So over a year has passed, where have I been?! Well I have been very scarily fighting for my life.
I’ll try to keep this short, but it’s a long story.
Last September, having a relatively good period of health, I’d taken my handcycle and gone on a three-hour coaching spree in the absolute pouring rain. I’ve been less wet in the bathtub!! Other than resembling a drowned rat, I was feeling absolutely fine. I warmed up, dried off etc… and went to bed.
The next morning was the beginning of the nightmare that has been the last 10 months. I woke with backache, nothing spectacular and not horrifically uncommon- I sit down all day and had spent 3 hours on my bike in the freezing cold, something was bound to hurt. The odd thing was that I couldn’t straighten up. Refusing to pay too much attention to this, I applied heat, convinced myself it was a bad muscle spasm, got medication from the GP, and arranged an emergency sports massage. As the day progressed the pain got worse, it wasn’t responding to heat, ice, pain meds, muscle relaxants etc.… I carried on though, as the day progressed I started shaking and not being able to bear my weight whilst sitting up, despite this I still coxed a crew, well it was that or they didn’t go out and I couldn’t bear that.
Things kept getting worse, I had to take the weight through my arms when sat, I still couldn’t move to an upright position, but still I denied a serious problem. The Calea nurse came and went, my carer came, and I insisted I wanted a shower (despite the shaking and severe pain thing). She insisted I sought medical attention so I messaged a medic friend of mine who replied with “You should have phoned an ambulance 6 hours ago”. Reluctantly I considered this, with her messaging every few minutes to check whether I’d phoned an ambulance.
With much reluctance, I gave up, and the carer phoned for help. I got a friend to come round as well. By this time I was just lying on the bed yelping. Still trying to convince myself it was just a muscle spasm and this was fuss over nothing.
Eventually the paramedics arrived, by which time things were getting a little hazy. I recall them walking in and thrusting Entonox at me without saying much. I think they could probably hear my yelps in the street. With plenty of Entonox on board, they managed to get some sense out of me.
I remember we did my basic obs; everything was fine bar the raging fever, which I hadn’t noticed at all. At this point, I remember saying, “Is this the time to tell you I have a central line?” Cue serious faces from them and checking I was serious. We rushed, very gently over to A&E, where I continued to consume copious amounts of Entonox.
The Doctors were fantastic. It was clear I had an infection and it was assumed I had a central line infection that had probably gone septic that was causing all the pain. They tried, but failed to follow sepsis protocol- I should have had a stat dose of IV Domestos before leaving ED, but they were too worried about me breaching to get it sorted. They also didn’t sort out my pain relief properly and left me screaming in agony all night.
I had started having huge back spasms that brought my knees to my chest. The plan was badly thought out and they decided to send me for a PICC before starting my PCA, by this point, my back was continually spasming and I was stuck, completely in the foetal position on my side, which made for PICC insertion difficult. They also failed to sort out my dignity – I was desperate for the bathroom at 5 AM, but couldn’t get on a bedpan for the aforementioned reasons. Eventually my team came and decided that I probably had a line infection and would be up and out of there in a week with some IV antibiotics, but they would do a spinal MRI just to make sure. The plan was to put an In-Out catheter in until the PCA started and I’d be able to move more easily. The ‘minor’ problem being no suitable catheters on the ward, and I think the world’s slowest walker went to the other side of the hospital to steal some from Urology. Then there was the faff that the nurses didn’t know how to use them, errmmm it’s a catheter it’s not that hard and you put Foley’s in regularly.
My bladder by this time was progressing from hill to small mountain and eventually got impatient, I won’t tell you the rest, but I was a very soggy and unhappy patient.
Eventually things were settled, I had the PICC placed so I could get some decent pain relief, I moved to my usual ward, but I was still having massive back spasms. Eventually someone added in some IV diazepam and I finally managed to start sleeping a bit better.
MRI day came, I was told off for moving too much- they’d taken away my pain relief as it was out of hours, and I hadn’t had any diazepam for hours. Eventually exhaustion hit and I fell asleep in the scanner.
Back on the ward, the next morning and hell really started to happen. The MRI showed I had a massive Paravertebral abscess from L4- base of sacrum, Discitis at L5/S1 and Osteomyelitis at the same point, as well as a few other bits and pieces. The question was what to do. They said they couldn’t biopsy because of all the nerves in the area, but the blood cultures were showing nothing. Therefore, we started chucking more antibiotics at it.
