town Hall. No, it’s the spaceship from that episode of Dr Who with the clowns. Everything is unfamiliar, I can’t see anyone I know.

I’m at the GP surgery in Hounslow – finally, things are making sense. Except it seems a bit like somewhere in Australia, so I’m not entirely sure. It feels like I’m lying in the deserted reception area for an awfully long time, with no-one coming to help me. I realise I am in the hospital in Australia. It is night and a tropical storm is lashing the windows. Outside, palm trees are bending over in the wind. I recognise the streets as being in Ealing in West London – but it isn’t safe. There is a tribal war going on, it goes on all night.

My mum is in the hospital! I am still in the hospital, in Australia, and my mum is here. But she refuses to see me. Why is she being so cruel? I am heartbroken. I learn from listening to the nurses that while I have been unconscious, she has taken a job volunteering at the hospital. But she has killed a baby in her care and that’s why she won’t see me. She hasn’t accepted what had happened, she is going round with a bright smile on her face and talking to everyone except me. I am heartbroken all over again. I can hear my dad’s voice talking gently to me on the phone but I can’t see him anywhere.

*

The longest, loneliest night. The far wall of my room is in shadow, but I know the shadow conceals library book shelves. Two Sikh girls from my old school are there, one up a ladder and one reaching down, long black plaits down their dark green uniformed backs. They are whispering to each other, unconcerned by me, just getting on with their day.

The night shift hands over to the day shift. Someone is washing my hair, and music is playing on a cassette player. ‘It’s classical,’ a voice says, ‘Your mum said you like classical music.’

I don’t want classical music. I want my mum.

*

Then, somehow, the room changes and at once, my mum bursts into the room and rushes towards me.

And this time, I really am awake.

A bouquet of flowers is hustled in, so that I can read the card from my grandmother: it just says, ‘Hoorah, hoorah!’  The flowers are then instantly hustled out.

The first thing that happens is that I am fitted with an oxygen mask, which seems uncomfortable at first until I realise it is helping me breathe. A short while later, the X Ray people come round to take an X Ray of my chest. The staff sit me upright for the purpose, and I immediately projectile vomit emerald green bile all over the room (‘…just like in a horror movie, so it can happen!‘ as my dad reported in one of his email updates to family and friends). At some point, my mum disappears and I am given ventolin through a nebuliser for what seems like hours. I’ve seen my brother on a nebuliser before for his asthma, but have never before realised quite how unpleasant it is. But after the nebuliser, the oxygen mask can come off. I am breathing on my own!

Look no ventilator!
Look no ventilator! The first photo taken of me after I regained consciousness

My hospital room is full of people, some from the hospital and some from Hounslow. I can’t quite place one woman. It’s not Sarah Hudson, it’s that other girl who works in Boots on Hounslow High Street. Or is she one of the mums at Chatsworth? It’s annoying me, not being able to remember.

(Of course my room was not actually full of random people from Hounslow – although it was frequently quite full of nurses, students and various specialists; my mum told me she once counted 10 people in the room – but no-one told me until weeks afterwards that I might hallucinate after coming round. None of my hallucinations were wild or crazy – they just made things not quite add up: nurses’ conversations that never happened, instructions that were never given to me, impossible locations…It was such a relief to discover I wasn’t going mad).

IMG_5424
Finally breathing all on my own!

The next phase after waking is deeply frustrating: I am compos mentis – kinda – but cannot speak.

I have a terrible itch on my cheek and am dying to scratch it. Since I can’t speak to ask anyone to scratch it for me, I attempt to scratch it myself. I manage to lift my hand and start moving it, excruciatingly slowly, towards my face.

“She’s going to try and rip the tubes out!” someone cries and three people are immediately on me, clamping my errant hand back down. I just want to scratch my face! I silently scream. Honestly, I am barely aware I even have a tube through my nose at this point. I must be able to form some sort of facial expression as the staff, and my mother and aunt, seem to understand that there is something I want to say. “I know it feels like you want to,” a nurse says kindly, “but we really can’t let you pull anything out.”  I’m not trying to pull them out, I just want to scratch my face!

