Apocalyptic

Last Edited: Mar 25, 2020 2:01 PM

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It seems strange when I remember it now. When I retired at the end of August 2016, and for some months afterwards, I quite often found myself having anxious, fearful thoughts about different kinds of disasters and apocalypses that might happen.

Some of it, I’m sure, was the stress of something I had never experienced in my life until then: the burden and responsibility of living in a house that we actually owned. Say what you like about living in a tied cottage – such as a vicarage is – but you don’t have to worry much about maintenance. You just pick up the phone to Church House and get the Diocesan Surveyor to send someone round to fix it. It’s also true that the Diocesan Surveyor got a bit fed up with phone calls from Marston Vicarage (which has since been demolished and a new one built.) Starting with the leaky flat roof, and progressing through numerous cracks in the walls caused by alternating heave and subsidence from the huge willow tree about ten metres from the house, rebuilding of said walls, and at the last water leaking from the pipes embedded in the concrete floor… Now I write all that, I wonder how we put up with it for 25 years, unless it was something to do with the wonderful parish and people. But at least it kept us entertained, and was really the only thing we had to complain about in the whole of our wonderful time there.

But when all that was left behind, I would often find myself – chiefly in those sleepy moments of doing the washing up – thinking what it would be like when you turned the taps on and no water came out… or when there was no electricity… or when rats crawled out of the toilets. Like in Raymond Briggs’s terrifying When The Wind Blows. Or when bands of brigands roamed, terrorising neighbourhoods, or tanks rolled along the streets. This was in the months following the Brexit Referendum, with that sense of dread over the divided country we were suddenly living in, and the possibility, that I imagined, of actual civil war or some similar calamity.

Never, in my wildest fantasies, did I imagine an apocalypse in the form of a global pandemic. Clearly I needed a more fertile imagination.

What a difference a year makes

If you were reading my blog about this time last year, you’ll remember that I wrote quite a lot about the health problems I was having. After my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy) I developed osteomyelitis of the symphysis pubis – a bone infection of the pelvis. This is such an unusual complication of the surgery I’d undergone, that it was some time before it was recognised and diagnosed, by which time I had been in real pain, practically unable to walk, for about five weeks. The treatment prescribed was three months of antibiotics, and about the time of the spring equinox last year, I had been on ciprofloxacin for a week, and not yet seeing noticeable easing of the pain. I noted in my diary that I went out for a walk – aided by my two walking poles – and managed about a couple of hundred metres and back.

It was a grim time, and there was further unpleasantness to come, in the form of acute urinary retention which required a urethrotomy. One of the things that helped me cope with this whole months long ordeal, was telling my story. I told it to anyone and everyone I thought would listen. I told it so often and in such horrifying detail that it probably drove my family and friends to distraction. Fortunately they had the wisdom, the patience, and the grace to listen, because telling your story is a healing thing. Victims of far worse traumas than mine – rape, war, genocide – have all testified how telling their story can help, even if there’s an element of it forcing you to relive the bad time.

For me there are still ongoing maintenance procedures I have to do, chiefly intermittent self-catheterization, which sounds terrifying but proves to be manageable even for someone as squeamish as me. It’s amazing what you can do when there’s no alternative. But as 2020 began, we began to think that this year we could get away for holidays and breaks again, in a way that was impossible in 2019. Nothing as ambitious as overseas travel, because foreign health insurance was likely to be difficult to obtain. Instead, we planned a progress north to see some of the cathedrals and medieval abbeys we we have never visited or would like to revisit. This was to finish with a week’s retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, one of our very favourite places. A thin place, a place where you really feel that you can draw near to God.

And then came Covid-19.

It has turned the world upside down, in a way that seems more extraordinary and frightening than any of the other disasters that have befallen the world in the 70 years I have known. In October 1962, when I was only 13 years old, the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced many people that we were on the brink of a Third World War which would destroy us all. I have hardly any recollection of it – certainly not of being unduly terrified at the time – though I know some of my contemporaries who were more aware of world events shared that great fear. The Vietnam War was terrible, but far away from being an immediate threat to our survival. Likewise the Gulf War(s), 9/11, and all the subsequent Middle East horrors. Suddenly an invisible killer is out there in the world, and all the powers we have been accustomed to look to for help seem powerless against it.

Each day that passes brings news of further restrictions, as the Government struggles to find the least worst way forward in dealing with the crisis. It often has the look of people thrashing about in the coils of a monster that is dragging them inexorably towards destruction. Apparently our Prime Minister was driven by enormous ambition to reach the place he is now. I’ve found myself wondering whether he regrets that now… Or would it be worse if he’s sitting in No. 10 thinking he really is the man for this hour?