I just didn’t get better. After 2 weeks, I was still as bad clinically and my fevers hadn’t gone anywhere. More antibiotics were trialled, but after 5 weeks no change. A 6-week course of other antibiotics was embarked on. I was starting to turn a corner, the labs were looking better and my fevers were down. Then 5.5 weeks into the course fevers returned and my labs were off again. We extended for another 2 weeks, at point 7 weeks and 5 days having been fever free for nearly 2 weeks I spiked a massive fever. I told my consultant and she said it was just a one off and not to worry. Cue a whole day of fevers. I woke up the next morning and found my consultant at the end of the bed “I wasn’t expecting to see you today”, “well I wasn’t expecting you to have fevers all day” she retorted!! After a long discussion with Infectious Diseases, they decided a 12-week course was the answer.
Sometime during this experience, somebody decided that I might be having antibiotic fevers and they wanted to stop my antibiotics for 48 hours and see what happened. Part way through that experience I spiked an over 40°C which persisted for the whole day, at some point in the early hours of the morning I was woken by the Critical Care Outreach Team, one of the scariest points of the experience, they are NOT a good sign. Thankfully, I went back on to the antibiotics and the fever came down. I had a similar experience when they changed the antibiotics to one I told them never worked for me, and that didn’t go well either.
So having had 5 weeks of mix and match antibiotics I then had a 12 week course of IV Domestos (other brands of bleach are available).
Somehow, a week turned into 100 days, I don’t quite know where or how, but what I thought had been a couple of weeks had turned into several months.
Eventually my birthday loomed, yet another big birthday that was looking to be a disaster. People did their best. My Mum sent some 30 balloons, they were much larger than anyone ever expected and caused much amusement on the ward!!
They also let me use a meeting room to have a little party the weekend after my birthday. I was so grateful to everyone who came to make it a special day. I eventually crashed out and fell asleep in the party!!
Birthday joy (and the giant numbers!!):
During all of these antibiotics, I had to undergo major physio- I couldn’t sit up to begin with and we did a lot of work to get me moving again. The first day they hoisted me out of bed I didn’t even make into the chair before I had to go back to bed again.
This was one of the hardest fights of my life. I was determined I wasn’t going home needing to use a hoist. Nope not happening, no way. (I have nothing against hoists as such, but I wasn’t letting this infection change my life even further). We battled a lot; there was a lot of tears, a lot of pain, but also a lot of laughter. I was fortunate enough to have the most amazing Physio and OT team. I don’t think I could have done it without them. They told me it was all my work, but they were there cheering me along, making me believe I could do it. I honestly think the outcome would have been different if it hadn’t been for them. Towards the end of my stay the physio changed and he was not at all supportive and I think would have made my recovery a lot less effective. Thankfully, by the time he was involved I was well on my way back to recovery.
My first time in a chair for months:
My first trip outside in even longer:
Shortly after my birthday came Christmas. Hospital Santa left me a nice present, and I was allowed a few hours home with my parents. We made the best of it as we could, but I eventually hit a wall and needed to go back.
I got to play with my beautiful gerbils though, who I hadn’t seen since September, and I’d only had them about 3 weeks before I went in, but, they seemed to know who I was and were very well behaved.
I spent Boxing Day recovering in hospital and slowly opening some more presents. I learnt Santa is extra generous when you’ve been fighting for your life!! The next day I got a few more hours leave and went home again. I had to wade through masses of paperwork and try to get some sort of semblance of normality going on. There were more presents (yay!!) and then back to recovering at hospital.
Eventually I started being able to get more independence. I still couldn’t sit up straight, and was stuck in a huge wheelchair, which reclined and tilted in space, which was fantastic at the time.
During this time, I was also assessed for Continuing Healthcare to try to get me more support at home. I had to prove that my needs were mostly medical rather than social, and that they fulfilled a few other criteria. A lot of stress, a lot of paperwork and unpleasant experiences accompanied that, but eventually I was approved.
I was to be sent home with 24/7 live- in care. This was a huge shock and is still taking adjustment. It also meant I had to sort out the spare room as it was basically a junk room, and we had to make it habitable somehow. Fortunately, just before I went in some friends and I had cleared the room a bit so that the gerbils could live in there, and people could stay the night at a pinch.
There was still a lot of work to do to make it habitable though.
