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Professional and personal learnings from a life crisis, one year on.



In November of last year (2023) my routine annual blood test showed my iron levels had dropped again.

 

Fortunately, I had an appointment with a local GP who was curious enough to send me to an amazing specialist, who didn’t give up until he found the root cause. Unfortunately, he found I had cancer in my oesophagus. I had been suffering from acute reflux which they believe triggered the tumour. If you have reflux, don’t try and live with it, get it looked at.

 

After 4 further gastroscopy attempts early 2024 to see if the tumour could be burnt out, I got the bad news that it had gone too deep, and they would have to remove my oesophagus. This is complex procedure and one of the longest operations performed at St Vincent’s Hospital. I was booked in for the end of March with the best surgeon I could hope for, Dr. Douglas Fenton-Lee.

 

It’s difficult to recall my emotions, as my main coping mechanism was complete denial. I refused to think about the upcoming surgery and just focused on what I could control, enjoying the final months of summer. All I knew I just had to go in to hospital as healthy as possible. I also tried to connect with all my family and friends who made a huge effort to come and see me before hospital. This was the best distraction, as I felt emotionally supported going into the operation.

 

I have little recollection of the day of the operation. After seven hours on the table, I woke up in ICU in a very different state that I went in. This is what I wrote on WhatsApp to my friends when I finally came out of the torture chamber and got upgraded to the ward.

 

Hey everyone. I am finally up to posting something myself after 13 days in the joint. Sorry that this post is a little long and self-indulgent, but I have a few things to get off my chest (Literally!)

 

Also, apologies that I have not been able to reply to all your messages, but I have been able to read them all and occasionally send an emoji. Your huge support, kind words and general banter has been very uplifting and has helped me get through this. So thank you. Also a big thank you to my partner and PSB for standing in for me and replying to the messages.

 

It looks like I am back home tomorrow. I understand that this is the shortest time possible to stay in hospital from this specific surgery. I was longer in ICU than expected, but much shorter in the ward.

 

Despite the traumatic experience it has been fascinating. ICU was so different to what I imagined. I was anxious about dealing with the post-surgery pain, but the two epidurals were simply amazing. They provide a complete, targeted, pain block. I understand not everyone responds well to epidurals, so I am thankful. I can’t fathom what it would be like to go through this without satisfactory pain relief.

 

The epidurals, together with the long incision in my belly is probably the closest a man can come to experiencing a caesarean! If I get asked where the scars are from, I will say “child birth”

 

On the flip side, I never thought ICU would be so noisy, with 24/7 bleeps, screams, endless staff banter, code blue, and the endless sounds from the trolley highway. Reminded me of Kho San road in Bangkok. This noise, plus being examined/treated every 90/120 mins, over 8 days, made it almost impossible to sleep. My collapsed lung didn’t help. I had a total of 12 lines stuck in me. It took 4 people to carry all this spaghetti, so I could get from my bed to the chair next door. Simply incredible what the surgeon was able to do. Massive thanks to @Dr/Prof Douglas Fenton Lee and his huge support team. Humbled by what they all do everyday.

 

The best way I can describe ICU is “stuck in the middle seat of economy, next to the galley and a smelly toilet, flying Sydney to London return, four times in a row, without being able to get out of your seat or get off. Great, caring staff, but often missing in action when you want them.”

 

Getting into the ward on day eight was like being released from the asylum. Apparently, there is now an official anxiety disorder – ICU PTSD. I was also lucky to get a room in the ward with a view, shared with only a couple of other inmates. Continuing the airline analogy, it felt like “that upgrade to business class with a window seat, and no one sitting next to you."


Thanks to all my visitors in the ward. Made the long days go faster.

 

All my spaghetti is now out. The process of removing the lines was not quite as pleasant as their insertion, as unfortunately I was awake for these procedures, not knocked out! Bring back the epidurals. CP3 (my loyal, mobile, drug and mobile monitoring station) has also dumped me today, but I won’t miss her insistent nagging (bleeps).

 

Getting home will be "like that upgrade on the last long haul, leg to First Class... sitting next to your life long partner.”

 

Thanks again everyone.

 

Firstly, I would like to thank everyone at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia who do an amazing job fixing you physically. When they had some rare spare time, they also checked in on my mental health. One senior training nurse gave me a shave and cleaned my teeth after 5 days in ICU. This was uplifting. No wonder she trains the others, but she admitted it was tough for the other nurses who have to handle more than one patient at a time.

 

So, what have I learnt from this experience? These are my personal and professional take outs:

 

1.    Look for the silver lining in any crisis, even if it is thin.

 

For me this event reconnected with important people in my life after getting a little too introverted during COVID-19. I don’t take them for granted anymore as they played such a critical role in getting me through this. The crisis leads to another deeper level of conversation, which may not take place during normal life. This includes your work colleagues. You must reach out, even when it is super hard, as you can’t get through this alone.

 

2. You learn more from a crisis.

 

You learn a lot more in a crisis than when everything else is tracking along just fine.

 

I lost 15kg in 15 days and I am now the optimal weight for my age and height. (A silver lining). I do need to rebuild muscle mass, by I am lighter on my feet and my old joints are thanking me for this.

 

Sometimes a crisis event like this gives you time out to do important things that you don’t find time for in our super busy life. Drawing, reading all those articles you put in the “do later” email folder, binge watching great TV series, playing chess, learning words to songs (that you have played on the guitar all your life). The list goes on.

 

3. A crisis builds resilience and makes you appreciate the good things.

 

I appreciate the things around me much more. I stop and look at things more closely. I feel I am more present and listen better. I recognise life could be short, so you need to stop and smell the roses. I think I am more resilient, as other challenges don't seem to be quite as bad anymore.

 

4. Speak up in a crisis. You voice is important.

 

If things don’t make sense, speak up. There is nothing to lose by being the squeaking wheel and asking questions, as long as it is a genuine enquiry and not just an opportunity to make your point. My past frustrations with aspects of health services that often made no sense led to anger not curiosity. This was a waste of energy and not helpful. Sorry.

 

5. Seek support from your key relationships and connections.

 

Finally, don’t take on a crisis alone. Relationships and connections are key to coming through the other end.

 

Sometimes it is good to delegate task to someone else, such as updating your network on how you are going, because you know you will not be up to it. One of my close friends and my partner did this for me. Sometimes it is also helpful to bring someone along to a medical appointment to ask the questions and then remember the answers!

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