We’re hoping to stay well, and if that doesn’t happen, we’re hoping to survive (what a thing to come to!) Perhaps we really are coming to a time when Bishop Ken’s hymn becomes real:

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
And live this day as if thy last…?

How would my thoughts, words, actions be different, if I considered that every journal entry, every blog post, every phone call, every conversation, might be my last? Not many of us are ready to think like that. Maybe we should cultivate how to be.

Oysters? No way

We enjoyed a lovely 4-night stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It was partly to celebrate Alison’s 70th birthday, but also to get away from the Middle-of-England for a few days. Is that the same as Middle England? I’m not sure, but Oxford is about the furthest away from the sea that you can get in these islands, and Alison was really wanting to see the Sea again.

The weather was kind of what you expect from the seaside in January. Windy, misty, damp, cold. The wind farm out at sea, which we caught a glimpse of on the day we arrived, was invisible after that until the morning we left to return home – when the weather, it goes without saying, was the best it had been all week. Much of the time you couldn’t see the top of British Airways i360, which was closed for annual maintenance. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the roof of the seafront hotels. At least the city was not overrun with holidaymakers, so it was always possible to find somewhere to eat. We enjoyed some good meals. But not oysters and champagne, which I wasn’t tempted to try, and which I truly believe nothing on earth could ever induce me to try. Even though your 70s are supposed to be a time for trying new things. I draw the line here.

If you were to fancy trying them, I suppose you would go to Riddle & Finns.

Riddle & Finns. Champagne and Oysters on Brighton seafront

This is their seafront place: it looks appealing enough, doesn’t it? But I googled how to eat oysters, and confirmed what I had suspected and feared: that you eat them raw, and alive, and swallow them down whole out of the shell. If you knew the difficulties I have swallowing stuff (e.g. paracetamol, a particularly troublesome thing to be swallowed), and knew that according to my family I even have to chew yoghurt before I can get it down, you would realise that this is a perfect recipe to have me gagging and throwing up the whole of my stomach contents on the well-kept floor of Riddle & Finns.

So forgive me if you should get a glimpse of my bucket list and be dismayed that ‘Enjoy a breakfast of oysters and champagne’ is strangely missing.

Decadent poets I have loved

Long long ago, when I was a teenage wannabe poet, I took a special fancy to 19th century decadent poets. Two of my favourites were the bad boys shown here: Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne. It wasn’t so much that I loved their poetry – though it had a certain, well, decadent, appeal – as that I loved the idea of them. Their wild, anarchic lives, rebelling against social norms and accepted bourgeois morality. Myself, I could hardly have been a less rebellious youth, on the outside at least. But inside I was a roiling mass of hating and wishing I could overthrow the established order, as long as I could do it without any risk or danger to myself.

Nowadays I’m rather glad I didn’t become an opium addict, or an alcoholic, or contract syphilis from prostitutes. But then, I didn’t become a poet, either.

And today I’m feeling disillusioned as I think about poor old Swinburne who didn’t die young and had a rather miserable old end. He had some alarming sexual proclivities, it’s true, and once spread a rumour that he had had sex with, and then eaten, a monkey. But it seems he may not really have been as decadent as he pretended to be. Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” (And Oscar Wilde probably should know.)

Swinburne’s grave in Bonchurch Churchyard
By Deeday-UK – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27960003

I used to visit Swinburne’s grave in St Boniface Churchyard, Bonchurch, IoW, and stand there thinking maudlin poetic thoughts for minutes on end. In this respect, he is unique among poets I have admired and wanted, without knowing anything about them, to emulate.

Health Update

If you’ve been following the saga of my health problems throughout 2019 – and if you haven’t, you can soon catch up by reading my earlier posts from the end of last December onwards… here is the latest instalment.

The last (I hope) remaining complication of all the complications that followed my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy – keep up, there) was a hernia that developed at one of the entry points for the laparoscopic surgery. My prostate consultant asked his colleague in endocrinology who does hernia repairs to have a look at it, and he decided it was a hernia (duh). I would get an appointment for a repair sooner if I opted to have it done at the Horton General Hospital in Banbury, rather than in Oxford; so that’s what we chose.

