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Saturday, 10 December 2011

Lucky, lucky me

I've never really had intimations of my own immortality; growing up in South Africa tends to squash that myth pretty fast. 
I lost the last possible illusion on that side the day a man with a gun came within a couple of inches of blowing my head off (the bastard shot my hair, something I still sulk about).

So this Thursday morning when I came within a couple of minutes of dying in a very unpleasant way, what went through my head was not so much "I'm too young to die" as "I don't want to go out like this."

I didn't - hence this post - but what really got hammered home for me is just how lucky I am on a number of counts, mainly the people around me.

Let me explain.

I've had a cough since my last epic dose of the cold a couple of weeks ago, and it's gotten steadily worse. The fact that I'm a smoker didn't help for obvious reasons, but you know - I've had coughs before. They tend to pass. Irony alert - I hadn't touched a cigarette the night before because I didn't want to make it worse. Ahem.

At around 05:30 a.m. I woke hacking and coughing worse than ever. There was no pain, just me wheezing in the darkness of my cold room and feeling cranky.
At 05:45 I got up and decided to steam my face to try and loosen things up a bit.

I got as far as running the water and realised that I was no longer struggling to breath; I was pretty close to not breathing at all.

And here comes the first lucky break; I live with my house-mate, who is also my cousin. Because although I'd grabbed my phone to dial 999, I couldn't really talk. I had enough breath left to make a noise like a strangled rooster and get her downstairs, and say "can't breathe", but that was it. She called the ambulance, got me to a chair (I was holding onto the balustrade making ugly strangling noises) and kept talking to me, which probably kept me from passing out. 

By the time the first paramedic got there my vision was going. The world had narrowed down to me gasping through an airway that felt non-existent, Stacey's hand on my shoulder, and gathering clouds of black around my field of vision.
There was still no pain, only a very large awareness that if these guys couldn't do anything this was going to be me, dying on a cold still morning in December. Merry fucking Christmas, folks.

The next two paramedics got there a few minutes later, and this is my second huge stroke of luck: I live in a country with a pretty good public health system. Say what you want about the NHS and its faults - like any organisation it has them - but this is the second time I've needed them, and each time the paramedics, the badly paid guys that step up to the plate when you dial that number - have been bloody amazing.

They got me on oxygen, and here's more irony for you - this is the first time I panicked a bit. Because for what felt like minutes - probably only a few seconds, but it felt like forever - I still couldn't breathe. With that mask on my face and clouds of vapour going everywhere but into my lungs, my vision starting to star-burst, and the last cold rational voice in my mind (the one that told me to call for help because the brown stuff had just hit the moving blades) mournfully ticking off the things I still wanted to do in life.

I finished the tank and still couldn't really catch my breath. They let me get dressed (at least nobody had to cut any clothing off me for this emergency) and it was time for my second ever trip in an ambulance, and another tank of something a bit stronger - no idea what it was, but it gave me one hell of a headache. The details of temperature and blood-pressure are a bit hazy; although my state of mind wasn't helped by the persistent queries about chest pain - I think they were concerned about my heart-rate, which was doing a pretty good impression on a race-horse.

The trip to the hospital is mostly flashes - the guy in the back talking to me and telling me what he was doing and why; the road we went down that felt like one giant pothole, the fire we passed just off the motor way,  Stacey with her hand still on my shoulder.

Another four aspirators in the hospital, multiple blood tests, having to blow into the cardboard tube of doom (and not impressing anyone, including myself with the results). X-rays, an ECG, multiple nurses, multiple doctors, and through it all, my cousin, refusing to budge from my side even when I abandoned her to fall asleep on my bed for an hour.

It turned out I'd had an asthma attack. According to the docs, it was triggered by a hyper-sensitive reaction to a virus, and I now had inflamed tubes and (much later in the day) a minor blood clot. It just happened to reach critical mass and manifested as an attack, although they cannot diagnose me as asthmatic. (Side note: asthma attacks can apparently happen to people who are not and have never been chronically asthmatic. I have a new found respect for anyone who lives with this condition, and anyone who dismisses it as psychosomatic needs a good swift kick to the fundament.)

