Archive | November 2014

Pushing ahead

I woke up the next morning with bruised and swollen hands and wrists from beating them on the floor in frustration the day before. On top of that, making my woes on the treadmill even worse were my stiff, achy joints. The hormone therapy (Arimidex) that I was on was making movement challenging. After sitting for 10 minutes, it proved a monumental task to get up and just move around the house normally, never mind exercising on the treadmill. I felt like a 41 year old stuck in an 81 year olds body. Whenever I started to stride it out, it would take 15 painful and awkward minutes to get into my stride and finally start to loosen up. Also stacked against me was the scar tissue that I now had on my lungs from the pleurisies that had partially crushed them. The only thing I did have on my side was the fact that I had by that time managed to lose 10kg’s in total, loosening up the strain on my joints somewhat, but my knees were still hurting. I realized that I needed to be even more proactive and address these issues.

I decided to consult a physiotherapist at the hospital where I was receiving my treatments, and luckily I could coordinate my treatments with visits to her rooms. She was also a South African, and after explaining my troubles to her and my training for the upcoming expedition, she quickly went to task on working out how best to help me in the form of stretching and strengthening exercises whilst targeting my weakest areas, that being my knees and back. I increased my protein intake and my focus for the weeks to come would be to develop more lean muscle tissue while shedding the extra pounds that would make everything easier for me. My physiotherapist and dietician met up and putting their heads together, worked out an optimal diet and nutrition program for me to best prepare me for the trip.

2nd magazine

Another interview and photo shoot with Health and Fitness magazine.

I had developed a limp in my right leg from the radiation that I had to have to my pelvis in that area 2 years earlier. The muscle was hard and inflexible as a result and I had to stretch that muscle everyday to get the flexibility back. Without it being able to stretch, there was no way I’d be able to strengthen it. I had to work on my weak and sore knees by spending hours with an elastic strengthening band given to me by the physiotherapist. I would tie it to one of the banisters on the staircase and then tie it behind my knee. I would bend and flex, bend and flex till my muscles burned and they were shaky with exhaustion. I did exercises for my back that are practiced in Hatha yoga in order to gain the strength and stability that I so badly needed. I borrowed my daughters ipod and put music on it that would inspire and motivate me and then I got to work.

On my first week back on the treadmill I managed to put in 40 minutes. Three weeks later it became 45 minutes. I had shed another 1,5kg’s and was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. For the first time since I’d signed up for the expedition, I was starting to feel like I was making progress and was maybe in for a chance. In the meantime, I attended an interview with another magazine and put in yet more work on the indoor ski slope with my team mates. It was on the second training session with them that I became very encouraged when I could at last start to feel that my hard work was starting to pay off.

This entry was posted on November 29, 2014.

Training in earnest

photo shoot

Posing for the Shape Magazine photo shoot.

Once our team leader had announced to the public that we were going to Antarctica, our lives changed somewhat. The media here in the UAE took great interest in our cause and what followed was a frenzy of requests from different newspapers, magazines and even TV and radio stations. It all felt so surreal to me. My life had gone practically overnight from carving out a simple existence and just managing to keep my head above water, to being in the limelight and on the pages of magazines and newspapers nationwide. The first time I got to meet the full team of ladies, short of just two members who lived in America and Switzerland, was at a magazine photo shoot. It was held at the main offices where the magazine was based in the heart of Dubai and it was total organized chaos. All the makeup artists and photographers involved went about their business in the midst of all the madness in a focused and calm way. Us ladies had an absolute ball. In between getting to know one another and whilst having our makeup done in preparation for the shoot, we were interviewed by journalists. We were all made to feel like celebrities, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt as if I truly belonged and was surrounded by a group of women who really understood what I’d been through and who I could talk to, knowing that they would  be able to relate to it all. It was so interesting to hear all the different stories of what all the women had been through and it made me realize that breast cancer is a very individual and complex disease, and no two women’s journey is the same.

We were lucky to be able to benefit from an indoor skiing slope in Dubai where we would hold many training sessions, but the first training session and hearing all the different stories was a wake up call for me. I realized that not only did I have a lot of hard work ahead of me in terms of increasing my fitness and stamina levels, but that I also had more physical obstacles to overcome than the rest of the team. I was still struggling with a residual amount of muscle atrophy and I knew that if I was to be fit and strong enough for this trip, I had to pull out all the stops and really put my nose to the grindstone. I felt really privileged and lucky to be part of this team and given the fact that this was an opportunity of a lifetime, I was determined that I was not going to blow this one.

