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Got yourself a new ileostomy? All I can say is be prepared!

Cover JpegTo buy the paperback version of my book, click here

To buy the Kindle version of my book, click here

I talk a lot about living with ankylosing spondylitis, but I don’t talk much about my history with ulcerative colitis. Of course, I write about it at length in my book, but here, not so much. It’s coming up to 14 years since this aggressive, monstrous disease almost killed me, 16 years since my diagnosis, and given that I’m having bother with what’s left of my insides after years of thinking ‘I’m mended!’, it’s making me think, ‘when?’ rather than ‘if’ I will have to endure more surgery. I can’t bear to think about it, yet when I stop thinking about other things, it’s all I think about.

I had kept my colitis under control with steroids and by self-managing my diet and nutrition for almost two years, since diagnosis in 1999. However, because I was crippled with hip and back pain and unable to walk, my GP put me on anti-inflammatories. They certainly helped me to walk again, but the downside was that they exacerbated the colitis and I basically started bleeding to death within three days of taking the pills, barely conscious half the time, crawling from the sofa to the toilet 30 times a day. My GP seemed a bit concerned. I was a bit concerned. By the time I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow I reached for my mobile, rang my parents and said, ‘Er, I’m pretty sure I need to go to hospital’.

C7JE3T_2341066b

Going back to this place for outpatients appointments got me in such a spin I had to change hospitals this year

Once in hospital, things didn’t get any better; on day five it was announced that I’d be having emergency surgery to remove my entire large bowel in what’s know as a total colectomy. My parents were told to ‘prepare themselves’ as I ‘might not make it through the night’. My body was shutting down and I sure as hell didn’t have the ability to do anything about it. To prepare myself I asked for extra morphine and a Diazepam, waved goodbye to my parents with a fake smile on my face which of course, they saw right through, then cried myself to sleep.

sleeping-beauty-89

If only I’d had my own room!

Surgery was traumatic; I lost so much blood and was so gravely ill I had to be put back together in a real hurry. My bowel had disintegrated. The surgeon described it as having the consistency of blotting paper. If you’re wondering how an emergency total colectomy is performed, it goes something like this:

Slice open patient, right down the middle. Burn and cut large bowel from muscles and internal organs. Form ileostomy from small intestine. Lift out large bowel, which is falling apart and mainly just ulcers and blood. Dump on table. Panic about patient losing tonnes of blood. Wipe brow with back of arm. Turn up Vivaldi on the stereo. Pump blood into patient. Massage their heart when they go into shock. Staple patient’s torso back together sharpish. Hope for the best.

Things changed forever that day; not least because half my hair went white overnight when my body shut down, but because I’d suddenly acquired a loop ileostomy (stoma) for which I was totally unprepared for. I had also lost so much weight whilst slowly dying in hospital that bright red lump of flesh, which moved of its own accord, this monstrosity which was like a giant STOP button made of jelly, seemed to take over my body. I was so thin (I weighed 40 kilos, having lost 10 kilos from my regular weight) that it stuck out two inches from my stomach. I lost my mind in hospital; when I was diagnosed with post-traumatic depression I was promised some help, but it never came. Once I was able to eat real food (I say that in the loosest terms possible; this was a hospital, remember) and change my stoma bag myself (albeit crying, shaking and gagging the whole way through) I was released back into the wild, left to my own devices; somehow I was meant to pick up the pieces of my shattered life, a life which would never be the same again.

The thing is, up until the week of my almost dying I had never had the need to rush to the toilet, despite my colitis being diagnosed as ‘severe’ in the sense that the disease was right the way around my colon, rather than affecting part of it. I had never had stomach pains, never thrown up, didn’t have any of the symptoms which make people grateful for ending up with a stoma. To that end, I was utterly horrified at what had become of me, and while that feeling subsided a little after the first couple of months, it never truly went away. People would say, ‘Oh good, you’re better now’ and I’d say ‘No, I’m not better, I’m just not dead’. I couldn’t read a book, watch TV or listen to music for weeks. I was in a total state of shock; I barely uttered a word to my parents for a fortnight after leaving hospital, just saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ on a loop.

