2021 began chaotically. Schools opened on 5 January, only to close the next day for a second, full lock-down.
Changes in Christmas arrangements had left many families disconnected, and the short, dark, cold January days compounded the misery of the stressed – furloughed perhaps, or working from home, caring for children, home-schooling – and the lonely.
31 January brought customs mayhem and serious delays around imports and exports (which has not yet resolved – and the threat to the Good Friday Agreement in NI remains)
So – families are back to making their own (largely outdoor) entertainment
While we dress for dinner – a very superior take-away – The (former) Harrow Inn’s latest venture
And for some there are always improvements to be made to the house….
The winter garden flourished, despite the general misery
And even the Andover Wine Friends continued to ‘taste’ – courtesy of Zoom, and an elaborate sample distribution system, with collection and returns to and from our front-facing porch
The good news: the roll-out of the vaccine had begun, probably saving Mr Johnson’s bacon – for the time being… The bad news: covid numbers soared, and the death toll steadily rose. Several support staff and two families resident at the Andover Crisis and Support Centre developed covid symptoms.
We travelled to North London on the 6th for our first jab – to use up excess vaccine before its sell-by-date , available at the Hive, home of Barnet FC. A very strange experience, especially the almost empty M25
On the 7th, Yvonne Bradbury, Manager of the the Crisis Centre for almost 30 years, died of covid, only a few months away from from her intended retirement; a tragedy of epic proportions.
Shocking for her family, her friends, her colleagues, her clients, and the North Hampshire care community. The Centre – and its trustees – reeled from the loss.
Staff soldiered on, PPE and covid measures in place; and the trustees shared out the jobs. A newly retired and very experienced HR consultant, who had recently joined the Monitoring group steered us through very choppy waters as we interviewed staff, reviewed tasks and began to restructure.
The long recruitment process began for a chief executive, a head of refuge, and a team admin..
Meanwhile in the middle of this very grey and dismal month – literally and metaphorically – there were some genuine highspots
Valentine’s Day; short visits to play and exercise (walking, football, bikes and scooters) with the children; a happy afternoon and picnic at Hilliers Arboretum and a great deal of sewing, upholstery and curtain-making; installing curtain rails and tracks; and delivering manure to the various gardens.
But it was hard work keeping spirits up; sticking with home-schooling and having to wave to friends at a distance across the playing field. And printers, I was told, are the rarest thing on the planet …. followed by parts for cars and washing machines, garden furniture, new bikes… (still waiting for all these)
It started well. The days were getting longer, and there were plenty of signs of spring.
Boxes of samples from Piemonte arrived unpredictably, some requiring handling charges and taxes; others marked Olive Oil or Empty Bottles; all running the gauntlet of a customs process which absolutely nobody understands. Overflowing racks and lateral thinking led to some serious recycling – of boxes, and spaces
Olive even tolerated boxes under ‘her’ bed – once David had ‘sorted out all the mess’. Interviews via zoom with wine producers were keeping David’s researches going even as the lock-down ground on.
So did the odd special supper, accompanied by superior wines in fine glasses – but note the lentils…
After a busy week, zooming Crisis Centre staff, Women’s Aid, several CEOs of other Women’s refuges, a long trustees’ meeting and a strenuous day (curtain rails, manure and football) in Alresford, those lentils really didn’t agree with me. Even as I ate, my digestive system revolted: distension, real discomfort and visible movement. I was so sure it was the lentils – over spiced – too much ginger, too many black peppercorns, too much chilli ? But this was not the first time I’d had dramatic bowel episodes.
I lay low for a couple of days – little appetite as the belly tenderness moved around and even kept me awake at night. By Saturday I felt wretched. ‘It’s gone on too long…’
But how do you attract the attention of the GP in a pandemic? And at the weekend?
An email sent late on Sunday evening arrived the next morning near the top in the Practice Manager’s in-box, and by 08.30 a phone call had been booked. By midday on Monday I was heading for an in-person appointment at 14.30, and at 15.45 I was in the Same Day Emergency Care unit in Winchester Hospital, waiting for rapid response bloods results (nothing remarkable except a high inflammation marker) and an on-duty colorectal registrar. Such service!
But a CT scan had to wait until the next day… and as medical friend who followed the process remarked – it was the scan that did for me. By Tuesday afternoon, a young registrar had told me I had a large growth on my caecum; the lead consultant had described the necessary surgical process and its risks and possible outcomes; organised a colonoscopy to confirm the diagnosis, and booked me in for radical surgery at the earliest opportunity.