She texted my boss, to let her know that I was in the hospital and wouldn't be at work. And here comes my third stroke of luck; I work with genuinely good people, including a manager who really does give a damn about her team. All I've heard from my team is good-wishes and hopes for recovery; and if that doesn't make me cursed lucky compared to a lot of folks I know, I don't know what does.

By the time I was on my second or third hospital gas mask (I thought I did a pretty good Darth Vader impression. The nurse didn't get it.) I was okay to text my boss again, get her up to speed, and send a rather badly mangled tweet about a bad start to my morning.

The response just floored me. By 8:30 pm that night I had over 200 tweets back. I pretty much killed Orange's allowance for incoming tweet texts. I never, ever expected that. If you're one of the people that contacted me, all I can say is - you guys helped keep me going through a pretty bleak day. I've tried to respond to everyone, if I missed you consider this me grovelling; because as far as I'm concerned that's my fourth bit of luck: people who care. People from all over the planet who stopped whatever they were doing and sent me a message on a social networking site to wish me well, to get better, to hold on. I love you guys. Terry, Ray, Naomi, Amhairi, Michelle, LJ and Phil, who've been remorseless in checking up on me in particular.

My new Skype buddies, Jason and Tab, who have put up with me yakking at them for a couple of hours the last two days when I was frankly scared to go to sleep, in case I woke up choking again. You guys are simply the best.

So I'm home now; on a bunch of medication that basically turned me into the zombie of your dreams for most of the day; and I'll be on it for couple of days still. Technically not out of the woods yet - Stacey kept sticking her head around my door to make sure I was breathing; if I'm still clicking my heels by Sunday night I reckon we're good to go. Let me tell you folks, I don't do bed-rest well. The fact that I've barely left it tells me just how badly I needed it. Also, there is something inherently creepy about being able to stand in the spot where you nearly died in your own home. Not too sure how to explain it, apart from not wanting to stand there or touch the balustrade I clung to that morning.

I've had to deal with explaining what happened to three terrified people in Australia; which was one of least fun parts of this whole deal for me. (I did explain that I would have been very irate if I'd popped my clogs before seeing them later this month. My response to bad situations is to crack bad jokes, it's my own coping mechanism. Let's just say my mother was not amused. I believe death and a swift ass kicking was included in the response. I did not point out the irony. I do have some survival instincts.)

Last shout-out, to the paramedics that saved my life, and the myriad staff  I dealt with at Whipps Cross Hospital. Thank you. My biggest regret right now is that everything is so patchy I can't remember your names, but thank you. From the grumpy dude who was the first doc I dealt with, to the last ward nurse who supplied  both myself and Stacey with coffee and lunch, and all the people in-between, thank you. 

My smokes hit the trash about twenty seconds of walking back into my room. For the first time in about twenty plus years the thought of lighting up horrifies me. It's on about the same level as thinking about ice-skating again - instant flash-back to broken leg time, except this is instant flash-back to nearly popping my clogs. 
I've ordered an electric cigarette, because I know myself a bit too well to think I've broken the addiction just yet, and having experienced strangling slowly as my airways closed once, I reckon I've pushed my luck in that direction far enough. Although if this was which ever deity runs the show's way of getting me to quit, We Are Going To Have Words when I finally do shuffle off this mortal coil. Just saying.

My last close call changed my life pretty drastically. I'm pretty sure this one will as well; how much remains to be seen. As long as I'm around though, I intend living my life and living it well.

And if you made it to the end of this post and you're mumbling about it being a bit, well, morbid, apologies. That was not my intention.

What I wanted to point out is that I am, right now, the luckiest person I know. I am lucky for all the reasons, and especially the people, I've written about. I'm usually broke, chronically accident-prone, cantankerous without my coffee - and I love my life because of the people in it, in person and on the net.

So if you've read this, and waded through to the end, turn your screen off, find the people you care about, and let them know it.
Life is short, and scary, and gorgeous, and the people you surround yourself with are what really matter at the end, not the shiny pretty gadgets and gewgaws and the bank-balance you scramble for at the end of the month. 
Trust me, those things don't matter a damn when you start to die.


J H Sked is the author of WolfSong & Basement Blues.
You can find WolfSong on Amazon. Basement Blues is on AmazonSmashwordsiTunes  and  Nook