By now, it was February and I was finally off my antibiotics, but still under the care of the Physio and OT and still trying to sort out the care arrangements.
I was given weekend leave, which was exciting and a big step forwards (and a huge one back as well as I was to discover). I was chief delegator whilst sat on the sofa. Eventually I fell asleep, I woke up shivering. I assumed I was just not used to the normal temperature of my house rather than the Greenhouse of the hospital. I was due to go to a formal meal and then a meeting the next day, which is why I choose that weekend for leave.
I continued to shiver despite a warm bath and many layers. I headed off to my dinner regardless (Denial is fantastic!!) Eventually I stopped shivering and didn’t think much of it. The next morning I woke feeling okay, and then all of a sudden the Rigors hit again. I was vomiting and apparently looked horrific. I was adamant I was going to my meeting, and then all of a sudden it hit me and I was desperate to go back to the hospital to sleep.
On arrival, we mentioned it all to the nurses, and I had a raging 41°C fever. ‘Flu had just hit the hospital and was about to hit the ward, so it was assumed that was the problem, and we would continue with preparations for discharge on Tuesday. They took some blood cultures just in case, but my primary consultant had just gone off sick too, so it was assumed to be one and the same having spent an hour or so talking to him on the Friday.
We continued planning for discharge, being reassured again it was just ‘flu, and then a nurse asked me why I was being started on IV antibiotics. I had no idea and we thought maybe it was a clerical error; suddenly a Doctor appeared and explained that I had sepsis again. This time they’d grown a bug so they knew what to treat. This was a kick in the teeth; having already had 17 weeks of Vancomycin my body wasn’t keen on more. To add to the joy I also managed to contract MRSA and got myself moved to a side room.
I redecorated the room with all the amazing cards and letters that my friends had sent. I couldn’t believe the amount of support I’d had over the last five and a bit months.
The Wall Of Love (several layers deep in places):
Another 2 weeks of IV Domestos and I was ready to go home. It was a new world I was going into, my hopes and dreams had been crushed (that’s for another post), and someone was going to be with me 24/7. For a creature of isolation, this was going to be a big change.
I made it 5 days and then aspirated vomit into my lungs. Having done a sputum sample I’d grown some nasty bugs and needed some IV antibiotics to treat it. 10 days after spending over 6 months in hospital, I was being readmitted. This was to be a simple couple of days impatient so that I could pass my test to treat at home. This, however, being me meant things didn’t quite go that way. What I hadn’t been told on admission was that my kidney function had gone awry. I continued with treatment and then one day I started becoming really drowsy and unresponsive. The nurses weren’t worried and thought I’d just had too many of my drugs. I was in a state; I was very distressed, as I couldn’t work out what was happening and why I couldn’t stay awake etc… The night team came on and the HCA went ape, she demanded a Doctor came to see me immediately I was completely different to the night before.
The doctor came and informed me that my kidney function had deteriorated even further, and that I had nephrotoxicity because of the opiates and benzodiazepines I was taking. She started treatment for that and kept an eye on me over night and into the morning. Around the same time, I’d had a bag of TPN and started feeling increasingly unwell. My obs were further off, and my central line tunnel was very swollen and painful. I’d become septic for a third time, despite already being on strong IV antibiotics. My heart rate slowed right down, my body was struggling, and I was actually very scared. Thankfully, with aggressive treatment things have recovered – my heart rate is still very slow at random, points and my kidney function is not completely back to normal. I have kidney pain now from the Acute Kidney Injury, but I’m hoping in time that will change.
I was eventually stabilised and managed to get home, but things have been rough since then. Having gone into hospital in September it was now April and I’d fought for my life three times in six months, lost my hopes and dreams, and had a completely new lifestyle to work with. I have permanent back damage, and have only just started managing to sit up straight again.
My life changed majorly and it was one of the scariest and exhausting experiences of my life.
Where I go from here unknown, and is definitely for another post.
If you’ve managed to get this far, I’m very impressed and I’m sorry it’s so long, but for an 8 month long rollercoaster ride from hell I’ve done my best to condense it. Thank you for your efforts, and of course to everyone who supported me during this hell.
—–Please note MY autism, this is not reflective or representative or any other person with autism on the spectrum, this is my story and even then doesn’t do the complexities any justice in the slightest.——
Yesterday was World Autism Awareness Day. Yes, yet another one of those darned awareness days that come up on your timeline and you think what does it matter to me?