We limped home, utterly winded and deeply sad.
The week continued with zoom meetings, a trip to the tip, zoom yoga, and Yvonne’s funeral. As the hearse stopped briefly outside the Centre, Elaine, Yvonne’s deputy and friend of 20 years, stood by my side. On this occasion I was grateful for covid restrictions. I really wasn’t up for going to a funeral.
Mothering Sunday offered some distractions – helping children choose a pot and a plant for the Alresford mum and seeing the efforts of the Basingstoke bunch, and some dramatic signs of spring
Strangely, I found myself living between two very different ‘worlds’ : despite still feeling unwell, zoom allowed me to function reasonably normally, as the following week was stuffed with zoom interviews of existing staff and stakeholders of the Centre, and myriad meetings with other organisations. I hosted over 40 Centre related sessions, alongside Sue (who had many more of her own). Gradually job and person specifications were emerging.
Privately, I was savouring every sunset and the burgeoning garden; envying the elderly their walking frames; and as time passed and the shock receded, having to remind myself as I woke each morning that I may well have cancer.
A fast-track colonoscopy awaited. Every Tuesday Andover Memorial Hospital hosts the Winchester colorectal team and I prepared with the ghastly and deeply unpalatable ‘bowel cleanser’. With a heavy heart I spent the morning on that most tedious of jobs – putting potting compost in seed trays and small planters. I felt like a prisoner awaiting execution.
A procedure I had always dreaded became the first of what I feared would be many unpleasant procedures. I felt very sad, but surprisingly resigned, though inwardly I raged about the tyranny of surgeons – mine in particular.
At the end – literally – of the colonoscope’s journey, the delightful Mr Moore agreed with my description of the Caecum’s inner mucosa as a ‘pretty pale pink – and pretty healthy-looking!’ He did point out a slightly raised area above where the appendix might be (its whereabouts had been unclear in the scan)
David’s and my mood took a sharp upturn. I enjoyed the post-procedure tea and biscuits and even the trip to Andover’s bleak, empty shopping centre the next morning more than I can say. Joie de vivre
Phew! Preparations for easing of lock down were beginning as March ended. Google produced the best April Fool’s Day video (since the Spaghetti Tree of the 70s) of a driverless bicycle, whose stars are undoubtedly the children, as seen in this still (I hope it’s still on YouTube)
The Easter break beckoned with its opportunities for at least outdoor meetings and family meals, and the weather began to change from dreary damp to bright, cold and dry. (It was to become the driest – and coldest – April for a long time. Not welcome news for a gardener) Note the newcomer – Willow!
And uncles are always in demand for expeditions to the playground or a makeshift cricket pitch
Although a laparoscopy was still scheduled, with the understanding that any thing odd would be ‘dealt with’ things certainly felt much less alarming. Mr Moore was cautiously optimistic; especially as tissue samples were clear. I was batting for an appendectomy, but Mr Miles was not a betting man…. and had other ideas, as we learned later.
Shopping lists are telling; these were texted, having been left at home. Whose is which??
A spate of fermenting (not beer) overtook the kitchen as David experimented with Kimchee and fermented Saurcraut. I furiously tackled the allotments and the garden, the cleaning and the final curtains before the operation put me out of action. (Failed to do the windows though; I ran out of time)
Our apprehension returned after the pre-op briefing. We were dismayed to hear from the Stoma nurse that the operation originally proposed was still on. Mr Miles was undeterred by the absence of evidence of an internal caecal cancer, and hell-bent on a right hemicolectomy. (I suggest the curious google it!).
He was not moved by my counter arguments; he stayed with the evidence. As he put it, after a long if polite wrangle: ‘I can feel a lump – you can feel a lump – it shouldn’t be there – it’s got to come out’. I signed the consent form with a heavy heart. And no, there wasn’t a diagnosis. We would only know what it was, once it was well and truly out.
Both procedures were preceded by covid tests outside the hospital, three days in advance, and followed by self- and to David’s surprise, household-isolation. The colorectal dept of Winchester Hospital had functioned throughout the covid crisis, having re-located to what had been the day surgery unit whose access is independent of the main hospital. Measures to restrict access and therefore lessen risk had been successful in keeping infection at bay. Visitors, not unreasonably, were not welcome.