With that, my life became a whirlwind of travelling far distances to attend training sessions and interviews. It suddenly became a juggling act of trying to fit in training sessions with the group and at home, as well as being a wife and mother and keeping the domestic front going. My training sessions went smoothly on the ski slopes with the rest of the team, but I struggled at home in the beginning. We had been told that the trip would entail camping el fresco overnight on an iceberg, snowshoeing, kayaking and mountaineering. In order to meet the fitness levels required for all of this, we had to be able to put in a 2 hour workout everyday at least. 4 months away from the trip and I was only managing 30 minutes a day. I couldn’t afford a gym membership at the time and so the only fitness tools available for me was a fast aging treadmill and my own ingenuity. Running at that point was out of the question for me but I was determined that I would build up to that. For starters, I would push my walk to a brisk 45 minutes and day and then go from there, building up on gradients as I went along. My first attempt was hopeless. I only managed 35 minutes and had to stop. Gasping for breath and with shaky legs, I climbed off the treadmill and sank to the floor in a sobbing mess. What the hell had I got myself in for?  Who on earth was I kidding? At this rate I would never be ready. I banged my fists on the floor and wailed in frustration at the situation.

I was done for the day and I knew full well that from tomorrow on, I’d have to start pulling a miracle out of the bag.

This entry was posted on November 27, 2014.

The beginning of team Antarctica

The normal approach to something as big as this would be to discuss it with family members first. That’s not how it went with me. After being married to me for 16 years Jaco knew full well that once I had set my mind on something, there was no changing course. I was like a runaway, unstoppable steam train rapidly chugging along at record speeds. If anybody got in the way it wouldn’t be pretty. Before signing up for the trip, I of course did talk to him about it and we discussed all that it would entail, but for me it was more from an already confirmed state of mind than a enquiring and requesting one. He already knew that I had made up my mind that I was going to do this, and that it was now just a matter of working out the logistics and of course, the financial implications.

By that time I had been exercising and working on increasing my strength and stamina for about a year and a half, and I was doing well. After signing up for the trip and finding out the basics of what the expedition would require, I was so glad and grateful to myself for pushing myself forward on the treadmill the way that I had. By this time I was walking at a very brisk pace for 30 minutes and my back had become much stronger. I had done away with the back brace long ago which was now gathering dust in the back of the cupboard. I was about to embark on an exciting new chapter in my life that would bring me all the challenges and excitement that I’d been craving for so long, and at the same time meet a whole lot of new people…women who had been through exactly the same thing that I had and could really understand what I had been through and where I was coming from.

We all met for the first time in late June. We laughed and talked and for the first time ever, I felt like I was part of a sisterhood. It’s not exactly a sisterhood one really wants to be a member of, but there wasn’t much any of us could do about it. We were in it for the long haul and we all embraced it with open arms. It was so exciting to sit and start making plans for our trip, discussing everything from the journey there and back that we would take, clothing that we would need to get to protect ourselves from the elements, right through to the level of fitness that would be required for the trip. The whole aim of this Antarctica expedition would be to raise awareness of breast cancer in the Middle East and hopefully beyond borders. I felt very strongly from the beginning that it was important especially in the Middle East, since believe it or not there is still a stigma attached to getting breast cancer there. Women are still, for cultural and religious reasons very modest and wouldn’t dream of stripping down for a strange person, even if it is a doctor, to let them examine their breasts if they suspect that something is wrong. The result is that when they do eventually seek medical attention because they are so sick that they don’t have a choice, it is often by that time too late and their disease is too advanced for any medical treatment to be effective. That would be one of my many messages that I would drive home to the public throughout this journey whenever I got the chance.

Before long the team was set, and we were a group of 12 women prepared to work hard and take on this challenge, whilst creating as much awareness as possible. A videographer had been hired who would film all of us on every step of this journey, from training right through to summiting a mountain in Antarctica. It didn’t stop there however, because to raise awareness would mean that we would have to attract as much media attention as possible… television, radio, magazines and newspapers.

Start of Antarctica

Team Antarctica started here, the evening of our first meeting. I am second from the left.

Things were about to get very interesting indeed.

This entry was posted on November 24, 2014.