Well it doesn’t, not really, but it matters to some people. I’ve spoken about my opinions of awareness days previously and this one seemed to go off very quietly compared to some of the awareness events I’ve seen previously.
As for me, I’m aware of autism, 24/7, 365(6) days a year. Why? Well if you don’t know you’ve clearly never spent any time with me in person, and if you’ve not had that dubious pleasure, then I was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder a few years ago.
It had been obvious to myself since I was very young that I was different, I didn’t like what the other kids were into, I was too weird, even for the weird kids. I didn’t want to be in groups, and preferred writing and studying to painting, had an obsession with reading and various other ‘normal’ things that combined with some not so ordinary things weren’t picked up on until I was in my late 20’s.
When I was at school, many still believed autism, particularly Asperger’s (as it was at the time) was a male only disorder; they had just about mastered checking for dyslexia but anything more than that was beyond them.
As a girl, I presented typically, but here is the crucial difference, I presented typically for a female- unfortunately this is still a very much unresearched area, but there appears to be key differences. Even my Special Education Needs trained mother missed the diagnosis. Looking back she says she can see it clearly now even from when I was a tiny baby who wouldn’t be left with anyone other than my parents, but even then didn’t really want to be with them. It was much more complex than that, but hopefully you get the drift.
I never hugged on a regular basis until I went to uni at 18. I had never settled at school, I loved getting an education, but had very little interest in my peers. Uni was a change in so many ways. The perks of going to Cambridge are numerous, but one is that research has shown it to have a higher than average percentage of people with ASD, which is hardly surprising considering what you need to achieve to get in there!! I was finally in a place where I could be myself, a very strange experience and hugely overwhelming, those first few days of each new year were particularly hard as you had to get used to change all over again.
That’s all in the past though, the point of this is what it means to me to be autistic day to day. Well I don’t know. I’m not autistic day to day, I’m me every day. Autism is just the way my brain is programmed, and therefore it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s impossible to know if something is a Claire-ism, a quirk like any neurotypical person has, or because I’m autistic. Day to day I’m used to how things are. My head is like a constantly whirring motor seeing all the little things you miss, hearing the conversation you’re meant to, plus those all around you, hearing every noise (I had to ban cat scarer devices), all the idiosyncrasies you don’t register, ever seen Monk? Well my brain is like that all the time, just with less germ phobia!! It’s exhausting, spotting things that aren’t done correctly, and by correctly, I mean in the manner which befits my brains working. Ever had an argument with a 29 year old about putting the wrong sock on first- yes it does matter. Maybe not to you, but in the rules of my world it does.
For me those rules aren’t optional. People talk about it like it’s an anxiety disorder where something horrendous will happen if things don’t occur in a particular order, but that’s not the case, the rules are put in place by my brain and are so that things sit neat and ordered in my head, they stop some of the chaos waving it’s arms so violently around, but if they are broken, although I may have a melt-down, I know there’s nothing going to go wrong because of it is. A break from the never ending chaos that goes on in there would be strange and probably unsettling, after all I hate change!!
The only time I get a calm in my midst is when I’m out on the river, I don’t know what it is about rowing as such, but the escape I get whilst I’m rowing is fantastic. Maybe it’s because I can focus on the structure, there’s no space in my head for all the little “Me, Me, Me’s” waving their arms around, there’s space for technique and that’s about it.
Autism is one of my newest diagnoses, although along with my genetic illnesses, I’ve had to live with it the longest. It’s strange as although it has a massive impact on me generally, I find it is one of the least complex- it isn’t going to give me sudden breathing difficulties or sepsis, for me to live with. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to dealing with it, and dealing with it unaided. I’ve had no medical input in that respect since diagnosis, and of course no support throughout school. There are many things I’d like to improve in respect to my ASD, but there’s no funding or networks in place to deal with it, so I just make do. If people can’t handle my autism, then that’s their loss, because beneath the crazy exterior of my ASD, is just a crazy, human being like the rest of you. Oh and you miss out on the penguins, all the penguins.
It was amazing. Truly inspiring- a word I try to avoid using too often, but genuinely you could feel her passion as she spoke. It was interesting hearing some of my own rational for the things I do, being spoken aloud. I can understand why she wants to return, to be the best in the world for as long as possible is a great aim in my eyes, and I don’t blame her. If you can do it then do. Life is too short to live with regrets and ‘what ifs’.