One of the nurses brings out an alphabet card and helpfully suggests I spell out what I want. This plan is soon abandoned – I am so weak that it takes a painfully long time to get to two letters, after which I fall back exhausted. I just have to live with an itchy face.

There has been so much emphasis on my breathing that I am surprised to hear one of the nurses comment on ‘how my legs are doing’. I glance down and notice for the first time that my legs are wrapped in bandages from knee to ankle. I hear people talking about them and have a distinct sense of something being kept from me. I ignore the matter.

It is not long before my voice starts to come back, enough to complain about my unbearably dry mouth. I am still not allowed to take in anything by mouth, so I am given a saturated cotton wool ball to roll around my mouth. It is as poor a substitute as you would expect. Don’t believe me? Try it at home!

I also decide I want to go for a walk. Honestly, the fuss that this request garners, you’d have thought I’d announced I wanted to embark on a major expedition! I am brought a wheeled Zimmer frame to lean on and two nurses to support me. They unhook me from the equipment on the wall and with their help I manoeuvre myself to the edge of the bed. I stand up and promptly fall down. I cannot walk, I really cannot! My legs just don’t hold me up. After a couple of abortive steps I’ve had enough and am helped back into bed.

Well. My brain finally accepts what the medics have been saying: that it will take time to build up to walking again.

IMG_5425
It was a big deal to get to the edge of the bed

So many things I had taken for granted. I recall the previous year having dashed across the road, almost colliding with an oncoming vehicle. Had I really been able to dash like that? I could always dash, whenever I wanted to. I didn’t even think about it. If I needed the loo I just got up and ‘popped to the loo’. It was all over in minutes, seconds even. Now…well, I will spare the reader’s blushes on this subject.

Then it is just the multitude of indignities and irritations of being in hospital. The stupid plastic clippy thing on my finger. The way the nurses make my bed while I am in it, tucking the top sheet tightly under the foot of the mattress so that my feet are flattened into ballerina pointes. Two nurses giving me a bed bath while gossiping to each other as if I wasn’t there. The way everyone talks to me as though I’m eight years’ old: ‘You’re a very lucky little girl’, older people (not my mum or aunt) keep saying to me, sternly. I’m not a little girl! I’m 19! I want to say. (Now I look at the photo above, and I think I look about 12). The doctors are a bit better, since not only am I an exciting case medically, but I am currently their most high-profile patient and well may they congratulate themselves on saving my life.

The nights are the worst. Exacerbated by the deep separation anxiety I feel in relation to my mum that will last until the day I leave hospital, they seem interminable. The night staff are less caring, and hallucinations continue to taunt and confuse.

Eventually, the Nil by Mouth instruction is removed – hallelujah! My first drink is a simple glass of orange juice, and I have never tasted anything so delicious and refreshing, before or since. I am advised that ‘this is the one time in my life that I can eat whatever I want!’ The important thing is to get the calories in. Ironically, of course, it is the one time that I don’t want to eat anything at all (I, whose motto is Never Knowingly Undereaten). I decide I might be able to eat a ginger biscuit, which becomes one my staple snacks. The doctors make me drink Nurishment between meals – yuck. To this day, walking past a tin of Nurishment in the supermarket makes me shudder.

IMG_5426
The first meal I was served the day I came off the drip. INEXPLICABLY

The days and nights pass and I am moved from ICU to a ward, in time for the second big wedding of the summer: Edward and Sophie. (“I didn’t like her dress, it was too much like a coat-dress” is the speech therapist’s damning verdict.) Along the way, Mum fills me in on her side of the story. When she mentions she would hold the phone to my ear so my dad could ‘chunter away to me’ (her words), I remember my dream – ‘I heard him!’ If you’ve ever wondered if someone in a coma can really hear you, I am here to tell you that yes, they can!

I get terribly down thinking of Dad and the boys back home. My cousins send us some photos of a recent gathering at my grandparents’ house in Wadhurst, and they make me weep to be home with my family.

After a few days I am able to take a daily walk to the nurses’ station and back. I gradually progress from the wheeled Zimmer frame (which they call a “roll-ator”), to walking with two sticks. Then I am walking with one stick, until eventually I can walk unaided. Every single day, to my utmost irritation, the nurse on duty at the station chirps, ‘Now all we need to do is fatten her up for Christmas!’