A new chapter

Four weeks later, I had the bandage removed from my hand and quickly regained use of my thumb. The doctor later said that if the cut had been any deeper, I may have suffered damage to the nerve endings and battled a little to get use of my thumb back. For a change I got lucky. There was no time to dwell on it however, as we were preparing to move house yet again. This would be for the third time in just 5 years. Being expats, life is very transient especially in the Middle East where people come and go all the time. As a family we were pretty much the same, just with accommodation. Every place that we had stayed in had something wrong with it that proved intolerable in the end, resulting in mounds of cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and mile upon mile of duct tape. In this place, it was the utilities bills that we would have to pay every month that was in the thousands. Nobody had stayed in this particular villa for longer than 2 years at a stretch, but we couldn’t know that when we chose to move into it.  I had spent the last two moves in agonizing pain with a pinched nerve in my back and I would be damned if I was going to make the same stupid mistake this time around. With that, we got a moving company to help us

The move went off smoothly with no injuries and once we’d settled into our new abode, life continued as usual.

Me and Goemal

Taking some time out, with my ever faithful boy by my side.

I had been sticking to my exercise and diet plan and had by that time lost about 8kg’s and was feeling much more comfortable and stronger. The winter months had just rolled around and we all enjoyed barbeques outside during the day, and gazing up at the stars at night. As the months passed and my health remained stable, I slowly but surely started settling down into a routine and could finally breathe and relax. I didn’t feel as though I had a sword constantly hanging above my head anymore. With that however, an inner restlessness began to develop within me. I would sit outside in the evenings and wonder what it would be like to have no family or obligations and to just be able to drop everything, pack my bags and jump on a airplane and go anywhere in the world that my heart desired. It was probably a combination of the fact that we hadn’t been on holiday back in our home country for close on two years by that time, because of my health issues and added to that was the sense that I was acutely aware of how short life could be, and now suddenly I had this yearning to travel and see the world. To meet different people and immerse myself in their cultures. I suddenly felt as though I was missing out and that life had started to pass me by while I was lying in a hospital bed, and that it was still continuing to do so. I would look up at the heavens and hoping that somehow my mum was up there somewhere listening to me, I prayed for her to please bring me something…anything that would calm and satisfy what had now become my restless spirit.

Months later in June 2012 on one quiet evening I was going through my emails and like most people, I receive my fair share of junk mail which I delete without a second thought. As I was scrolling down, my finger was hovering above the delete button. I was about to hit it again, when one line caught my eye. It said, ‘Seeking breast cancer survivors to venture into Antarctica to raise awareness.’

My finger moved away from the button as my hand settled down into my lap. Opening the email and reading it, my eyes widened and my heart rate quickly increased. I immediately realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime and that my prayers had been answered.

This entry was posted on November 21, 2014.

Making progress

By the time I’d decided to consult with a dietician, I was firm in my resolve to lose weight. Although I was acutely aware of the fact that my health and nutrition came first, I was also sick and tired of having a cupboard full of clothes that no longer fitted me. In addition to that, after doing some research I realized that losing weight would in itself be beneficial for my health, since fat in the body can store additional amounts of estrogen. For me having hormone receptor positive breast cancer losing weight was not just a matter of feeling more comfortable in my own skin, my health depended on it. All these factors made it easier for me to stick to my diet and exercise regiment. With the help of my back brace I was slowly but surely gaining strength, being able to walk more and more upright as the weeks passed. By the time a month had passed, I was walking quite briskly for 30 minutes at a time. When I went to the hospital for my medication and to see the dietician again, I discovered to my absolute delight that I had managed to lose 3.2kg’s in 4 weeks. Although in the months to come that weight lose would slow down somewhat, I stuck to my guns and continued with my walking and diet plan, steadily gaining strength and shedding the pounds as the months went by.

One evening whilst washing dishes, I picked up a glass and while absent mindedly talking to Jaco I didn’t notice that the glass had quite a sizable chip in the rim of it. With the washing up sponge in my hand I plunged my hand into the glass and in doing so, caught the top of my thumb where the thumb joint meets the hand, on the chip which ripped the skin and flesh open in a c like formation. I remember seeing the skin flapping about and blood spurting all over the place. Jaco immediately started to panic. I was rather surprised by this reaction because he was historically very calm. Not this time however. I was the one that remained calm and asked him to bring me a bunch of paper towels so that I could try to stop the bleeding. No matter what I did the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I knew that it was time to go to the hospital. For me this would be the last resort. I certainly didn’t want to go back to a hospital once again for something as stupid as this. Like I hadn’t spent enough time in them already! Very reluctantly I suggested Jaco go and get the car keys so that he could drive me. Thank goodness he was there otherwise I may have had to go to a next door neighbor and ask them for help because the moment I let up on the pressure, blood would come pouring out again. I already knew at that point that I would for sure need stitches.

