A Knight’s Tale (113: Terminal Illness)

One evening, late in 1997, over the space of three hours, what seemed to be ‘flu’-like symptoms reduced my wife Jessica to a terrifying inability to swallow. I telephoned the emergency GP service and spoke to a most unhelpful doctor. He refused to visit and told me to give Jessica aspirin. ‘If she can’t swallow, how am I going to give her aspirin?’, I asked. The response was that I should contact my GP in the morning, and if I became concerned in the night take her to casualty.

In the small hours of the morning I drove my wife to Newark Hospital’s casualty department, by which time panic had set in. There we were seen by a man in white, presumably a qualified medic. He stuck a spatula into her mouth, peered into it, and said he couldn’t see anything. He took a blood test, told us to go home, and said we would have the results in three days. I stood between him and the couch, faced him squarely, and asked: ‘If you can’t see anything, why can’t she swallow?’. At that, without a word, he walked out of the room leaving us alone. After what seemed like an age another man came in and announced that we were being sent to Nottingham. There followed a 25 mile ambulance trip.

Within minutes in one of that city’s casualty departments, with the aid of more sophisticated equipment, epiglottitis was diagnosed. I asked the doctor on duty what would have happened had I not stood firm. He replied that at the next stage Jessica would have been unable to breathe and would not have lasted the night. She was treated, rapidly improved, and we thought that was that.

Jessica seemed well, we forgot about the blood test, and I resumed my commuting to London. A couple of days later, in my consulting room 125 miles away, I received a phone call from my GP sister-in-law. ‘It’s myeloma’, she announced. I had no idea what that incurable bone barrow cancer was. This is what the test had revealed.

Naturally I complained in writing both to the hospital and to the GP services. I had no energy left to pursue the bland responses I received. There were much more important channels for it.

There was a sequel to this story. One of the professional tasks I undertook in Newark was the supervision of other freelance therapeutic counsellors. One day one of my supervisees spoke of a couple with whom she was trying to engage. She said she was unable to work with the man who was unbelievably chauvinistic and treated his wife very badly. She asked me if I would take over this piece of work. I replied that I couldn’t because this was the emergency GP, in fact a psychiatrist, who refused to visit Jessica.

There followed ten years of various treatments, including blood transfusions, two stem cell transplants, and finally, an unsuccessful donor transplant.

Knowing that her first bout of chemotherapy would result in hair loss, she asked her friend Jane Keeler to cut it all off for her.

Mostly she was treated as an outpatient, but there was one week when to visit her in hospital I travelled by train from Lindum House to Kings Cross early in the morning, carried out a normal day’s work, took a train to Nottingham, visited, then took another train to Newark. I was relieved that I only had to do that once.

Initially, periods of remission were such that Jessica was able to continue working as an emergency duty social worker. The months of relief gradually became shorter and shorter, and the relapses longer and she retired on ill health grounds after about five years. She died on 4th July 2007.

Medical Advice

Seat on stand 9.12Today’s gardening projects were a base for a seat for Jackie, and yet another new bed for Derrick.  We have quite a few bricks left over from the compost bins.  Some were used for the seat base, some others are being placed around the garden as plinths for ornaments or pot plants.  We moved one today into the scented bed I began a couple of weeks ago.

The area that received today’s additions is the the site of the former compost heap.  Jackie dug out some grass and earth to create a bed for her base.  This received a layer of bricks, on which was placed the seat, after a few plants had been inserted.  I dug over what was now quite a bare patch, having been covered for so long in compost.  This was a comparatively easy task, although there were a lot of pernicious tendrils (see 27th. August post) of ivy.  Our friendly robin divided his time between my bed and the disturbed pile of old bricks which harboured a number of types of livestock.

During the 1990s in Newark, I had used bricks in a similar way for a number of purposes.  These had come from a Victorian greenhouse which had fallen down before we bought the house.  My creations had included a floor for an arbour which we gave a canopy of wisteria and climbing white roses.  I had made a paved area for a seat near a pond which I had dug out with Penny Craven’s son, Nicholas.  There had even been steps, for none of which I had used cement.  My herring bone patterns were not as elegant as Jackie’s splendid curves.

When bashing bricks into place, I used the handle of a club hammer.  This was to protect the bricks from the iron head.  Had they been struck with that, they would have crumbled.  I was, on one occasion, building a small set of steps up a slope to provide access behind a brick shed.  Merrily, rhythmically, striking the stepped bricks into place, all was going smoothly.  Then I missed.  You see, the handle isn’t very wide.  With all the force at my disposal, the thumb holding the handle crashed, end-on, into the corner of the brick I was attempting to manoeuvre.  When I had finished leaping about in agony, and dared to look at the bloody mess that was the end of my digit, it was quite clear what I had to do next.  Off I went to the casualty department of Newark Hospital.  Apparently I had taken the top off my thumb.  Being somewhat squeamish, I took the doctor’s word for it.  The wound was dressed and I was given a follow up appointment.  When I attended orthopedics for the checkup, the registrar said I’d come to the wrong place and should have gone to the skin clinic because I would need a graft.  Fortunately the nurse had read the notes.  She informed her senior colleague that it had not just been skin and a bit of flesh that had been knocked off.  A bit of bone had gone too.  She pointed to the relevant section in the casualty notes and said: ‘but the thumb is broken, doctor’.  ‘Oh, is it?’, he asked, and had a read.  I was informed that I should go home with a new dressing and return if it didn’t heal.  Fortunately it did heal.  I hope that doctor always read his notes in the future.

Jackie produced a three course meal this evening.  We began with left-overs soup.  The main course was roast pork.  This was followed by bread and butter pudding.  Jackie drank Hoegaarden.  Elizabeth and I had Brindisi 2007.