Hospital memories part 2 – Spain

Part 1 has hopefully set the scene for this next chapter. All I can do is be honest about the days that followed, in six years I have never discussed them. Exploring these memories will be even more challenging and hopefully by the end of this post you understand why.

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Incredible facilities and care for such a small island

As I left things at the end of part 1 I was still in Spain and waiting for an operation. At this point I had no problems breathing myself and I had started to lift my arms off the mattress with some level of control. Ideally the operation would have been carried out back home in Glasgow but with my condition being so fragile the risks involved in travelling were too high. They needed to secure my neck first.

The plan was to make an incision in the back of my neck and carefully move the displaced vertebrae, C2, back into line. They would screw titanium pins through my spine, one below the break and one above it, and then attach rods to the pins down both sides to hold everything in place. It was crucial to avoid causing any further trauma to my already damaged spinal cord.

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As standard before any operation the surgeon had to talk me through the risks involved. Working so close to the spinal cord and the base of the brain was a complex and dangerous procedure. That was made clear in no uncertain terms.

I have always been, and still am, very flippant towards warnings about my health and safety. Ironically, many people have said to me that I seem to have an invincibility complex. I have dodged plenty of bullets so I tend to pay little attention when warned.

I don’t remember having ‘a special moment’ with my family before the op. We were all desperate to get me home so it helped to concentrate on that rather than unnecessarily discussing the dangers ahead. We were all more than aware of them. I have no doubt that my friends and family were more worried than I was although they managed to mask it well.

I clearly recall being taken to the pre-op room. One of the nurses, Mira, was particularly good-looking. She might have something to do with that, who knows! I was told to count back from 20 and allow the anaesthetic to take over. Within seconds I was drifting off to sleep and spent the next 2hrs unaware of what was unfolding.

I have always enjoyed a general anaesthetic (yes, I am strange in many ways). I find wakening up on the other side is a relaxing and surreal experience. It’s a lingering process beginning with faint background noises that slowly evolve into recognisable voices. The eyelids seem weighed down but gradually the seal starts to break and blurry images begin to filter through narrow slits. Eventually the surroundings come into focus and the brain begins to slowly piece together what is going on. A couple of attempts at talking usually result in no more than mumbled noises until the effects wear off and the drowsiness passes.

NOT THIS TIME

I woke up suddenly. Alarmed and confused that something was wrong, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Out the corner of my eye I could see my mum sitting next to my bed. She was already looking at me and her expression confirmed that I was right, something was definitely wrong. I tried to talk but I couldn’t. If you are imagining trying to talk but nothing coming out then stop. It wasn’t like that.

I have been staring at the screen for 10mins now searching for the words to explain properly. Try this, squash your tongue as far back against your tonsils as possible. Now hold it there and try to speak. If you are anything like me then that will be difficult. Natural instinct is to move your tongue so imagine what it would be like to replace your tongue with a thick plastic tube. A thick plastic tube coming from a machine, taped on outside your mouth and passing all the way down past your vocal chords and into your airway. I desperately wanted to pull it out but my arms lay limp on the bed.

Saliva was starting to gather in a pool at the back of my mouth. Instinctively trying to swallow all I could feel was the cold hard plastic keeping my throat from closing. My teeth bit the tube forcing my mouth to stay open at all times. I began choking on the saliva as it dripped and gurgled its way into my lungs. The more I choked the more I panicked and then I realised something else.

I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t suffocating but I wasn’t breathing either. It didn’t make sense. I tried to take a deep breath. As you take one yourself right now your shoulders will lift and your chest will expand. Nothing happened. I wasn’t running out of breath but I wasn’t capable of taking a breath either. The increased confusion was resulting in more and more panic.

I realised that my mum was repeatedly saying my name. No idea how long she had been doing it but eventually I looked at her, searching for some kind of answer.

I don’t know what she said before I began to settle down and concentrate. I still don’t remember the words she used but I do remember the tone of her voice. She was calm. I realise now that she had been sitting preparing for the moment I woke but I’m still astonished she managed to sound calm. I never thought my mum was capable of hiding her true emotions. I wonder just how hard it must have been for her to do that. To push back and ignore her own feelings. To do that for me.

Her explanation began to shed some light on what I was experiencing. After I had been anaesthetised the surgeon performed a tracheal intubation. In other words he took a plastic tube that was attached to a ventilator and inserted it down my airway. This tube would maintain an open airway to facilitate ventilation of my lungs, artificially, while I was being operated on. I would probably have known this was going to happen had I been paying any attention to the surgeon rather than Mira in pre-op!