I shook with anxiety the whole time. I was so weak from surgery and the dramatic weight loss, so sore from having my guts yanked out that just taking a shower exhausted me. I cried each time I had to change my bag, putting it off until midnight some days, simply because I couldn’t bear to look at it. I had such sore skin around it because I was allergic to the glue on the bag that blisters formed in two-inch deep circle all around the stoma. The spray I was given to help shift the glue from the bag stung as if someone was pouring acid onto my stomach. Let’s just say I couldn’t wait to get rid of it, and when my surgeon suggested J-pouch surgery which would rid of me of the stoma… well, I all over that idea.

Nine months later: I’m not going to lie, I actually had a worse time in hospital after that than I did when I was being fed through my veins and had a mouth full of bleeding ulcers. I lost a lot of blood again during surgery and fell into a critical condition, so I was sewn up in a hurry once more with only half the work done. Me and general anaesthetic are not friends.

I woke up with what’s known as an end ileostomy. Rather than it sticking out of my side like a big jelly button, it lay flat against my skin, more like a bullet wound. I won’t even tell you how I felt to wake up after surgery and be told that I still had my insides on my outside. There are none to convey the despair I felt. So what happened after that? Well, those of you who’ve read my book will know the answer to that. I had tubes going into every orifice possible; up my nose and down my throat, up my backside, into my groin, in both hands, in the crook of my arm, the epidural in my spine. It was utterly unbearable. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t possibly imagine what that’s like; all the while with burning pain, non-stop sweats, the inability to do anything for yourself.

I was let out after a couple of weeks, breaking all attendance records in desperation to get out. I actually leaving with an infection which the nursing staff missed. I knew something was wrong when I had a migraine, scorching hot skin and was throwing up, but I couldn’t stand another night on the ward next to old ladies with prolapsed bowels and dementia, so I said, ‘I feel OK’ and that was it, they let me go. I’d already called my parents that morning to say I was allowed home before the staff had even seen me. I’d made my mind up that I would just walk out of there if I wasn’t officially discharged. The stench on that ward was sickening; it’s no wonder I got even more sick from being there. I mean, who puts a patient who’s just had major surgery and almost died AGAIN, and therefore has huge wounds that need to heal right back on the ward where everyone else is sick? The billions of bacteria floating about in that hot, disgusting room, the room where the heating was on permanently, with no windows open and no air didn’t bear thinking about.

Things didn’t go smoothly; a couple of hours after arriving home from the hospital, my bag began to leak. I felt the hot, wet burning sensation (pure stomach acid with a little breakfast) trickle into my lap and asked my mum to help me to the toilet (I was so weak and so sore I could barely shuffle to the toilet at this stage). I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. My mum rang the hospital, and they said, ‘Oh right, we must have sent her home with the wrong bag, sorry about that.’ Brilliant. The stoma nurse had applied a bag suitable for the loop ileostomy, not the end ileostomy. I had a box full of the wrong bags, and here I was, sitting naked in the shower, stomach acid and the remains of my toast dripping down my legs, in floods of tears and complete panic.

The hospital said they would send a district nurse around the next day with the correct bags. I spent the night with an old towel wrapped around my middle, on top of two more towels, on top of my bed, with a blanket on top of me, in terrible pain, exhausted and completely bewildered. I wanted to die. I had nothing left. I was so tired.

Meanwhile, the infection I picked up in hospital was serious enough for my GP to insist I went back in. I insisted that seeing as I got the infection from there in the first place, there was no way I was going back to be exposed to more shit (both in the literal and metaphorical terms). I was instructed to go to the local hospital in that case, where I was born. I said, ‘Won’t it be funny if I die there as well?’ which wasn’t funny at all. I refused to go. I was prescribed super-strong antibiotics and managed to ride it out over the next few days. My poor parents went to bed each night wondering if I’d still be alive the next morning. I didn’t like to tell them that I was wondering the same.