In his blind panic, Jaco lost his car keys which meant we had to switch cars and he had to run back inside the house again to get my keys, which he couldn’t find. Shouting and kicking things around, he started to scare the girls who started crying. He eventually saw them hanging in their usual place and, locking the girls in the house ran for the car. By this time the paper towels that I’d been holding against my hand were close to saturated with blood and it was still coming. We screeched off! Luckily the hospital was only a 5 minute drive from where we were. The staff at A&E responded very quickly as soon as they saw us walk through the door and immediately determined that I would indeed need stitches. While waiting for the plastic surgeon to attend to me, I phoned the girls at home to calm them down and reassure them that I was okay. I lay there feeling so foolish…almost like I was wasting everybody’s time. I had done a really stupid and careless thing which was clearly avoidable, yet happened so fast. In the meantime the nurses went about the business of cleaning my would. They doused it with saline solution and disinfectant and proceeded to pull the flap of skin back so that they could clean the inside of the would. I winced and cried out as I clutched onto Jaco’s hand. When the doctor arrived, he gave me a series of injections to numb the area before he started stitching my hand up, which took another 20 minutes. While he was busy I kept on apologizing to Jaco and kept on thinking how unnecessary this all was. As if I haven’t been through enough pain already and to make matters worse, it was my right hand.

We returned home with 15 stitches and a heavy bandage later, wondering how I was going to get things done with a gammy left hand. I was told to return to the hospital regularly to have my wound cleaned and the bandage changed. The stitches would be removed in about 4 weeks time depending on the healing process. We later found Jaco’s car keys between the driver and passenger seat in front.  In the meantime I would have to find a way to get by with one and a half hands.

This entry was posted on November 17, 2014.

Regaining strength

I never realized the degree of my muscle weakness  until I got onto the treadmill and started walking. My back muscles had become so weak that I was walking hunched over like an old lady. I had to quickly grab onto the support handles of the treadmill to prevent myself from falling off and possibly hurting myself. I had to stop after a couple of seconds. I got off and sitting down on the side of the bed, I started crying out of shock at the deterioration of my overall physical condition, and frustration at the whole situation. I think I reached my lowest point at that moment in terms of physical self loathing. I hated my body and was intensely angry with it for doing what it had done to me, and now on top of everything else,  I had these physical challenges to deal with and enormous obstacles to overcome.

The girls & Goemal

My son and three daughters. This was in mid 2011.

Much to my families dismay, I stomped downstairs and threw a hissy fit in front of everybody, telling them that I was done. I couldn’t do it, it was just too hard. How was I supposed to walk on the treadmill when I couldn’t even keep my body upright. It seemed hopeless. It was an eye opener however and an essential one at that, because for the next few days I found myself wondering what I could do to get myself started again and keep going. There had to be something. I read up on the internet and came across an article about an Indian herb called Ashwaghanda, and how brilliant it was at restoring physical strength and stamina. The way I saw it, I didn’t have anything to lose by giving it a try. That weekend Jaco and I jumped into the car and went in search of the herb. After two hours of searching around town to no avail we were ready to give up and return home with our tails between out legs. That’s when we drove past a very non-descript looking shop. Something told me that we should stop and have a look, so I told Jaco to stop so that I could quickly run in. Good thing I did because there sitting on the shelf were plenty of containers of Ashwaghanda powder . We bought two of them and headed home feeling very proud of ourselves. Little did I know what an acquired taste it was going to be. For the first few weeks or so until I got used to the taste of it, I would quickly throw it back whilst blocking my nose. After getting used to it however, I was fine and could drink it normally. Fast, but without having to numb the senses at least.

A year prior to my relapse, I had been going for horse riding lessons that I was enjoying very much. Cantering along one day, my horse spooked for something in the grass and I was thrown off. This horse and I had actually formed a bond over the months that I had been riding him. He was a tall, lean white speckled horse and so I had further to fall. As I hit the ground I heard and felt a click but didn’t feel the pain straight away. I only felt it when I pinched a nerve in my back and had to go for a scan to see what the problem was. Not only was it a pinched nerve, but I now also had a prolapsed disk in my lower back as well as a cracked rib, which had already healed on it’s own. Since all of this, the doctor had given me a back brace to wear which helped a lot if I was doing tasks around the house such as bending to pick things up or shuffle things around, although the doctor had advised against me overexerting myself in any way. Suddenly it hit me! I would put the back brace on and then start slowly walking on the treadmill and see how it went. It worked! I could only walk for about 15 minutes to start with before I had to get off huffing and puffing, but I was thrilled that it had made the world of difference and that I had finally made a start. I was also getting into a good routine with my diet plan, although it was torturously strict. I could only eat grilled, steamed or roasted foods, no sweets, chocolates or sodium. Everything had to be skimmed or low fat and I wasn’t allowed to touch sauces in any shape or form with a 10 foot barge pole. I could only eat two slices of whole wheat toast a day for breakfast with two egg whites on them (no egg yolk) and no butter or margarine. Carbohydrates were to be kept to a minimum and I had to watch my portion sizes like a hawk.  My food was plain and simple goodness. I was really going back to my roots and after a while, I started to enjoy the wholesome and natural tastes of the food. I was resetting my taste buds and metabolism completely.

