Part 4: Resumption
My parents in law had decided that my wife, son and I deserved a holiday. They were taking us to Portugal for a fortnight in September. I was delighted – something to look forward to. I was reliant on the wheel chair or crutches but I had built up considerable upper body strength by now. So off we went. However it was not going to turn out to be the holiday we had expected.
On the first night my baby son developed croup again. It was severe. I`m sure if we had been in the UK he would have been admitted as he had been before, and would be on several occasions in the future. This episode lasted two nights and then on the third day he started vomiting. After 24 hours his nappies became dry. We took him to the local doctor who said he needed to be admitted. Faro hospital on a Friday evening in the mid 80s was not a fun place to be.
My wife went into the ward with him and several minutes later came out, hysterical. They were trying to get drips in his arms but couldn’t. I got up onto my crutches and hobbled in and persuaded them that I was used to cannulating children so please, could I do it. To my delight I got a drip in first time in the foot. After six months I hadn`t forgotten how to do it. He was seen by several doctors who diagnosed calcium poisoning, ear infection or constipation as causes of his vomiting. Then later that evening he had a fit. Boy was I scared. There were no staff around. Why had he fitted? He wasn`t pyrexial. I took his pulse. It was 60 per minute. I suddenly realised what was happening. The ventriculoperitoneal shunt he had for his hydrocephalus had blocked; that`s why he was being sick. I eventually persuaded the hospital staff that this was the case. Reluctantly they agreed. What would have happened if I hadn’t been a doctor? I shudder to think. We had to get him back to England. I was on the phone to the insurers and they agreed to fly out and collect us.
Eventually we reached Great Ormond Street. What a feeling of relief.
By the time this drama was over my first artificial limb was ready. It was now November. How fantastic to be upright on two limbs again. It had a locked knee to help with stability which could be released when sitting down. I would later move onto a free swinging knee that would lock on weight bearing. However problems set in within a couple of days of the first prosthesis. Blood started to appear at the end of the stump. Further x rays showed that the bone distal to the healed second fracture was dead. I would need my amputation stump shortened. This was not going to create a problem as the stump was quite long anyway. There are still doctors who think that a short stump is not good but in fact as the limbs are light and room has to be made in them for the false knee structure, it is almost a case of the shorter the better today.
All went well and the stump healed up. On Christmas Eve I wore my prosthesis again. No further problems. There were now just two further things needed to get my life back to normal. I needed to drive and I needed to get back to work. My new car needed to be adapted so I could drive with my left foot. Therefore I had to have an automatic with a throttle pedal to the left of the brake but with the ability to move it to the right for others to drive. I collected it on New Year`s Eve and drove it that day 20 miles to visit friends. It was strange driving with the left foot and a considerable queue of traffic built up behind my 25 mile an hour journey. However over a period of a few months it became natural and I didn`t have to think about it any more.
The last milestone was my return to work. I went in for two supervised days a week throughout February to get used to giving anaesthetics again. Needless to say I was rusty but by March I went back to work full time. I had been off work for ten days short of a year.
What did I notice on going back to work? Firstly how lacking in stamina I was. Every night for the first 3 weeks I would go straight to bed after getting home and having supper. It is not only muscle that needs rebuilding after serious illness, but emotional and mental strength too. I started applying for consultant posts almost straight away and to my great delight I was appointed at interview in June to a consultant post in Sussex. How brave of the department to appoint me just 3 months after going back to work. I hope they had no regrets; I certainly didn`t.
To my surprise I made it the full 27 years as a consultant until retiring at 60. I worked full time, many said more than full time. I had a full career, none of which I regret. A great clinical practice, national education roles, and local clinical leadership. And this was only interrupted by a knee replacement in 2001 and a revision in 2008. I made light of my amputation. I lost count of the number of times ODPs (Operating Department Practitioners) said to me in theatres that they would take my leg off and throw it out of the window if I didn’t stop moaning. It was all in good humour.
I like to think that my experience made me a better doctor. I was very aware of the needs of relatives of patients on Critical Care. I was aware of how important it was to keep noise to a minimum and how common confusion is for patients on the Unit. I also knew first hand how vulnerable patients feel once they leave Critical Care. I offered a visiting service to patients on the wards awaiting or having had an amputation which I know they valued. And I give a talk annually to ex patients of critical care about my experiences.
Who would have thought that life could change so spectacularly one cold morning in March, during a split second moment in time? Or that after it I would lead a pretty normal life with a full career. In the early months of deep despair it would have been easy to curl up in a corner and give up. But the alternative of fighting on in the face of adversity was a far better option. Life can have a lot to offer despite what it deals out for us.