Then the final tube is removed, and I accept the doctor’s reassurances that the disease is gone and my fear that it could come back from inside me unfounded.

I am moved to the rehab centre to focus on physical and occupational therapy. I am told that not only have my muscles wasted, but my tendons and ligaments have too. It is easy to rebuild muscle, apparently, but much harder to rebuild the other stuff.

All of my fellow patients are stroke victims, and the next youngest is 44. For the first time since being in hospital, I have to share a ward. Initially, this makes the nights even worse, and doubly so since I have been diagnosed with severe anaemia and am in the middle of a marathon prescription of six blood transfusions. I had been given the first couple while still on the ward, and they made me feel like I’d drunk two shots of espresso; by the time I get to number five however, my vein hurts so much I’m writhing on the bed in pain. To make matters worse, the rehab centre doesn’t have a fancy machine that beeps at the mere hint of an air bubble: the blood is just hooked up to a pole. What if there’s air on the line? I’ll die!!! I gratefully accept the offer of Temazepam, the only solution to both my anxiety and sleeplessness.

IMG_5427(1)
In the Rehab Centre, starting to look more like myself

There are many gross things about the Rehab Centre (trying to eat dinner among very sick elderly people; sharing a ward with sick elderly ladies who snore and break wind at volume; the staff’s obsession with your every bowel movement), but the best thing is that it is just across a car park from the Red Cross Rooms, where my mum and auntie are staying. One afternoon, we get special permission for me to leave the Rehab centre and watch television in the Red Cross’s little sitting room with Mum. As fate would have it, Pride and Prejudice comes on. There is just one other lady staying at the place and she leaves us to our ‘Pommy programme’. ‘Oh I hope it’s the one where she sees Pemberley for the first time!’ Mum says excitedly, ‘So do I!’ I say. And fortuitously, it is!

I do an interview with the local press; both the words and images make me wince. But at least I get an upbeat happy ending to all the news coverage.

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Sunshine Coast Daily front page, 24 July 1999

(This is such an unflattering picture of my mum that I feel morally obliged to tell you that she lost five stone last year. Here is a photo I took last summer at a shoot she did for Woman and Home magazine (Mum’s the one on the left):

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Make love to the camera, baby!

The Daily Mail even published her tips for looking sensational at 61.  Go Mum!).

And then, after a week or so of group activities and physiotherapy, a nurse comes into the ward with big news: I will shortly be discharged! I want to jump for joy.

I finally leave Nambour General Hospital after just over five weeks. And all the while, my legs are being dressed, cleaned and redressed…but I think my legs deserve a post of their own.

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My Story Part 2: While I Was Sleeping

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.

Coma
The sight of me when Mum arrived. I was all puffy with edema from the drugs: ‘Your hands looked like little bagpipes’

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.

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A significant advancement in tele-medicine: The Courier-Mail, 29 June 1999
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The dreaded ‘beard-in-scrunchie’, a nasty side effect: Sunshine Coast Daily, 30 June 1999

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.

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Frankly disrespectful

My Story Part 1: the Day I Fell Ill

Meet 19-year-old me:

With friends
I’m the one in the middle. Did I cut my own fringe with nail scissors? Possibly

 

It’s 1999. 19-year old me is on my gap year in Australia and 100% focused on excitement, adventure and meeting boys! 19-year old me is having an absolute blast. 19-year old me is only dimly aware of the existence of meningitis and has never even heard of meningococcal septicaemia, the version of the disease that invades your blood, giving it an Access All Areas pass to wreak havoc in every cell in your body.

This is my story. I hope it helps raise awareness!

Sunday 20 June 1999, and Earlier: The Time of My Life

On Sunday 20 June 1999, I was in Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I had been in Australia for around four months and was three weeks into my Big Trip: Sydney to Cairns by bus, then a flight to Alice Springs for Ayers Rock, then overland to Darwin).

I had spent the previous three months temping in Sydney, and had fully adopted it as my new home. My office was in Milson’s Point, and my evenings were spent in the Kirribilli RSL (the ‘R-y’, everyone called it) drinking with colleagues. At weekends, when not visiting my various relatives, I explored the city by myself and fell in love with its urban, beachy cool.