Moving on: six weeks down the line and I’d got a handle on the new stoma – I still hated it and was still covered in blisters and sores, don’t get me wrong – and I’m walking along a leafy London street on a hot summer’s day to meet my boyfriend (said boyfriend is an ex-boyfriend who came back into my life just at the right time). I thought him pretty brave to pick up the pieces; he simply loved me the same as he always had; maybe even a bit more because I was kind of vulnerable and needed taking care of, something completely alien to me before this point. So, I’m walking. I’m wearing a knee-length denim skirt, vest top, wedges, sunglasses. All is as well as it can be, I thought.

Well, that was a BIG f*cking mistake.

big-mistake

Hot liquid ran down my leg. Hot, dark green liquid. A man was walking towards me; I put my hands over my stoma and stood still, squashing my legs together, hoping he’d pass quickly. He smiled, I smiled, he didn’t notice. I was alone again. I hurried, taking my phone out of my bag and calling my boyfriend who was just leaving work to meet me at his flat.

‘It’s me,’ I said, walking so fast now I was afraid I was going to trip up, ‘My bag is leaking, it’s leaking everywhere. I’m in the street and it’s all running down my leg. Please come and get me.’

I carried on walking, clutching my stomach, trying desperately to stem the flow of stomach acid and breakfast. I had no tissues on me (seriously). I was spending the weekend at his place so had brought along another bag so I could change it, but it hadn’t crossed my mind to bring a spare disc (the hard plastic bit which goes against your skin before the bag goes on top), nor had I brought a full change of clothes, other than underwear and another vest top. My skirt was all I had, and that was fast becoming a hot mess.

My boyfriend met me at the end of the street. I was in tears, utterly embarrassed and ashamed. His flat mates were at work, thank God. I shut myself in the bathroom and stripped my clothes off, throwing them into the bath. I showered myself off. The stoma went quiet, finally. My boyfriend, by now, was driving around London on his moped desperately trying to find a chemist who had some stoma kits in stock. Meanwhile, I was sitting on the loo clutching kitchen roll to my stomach, exhausted and panicking.

It turns out the chemists don’t stock stoma kits. I hadn’t known that. He tried four places before ringing me, and now he was in a panic. His next stop was the hospital (this was all in London’s rush-hour traffic, by the way, so an hour had already passed) who said they didn’t give out stoma kits either. He stressed that this was an emergency, but they were having none of it. Their answer was that I had to go home and ask my GP for a prescription. ‘She can’t go home, she’s leaking everywhere and she lives in Kent, not London!’ he exclaimed, exasperated by now. He went back to the chemist and bought what appeared to be the entire stock of bandages and tape.

While I patched myself up as best as I could he put my clothes in the washing machine and made me a cup of tea.

I wish I'd looked this good

I wish I’d looked this good

I wore one of his t-shirts and stayed in the bathroom in case it leaked again.

It leaked again.

I was hungry now, but afraid to eat because that would set the stoma off again. In the end we went for dinner around the corner, me in my freshly-laundered clothes, covered in tape and bandages. I also had tissue stuffed around my knickers in case it all kicked off again. We ate, we went back to the flat, I toyed with the idea of going home but I was too exhausted, and it was too far. Our whole weekend was ruined. I’d ruined it.

I spent the night lying next to my poor boyfriend, flat on my back, only now with a layer of Clingfilm over the bandages along with a towel on top of me, and one underneath me. I didn’t sleep a wink. I went home the next morning, praying that I’d make it through the train journey without another incident.

At the time, there was no social media, no Facebook, no support other than traditional newsletters and a helpline I never took advantage of. I never saw anyone else with disfiguring scars, with a bag, never read about it, nothing. If this happened now, I’d probably stop to take a photo of me sitting on the loo with bandages all over the place; I’d probably have taken a photo of my stoma, or asked my parents to document my decline in hospital. I have nothing to show for the horror I endured, apart from some very well healed scars. The long scar is actually two scars, one from each operation, very close together. It goes an inch above what you can see, and an inch below. Kim Kardashian would have a field day on Instagram with this shit; me, I just put my clothes on and don’t think about it.