After the procedure was complete the plan was to remove the tube and allow me to resume breathing myself. I would wake up with a bit of a sore throat and that would be that. As I say, that was the plan.

They did try but despite continuing efforts my respiratory system has never functioned since. We still don’t know what went wrong during the operation. Complex work in such a fragile area was always going to be dangerous. After all, I was warned.

In terms of securing my neck the operation had been very successful. My family could now liaise with the hospital who could speak to my travel insurance provider who could in turn begin arranging transport home. The process involved so much red tape and protocol that it seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. The next couple of days were by far the most challenging I have faced to this day.

All this time I was lying flat on my back counting the ceiling tiles with this artificial wedge forcing my mouth and throat open. For the two days I could not sleep due to the pain and a genuine fear of not wakening up again. Now and again the morphine would provide some relief. I wouldn’t call it sleep. I was always aware of noise and movement but it did allow me to switch off for a while.

Thankfully I was never left alone. If you have been following my story until now it will come as no surprise that my family did not leave my side.

Communicating was a major problem. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even shape words with my mouth. The only power I could control was the blinking of my eyes. To make use of this the hospital provided us with an alphabet chart like the one below. I would need to have a conversation one letter at a time.

alphabet_abc_chart_blue

One person would hold the chart above my head in a position that all could see. It would take another person to slowly move their finger down the left-hand side until it was next to the line I wanted. I would blink and they would stop. Then they would move their finger along that line from left to right until it was at the letter I wanted. I would blink again. They would go back to the top left hand corner for the next letter and we would start again. If I had reached the last letter of the word I would blink twice.

I quickly became frustrated. Angry even. It was a huge test of patience for us all and I only bothered with essential communication. Chitchat was not practical and it was unfair to put my family through the painstaking process any more than was necessary. I tended to only use it if I had a question regarding my condition or getting home. I lay in silence and for long spells. I felt defeated.

The family tried to keep me entertained by continually talking to each other about what they thought would interest me. I realised what they were doing, not the most subtle of operations but I was so thankful for the distraction. Even when they did manage to amuse me, it was impossible to form a smile due to the obstruction in my mouth.

Despite how I felt I had to to project a positive attitude for the sake of my family. I could see how much everything was taking out of them and how hard they were trying to mask it. I knew they were tired, I knew they were emotional, I knew they were worried and I knew they would only be worse if I let them see how badly I was struggling.

Waiting for the transport arrangements I was more downhearted than at any point in the last six years. You can no doubt tell that by the tone of this post. I am not looking for any sympathy or pity. In hindsight, those couple of days proved to be vital preparation for what was to come when I returned to Glasgow.

I look back on those days with mixed emotions. I realise how close I came to dying during that operation and it scares me. I am proud of my family and grateful that they dragged me through it. We got there in the end and we got there as a family. A family closer than we had ever been. I realise now that although the pain and the distress almost broke me, I came out the other end a stronger person. I remember reading a quote a while ago that has always stuck in my mind. It goes something like;

“those who fear suffering are already suffering from their fear”

I can’t stand cliches like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ but they happen to be true. 6 years on I am still proud of getting through those days and I take that pride into every new challenge I face.

Two and a half days after the operation I was finally heading home. We were all heading home. A Swiss aircraft with specialist equipment and expert staff was flying to the Spanish island to pick me up and take me home to Glasgow.

And so begins a new chapter.

I realise this post has been long and heavy reading. It was important to me that this part of the story was given proper attention so thank you very much for your patience.

@stevenceltic81

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41 Comments

  1. Steven, I have to say that reading this was very difficult. Imagining you going through this, and then trying to explain it so “we” can understand it all. I found myself physically reacting to your writing (swallowing repeatedly, tensing with frustration at the process to communicate with the alphabet board). I got to the end of the post all to quickly for the time that it covers. I felt like it should have taken me as long to experience as it took you to.

    Wonderful job in sharing this. And I thank you for sharing it.

    • Thank you Colleen.

      Can’t imagine I will find writing anything else quite as difficult but maybe it will prove to be the most rewarding for me. Always closed off those memories and locked them away which can’t be healthy.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read and respond.

  2. Brian

    Dude,
    I really am no good at talk of operations, tubes down throats and the like. I go really weak and feel the need to curl up and think of anything else. Reading your story made me feel no different than usual but as I said before the strength you are showing getting this down for us to read makes it compulsive reading. Thanks for the share.

    • I’ll try and take it easy on the tubes from now on haha. Luckily (for both of us) that is the worst of it over with!!

      Thank you again Brian.

