7/ Slow progress...
The door to the theatre had clearly been fitted with a Men In Black style memory wiping device as I don't recall anything past that point.
Paul has subsequently relayed the events from the three days I was in ITU to me. He informed me I was kept at a forced low body temperature post surgery and had the appearance and feel of a corpse. My temperature was only very gradually increased over a long period of time.
I've never been able to tolerate anaesthesia well, it always leaves me with severe sickness, guaranteed every time, no matter how much antiemetics I'm given. It is the reason I have always refused many stronger anaesthetics over the years, opting for the pain rather the sickness. The pain passes far quicker than the sickness. Naturally a sternotomy requires a general anaesthetic, I wasn't going to be able to grit my teeth through that one. Because of this, the inevitable sickness was to follow. Paul recounts me sitting bolt upright in bed and projectile vomiting with such force it covered him stood at the end of the bed. The poor lad had to go down to the city centre for replacement clothes! Sadly I have no memory of the event. What little brother wouldn't like to recall the day he threw up on his big brother? I chatted to Mum and Paul during episodes of consciousness, but I have no recollection of them at all.
My memory doesn't re-engage until four days post op. I opened my eyes and instantly felt confused.
Where am I.....?
I'm in a chair, who's chair.....?
That looks like a hospital bed and curtains? Am I in hospital......?
I went to move forward slightly and felt the most agonising pain in my chest. I looked down and saw the long dressing running the length of my chest. Directly under the dressing I could see three tubes emerging from just above my belly button. There was blood visible inside the clear tubes that was running down into containers, a fair amount of blood already had accumulated.
It was then that my memory kicked in and I realised what had occurred and why I was there. "I made it. I knew I could do it". The huge sense of relief I felt momentarily washed away all the pain of the surgical wounds. I was aware of someone sitting close by. I focused and could see it was my Dad. I became confused again, how did Mum and Paul turn into Dad? I can't recall what we talked about, everything goes a blank again until my next vivid memory, probably the next day, of the nurse asking me to take a deep breath and bear down on it. As I followed her instructions she pulled at one of the surgical drains in my chest. Shit! I have never felt pain on that level. I was in agony and what's worse, the tube was only half way out. Another deep breath, searing pain and forceful yank and the tube was out, what a relief, I was so thankful that was over. Reality hit me in the face like a brick. That was only one drain, there's two more to go! I can only best describe, to someone who's never been unfortunate enough to experience for themselves, a sensation that would likely be akin to someone dragging a rusty old wood saw out from your chest. The dry, congealed blood along the tube imitating the teeth on the saw blade.
My next memory is a very happy one which occurred on the 26th May 1999. I'd made it to watch the Champions League Final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. With the German's taking an early lead, United were frustrated at the back by the German's. Right deep into the second half and the German's kept battering the United crossbar. The Bayern fans were already letting off flares as the injury seconds of the match ticked down. I was bitterly disappointed, but United had already had the most amazing season, but the Treble sadly wasn't going to happen. Then Teddy's foot, from nowhere steered the ball into the Bayern goal. I leapt on the bed, ecstatic, then reeling in agony from the sudden movement. I reached for the towel I had to hold against the chest wound if I needed to move or cough and I hugged it tight against my chest for some pain relief. This was incredible, Teddy had forced extra time, it had to go United's way in extra time. The treble was still on. I inflicted even more pain on myself as I was incapable at stopping the involuntary leap when Ole made it 2:1 with a handful of seconds to go. Bayern were crushed, United were euphoric, and so was I. I was crying, a mixture of happiness and sheer agony. United had just given a 93 minute masterclass on determination and how important it is to never give up, even when all seems lost. It was a sentiment I was to soon have to put into practice as my physiotherapy began.
I was amazed just how hard it was to merely shuffle a few feet, those first few steps felt like miles. Each day the Physiotherapists would set me a target of how far to walk. I began to enjoy the physical targets, if they said 20 steps, I'd do 25. If they said walk to the end of the corridor, I'd insist on going to the end, around the corner and to the lift, it helped to walk towards the exit. It was like the old days with my running training.
Getting stronger every day, plans were made for my discharge. I'd raised concerns about my cough. I'd had it since the operation and it wasn't clearing, the medics assured me it was perfectly normal and was due to the aggravation of the breathing tubes from the operation. Discharge day arrived and I was so proud of my achievements, refusing the wheelchair and walking out of the hospital myself, slowly but under my own steam. It was very important for me.