I’d been on some minor excursions – Canberra, the Blue Mountains – but my dedication to the becoming a Sydneysider had made me rather comfortable. I had a membership card for the R-y, and I knew far too much about Australian TV. At work one day I heard myself say ‘thudy’ instead of ‘thirty’ and soon afterwards my Aussie accent was down pat. I loved Sydney so much I didn’t want to leave; but realising that my gap year would soon expire, I had forced myself to go to STA Travel and book my trip.

My desk
My desk in Sydney. I cried all the way home after getting my long hair cut like that!

The day I left Sydney, I felt sad to leave my recently-cemented home (as well as ambivalent towards the newly-arrived Brits who formed most of my fellow travellers). But my mixed feelings didn’t last long. Within three weeks, I had tried sheep-shearing, gone horse-riding, panned for gold, attempted to surf, lingered barefoot far too long in Byron Bay, driven through Brisbane, partied in Surfer’s Paradise and done a skydive in Noosa.

Skydive
Alanis Morissette would have seen the irony: I jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet then fell ill 3 days later

(I had posted the video of my (uncharacteristically impulsive) skydive to my family as a surprise and sent them a teasing email, assuring them I was on a ‘massive high’ and they’d ‘soon find out why!’)

By this point, I was in an almost perpetual state of excitement – everything was just so much fun! Every location, every activity was new, and all accompanied by drinking and dancing and new best friends and boys! A seemingly endless map of good times stretched out ahead of me. Sailing in the Whitsundays! Cattle ranching in northern Queensland! Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef! Kakadu! Why had no-one told me life could be like this before?  I couldn’t believe I’d spent so much time in Sydney! I had mostly been an academic, obedient sort of teenager, and the concept of hedonism was entirely new to me.

I rarely thought about when my holiday would come to an end, but when I did, I caught hazy glimpses of Cambridge, as if through a mist. I had a place to start there in the October and I scarcely dared believe that all these good times would be capped by me going there. It was just excitement on excitement!

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With friends in Noosa, celebrating – something!

To get back to Noosa. The resort town had been beaches, adrenaline and partying with old friends and new. On Sunday 20 June 1999, I had spent the day sunbathing by myself.

I was by myself because of my somewhat haphazard approach to travel. My backpacking skills tended to oscillate between dreamily imagining the trip that lay ahead of me, and living hedonistically in the moment with my newfound backpacker friends. The prosaic details of where I would sleep, what I would eat and how I would get to my next stop only registered when they reached critical levels of importance. Consequently, I tended to stay in random hostels (wherever still had space when the Oz Experience bus unloaded us) and ate out more than I could afford. (Though to be nutritionally balanced, I carried around with me the makings for scrambled eggs on toast, a bag of carrots and a bottle of sweet chilli sauce, and felt very proud of myself).

My lack of organisation also meant that when I wanted to hop back on the Oz bus and head off to my next stop, I would inevitably find the bus was fully booked and would have to wait several days until the next available space. Thus it was that my Noosa buddies had long since departed, and I was left cooling my heels for a few extra days before jumping on the bus to my next destination: Hervey Bay – for Fraser Island!

Camping on Fraser Island was a part of the trip I had longed for before even leaving London. It had rainbow sands, dingoes and wild horses like in The Silver Brumby! I could barely contain my anticipation at what lay ahead.

Noosa was a small place. I vowed to learn my lesson and book my bus in good time in future. In the meantime, there was not much to do except lie back and work on one of my goals: getting seriously bronzed. I intended to arrive at Cambridge tanned! I envisioned a tanned-er, blonder, slimmer me walking alluringly through college, to curious glances at this worldly yet mysterious sophisticate. I had treated myself to a new halter-neck bikini from one of the surf shops in Byron Bay (the surfer/skater chic look was big back then) and I rather fancied myself in it. I put in a few solid hours on the beach.

(For the record, I’m still terrible at life admin. But if I’d been an organised human being, I might have been on Fraser Island on that Sunday, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be here to write this today. So it’s not a foible I can feel bad about (safe bet that no-one at work will read down this far)).