The surgeon did an amazing job. I looked horrific for months; a year later and they had begun to fade

The surgeon did an amazing job. I looked horrific for months; like I’d been mauled by a bear. A year later the angry, raised, red scars began to fade

At that point I vowed NEVER to leave the house without a spare disc, bag, wipes and change of underwear. That’s something everyone with IBD learns; sometimes the hard way. Since I had J-pouch surgery, I’ve not had to worry so much, but now that I’m not well again, it’s back to tissues, wipes, other stuff every time I leave the house. So, the moral of the story for anyone who’s just had stoma surgery is this: dudes, be prepared.

As Clarence says in True Romance, ‘It’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.’

true-romance

Damn right, Clarence

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The Drugs DO Work – But Why Do Humira Injections Hurt Like The Worst Kind of Hell?

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Right, so I promised I wouldn’t take so long to write the next installment of my silly life, but I broke my promise. I don’t know where the time goes; really I don’t. Humira, then. For those of you you wondering what that is, it’s not a brand of Japanese car (come to think of it, it might be. I haven’t checked), it’s the biological drug I switched to at the beginning of April. I went into detail about why I switched after a decade on Enbrel, a similar biologic, in my last blog. I also talked about how apprehensive I was about switching. It turns out that so far, it’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (aside from saying ‘Yeah, OK!’ to Gautier when he proposed to me, drunk out of his French mind back in 2007).

Gautier, yesterday. Maybe

‘Marry moi!’

My new rheumatology nurse specialist couldn’t understand why I was still being prescribed a drug which wasn’t working. I mean, it was working up to a point – I could walk most days and had far less pain, generally, than I did before I started taking it – but I could count only around 20 pain-free days during the past year, a calculation which was met with a gasp from the nurse and a kind of ‘Right-that-doesn’t-sound-good-when-I-say-it-out-loud’ face in return.

It was at that point that I realized I’d been a bit hard-done by. Any rheumatologist worth his salt would have suggested I switch years ago. Of course, having one 20-minute consultation a year – that’s right, one a year – doesn’t give them much time to work out that there’s something strange afoot. They don’t have time to read their patients’ notes before they sit down, so at least five minutes of the appointment is spent reading the latest blood results and saying ‘Right, what is it you’ve got again? Remind me.’ The first rheumatologist I had would start every appointment with the sentence, ‘So how are you getting on with the bag?’ He was referring to my ileostomy but I hated that he called it a ‘bag’. I’d say, ‘Actually, I haven’t got it anymore, I have a J-pouch. I didn’t have it last time I came in either, nor the time before that.’ Consultants can’t possibly remember everything about their patients’ health; they’re over-worked and we’re on this target-lead conveyor belt where the only phrase which links us all is ‘Next!’

I got told by the next rheumatologist that I needed to ‘get used to the idea’ that I would always be in pain. To that end I was supposed to have some kind of counselling from a psychologist at The Pain Clinic, but someone must have put the referral letter on the wrong pile because a year later, when I chased it up, nobody knew anything about it. Brilliant. Obviously by that time I’d talked myself into it and was resigned to the fact that at some point, I would probably opt to take my own life, because being in pain every day is not only mind-crushingly exhausting, but equally, really boring. Existing is not the same as living, and anyone in chronic pain will tell you that. We lose so much, bit by bit, month by month until there comes a point when we have nothing left with which to fight, or nothing left worth fighting for. I could sense that the consultant was more than ready to leave those four walls with their posters of the inner-workings of the spinal cord and get out on to the golf course; after all, dealing with the likes of me, with my incurable illnesses and barrage of questions can’t have been much fun.

Here’s the thing, though: when I asked about switching treatments, he shrugged and said, ‘It’s up to you.’ When I asked questions such as ‘Have any of your other patients switched? What is the success rate for that? Might I get side-effects I haven’t had on Enbrel? How long would I have to stop taking Enbrel before taking Humira?’ and stuff like that, he said, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I’m not sure’, or ‘Maybe’. Seriously. If he genuinely didn’t know the answers to my questions, who did? How can he be in a job where he’s prescribing these drugs to patients but has no idea how they work? I was like, ‘Say WHAT?’ So the nurse convinced me. Good for her. I’ve waited 15 years for someone who could help me to actually help me.