He told me the waiting list was about two months, and in this case, that was pretty accurate: they sent me a letter with an appointment with an appointment for Friday September 20. It meant an early start, leaving at 7 a.m. to drive to Banbury in time to check in at 8. I wasn’t too encouraged when the surgeon who was to perform the operation took a look and said “That’s a bit bigger than we usually like to do as a day case…” but he decided to go ahead anyway. There was then a boring wait for most of the morning – even with the fewer surgeries booked for that morning in the smaller hospital, I wasn’t the top of the list – until I went down to theatre just before midday. And the next I knew, I was being rudely awakened in the recovery room by a nurse asking if I was all right.

So, home the same day, and convalescent again. Not allowed to drive, or carry anything heavy (like shopping, a laundry basket, or a vacuum cleaner), and generally with every excuse to take things easy and be molly-coddled.

Now that I’m officially old, I reckon I’m entitled to show my operation scars to all and sundry. Look away now, or click if you want to see this 4 inch beauty.

Continue reading “Health Update”

Terwilliger bunts one

Image result for tropen 500 fountain pen

I find myself looking back through some of the volumes of journals and diaries I have kept over the years. There are many of them, and I’m never sure how wise it is to read them again. During the 1990s especially, I wrote pages and pages of what was really a kind of spiritual journal, as I tried to deal with my depression, and worked (as I thought) at promoting my spiritual growth towards being the kind of Christian and priest I aspired to be. The reading itself is a depressing experience. Can I really have been such a self-obsessed miserable git as the guy in these pages?

But the main reason I was looking back, was to search for a note about when I bought my long-time favourite fountain pen. Most of those journals were written with a fountain pen, though in recent years I’ve been using a ballpoint, rollerball or a disposable like a Uniball Signo or Stabilo Sensor. Even when I’ve used a fountain pen, it was often with an ink cartridge. Now that we live in such a plastic-conscious world, I decided this was too much One of the ways of cutting down plastic use is to get rid of the disposables and write with ‘real ink’. But as I track down my various fountain pens, I find them seized up with old ink, all pretty sick-looking. All now washed and cleaned, they lie on my desk waiting to be put into storage, or perhaps even used.

So: what about that favourite pen? I knew exactly where I bought it: in wonderful Pens Plus on the High. But when? Turns out it was on Tuesday, 30 April, 1996. The more fascinating thing is that my journal records that on the paper I used to try the pen out, I wrote the sentence:

Terwilliger bunts one

I had entirely forgotten this sentence. But at that precise moment it was in my head because I had just read Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood, where she writes this:

So it lived again in Oxford on 30 April, 1996., as my small contribution to the mystery of life. Would anyone see it and wonder? Thinking, What does it mean? Or even recognise the allusion? The world will never know.

All these years, I have never known what it even means. But today I discover to my delight, that bunt is a recognised baseball expression. It means, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: To let the ball rebound from the bat without swinging.

Has anyone proposed, as a remedy for depression, learning a new word every day?

What do you call a man?

I’ve been acquiring quite a collection of the letters that hospital consultants send to your GP informing them of the appointments you have had with them, their diagnoses, treatments, and discharge notes. Clearly there is a preferred format and style for writing these. They usually begin something like this:

It was a pleasure to meet this pleasant gentleman, who presented with a pain in the lower abdomen that he had had for six weeks, which made walking almost impossible… etcetera.

Some of my favourites include the nurse’s letter which describes me as ‘this gentleman’ in nearly every sentence (I have pretty strong objections to being called a gentleman in the first place: I’m with John Ball on this: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) when a simple ‘he’ or even ‘Mr Price’ would have sounded less clunky. And most recently, the one which began ‘It was a delight to meet this 70-year old chap…’

Apart from the fact that I’M NOT YET 70, I’M STILL ONLY 69! it sounded like something you might (just about) say but not write, or as if English was not his first language — as it probably wasn’t, in this chap’s case. What you call a man is possibly one of the most awkward idioms to learn in a language not quite your own. Like with my American friends who had learned that ‘bloke’ was a common English term for a man, but hadn’t quite grasped that you don’t use it as a direct form of address, as in saying to a barman “A pint of beer, please. Thanks, bloke.”

In any case, I would propose a different style and content altogether. Something more along the lines of:

Mr Price is a miserable old curmudgeon, whose pleasant and cheerful manner is a mask he assumes to conceal his pain and fear, and the fact that he is really screaming inside…

It would be more honest. But I suppose not entirely the kind of thing you’d want a doctor who didn’t know you to be the first thing they learn about you from your permanent medical records.

A Wedding from Hell

I had one of those dreams that clergy have — even retired ones, it turns out. Forgetting my vow that I would never do it again, I had agreed to conduct a wedding. And like all dream weddings, everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong.