My friend I took as my assistant was sent down to the front to see if Katherine would come and see me as I couldn’t get down to her. She spent ages with me, thought my boat looked fantastic, posed for a few photos, and wrote me a good luck message!! She seemed genuinely interested in my experience and what I’d been through which was pretty cool.
I was buzzing that evening, it renewed my focus on training and reminded why I was doing what I was doing.
Sadly it didn’t last- I’ve been fighting a chest infection pretty much from November, and eventually about 3 weeks ago, I was referred urgently to a respiratory consultant as I had a very serious bacterial lung infection, I’d been in the gym that morning and the doctors weren’t entirely sure how I’d managed to keep going. I was started on home IV antibiotics, but a few days later I realised I wasn’t doing too well and was brought into hospital. I’ve been here two weeks, bored and feeling like I’m wasting a bed, but I’ve been lucky apparently so yay!!
Home today, and already planning when I can get back into training, going to start slowly building lung strength as well as generally getting stronger. I’ve been doing a bit of sports psychology reading whilst I’ve been in, as well as catching up on a few documents I needed to write. Unfortunately I’m limited on the ward as there is no Wi-Fi, only in the main concourse, which when you’re having multiple IVs, waiting to see consultants, physios, dieticians, specialist nurses, and anybody else who might need to be involved, plus having visitors (which is always awesome) and oh being pretty unwell mean work has been limited and succeeded by sleep many times!!
I’m feeling positive about my future though, these last few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, with a new diagnosis, and lots of new treatments to fit into my hectic schedule- Anybody know how to add a few hours into the day?! But I’m determined, this combined with my other respiratory team may actually manage to get on top of the situation and sort things out, which will make me hopefully an even more able rower when my lungs aren’t restricting me so much.
I kept being visited by people from the chaplaincy, not sure what it was about me, that attracted them (other than the first two who discovered I was the only one awake on the ward- first time I’d been awake at that time since I’d been admitted!!) but I managed to see 4 of them in the space of about a week. They were all lovely and caring, but kept telling me I’m inspiring. I’m really not, I’m not doing anything special. Just fortunate to have been given the life I have and I’m determined to make the most of it. I want to put my mark on the planet someway, make my life mean something- pretentious perhaps, but I hope that I can do something for the greater good in my life.
I am grateful, I have my family’s support, fantastic friends, a good network of support, talented HCPs involved in my care, a roof over my head, nutrition, a job I love, a decent education, I don’t go without and am in the position to do some volunteering. What more could I need? My QoL is pretty darn good when I’m out of hospital.
My life is complex, not the one I set out to life, or a path I ever expected to find myself down, but I am, and I am going to make the most of it, and make sure I appreciate it as much as I can.
Next project is getting back to health, and getting back into my degree. Wish me luck.
This blog isn’t just about my progress as a rower, as I’m sure you’ll all be relieved to know. I was asked to write a piece on accessible housing, by the Papworth Trust, and thought i’d share here as it’s relevant to my life.
I moved into my current property several years ago, at a time when I could still mobilise indoors on crutches, and it did it’s job on the whole. Thankfully at the time I had a fantastic OT who had sorted out the basic equipment, and had managed to get a ramp built for me as I was deemed unsafe to get up the doorstep.
So the house was sorted, until my needs changed. Pretty much overnight I became a full time wheelchair user, and this is where the problems arose. The flat is a private rent, as there was nothing suitable in the area through the council. In an ideal world I’d have had the doors widened, shower taken out (I wasn’t giving up my bath for anything!!), kitchen adapted, but that wasn’t going to happen. Consequently every wall, door, table, appliance has been battered by my wheelchair. There are now dents where I can line up and fit through more easily, but it’s not ideal.
I haven’t moved for several reasons, firstly I thought it would just be a temporary short term need, and there are other reasons, but the underlying fact is, that council housing wouldn’t be able to provide me with exactly what I need anyway. Getting something semi suitable is hard enough, so I make do, I’ve learnt how to do things the safest way, usually as a result of a number of failed attempts, but it works.
I would dearly love to be somewhere I felt safe, and didn’t have to rely on others to do things for me, but it’s never going to happen, my requirements don’t fit the norm. I know I’m not alone in this situation, the dangerous transfers others also perform, the falls that could be prevented had there been space for the right equipment, and the malnutrition through lack of suitable kitchens.
Everyone’s accessibility needs are different and homes should be made to fit the persons needs, not the person fit the home.