6pm on Sunday 20 June 1999: Just a 24 Hour Bug

At some time in the afternoon, I returned from my tanning mission to get ready for the evening. Koala Backpackers, the hostel where I was staying, had organised a big barbecue night and I had already bought my ticket. I was sharing a room with another girl and three guys – there were two sets of bunk beds and a single bed. I had one of the top bunks, and a newly arrived Irish guy had the bunk underneath me. Two Dutch guys had the other set of bunks and an American girl called Amanda had the single bed. Amanda worked at the hostel. The head end of my set of bunks abutted a kitchen sink unit and there was a separate en-suite shower and toilet. I had my shower, during which I had a good sing (Like a Virgin, if memory serves) and I emerged to much ribbing from my roommates. I remember looking at my little travel clock (one of many loving gifts ‘for your big trip’ from family members the previous Christmas): it said 6pm and I suddenly felt nauseous. It was like car sickness, not too terrible. I expected it to go away.

I got dressed and ready to go to the barbecue but the nausea persisted. I was annoyed: I had paid for my ticket! I hated the thought of it going to waste.

The back of my neck ached. The ache was exactly where my bikini had been tied; I’d experienced a similar sort of pain from tied-too-tightly halter-neck tops before. I supposed I must be feeling funny from lying in the sun, and that was exacerbating the pain.

I didn’t know a sore neck could be a symptom of meningitis.

I tried to ignore the nausea and headed to the bar where people were starting to gather for the barbecue. I got in the queue behind two blokes who were laughing and joking loudly about something. I think this is the point where if I was making a film of this story (or, you know, an episode of Doctors), a hint of sinister music would be introduced. I remember I found them unbearably irritating and rudely told them to be quiet – they responded with funny looks and eye rolls to each other, and part of me wanted to explain I was behaving completely out of character but it wasn’t something I could control.

I abandoned the queue and went up to the bar to get some water. I must have complained of feeling unwell as one of the bar staff offered to drive me to an out of hours doctor. My biggest worry was that I had the flu or something similar and I wouldn’t be able to go to Fraser Island as scheduled.

The out of hours doctor wasn’t very friendly. Maybe he’d had enough of backpackers. He told me I had a 24-hour bug and that I should take paracetamol, drink Gatorade and get some sleep. I felt enormously relieved that my Fraser Island trip wasn’t in jeopardy. I do remember that my legs had started to hurt at this point but it didn’t occur to me that this was worth mentioning. Everyone knows you get aches and pains with flu-type bugs.

I did as instructed by the doctor, and it seemed to bring immediate relief –I pulled on the oversized Wallace and Gromit T-Shirt I was using as a nightie, couldn’t be bothered to take my jeans off, and managed to fall asleep.

However, I awoke after what must have been no more than an hour, and vomited into the bowl I had carried up to my bunk. I could not stop vomiting. I heard some of my roommates come back from the bar. A second, rowdier wave of room mates (the Dutch guys) came back some time later. Lights went on, lights went off. As the night wore on, I vomited almost continuously. After several hours, my throat felt like a rusty cheese grater being scraped with rusty knives, and I was desperate for water. The kitchen sink was right behind my head – all I had to do was climb down and turn on the tap, but somehow I couldn’t move. After a long while, I managed to get down to the floor. I lay on the floor to rest. After another long while, I managed to crawl to the sink. Another rest and I dragged myself upright for some water, then straight back down on the floor again. The whole process must have taken hours. With no bowl, I forced myself to crawl to the toilet to be sick. Dawn was breaking, and in the dim grey light I could just make out a dark substance in the toilet bowl I knew was blood.

Monday 21 June 199, 6am: Mattress ride

I must have something really nasty, I remember thinking. It still didn’t cross my mind it could be anything serious. I lay on the tiled floor. One of the Dutch guys loomed in the doorway. ‘You need a doctor,’ he said sternly, ‘You’ve been being sick all night’. He leaned down and attempted to lift me up, but the pain of being touched was so acute I screamed out loud. I heard him go back to the dorm to confer with the other room mates. I made myself crawl back too and lay in the middle of the floor.

The hostel manager, a cheerful Brit, appeared in the doorway and asked the obvious question: ‘And she wasn’t drinking last night?’ My room-mates confirmed in the negative. It was decided I would be driven to a GP in the hostel minibus. ‘It’s not like home I’m afraid,’ the manager apologised cheerfully, ‘Doctors only come out to you if you’re at death’s door!’