It was a church I didn’t know. We were conducting the marriage outside the church door, in the very ancient traditional manner. But because the path from the church door to the car park was a long one, all the guests were standing around in the distant car park, and none of them could be persuaded to come any nearer.

Then there was the trouble with the kitten. So I tied a soft toy to a piece of string to distract it; the kitten leaped at it and held fast and was hoisted to the top of the vestry cupboard, about seven feet off the ground, where it stood for a moment in terror before launching itself off and jumping to the ground.

Don’t even get me started on the problems I was having finding the service books. Surely a church where I had been invited to conduct a wedding would have copies of the service? Surely someone would have thought to put them out? Apparently not. It seems highly likely that in this scenario the organist would not have turned up, the marriage registers would be nowhere to be found, the bridesmaids (or even the bride) would throw up in front of me…

But not waiting to find out, I woke up. Wondering how to persuade my Dream Self to take the same vow as Waking Self. And to keep it, too.

Adventures with a catheter

The title of my next book? A light-hearted, yet strangely deep and philosophically wise memoir of the experiences of a trainee urology nurse? Not quite…

This is the next instalment of my continuing health saga. In the last episode, I promised that ‘the next part of the adventure sounds so scary I haven’t even dared to google it’. Now read on, if you have the stomach for it…

The discharge summary after my TWOC just over a week ago was couched in a more breezily colloquial (yet also more coded) style than some of my consultant surgeon’s summaries have been.

Mr Price had a optical urethrotomy for bulbar urethral stricture on 15/05/19. He was discharged home with a urinary IDC in situ. Today, he presented to triage for a TWOC. He was otherwise well in himself. The IDC was removed with ease. He successfully passed the TWOC with 97mls PVR. We therefore discharged him home with safety netting advice which he acknowledged. Nil urology triage f/u needed.

Today’s scary part that I hadn’t even dared to google, because I really didn’t want to know too much about it beforehand, was innocuously advertised as an appointment at the ISC and Continence Clinic. That ISC is the sharp-toothed part: it stands for Intermittent Self Catheterization. The problem with urethral strictures, apparently, (whether bulbar or otherwise) is that the scarring can get worse again, causing the stricture to grow and cause renewed urinary retention. The way of preventing this, and keeping the urethra as open as possible, is to insert a catheter at regular intervals. Not to stay in, but just to remind that stricture not to grow.

We met K., the lovely nurse who was going to deliver this training. She produced three different types of catheter which she showed, described and demonstrated. It was a touch like speed dating, because she then popped the question, “Is there one of these that you feel particularly drawn to?” ‘None of the above’ was clearly not going to be an acceptable answer; but in fact there was one design which looked less unappealing, maybe I should even say more my style, than the other two.

Thereupon the next step was to actually try the thing out, watched with loving attention by K. and Alison (who was there to learn how it was done, in case I ever needed help or encouragement?) With reminders and a lot of that encouragement as we proceeded, I succeeded in catheterizing myself with the device I had been particularly drawn to. It is the weirdest of sensations, strange enough when it’s being done to you by someone else, but even stranger when you’re doing it to yourself. There was quite a lot of

“How far does it have to go in? Are we nearly there yet?”

“It has to go all the way into the bladder.”

“How will I know when it gets there?”

“You’ll know.”

Yes, you will, because when the end of the catheter arrives in the bladder, it immediately begins to drain urine, even if you’ve only just been to the toilet. It only took a few seconds to stop draining, since I had retained very little after the flow test that preceded all this. And then the catheter is removed. Slowly and gently. And this also is a weird sensation.

Much praise from K. (“You did really well.”) Much relief from me. I’ve always been a great fan of Lifelong Learning; but I never expected the syllabus to include this. But there is certainly a large amount of pride in doing something you could not have imagined doing, or even thought would be impossible.

K. tells me to do this impossible thing daily for the next fortnight, then every other day, then perhaps once or twice a week. Maybe ‘for the rest of my days’, as she put it. Or maybe it will only be when, or if, I sense the stricture is becoming a problem again. There’s a follow-up appointment in a few weeks’ time, which may shed more light.

They say that a huge percentage of NHS services are consumed by the over 65s. I’m beginning to have a much clearer understanding of what this means; and that I am one of those more frequent users. Thank God for the NHS.

And so it goes on

The health — or rather ill-health — saga continues.