The journey home would prove to be a very painful affair. Firstly travelling with a sternum in two halves ensures you feel every slight bump on the road. Worse still, the ferry was to come. Those unfamiliar with the Red Funnel Isle of Wight ferry need to understand the staircase from the lower car deck to the passenger lounge is very steep. I ignored my Mum's pleas to use the lift, there was a queue and I wasn't an invalid. I'd already decided the stairs would be a massive goal for me to achieve, so off I went, accompanied by Mum who was far less confident in my plan. I could see the top step as I approached it, I'd already acknowledged to myself this was an ill conceived plan at about the half way point, but the top was in sight and I was going to make it. I reached a seat and gingerly sat down, Mum shaking her head at me in disapproval. "I know, I know!". Not my best ever idea. The ferry proceeded to rock me for a full hour as it juddered its way across the Solent, I felt every judder on the ferry and on the bumpy road journey home. I arrived home totally shattered but so glad to be there.
Paul decided I deserved some entertainment and to put my feet up.
"Do you want me to go to Blockbusters and rent a film?"
"Yeah, that'd be good, thanks. Please though, don't get anything too funny as it hurts like hell to laugh"
Off he popped and arrived back a short while later. He popped the video in and we sat back to watch it. My comfort wasn't to last. Paul had hired Something About Mary. The scene at the start of the film when Ben Stiller got his manhood trapped in his zipper did for me. "We've got a bleeder!"
I had to remove myself from the lounge and made my way to the kitchen in fits of hysterics whilst yelping in agony, tears of joy and pain streaming down my face as I slowly slumped to the floor against the kitchen units. "You utter bastard!" I cried at Paul as we both cried in hysterics. It would be a while before I could laugh that hard in comfort. It was so good to be home.
The cough however failed to abate, it actually got worse and only a few days later Mum arranged for me to see the GP. He suspected pneumonia and I was taken to the local hospital. They wanted to perform a lumbar puncture but thankfully Mum intervened and said that the mainland hospital should make the call on how to proceed. So back over to the mainland where I was diagnosed with pulmonary embolisms (blood clots on the lungs) and pneumonia. It would be three weeks of intravenous antibiotics and blood thinning medication before I could eventually get home for good. The warfarin was now my only medication and as soon as I was past the risk of more blood clots I would be drug free for the first time in years.
My recovery became my sole focus. Friends offered support and encouragement, James sent me a get well card along with an article he had written for the paper. Nolan must take a huge amount of credit for my rehabilitation success. He would turn up, in his yellow peril, like it was his delegated daily duty to assist me to get well. He would walk with me in the really hard early days where my aim was about 100m but felt like an attempt on Everest. With his help and others, I got stronger each day and best of all I had no signs of arrhythmia.
James had been true to his word and he phoned me and we arranged to meet up at the pub at the end of the lane I lived in, it was just a short walk for me. On the agreed day, I walked slowly down the road and I could see a silver Astra GTE pointing down the hill towards the pub and a young, slim woman trying hard to push the car back up the hill. As I approached I could see it was Mary, looking like she was going to pop a blood vessel. James was sat in the drivers seat. I began to chuckle as I got closer, wondering what on earth they were doing.
"What ARE you doing?" I asked
"The barriers are up and my reverse gear doesn't work!" laughed James
"Those ones there", James pointed to the sprung loaded metal ground flaps that stopped cars coming in the opposite direction.
I walked to the front of the car and up to the "barriers" stepping on one, folding it down flat to demonstrate he could drive straight over it.
"What, these ones?" I said bursting into laughter.
James and I cracked up, Mary....not so much!
We had a lovely lunch and James and Mary filled me in about their life in Oxford, universitiy and about how they were job hunting. It was fantastic to see how great things were working out for them, they were so happy and full of enthusiasm about the future. I waved them off but not before laughing with James about the knackered cars he always insisted on buying.
The morning arrived of my first day back to work. I woke early, showered and eagerly got ready, so happy to be putting my uniform back on. It was just approaching the time I needed to leave. I was really looking forward to seeing all my colleagues again who had been wishing me well.
I heard the phone ringing downstairs and knew Mum was down there and would answer it. I could hear Mum call me and said the call was for me, "It's Mary Miller's dad on the phone for you". This instantly didn't feel right, why would Mary's Dad be calling me?
"Hello?" I gingerly asked
"Hi Nick, this is Doug, Mary's father. I'm afraid there has been a car accident. Mary has a fractured skull and a concussion but she keeps telling me I need to phone Nick on the Isle of Wight. She said you need to know."
"Oh my god, is she going to be OK? Where's James, was he involved too?"
"They were both hit by the car, James is very poorly, they say he's critical"
Doug went on to give me the hospital details and I asked if I'd be allowed to come up and see them both. I explained it was my first day back at work but that I would come up as soon as possible, I just had to speak to work first.
I arrived at work very worried and concerned. Some colleagues saw me and started to make a fuss, excited for me to be back. I tried to put a brave face on matters but I needed to go straight to the manager. I explained the situation and got permission to take a couple of extra days leave. I returned home to pack some belongings, enough for a couple of days, I wanted there to be able to support them both.
I don't recall exactly when the phone call came from Doug;
"I'm sorry Nick, we've lost James"