David left me at the foot of the lift at 07.15 on Tuesday 13 April. A farewell kiss through masks leaves alot to be desired. I was surprised by how passive and collected I felt.
Like the Bear Hunt, there was no way round, under or over it; you have to got through it…
The staff of course do this every day, and exhibited confidence and a sense of normality. Nurses, porters, tea makers, anaesthetists and surgical teams simply got on with the business. Did I need a spinal anaesthetic as well? I don’t know … do I? Yes, said Mr Miles, still planning for the most serious of the options. I was half way through a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of independent education when I lost consciousness.
I came round to a kindly woman calling my name and tapping my wrist. I could see and hear Mr Miles on the phone to David, as planned. ‘No – we still don’t know what the cause of the inflammatory mass is; I felt for a lump, but found none; I couldn’t even see the appendix and it would have been reckless to penetrate the mass for risk of infection’.
So out came the caecum, the appendix and its wrappings (omentum) including a section of the ileum (end of the small intestine) and all the ascending colon. Histology will hold the answer, though Mr Miles repeated that he couldn’t feel a lump. (Think about that! And that the incision is only 5 cm long…)
I was wheeled back to the small four bed ward to where I had already carefully arranged my belongings within reach., including the mobile phone. If you keep very still, not too much hurts, I decided quickly…
The next few days were predictably uncomfortable. I was looked after impeccably by a squad of kind, willing, engaged nursing and care staff. Time is punctuated by pulse, temperature, BP and oxygen level readings; allocation of paracetamol and daily taking of bloods. Not food, in my case.
Sipping water was as exciting as it got until Friday when I moved on to clear liquids (not much change then) and by Saturday milk, yogurt, custard, jelly (with any vestiges of fruit removed). The main goal was ensuring the colon healed and that nothing leaked. Passing wind was a major milestone; a motion was greeting with applause.
Mashed potato was my first solid food on Saturday evening after watching the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral in a ward to myself. Short stay patients had all been dispatched, and the weekend staff were busy working on staff rotas and bed allocations for the coming week.
By this time I had begun the movement regime (literally to ‘shake things back into place’), been disconnected from the catheter, and allowed to take a bath. The views over the trees to St Cross made the window a useful destination, and corridors became exercise tracks.
My main entertainment had been asking every member of staff about themselves. By the end of my stay I knew people’s backgrounds, places of origin and training; aspirations and their degree of job satisfaction. Not one person expressed a negative view of her or his work or colleagues. The colorectal team is a very impressive, motivated, kind and committed group of people. Thank you, thank you.
The world looked a wonderful place even if the car’s failing shock absorbers made the return journey very uncomfortable at teatime on Sunday 18 April. I had missed two birthdays: Ralph’s, and Sam’s. The photos made up for it. Poor Ralph didn’t get a football cake… (nor a garden bench – held up at Dover??)
And Ernest and Olive had hot-footed with Lucy to Lincolnshire, to stay in self-catering in order to spend time with Mike and Cheryl, after his very serious abdominal operation. Simultaneous surgery!
It was wonderful to be home. Friendly medical advice suggested a daily dose of Grand Cru Champagne or possibly White Burgundy would work medicinally. It certainly does!
The convalescence began. It was surprisingly hard to walk even 200 yards, though we did achieve the required mile after a second week. Mr Miles is a great believer in pre- and post-operative fitness to speed recovery.
I was terribly sensible to the family’s surprise – though I grew impatient with the constant exhortation to ‘take it easy’. (New tricks and old dogs spring to mind…) Several kind friends came to visit and patiently escorted me around Rookesbury Lake; the graffiti wittier than usual..
Once I abandoned the paracetamol my head returned from its bewildered state; energy levels returned and the children stopped looking so worried..
As April moved into May, the weather turned cold and wet to the delight of gardeners, but to others’ annoyance.
And what a relief! The Crisis Centre appointed and new Chief Executive, and a team Administrator!
The regulations soon became guidance, and 17 May, when people could come inside or stay in a hotel drew closer. In the meantime it was half in, half out – for most of us. The resolute stayed outside!
Some of us badly needed a hair cut…and succeeded in getting one, as numbers of covid cases fell.
And finally, coinciding with the histology results, Ralph sent caseloads of beer to consume (to assist the convalescence, you understand). The ‘large, complex appendiceal inflammatory mass’ showed no evidence of cancer or pre-cancerous cells anywhere! Cheers! and to our remarkable National Health Service and its many, many stars and heroes: thank you! thank you!