While the manager went to bring the minibus round, my room-mates discussed their sickly companion. ‘I’ve never seen anyone like this before’, I heard Amanda say. Typical American, I thought, overly dramatic! I was convinced that all I needed was bed rest. It was hardly surprising that I felt terrible when I hadn’t slept. I clearly had a nasty bug and now I just needed to sleep it off. I had never had flu and I supposed this was what it was like.

Still unable to bear physical contact, I managed to slither onto a mattress and was carried out in state to the minibus. The men tried to slide the mattress down the central aisle but the aisle wasn’t quite long enough and the back door couldn’t close, so one of them crouched at the back and held the back door to stop me sliding out. I can still remember his slightly foolish grin – I mean, I was aware it was quite funny even then!

At the GP surgery, the hostel manager tried to persuade the doctor to come out and look at me in the bus, but was refused. The poor lads had to heft me once again, this time from bus to clinic.

Once inside, everything changed. The hostel people seemed to vanish and suddenly I was alone in a grey-white room with the doctor, an older, unsmiling man. He looked a little like a small, tanned Victor Meldrew to me. He took one look at me and gave me a shot of penicillin: the shot that would later be credited with saving my life. ‘How long have you had that rash?’ he asked (accusingly, it seemed to me) before calling an ambulance.

Rash? I looked down to inspect my arms, and was surprised to see them covered in splotches. The doctor was on the phone to the dispatcher ‘…and the worry is, it’s some sort of mening…’ I tried to remember what I knew about meningitis and rashes. My sole point of reference was a few minutes of a TV drama I had had happened to interrupt my mum watching some years earlier. A woman in a kitchen, holding a glass against her baby’s skin. ‘Meningitis,’ my mum had knowingly commented. If you held a glass against the rash and it didn’t go away, it was meningitis. I pressed my finger against a splotch. It seemed to stay where it was, but it was hard to tell with a finger. Or was it the other way round? Was it supposed to disappear ? I couldn’t remember. You needed a proper glass. Could adults even get meningitis? I gave up.

‘Have you ever had a serious illness before?’ The doctor was off the phone, and was simply watching me, it felt disapprovingly, waiting for the paramedics to arrive. This was the first time I understood that not going to Fraser Island was the least of my worries.

‘No’. An idea occurred to me: ‘Could it be malaria?’ I asked. The doctor perked up – ‘Have you been travelling in those tropical zones then?’ I hadn’t, but Chris, one of my recently-departed room-mates had – he had bragged incessantly about the number of times he had had malaria during his six months in the Solomon Islands.  Perhaps I had caught malaria off him? (look, I was a teenage backpacker, not a medical expert). ‘No,’ the doctor slumped back down. ‘You couldn’t get it that way’.

The paramedics finally arrived to take me to Nambour General Hospital, about 45 minutes’ drive away (which is basically the equivalent of a 10 minute walk in the UK). ‘It’s almost like some kind of blood poisoning,‘ I heard one of them say as they carried me out to the ambulance (I remember the sun was blazing).

Blood poisoning – that was how Shane had died on Home and Away. He had cut himself on a knife while cutting up an apple and the wound had become infected. I racked my brain but I could not recall cutting myself. I hadn’t been eating any apples (who uses a knife to eat an apple in real life anyway?). I didn’t think that could be right.

In the ambulance, I heard the paramedics discuss when they would pull over and take my stats. Then I heard them decide they couldn’t afford to stop. I could feel my own breath slowing down. I knew I was fading. It dawned on me that I was going to be a Dead on Arrival. DOA. Inanely, the cover of a crime novel I’d once read called Dead on Arrival by Dorothy Simpson came into my head. To think this was how it all ended!

Monday 21 June 1999, mid-morning: ‘It’s like meningitis, but in the blood’

The next thing I knew, I was lying in the emergency room. I could hear noises, bustling, other patients. A doctor materialised by my side and introduced herself in an Irish accent. ‘I’m Dr Emer Eimhoff. ‘ I don’t recall her exact words, but from what she said next I understood that I had meningococcal septicaemia (‘It’s like meningitis, but in the blood’), that it was extremely serious, that they thought they’d caught it in time but on the other hand they might not have done and I might die. My next of kin was requested and I recited my home phone number. I heard Dr Eimhoff’s sombre voice explain the situation to my parents. It was around 2am in the UK.