My new rheumatology nurse. Maybe

Good nurses are brilliant, always have been

I asked for the Humira to be in pen-form, rather than syringe. I was fine with the injection for Enbrel and jabbed that needle in my thigh twice a week for 10 years like nobody’s business. I couldn’t even feel it most of the time, unless I hit a blood vessel. I liked the idea of the pen being much easier to travel with than the plastic cartons and you can line them up nicely in a little travel case because they take up way less room. I read all the instructions and decided to give it a go in my stomach. I’d never injected here, as I have so much scar tissue from my colectomy and J-pouch surgery. I held the pen, poised for action, pressed the tip and BAM!

Me just after the Humira pen burst into my stomach

Me just after the Humira pen burst into my stomach

ERMAHGERD IT HURT. The force of it was nuts, I felt like I’d been stabbed with a Biro filled with molten lava. It actually made me cry, and that’s not something I do very often, unless I drop my ice-cream or think about the end of Top Gear. I had no adverse reactions other than screaming my head off and crying. At the time I was in a lot of pain as I was at the back end of just having sold the house and sending its contents to France. My stress levels were through the roof, and I felt so rough I could barely walk around the house, let alone go out, for the first 12 days after arriving at my parents’ house. Fun times. Anyway, I started to feel better by the second dose, two weeks later. Again I pinged it into my stomach, again I screamed and again I cried. Really. I couldn’t figure out why it hurt so much when needles have never been an issue for me (unless someone is waving one in front of my eye, say). By the time I was ready to leave for a couple of weeks in France, I had requested that my prescription be changed back to the syringe.

Me with the Humira syringe. I need to get out in the sun, I think

Me with the Humira syringe. I need to get out in the sun, I think

So I get the syringe option now, and think, ‘Ha! I know you! You don’t hurt!’ but guess what? ERMAHGERD IT HURT. I didn’t scream, because the process wasn’t sudden like it is with the pen, but I actually thought I was going to pass out with the pain. I was properly sobbing with the pain. It was like injecting acid into my leg. Gautier looked up from the iPad and said, ‘Monkey, are you OK?’ as beads of sweat popped off my forehead and I apparently went as pale as talcum powder. This was 10 seconds of extraordinary agony as opposed to about three seconds of it with the pen. ‘This hurts just as bad!’ I cried, through a face full of hot tears, grimacing like someone who’s just discovered a rotten corpse in their bed. I drank a glass of water, stood up and then poured myself a glass of wine and drank that.

I’m due to inject again on Monday, and I’m properly dreading it. It must be something to do with the formula being pre-mixed, because with Enbrel, you have to put the powder in with the saline to mix it first. I’ve no idea why that’s the case, or whether I’m just going soft in my old age, but man, it’s awful. Thank God it’s only once a fortnight, but gearing yourself up for super pain isn’t easy. A bit like when the bloke who got stuck in the rocks in the American desert for 147 hours or something had to cut his arm off with a blunt penknife (if I said that out loud to Gautier, he’s say this: ‘Yes, monkey, it’s JUST like that. My God.’) I’d be interested to know if anyone else has made the same switch from Enbrel to Humira, and if they noticed the difference. I’d also like to be sent some edible gifts from anyone who hasn’t had to even consider taking biologics in the first place, because that means you’re really lucky, and I’m not. Seems fair, no?

The thing is, two months in and my pain has improved by miles. I’m waking up feeling COMFORTABLE. If you have scoliosis and spinal arthritis and fibromyalgia, you’ll know that it’s nothing short of a little miracle. I want to laze in bed all morning just because the level of pain I was in for the last 15 years meant I couldn’t wait to get out of bed, as the lack of mobility made everything worse. So that’s my news. I’ve got loads more, but I wanted to focus on that for now.