Amazingly enough as the weeks passed, I realized that I had more energy and was getting more out of each day, being able to achieve more. I realized that the Ashwaghanda was making a difference. It could also have been due to my exercise routine and healthier eating, but this improvement was quite dramatic. Way beyond what simple walking and nutrition was capable of.

This entry was posted on November 15, 2014.

Renewed hope

Once I had recovered completely from my surgery, I returned to the private hospital that I was originally at to begin treatment that would keep me stable. This consisted of hormone therapy in the form of Arimidex as well as Zoladex and Zometa injections. At first I didn’t feel the side effects of the medication but as the doctors so often say, these medications have a cumulative effect. Two months into my new treatment and I was hobbling around like a 90 year old woman. The Arimidex had started to make it’s presence felt. Getting up in the mornings and just moving around was enormously challenging, with my joints becoming more and more stiff and painful as time marched on. There were days when the pain was so severe that I would have to take an anti-inflammatory or paracetamol  just to get through the day. There was nothing that the doctor could really give me to combat the pain except what I was already doing for myself. I would just have to learn to live with it. I knew that there were other options available to me, but I didn’t want to go fiddling around too much with other medications for the fear of upsetting the balance that I had worked so hard on to achieve. It felt to me like I would be tempting fate and perhaps even making the cancer even more resistant, so I learnt to become more proactive in dealing with the pain and discomfort.

Me & Jaco 2010

This photo of Jaco and I was taken in early 2011, around the time I started with my diet and exercise plan.

I was excited to stop the chemotherapy because all the pre-medications that came with it, like the cortisone had taken it’s toll on me. My body had swollen up and my face had become puffy and pasty. I just wanted to go back to the size 10 that I used to be…just feel normal again. To my intense frustration and utter dismay however, losing the weight would prove to take a lot longer than expected and be an uphill battle all the way. I tried for weeks to eat more nutritious meals and cut down, but nothing happened. After months of failed attempts I started telling myself that it was far more important to be healthy and feel good again than to lose weight, after all I had much bigger issues to worry about. This approach didn’t work however. I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient anymore. I wanted my old self back again and that entailed losing the weight no matter what it took (within reason of course). After asking the doctor why he thought I was having so much trouble slimming down, he explained it all to me and it made sense. Arimidex plus the additional medication that I was now getting was raising the fat lipids in my blood, making it very difficult if not almost impossible to lose weight. I went home after that consultation feeling very defeated and downhearted, but no for long. As history has proved over and over again in the past, this was no different. By the doctor telling me that I wouldn’t be able to lose the weight, it in turn made me even more determined to prove him wrong. As usual the slightly rebellious side of me came out and so my mission began.

I phoned the hospital and made an appointment with the dietician and scheduled my appointment with her when my next consultation with my doctor would be. I am so glad to this day that I did this. She took one look at my file and knew exactly what to do. The diet plan that she put me on made me realize that I wasn’t eating in the healthiest way possible for example, not eating any fried foods and only grilled or roasted. Avoiding sauces and sodium of all kinds and eating 5 small meals throughout the day to prevent my blood sugar from falling, causing cravings. She also told me that I had to start exercising. We had a treadmill at home, but I hadn’t used it in ages, and I was suffering from a significant amount of muscle weakness and atrophy from spending so much time in bed recovering from operations and treatments. I knew in my heart of hearts though, that exercise was the only way I was going to get my strength back and shed the pounds in the process. There was only one place to start. Little did I know the monumental challenge that still lay ahead of me.

This entry was posted on November 12, 2014.

My birthday girl

17 years ago today, a tiny little new born baby entered the world. She was named Rochelle and from that moment on became my pride and joy. It’s been about three days of festivities since she had her birthday party at the beach club on Friday with a bunch of her friends, but today was obviously of the most significance. When I was diagnosed with my breast cancer, she was only 6 years old. I thought at the time that she wouldn’t be affected by my illness due to the fact that she was still so young, but I was soon to learn that you can never underestimate a child’s perceptiveness. I found out about my breast cancer a month after my 7th wedding anniversary and three months before Rochelle was due to start school. By the time she entered grade1 is wasn’t long before I got a call from her teacher asking me to come in. As I mentioned in one of my previous entries, she had completely shut down and would not communicate with anybody and had to start regular sessions with the school counsellor.