(Sombre, stern, accusatory…at the time it felt like all these individuals disapproved of me. Now I understand they were just scared shitless).

The phone was held up to my ear. ‘Hi Cherbie! Hi Darling!’ my mum and dad sounded upbeat to me, and I thought they didn’t understand, as if I’d decided to surprise them with a phone call as a special treat, instead of waking them in the middle of the night with almost the worst news any parent can receive. I couldn’t muster the energy to explain the situation to them. I don’t recall what noises I made, but my parents had the impression I was not in compos mentis. I really believe I was! It’s just that by this stage, there was an unbridgeable gulf between my mind and my body.

The phone was taken away. Two young male Australian doctors came to put a tube in my chest. ‘Seems a shame to cut through Gromit!’ one of them said before slicing into my T shirt. He was demonstrating some new way of doing it to the other doctor, in that eager way that doctors have when they can’t quite conceal their excitement at trying some particular new technique.

Around this time, I (suddenly, it seemed) became aware that my legs were blazing with pain. Possibly my jeans, which would have concealed the worst of the rash, had just been cut off. My legs seemed to be cylinders of solid fire, the kind of agony that makes you writhe around, except I had not the strength to writhe. Instead, the pain seemed literally to be taking my breath away. I begged them to give me something for the pain. But they already had. ‘I’m really sorry, we’ve already given you the maximum dosage of morphine’.

After what seemed like forever, I was wheeled into a lift and spirited away to another part of the hospital. A different doctor in a mask loomed over me. He apologised for the mask, and even though I understood I was now a biochemical hazard who could kill anyone who came within inches of me, I liked that he had a kind voice. He explained that if my breathing didn’t improve he would have to ‘put me to sleep’.

‘Put me to sleep’…a memory of my brother Huw having surgery on his toe at the age of nine. When told he would be ‘put to sleep’, he thought in panic of what this means when a veterinary surgeon says it about your beloved pet. A funny family memory, but now I was sharing Huw’s panic! I thought I knew what being put to sleep meant, or did I?

The doctor was cutting off my bracelet. A hair-thin string of tiny beads I’d bought from a hippy shop in Byron Bay: the shop sold the beads in different colours, each colour corresponding to a particular wish, such as ‘Love’ or ‘Health’. At such point as the delicate bracelet broke under wear and tear and the beads scattered, your wish was supposed to come true. I had selected a rainbow of colours: ‘Your Heart’s Desire’. It won’t work, I thought, it won’t work if you just cut it off…

The doctor explained he was putting me to sleep. My breathing must have got worse then. This was it. I was about to die.

I thought dully of my family, so far away I was viewing them through the wrong end of a telescope. It sounds terrible to say I had no emotion, but I was in a state beyond emotion; too ill to emote, if you like.

The telescope scanned its inverted lens across all my achievements like a UCAS form viewfinder. The orchestra concerts I’d performed at the Royal Festival Hall, at the Tivoli, at Kilkenny Castle…the dancing show at the London Palladium…my offer from Cambridge…my Big Trip…I was content with what I’d done, I thought mechanically. I hadn’t had a grand love story, but then I was only 19 so I couldn’t really have been expected to. There would have been plenty of time for that. I’d done things the way I’d wanted to.

My calmness in the face of death took me by surprise and I had another inane flashback, this time to an A level French class the previous year. (This will sound terribly Sixth Formy, but come on, for a while there it looked like my final thoughts were going to be of Home and Away). We’d been studying l’Etranger and had got to the bit where Meursault is reflecting on his life while awaiting the guillotine, and decides that he doesn’t regret anything. ‘I did it My Way!’ I’d paraphrased loudly to the class (what an irritatingly little wit I must have been!). There’s a bit where he imagines is in a hollow tree looking up at a patch of blue sky. The image of the tree and the sky came to me and I felt a sudden sense of kinship for Meursault.

Then nothing.