My tummy stuffs aren’t doing so well, which is a bit annoying as Humira is the treatment of choice for IBD. Gah. I’m in France at the moment, typing this on my laptop in the giant garden, sweating buckets despite being in the shade. It’s going to be between 32 and 38 – yes, 40 – degrees (that’s Celsius, by the way) over the next week. My stupid feet are already swelling up at the thought of it, and it’s only day one. Plus I fell on some rocks the other day so one of said balloon feet is all scraped, too. More on that next week; trust me, it’s quite a story. Have a lovely week, everyone. It should be gloriously sunny wherever you are, as long as that’s not Australia, Alaska or the Antartic. All the places beginning with ‘A’ apart from Andalucia, Africa, America… you get the idea. Bisous xxx

C’est La Vie

Cover Jpeg

To buy the paperback version of my book, click here

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I’m writing this from France. I’m sitting at the kitchen table at Gautier’s mum’s house with a cup of coffee, looking out of the beautiful big window watching two pigeons kiss each other at the top of the weeping willow tree in their garden. Gautier and I have just returned from a little walk, and on our way past the garden noticed a half-built bird’s nest in the tree at the front of the house. I wanted to help build the nest, I said.

‘How?’ asked Gautier, his eyebrows raised.
‘I can collect some twigs and put them at the bottom of the tree for him,’ I offered.
He pointed at the grass that was covered in twigs and said, ‘Er, I think he can manage, monkey.’
‘Maybe, but it’s cold and I could just help a bit,’ I whined.
‘You are already not well!’ he scolded. ‘You don’t need to be outside in the freezing cold picking up twigs!’

He was probably right, but still. Later that night Gautier went outside for a cigarette (ugh, I know) and announced that said nest had a dove atop it. A dove! How lovely is that? I haven’t seen any boring birds here; just magpies and blue tits and now this lovely dove.

The lovely dove from above

That was today. Yesterday was just as exciting, and I’m not even being sarcastic. Monique (Gautier’s mum) drove us to the giant fruit and vegetable market thing which houses leeks the size of hockey sticks and oranges as big as a baby’s head. They also had a pick ‘n’ mix counter, so Gautier and I snuck off to that. I then ate some sweets in the back of the car on the way to the next stop (I am 42 years-old). Here are our sweets, and one of them was a rainbow-coloured iguana!

Sweeeeeeets!

After the fruit and veg and sweets, we headed for the health food shop so I could get some gluten-free stuff; I’m not 100% GF, more like 80%. If I want a treat (which in France is constantly), then I have it, but day-to-day I have GF pasta, GF oats and GF bread, and bake with ground almonds and/or GF flour. I was surprised at the amount of GF food available; I had always thought that the French would scoff at any idea of intolerance to ‘du pain’ in the same way that they think vegetarianism is a terrible affliction rather than a lifestyle choice. We went out for lunch on Saturday and the menu was chock-a-block with foie gras (despicable; I’ve managed to stop Gautier from eating it, finally), pork, veal and other animals. There were fish options, thank God, so I chose scallops followed by the lobster ravioli. There wasn’t one vegetarian option on the menu. I guess the number of vegetarians in a small town like this can be counted on one hand, if at all, so there’s really not much call for it. If I was vegetarian AND watching what I ate for digestive purposes I’d starve to death. Here’s my plate; it’s not for the faint of heart:

‘Help meeeee!’

I look fine on the outside but I feel like my entire insides have been replaced with those of a very old person’s, so food is of great comfort to me as I’m often quite saddened by stuff. I’m always on the loo, I can’t digest my food, can’t stand up straight, can’t walk far, I’m always freezing cold, I take tonnes of medication, I’m always tired… the list goes on. Basically, I’m trapped in the body of a 90-year-old, so ageing is not something I relish one bit. I’ve got numerous hospital appointments coming up which will determine whether or not I need to consider switching biologics. I’m also presenting with symptoms for Crohn’s or colitis (again? With no colon? Yeah, I know). I have ulceration in my J-pouch but I’m getting pain and bloating every time I eat at the moment, and I’ve never had that. What amazing timing.