At the beginning of May we decided to go away for a few days, the first time we’ve had a ‘holiday’ kind of break since my operation in December. Just a little break for a change of scene and a bit of pampering with other people doing the catering for us… There were a couple of days when the weather was good enough to do a bit of walking, about as much as I could manage, or to go and visit a nearby National Trust property. The food was good, the room was comfortable, the setting was pleasant. So it was nice break. Except for the last night when I developed acute urinary retention, and was awake much of the night trying unsuccessfully to empty my bladder. If you’ve never had this experience, just take it from me that it’s a painful one.

Fortunately we weren’t too far from home; but even so, the drive home was painful. By the time we arrived, Urology wouldn’t agree to see me because I presented my situation wrongly, and they told me to contact my GP, but by that time it was too late to get an appointment. Instead the GP suggested I should phone 111 and contact the out-of-hours service. An interesting experience, where you’re faced with a barrage of questions obviously being read off the screen of some iDiagnosis app. My favourites included ‘Are there any blisters around the genital area?’ ‘Have you recently had sex with anyone who might have had an STD?’ and ‘Have you recently been suffering severe breathlessness?’ (I’ve since discovered this last can be a symptom of sepsis, so I’m glad I didn’t have it. Or, incidentally, any of the others.) The result was, I was given an appointment to see a clinician within about an hour, though it did involve a 15 mile drive to Bicester.

The doctor I saw had a feel of my abdomen and confirmed that I had a palpable bladder. Yes, I could have told him that. He catheterized me: the first size he tried to insert was too big, so he had to use a smaller 12-bore instead, which successfully drained about a litre of urine. He then prescribed tamsulosin to stretch the passage, and an antibiotic because he believed I had a urinary infection. (I was sceptical about this, having been on ciprofloxacin for about 8 weeks, but …) And sent me away for the weekend.

First thing on Monday morning I tried to contact my surgeon to tell him what had been going on; he phoned me back with an appointment for his clinic the following day. Which we attended, and he attempted to perform a cystoscopy but couldn’t insert it because of the narrowing of the urethra. This at least confirmed that this was the problem, so he admitted me as an urgent case to perform an urethrostomy.

Urethrostomy: (an endoscopic procedure typically performed under general anesthesia. A thin tube with a camera (endoscope) is inserted into the urethra to visualize the stricture. Then a tiny knife is passed through the endoscope to cut the stricture lengthwise and open the flow of urine. Wikipedia.)

No theatre time available that evening, so I had to wait till the following day, and in the mean time my bladder was full again. This time they didn’t want to insert another catheter, so they drained it by inserting a needle into the bladder through my abdominal wall. It sounds worse than it felt — though indeed, I wasn’t looking — and the worst thing was them pressing on my abdomen to get the urine to come out through the needle which was only the size of a hypodermic. It took a while, but it was ahuge relief, and kept me comfortable until the time of the procedure late the following morning.

It didn’t take long, which meant the general anaesthetic didn’t leave me as groggy as the last one I had on Christmas Eve. The stricture was cut, I was left with another catheter in place, but at least the choice this time of whether I wanted a leg bag, or a short tube with a tap on the end that I could drain at will, with the option of a larger night bag while I was asleep. I chose the second: the leg bag was really not something I wanted. Though the catheter with tap was also not a comfortable thing to have around, principally because it was in the tube where I’d recently had the knife.

One week on: catheter removed; TWOC satisfactorily passed — though this time the nurse tells me (which I didn’t want to hear) that success is only provisional in a sense, because the ‘trial’ continues through the following two or three days, when, if you have any recurring problems with retention, you need to contact Urology and be re-admitted. At least if it does happen again, I will know how to describe my condition in the right way and be able to insist on being admitted.

For the time being, it’s a huge relief to be catheter-free, able to pass urine more easily, and just feeling a lot better. Yesterday I had an appointment with the bone infection unit, where the consultant was pleased with what he heard about my improvement while taking the ciprofloxacin. The pain in the pelvis has more or less completely gone. I can walk again, though I could still benefit from some physiotherapy to build up the core strength I lost during the weeks I couldn’t walk. The antibiotic still has three more weeks to run, and he said I should take it to the end. He can’t give an unconditional promise, but he’s confident that that should ‘almost certainly’ clear the infection completely. He wasn’t planning to do another scan because at this stage it was unlikely to provide any helpful information. I should carry on with life when the course of antibiotics finishes, and contact them only if there’s any recurrence of symptoms. So I suppose that’s good news.

We’re not completely out of the woods yet, and the next part of the adventure sounds so scary I haven’t even dared to google it. (Watch this space.) But we may be getting nearer to being in sight of the end of it. Perhaps then I’ll be able to blog about something more cheerful than my pelvic regions and bladder.