Roch 02

Rochelle today, at her 17th birthday party.

Since then, she has gone from strength to strength and has learnt not to internalize her feelings and emotions. Needless to say, the journey since then has not been an easy one. Since my initial diagnosis our family life has swung like a pendulum between years of stability coupled with a sense of happiness and normality to a blur of utter shock, despair and endless hospital visits. This is basically how all three of my girls have been raised.

This has been an endless source of inner conflict for me. My husband and I have always had a rock solid marriage and the girls have been raised in a peaceful, loving environment and there is the logical part of me that of course knows that all of this is not my fault and all completely beyond my control. Yet there is still the sense of frustration, anger and injustice that engulfs you on some days and then the sadness and heartbreaking pity that you feel for your children the next. Everybody has always told me how strong I am and how well I’ve handled it and been able to juggle cancer treatments along with raising my children, but it’s been anything but easy. Rochelle and Arlise are now fine, but I now worry about my youngest Clarice who ironically enough being the strongest of the three personalities, is actually the most emotionally unstable. I have to watch her like a hawk and even at the age of 14, when she starts to have nightmares and I see lots of tissues lying on the floor around her bed in the mornings, then I know that the depression has hit her again and that it’s time for another heart to heart.

But for now…today, I just feel so lucky and privileged to have made it to yet another one of my children’s birthday parties. Yes, there have been several moments when I have been paralyzed with fear, wondering if this is it. Today I went and bought a bouquet of flowers for Rochelle and presented them to her in the parking lot at school. We also took her out to dinner tonight. I tell her everyday how much I love her, but today I made her feel extra special. You never know what tomorrow may bring.

Like they say, cancer of any sort is not just the individual patients disease, it is the entire family’s. That said, my girls have not had an easy time of it, but one thing I do know for sure is that they are growing up to have an extra insight into how meaningful and precious life really is, which lets face it, is a rarity in young children and teenagers. Despite everything I am pretty sure that they will grow up to be strong, wise and independent young women, treasuring and making the most of every day that lies ahead of them.

This entry was posted on November 10, 2014.

Yet another blast from the past

Returning to our holidays by the seaside, we returned to our cottage one December and walked right into disaster. To begin with, the cottage would stand empty 315 days of the year. For the other 50 days, we would be there. We would often travel the 1500km in convoy with my Aunty Sally and Uncle Clive…but that didn’t mean we would always arrive together. There were times…many in fact, that we would arrive ahead of everybody else only to arrive to a flea, cockroach and spider infested abode. I have to tell you that I would rather ride on a bike with absolutely no saddle on it than confront a spider. Yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I have arachnophobia. I remember us arriving one year and not only had the roof caved in completely leaving the living and dining room absolutely uninhabitable, but the flea and who knows what else infestation had reached new heights. I held a can of insecticide in my hand and as I started spraying the carpet to rid it of fleas, I felt a tingling sensation on my hand. It rapidly grew black as the fleas saw the extension of my arm as an escape route. Being no older than 10 I dropped the can and shaking my arm in all directions whilst screaming, made a beeline for the front door. Later that day as things had settled down somewhat,  my sister was to get a nasty surprise as she reached into one of the kitchen cupboards to retrieve a plate. Nestling nicely in the middle of it was a spider of note that had reached new proportions in terms of size. It ran from the plate onto her hand and up her arm. Of course the plate didn’t stay in tact for long, as she threw it across the kitchen where it promptly smashed to smithereens against the wall. All these creepy crawlies…I don’t remember this as I was a baby at the time, but Karen told me much later that when she was about 4 years old and the tides would turn, huge crabs would come crawling through the front door and into the cottage. They would creep under chairs, beds, everything. I’m grateful I can’t remember this because although I know that crabs can’t really hurt you, they still resemble spiders too much. They totally creep me out. Not a big fan!

So for the rest of the holiday apart from obtaining our Christmas tree, we dodged and crawled in between scaffolding that my father and uncle were balancing precariously on in order to fix the ceiling. My mum was not impressed with this whole situation. She of course realized that it was very much beyond anybody’s control, but she continued to whine and moan the whole holiday through. What replaced the ceiling however was very much worth it in the end as a beautiful pine ceiling replaced the old mold ridden gypsum one.