  3. declan leonard

    brilliant once again mate.really captured the imagination to the reality of what you went through though i doubt my imagination came close.your writing is brilliant mate,keep it up. hail hail

    • As always Declan, thank you very much.

      This was personally the most important so far and I think it still will be by the end of my story. Maybe it will be read by someone going through the same. It would have helped me to know that I wasn’t alone.

  4. Like Colleen when I finished reading I realised a physical impact on me. I’d been holding my breath so was pretty glad to get to the end. Purely selfish there. Steven you’ve done another great job describing the situation and anyone reading it can’t fail to be impressed by the courage of you AND your family.

    • I wouldn’t have made it so long if I knew you were going to hold your breath!

      Thanks for the encouragement

  5. Really well written. My heart was in my mouth. I know its hard to write about your memories from this time. I havent the courage to do it. Can’t wait for the next installment!

    • Was more difficult than the first one but it’s all relative, it was more rewarding.

      Thanks again and best wishes to both of you

  6. Pedro

    You have such courage if that is the right words to use. What you have been through has obviously made you such a strong person. It takes a lot for someone to share such times as this and i always enjoy reading them. Doing that alphabet thing must of been so frustrating for you even to say the simple things like saying I Love You. Thank you for sharing and i look forward to reading the next chapter.

    • We ended up developing our own type of ‘code’ to shorten things with the alphabet chart but yes, incredibly tedious and frustrating. That goes on for much longer after Spain but I’ll get to that in due course.

      Thanks as always Peter, you are a good man X

  7. Steven,enjoyed the read you are an amazing guy keep your sppirits up.

    • I am glad you enjoyed it. With every positive comment I am bit by bit forgetting the difficulty of writing it. It is very much appreciated.

  8. Like to say Steve clichés, as bad as they are, are usually true. Going through and experience something as unpleasant as that would undoubtedly make you stronger and more confident to tackle anything else that came your way. Although in different ways I can completely comprehend the frustration side of things. After so many operations I’ve only just realised that anything involving surgery and trauma to the body is a slow recovery process, it can’t be rushed and you just have to go with the flow even when you are chomping at the bit to move on. I can see how this must have almost been a turning point for you and your family, to be able to get through that together you can get through anything. Someone has and will go through what you have been through, they will read this post and they will let you know how much reading it has helped them 🙂

    • As you quite rightly say, recovery process cannot be rushed. Particularly frustrating when a physical problem puts life on hold despite the mind wanting and able to carry on as usual.

      I would love to spend some time helping someone through a traumatic experience. I had someone who helped me and it made all the difference.

      Thanks again

  9. prayingforoneday

    Steven, I know you finding your feet here, and I hope you now have enough followers and following enough to give an award, if not, you can, again wait. YOU DESERVE THIS AWARD BUDDY!!! This is an EPIC award to get here, I got it and I nominate you for it mate.
    I hope you can find the patience to get going in here. I notice you liking and commenting on a few friends blogs here and there, so good on ya mate.
    Keep it going. This is an amazing place, TRUST ME! You will thank me…
    And Award number 2? I don;t know you may have more….
    Well done, well deserved..

    Please accept this very pristigious award.
    The Very Inspiring Blogger Award 2013
    http://prayingforoneday.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/very-inspiring-blogger-award-2013/
    I hope you can accept and give this award to 15 other bloggers
    Shaun

    • I am grateful for the nomination as I am grateful for the advice and guidance now I have started with the WordPress family.

      Things are coming together nicely. Slowly but surely.

      lleft a more detailed reply on your page

      thanks

  10. prayingforoneday

    No worries bud. It will come together, A bit of a culture shock at first. From Facebook, and Twitter and all its “Who done it patter” lol..To REAL PEOPLE who do give a shit..It takes time to trust, but trust will come easy for you. It did for me…Glad you are here. Keep going to reader, and reading stories, reply to things you think you can help with. Like you said above, you would like to help others, on here, you can. Someone might have just went through what happened to you, this is your chance to do this, help people. A lot of lost souls on here mate, and you can help.

    HH

  11. Hello! I’m sorry I didn’t see a better place to post this, but I’ve listed you as the recipient of an award here: http://rachieadventures.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/hot-potato-pass-the-award-plus-a-plethora-of-youtube-links/ – hope you’re smilin’ today!

    • I am smilin’ now!

      Thank you Rachel, I am very grateful. Having just started with WordPress I am trying to build the list of blogs I follow. Got a couple of awards pending that I’m struggling to pass on.