Gautier’s mum and stepdad recently converted the ground floor of their massive house into a self-contained apartment which overlooks the garden, so when we stay we have the equivalent of a one-bedroom flat to ourselves and I have a sneaky space upstairs in which to write. The house is four storeys; the entire top floor is a cinema room. Yes, a cinema room. Bonkers or what? I should also mention at this point that Gautier’s stepdad is brilliant, and the crazy shizz here is that he’s like, six years older than me. How funny is that? So when people say ‘Ugh, holidaying with your in-laws, what a nightmare!’ I’m like, ‘Dude, you have no idea.’ They’re so far removed from stereotypical in-laws it’s untrue; it’s more like being around friends, although Gautier’s mum never stops cooking and still buys his socks and stuff I don’t have any friends who do that for him. Here’s the house, it’ll do:

Bit small, but I’m sure we’ll manage

 

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I went shopping and bought ALL the Breton stripes. Next up, berets and onions!

We visited the charcuterie the other day. Check out the hideous stuff these people eat. I managed to make the butcher laugh, which must mean I know some French. I told him that it was like a horror film, all these animal innards everywhere, even BRAINS. We came away with a giant piece of beef, and a pig’s foot. The latter was ‘a treat’ for Monique and Gautier. Bleuch!

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Pig’s feet. A treat, apparently

 

Vomit Cake, otherwise known as tripe terrine with carrots in it. Have you ever?

 

No Appointment Necessary

Cover JpegTo buy the paperback version of my book, click here

To buy the Kindle version of my book, click here

I’ve been a bit quiet, it’s true.
There’s a really good reason for that.
Back in July I was told that I didn’t have Crohn’s disease, but rather pouchitis. The latter isn’t a whole lot of fun, but it’s preferable to Crohn’s and much more easily treatable. I was so happy at the news that if it weren’t for my crumbling spine, I would have actually jumped for joy. As it was, I sort of yelped, in a good way, and cried a bit with relief.

Three weeks ago I went to St Thomas’ hospital for my third sigmoidoscopy this year. I have had to remove my underwear so frequently recently that I am considering not even bothering to wear clothes in the first place, just a ‘one-size-fits-all-if-you’re-morbidly-obese’ hospital gown under my coat, so I’m ready for action at any given moment.

Anyway, I digress. The very nice consultant came along to peer at the screen. We were both hoping that the course of antibiotics and probiotics I’d been on since July would have cleared up the rotten mess inside my pouch and that the news would be thus: ‘It was pouchitis, let’s keep an eye on it but it’s nothing sinister, you’re free to go and do a little dance as you leave the hospital’.

It didn’t work out like that.
It’s me, remember. Stuff, in general, doesn’t work out like that for me. I never get good news; if I do it’s only because it’s wrong. I’m lured into a false sense of security for the past couple of months and then the words I don’t want to hear come tumbling out of the consultant’s face: ‘It looks like Crohn’s,’ he says, with a sympathetic expression and a pat on my hand, and lo, my whole world comes crashing down AGAIN.

It gets worse, though. Really. He said I’d be brought back into clinic within four weeks to discuss treatment. To me, four weeks was a long time already. I could have done with the following week, but what can you do but smile, say thank you and put your knickers on? I leave in a daze; mum and I go for a nice lunch on the Southbank and we sit in the sunshine and I’m at a loss for words and mum is shell-shocked. We both have a small glass of wine; it’s too small to help absorb the news. I went back on the train to the seaside, mum went back to Kent and we both delivered the news to our respective other halves; my beloved dad and adored husband, both waiting eagerly for news, thinking it would be the good stuff.

And so I went quiet. I didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t bear to talk about it. I still can’t. It was the worst news I could have heard; I let out a big sob in the bath the other night but that was it, it stopped as suddenly as it started and I haven’t cried a tear since, other than for a three-legged cat who needs re-homing (I want to take her but Squeaky wouldn’t have it). I always said I couldn’t deal with any more bad news; I’m not going back on that. I can’t deal with it. Then again, I don’t know what not dealing with it means. I’m doing everything on automatic pilot, panicking like hell on the inside, doing all the regular stuff with a smile on the outside. It’s the only way I know, after all.