I spent most of my time on the beach in a desperate attempt to get a tan, which would inevitably end up in a burn quickly followed by peeling a few days later.

Our cottage was not far from the beach. About a 5-10 minute walk depending on how desperate for the toilet you were. This leads me to the next inconvenience that we had to experience on those holidays…the outhouse at the back, or bucket toilet  as we used to call it. Not only did it stink to high heaven, it was like a moth to a flame for spiders. Given my fear, I would have to stand outside this rustic sad excuse of a toilet stall and try to pluck up the courage to go in, pee and do whatever else in record time and get out again as fast as possible. It was just easier in the end to just plan ahead, put your sneakers on and run to the beach toilets that were much better.

Kidds beach

My fun loving mum outside our seaside cottage.

The best was on Christmas or New Years eve. Because we had a bucket toilet, someone would have to replace the bucket as it got too full with a new empty one. There was a service for this in our village and we nicknamed it the ‘Honey truck’. Need I say more? The crew consisted of black men who would replace the bucket with a new empty one. Most of the time we turned a blind eye to this as we didn’t want to know or see the gory disgusting details, but as we all congregated one year on the veranda to begin our New Years celebrations, the guys arrived to change the bucket as the sun was about to set…however there was one small problem. They too had engaged in their own premature New Years celebrations and were as a result…well let’s put it this way, not exactly sober. They would normally go around to the back with the empty bucket, replace it and put the full bucket on their heads and carry it like that without any hands assisting back around to the front and load it onto the truck. This time around, we all stood on the veranda as we watched with bated breath while one of the black guys walked in a drunken zigzag style with a full bucket on his head, towards the truck. Miraculously he didn’t spill a drop as he loaded it on and the truck and disappeared around the corner in a smelly haze. With that we all stopped holding our breath and you can just imagine the conversation and laughter that followed.

This entry was posted on November 8, 2014.

Turning the corner

On my forth day in hospital after my second and mercifully my last operation, I was still coughing and hacking away. The tubes they’d used to intubate me during my surgeries had taken it’s toll on my throat and lungs. They had issued me with a little machine that had a transparent tube that had markings on it from 100 – 1000, and had a small ball in it. I had to breathe in as deeply as I could and get the ball to rise as much as I could. Using it for the first time was an eye opener not only for me but also for the medical staff, as everyone realized that I only had 30% of my lung capacity at that point. They way I saw it was that if I could survive both these surgeries and come out on the other side, there was no way in hell I was going to give up now. That is when my will to live really kicked in, and I saw it as a challenge to see how far I could get that little ball to go up as the days slowly crawled by. By this time my doctor and the nurses were forcing me to become mobile again. Going to the toilet was a monumental undertaking as I had to lug two hard plastic drains along to the bathroom with me, each of which were about half the size of a briefcase and that handles at the top so one could carry them…very handy, and a royal pain in the ass! On the fifth day, when the doctor came to visit me, he gave me the amazing news that he could remove the drain on my right side. I was elated and then suddenly it hit me…they still had to remove it. What was that going to feel like…would it hurt? I found out soon enough.

As the nurse loosened the bandages around the tube going into my ribs, my heart was almost pounding out of my chest. Although I still had to keep the left one in for another day or two, I couldn’t wait to get the right one out…this monster that had caused me so much agony and discomfort. The bandages were off and looking at me she said, ‘Okay, take a nice deep breath for me and try to relax.’

We were both in stitches of laughter when I asked her, ‘What if I don’t have any breathe?’

She was such a pro at what she was doing that as I was laughing, she pulled it out. It took three seconds and that was that. I felt a slight suction sensation, but didn’t feel much pain at all…a little stinging at best and it was all over. The relief was incredible. It was almost like when you’ve been on your feet all day in six inch stiletto’s and they’re now so sore and tired that they’re burning. You finally get a chance to sit down and take these shoes that you now feel like throwing in the dustbin off, and you immerse your feet in a soothing warm, bubbling foot bath. That was the relief I felt. I closed my eyes and rested my head back down on the pillow again as the nurse patched me up and before leaving me to rest, she stroked my head and said, ‘Well done.’

For the next few days they had to keep a close eye on me to make sure that there were no air bubbles or embolisms developing and every few hours they would bring in a mobile scanning machine and take images and study them. With the all clear, two days later the left hand side tube finally came out as well. The relief I felt when the first tube came out was doubled this time around. As soon as I was patched up, I got out of the bed and shouted, ‘I’m free!’

