Pandora's Box

‘You’re playing with Pandora’s box. Sometimes it’s better not to open it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know’. Tatiana de Rosnay.

Pauline Conolly in the archives at Lochgilphead.
On the hunt.

In September 2011 I was completing my research for a narrative non-fiction book in Great Malvern,  a beautiful town in the English  county of Worcestershire. It was an exciting time for  an aspiring author.  I  was able  to visit  many of the properties and locations  involved in the story, including the ancient Priory Church.

Overlooking St Mary’s Priory Church and Great Malvern

Old newspapers were revealing more and  more secrets surrounding my protagonist, Dr James Loftus Marsden.  They were a bit of a Pandora’s Box in themselves. Frustratingly, I found  it was becoming a struggle to walk  uphill from the  library to my favourite  coffee shop.

Malvern Public Library

In some ways this was not a surprise. The streets of Malvern are very steep, especially for a 60 year old woman with mild asthma and a strong aversion to exercise.  It was only when we visited neighbouring (and very flat) Tewkesbury  that  I realized I was also becoming breathless after only slight exertion. I was certainly not overweight, so it was all a bit odd, as was the fact that my upper arms were  suddenly beginning to, well…. wither!  I joked to my sister  in an email that they looked a bit  like our late grandmother’s and that I must have  suffered what the French refer to as  un coup de l’age  (a sudden leap of age!).

I increased the use of my asthma inhaler, which meant that over the next few weeks  the  supply  I had brought from Australia  ran out.  For some reason  I thought the inhalers were available  over-the-counter in the UK, but this was incorrect.  We were based in nearby Evesham, where I visited the local  medical centre for a  new prescription. Oh good grief, it was not a pleasant experience The  triage nurse berated me for putting pressure on the UK’s  overburdened National Health System. I tried to explain that my asthma was normally only allergy related, but I don’t think she was listening. I eventually left with the  script feeling somewhat  abashed; and very much lighter  in the pocket.

At the end of November (late spring in Australia) my husband  Rob and I returned to our home in the Blue Mountains  of New South Wales.


By now  I had also  developed  a persistent dry cough and  mild pains in my chest. As silly as it  sounds, I wasn’t  particularly worried and certainly didn’t connect the various symptoms.  I simply  bought some cough medicine and kept puffing away on the inhalers. I was pretty sure I knew the reason for the chest pain and postponed doing anything about it.  I was preoccupied with  attending to my neglected garden and writing up my research.

A few weeks later our lives suddenly became even busier.

Against all  the odds, my book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters,  was accepted by a London publisher. Rob and I  launched into  a final revision  before sending it off to the editor. He would later comment that I seemed curiously unresponsive to his  queries,  but I have always been a bit of a daydreamer so it didn’t worry him that much.

Christmas came and went and my chest pain became a little more pronounced . I also noticed a strange tingling sensation in the toes of my right foot.  Nevertheless, it was only  after posting the manuscript to London  in mid January  that I gave in to Rob’s   pleas and made an appointment with my  general practitioner.  It happened to be my birthday, and Black Friday!

With supreme  confidence in my own diagnosis  I explained that the pain was probably a mild  reoccurrence of a problem  I’d  experienced   a few  years earlier. A suspected  tumour had turned out to be gel-like calcium  that  leaked from my spine and compressed  a major thoracic nerve. The pain was agonizing, but just as the specialist was discussing  delicate  surgery a second MRI revealed that the calcium had spontaneously  dissolved. Mind you, it took several months for the bruised nerve to recover. 

On hearing this story  my doctor  suggested that  I return on Monday morning  with the old spinal scans.

Rob and I went off to celebrate  my birthday and  the book’s latest  step towards publication, but by  Sunday evening  I was feeling extremely  unwell. My head throbbed, which was very unusual for me, and  my chest pain  had become noticeably  more severe.  I woke in the night drenched in perspiration after horrific, half wakeful  dreams which I now suspect was due to  delirium.

On Monday morning I stumbled out of bed and collapsed. I could barely manage to shower and dress, even with  assistance. My doctor was shocked  when I staggered  into the surgery supported by Rob. She thrust my spinal scans aside and immediately organized an ECG.  The results  alarmed her even more, and  a few hours later I was in our regional hospital at Katoomba, hooked up to a heart monitor.

That night I woke with excruciating  chest pain. I  was given nitroglycerine  and an injection of morphine.  The latter made me so groggy and nauseous that I have refused to take it ever since. Without doubt, the low point of my stay at Katoomba came the following morning. A doctor appeared at the foot of my bed with several students and asked me a question as I dry retched  over a kidney dish. I can’t remember what the question was, but I  found myself unable to formulate any response  (people who know me will find this difficult to believe, as I do love to chatter).  “Just tell me any old thing ”, he said kindly, but  my brain simply refused to function.

Meanwhile it was decided that I should be sent to a major hospital for an angiogram. This meant a 30 mile (50 kilometre)  trip to the foot of the Mountains by ambulance, still attached to the heart monitor. I remember hoping that  my hospital insurance would cover the enormous cost (it did in the end) and being slightly disappointed that I didn’t warrant a flashing light  or screaming siren.

There was good news when tests revealed that my arteries were completely clear. At least I hadn’t had a heart attack. However, I returned to Katoomba hospital (again by ambulance) a couple of days later with the most spectacular  bruising and a large lump in my groin. As luck would have it, the angiogram catheter had  malfunctioned and there had been an  almighty struggle to remove it. The medical staff were extremely upset and apologetic, even though it wasn’t their fault.

Despite my surgical misadventure  I  was now feeling a lot  better. However, further  tests had shown I had very high levels of eosinophils, which are disease fighting  white blood cells.  Apparently my heart was still not functioning  normally either. I remained at Katoomba for several more  days while everyone  puzzled over  my condition. One morning Dr England the cardiologist came to see me when I was wearing a short sleeved nightgown.  He took one look at me  and said,  ‘Hmm, I notice you’ve lost a lot of muscle tone.’   Oh, so that explained my withered  upper arms. What a relief; presumably they would return to normal  when  I recovered from my strange complaint. But what on earth could it be?

I should add a word here about the lovely Dr England. What a warm, generous man. He was awarded the Order of Australia medal in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours. So well deserved. 

CONTINUED HERE….. what else could be in Pandora’s Box?

  1. Hypereosinophilia syndrome?

    Thank you, Chris
    What a time you had, but better to know what was/is wrong than not..

    • Pauline

      I’m luckier than most Chris. Thanks for sharing, the more awareness the better.

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