The thing is, when shit like this happens, you at least want to be taken care of. Instead, I’m fighting St Thomas’ hospital now just as I have fought The Royal Sussex in Brighton for the past 14 years. What am I cross about now? Well, when it got to 15 days post-results and I had still not received a letter with a clinic appointment so that I might discuss treatment with the consultant, I rang the appointments line to see when it might be, imagining that their answer might be: ‘We’ve just this minute sent you a letter, it’s next week.’

Imagine my surprise when they told me that nothing was in the system. No referral had been made from the consultant’s office. Nothing. Isn’t that just incredible? I mean, words really did fail me. I was informed that the next clinic appointment would be in December, three days before Jesus’ birthday. December! I said some stuff and managed not to swear and then called the consultant’s secretary, whose phone line went to an answerphone upon which I was unable to leave a message because the mailbox was full. Really professional, right? I then spent the best part of two whole days ringing different phone numbers, from main reception to the gastro department to endoscopy to the secretary, over and over again. Everything was automated, not a single human answered. At one point the phone was answered and I got excited… but nobody spoke to me. I could hear conversations in the background akin to what it’s like to wake up from surgery a bit early. I was there, but nobody was acknowledging me. This happened EIGHT times. I suppose they just picked the phone up to stop the ringing (so sorry to bother you, my mistake!) and left it on the desk until the caller (me, on several occasions) got fed up hollering ‘HELLO? ANSWER THE PHONE!’ and hung up.

I then emailed the consultant’s secretary. I had her details from the last time I asked a question about an examination which was, of course, answered incorrectly, and almost scuppered my sigmoidoscopy. Three days after sending the email, I had still not received a response, so then I resorted to writing a letter – how ridiculous – to the consultant in which I explained my predicament. I expect he’s busy with eight million patients and three different clinics and won’t see the letter until January, if at all, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I have spent most of today dialing numbers fruitlessly. My stress levels are through the roof; this is not helping keep my inflammation levels down, so my pain is getting worse by the day.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a system which does not allow a patient to speak to a human being; a system which allows for patients requiring urgent care for serious conditions to be forgotten, a system which only serves to cause more stress and upset to patients who are already dealing with dreadful conditions on a daily basis. I can’t be the only patient that this happens to; how is it that there is nobody held accountable for these mistakes, these lapses of concentration whereby a piece of paper doesn’t get to the desk it should get to, whereby someone on the other end of the phone doesn’t answer their phone, and doesn’t allow for a patient to leave a message.

I’ve since emailed the IBD helpline on the advice of a kind chap on Twitter. I had never been given an IBD helpline number in the first place, or I might have tried that. Let’s see if they respond; I live in hope.

I am sick of being sick, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m even more sick of being ignored, being left to fend for myself and wonder if I will ever be seen by the one person who might be able to help me. If I could afford private healthcare, I’d have signed up long ago. All it takes is for one person to make the appointment they’ve been asked to make, to answer a phone, to say, ‘I can help you, hold on’ rather than ‘I can’t do that, you need to speak to the secretary’ and then give me a telephone number which may as well be the number of the local Chinese takeaway; at least I’d get something out of ringing that. Chicken chow-mein and some prawn crackers, maybe.

I’m saddened, I’m appalled and most of all, I’m exhausted. I’m left with no option other than to make the trip from Brighton to London to actually stand in clinic and shout ‘GIVE ME A F*CKING APPOINTMENT NOW!’ until somebody either a) calls the police or b) calls the consultant. What else can I do, short of throwing bricks at the window or driving a lorry through the front door? Actually, the last one is looking more appealing by the minute.

Answers on a postcard, if you will.

UPDATE: Got an appointment tomorrow (Monday), thanks to the person at the other end of the IBD Helpline. I’m taking the lorry back in a minute…

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