Two days later after careful monitoring and scanning, the doctor gave me the news I’d been longing to hear for an eternity. I could go home. I picked up my mobile to phone Jaco to tell him he could come and get me. The hospital hadn’t even phoned him yet when he was already half way there. It was a joy for me to pack my belongings into my bag, knowing I was going home. As soon as Jaco and the girls walking through the door, I burst into tears. This is going to sound very drama queenish, but for a few moments there I wasn’t sure myself whether I was going to make it out of that hospital. The girls also started crying as all three of us embraced at once, and when I got to finally hug Jaco I completely dissolved. It took me a good 30 minutes to compose myself before we could leave, which was still in a wheelchair. I was still weak and would get breathless very easily. I still had a long way to go in terms of getting my full lung capacity back, but I’d made sufficient progress that the doctor was willing to let me complete my recovery in the comfort of my own home.

New Year

Celebrating life!

I only found out later that my sister and her family were not sure whether I’d make it out of the hospital at all. After getting home that evening and once the girls were in bed, Jaco and I had a chance to talk and after telling him everything that had happened, he wept. This time it was me handing out the tissues…this time I was the strong one and I was determined it wasn’t going to stop there.

This entry was posted on November 4, 2014.

More surgery

Going in for my second surgery was like balancing precariously on a double edged sword. I was so looking forward to just going in and getting it over and done with, but what would come hand in hand with that was pain…lots of it. Then there was the fear of not making it through at all. Just before being put under anesthetic again I didn’t pray, I completely surrendered. I came to terms with the fact that if it was my time, it was my time and that there was nothing I could do about it. It was in Gods hands. To tell you that I pictured my loved one’s faces in my minds eye as I was falling asleep would not only sound sickeningly clichéd, it wouldn’t be the truth. I was so exhausted and worn out by that time, I couldn’t think anything. I was blank and numb…I had nothing left to give.

Waking up after surgery the pain wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be…at first. I was just so happy and found it miraculous that I had woken up again. Once the post op medications wore off the searing pain returned. This time they gave me another Tramal injection for the pain as the totally ineffectual Panadol was of course not enough. I was weary of the side effects I’d been warned of and it hit me like a steam train. As the nurse started to inject the Tramal my lungs seized up. I felt like a fish out of water as I struggled to get air…as hard as I tried I couldn’t breathe in. It was as if there was a stopper in my throat preventing oxygen from passing through. Before she could inject any more of it into my IV, I grabbed the syringe out of the nurses hand and threw it across the room. She lunged for the oxygen mask and put it over my face. That was to no avail however because I suddenly felt my stomach lurch as this incredibly overpowering wave of nausea hit me. I dry heaved for what seemed like an eternity, desperately trying to get air into my lungs at the same time. By this time my private ward was filled with nurses pressing buttons, picking up phones to the ICU, sitting me up more and massaging my back in upward movements to try and get me to relax. As they were on the verge of rushing me through to intervention, the nausea abated and my breathing slowly started to return to normal. I spent the next two days on oxygen.

Me and Michele

Me and Michele in her home city of Cape Town.

My mobile was next to me and family members were phoning constantly to find out how I was. Jaco and the girls were not able to visit me in the hospital at all during that whole time, because it was so far from home and Jaco had to work. He had exhausted his leave and was the only bread winner, besides I did not want to put the girls through anymore than they had already been through. I was already seeing signs of stress in them and I wasn’t going to be responsible for making it worse. As much as I appreciated everybody phoning me, it was such a struggle to talk to them and breathe at the same time. I would have to take a deep breath every second or third word and was wondering what they thought as they heard me battling on the other end of the line. A very dear friend of mine MIchele paid me a visit about two days after my second operation when things had settled down and were more or less under control. She brought her husband Gregg along. They are still good family friends of ours, and he later told me that when they walked into my room, he knew my voice when he heard it, but didn’t recognize the person lying in the hospital bed. He sat with me for a while and then excused himself to go and wait in the car. I wasn’t hurt or offended, I understood. Michele bravely sat with me for hours talking to me, soothing me and trying to take my mind off everything. She brought magazines along for me to read knowing that I’m a huge mag and book addict. I also only found out afterwards that when she left me to go to the car, she got in and completely dissolved. I don’t know if she realizes today how much of a lifesaver her visit was on that day. She made me feel like I wasn’t so isolated from the outside world after all. That I was still a member of the human race and not just a patient perhaps on the verge of becoming a statistic. She helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel and showed me that day what a real friend really is. She’s still my dearest friend to this day.

That evening I also found out from the medical staff that all in all, they had drained 5 liters of fluid.

This entry was posted on November 1, 2014.