      I will be delighted to post this award when I can pass it on properly. I like the way you have grouped your awards and went with quality nominations, I may just steal that idea!!

      Thanks again and I hope you have a great day

      • 😀 Steal away! I’m still less than a month old on WordPress as well! Ain’t it grand meeting so many new people over the web?

      • Grand indeed. It’s a big help having people outside of friends and family to ‘unload’ my thoughts on. Sometimes easier talking to a stranger!!

      • Agreed!

  12. Martin cooper

    I was deeply moved by your story and gratful to have read it thank you for putting life in perspective

    • Thank you Martin, I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  13. prayingforoneday

    Rachel, you found my mate.. lol
    Well done.
    See, this is how wordpress works.
    You build your friends VERY quickly..

    Glad to see this
    Shaun

  14. lwordsblog

    Finally got time to read the entire piece you have kindly shared to date Steven. I must say you have written it expertly both in description and emotion, I feel humbled Sir, by your bravery in taking on that harrowing journey once again and to share it with us.
    Not much in the way of experience of such trauma can be said Sir, there are no usual comments to quite explain how one might imagine what you have endured or how you continue to amaze with your spirit.
    I shall simply say, for me you are the definition of a man.

    ‘May your journey and your tale continue to grace our lives, may your quill never run dry for the example you set is truly inspiring’. I consider myself fortunate to know you.

    Lorenzo.

    • I have been complemented and encouraged by so many people. I have been humbled and touched by the support. I have thanked readers so many times and in so many ways.

      Finally, I am speechless. I don’t have the ability to express how meaningful your words are.

      I hold you in the highest esteem.

      Simply, Thank You.

    • prayingforoneday

      Well said, he has made a big impact on WordPress and people are seeing the honesty and love in his blogging.
      Could not have worded it better myself.

      • Thank you again Shaun for your continuing help and support

      • prayingforoneday

        http://prayingforoneday.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/word-press-family-award/#comment-4141

        Steven I picked 10, but PLEASE take this award and give it to 10 that have helped you or feel like part of your WordPress family. I made this award myself. So please, I award you this. Go and give it to any 10 people you think deserve it. I know a lad who JUST commented on your site is one I would give it to. So anyone you choose. Lorenzo is a great writer, he deserves this from you perhaps? And all the people here who have followed you and read your story. MANY of my friends on here have spoken to me about you and I can only speak about you in glowing terms, you are a true inspiration buddy. And you have a big heart.
        You will be guided by the love you show in here.

        Shaun

      • prayingforoneday

        I have seen you appear on many Blogs I follow here mate. So I can see slowly you are building up a fantastic base here. And please, keep it going. The strength and will, and the way people care here is something I personally have not witness’s in my 20 years online. And I have been involved and still am, on many forums/social media sites where arguing comes first, reason last.
        Some of the football COACHING KIDS sites I am on, I tear my hear out, I really do, grown men swearing, knowing kids are reading. That kind of thing.

        Here, just people giving a shit, caring and never judging mate.
        Once you get comfy, you will love it pal.

        Shaun
        HH

  15. Arthur Rusk

    Thanks for sharing this just to let you know this has helped me in my live thanks again Steven hail hail

    • If I have helped in any way then I am glad. Feel free to send me an e-mail if you ever want to talk properly

  16. Jacks

    Your blog is amazing. It’s probably the most interesting blog I ever read. Thank you for sharing your story. Always have a tear in my eye & feel in total awe of what you’ve gone through. xx

    • Thank you Jacqueline, that means a lot.

      It is my pleasure to share and feel free to ask anything you want, I won’t be offended.

      So happy you are enjoying the story (backwards) and I appreciate you taking the time to pass on such great comments
      X

  17. Over the years of Vic being ventilated I have often wondered about what went though her mind at the time. In South Africa ventilated patients are often kept on Dormicum to reduce the trauma of remembering the “life support” period. Reading your words I am so grateful that she was spared this. Thank you for sharing!

    • Anything you would have liked to ask Vicky but never did them feel free to get in touch. It may not be the right answer but I will try. http://tersiaburger.com/ is so gentle yet still honest, that is real courage!

      Thank you for sharing!

  18. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    This is a very solemn read. Thank you so, so much for sharing your perspective.

    Looking across and seeing your mum’s expression – that would have been so frightening. When you described holding your tongue against your tonsils & trying to speak – I could feel that, absolutely.

    My sincere regards to you, and respect.

    • Thank you. Everything back then was so confusing, going hours and hours without hearing one word of English. I am very thankful that my mum was there to explain what had happened and reassure me.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, much appreciated

      Steven

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