‘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.
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.
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.
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?