Look after yourself

Three weeks ago I got a cold. Not flu. Just a stinky cold with a runny nose, a lot of sneezing and then some coughing too. I’ve been put on steroids long-term for polymyalgia rheumatica so that may have helped lower my resistance to germs and this nasty virus really went to town. And then the coughing began. All night long, I coughed. Like a dirty old man, I coughed. It was only when sitting upright and perfectly still that I managed more than a minute without coughing. This made for long nights.

But colds happen. And we work through it, right? We carry on regardless, sipping our Lemsip, swallowing the pills, and we keep on passing it on to others because it doesn’t seem right to give up at first sight of a mere cold. But after three long nights of not sleeping and when the asthma/COPD had kicked in I gave in and had to phone the out-of-hours service NHS24. It was 2am and they were jolly nice and sent a lovely Irish doctor out to bring me a nebuliser which has done the trick in the past. Its the equivalent of 25 shots of Ventolin via a face-mask and is like breathing fresh mountain air but more invigorating. (That’s probably because of the adrenalin in it which can make me a bit jittery jangly.) The nice doctor also got me started on heavy duty doses of steroids and told me to get in touch with my GP if I thought I needed antibiotics. So far, so good.

And I carried on working. A bit. I did a wedding rehearsal and some admin and a quick visit to the church party before I finally gave in and said I couldn’t do Sunday. This was mainly because my voice was going and the cough was not improving. So my dear sister took me to the doctor on the Monday because she didn’t think I should drive myself. She was probably right. My GP took one look at me and sent me to the hospital with a letter. “But I probably just need another go at the nebuliser!” I croaked. He thought they ought to make that decision.

2016-11-07-16-14-03The hospital were lovely. They did indeed give me a nebuliser. And another. And another. And then decided I really ought to stay in and have them through the night. This was not in my plan. I had a wedding coming up at the end of the week which was very important to me (and to the happy couple too, it has to be said). I had things to do. Advent liturgy books to prepare, AGM to plan, pew sheets to do, a talk on art to go to, services to take, and a whole host of other things. But no, I was to stay and breathe fresh mountain air and take lots of pills and get better first. Only I didn’t. Another night in hospital. And by this time I had horrendous pain when I coughed from strained muscles so was put on some nice painkillers too.

Now let me tell you about the ward I was on. I should have been transferred to the Respiratory Ward but they were full. So I was kept on the Medical Assessment Unit which is really a temporary ward until people are moved on. It is next to A&E and goes like a fair. In my ward there were 5 beds and I was the youngest by a considerable mile. And they came and they went and I prayed through the long nights for M who was bewildered and needed to organise everything on her trolley a lot; for E who had just been told she had cancer again and her pain was just awful; for M2 who slept a lot with her mouth open and I kept thinking she’d gone; for M3 who came and went so quickly I never found out what was wrong nor where she went; for others who’d lost their appetite and not even jelly would tempt them. I watched them all and their visitors and we all smiled when M’s granddaughter entertained us with songs and innocently amusing questions. My son came at night after work and I was sharp with him because he took so long coming. And I apologised to him too.

And then another visit from a Consultant who suggested a stay until the weekend. I explained about the wedding in 2 days time and how I really couldn’t cope with staying any longer and not sleeping. It was very busy and noisy at night. Reluctantly he agreed to let me home into the care of the Community Respiratory Team who would come in every day to check me. And I got home. And my sister shopped for me and the CRT came in and measured my oxygen levels and brought me my own nebuliser to use 4 times a day. And my congregation told me not to worry about services and that they’d cover and I should just get well enough for my friend’s wedding.

2016-11-12-18-05-05On the day of the wedding I knew I couldn’t drive to Falkirk but the bride’s witness came and gave me a lift. I took the nebuliser and painkillers just before the service. My voice was croaky but the microphone picked it up sufficiently to be heard. The service was by candlelight and the church was full. The temperature rose and rose and by the time we got to the end of it I looked like a small damp rag. But we made it! Yay! I even made it to the reception for one and a half courses before the nice woman who’d given me a lift came and told me she was taking me home again. And the next day I slept. And slept some more. And someone else took my service here and that was just fine. And still I had no voice.

This past week has seen some improvement. I still have no voice but it is getting a little stronger each day with the help of gargling. (If you are on Facebook you could entertain yourself by watching them.) I do an hour in my study and then I rest for two. I’ve had to cancel a special Remembrance Day service I’d planned and was so disappointed about that. I’ve had to cancel meetings and appointments. I’ve been frustrated at being off sick for so long and now I’m getting bored which is probably a sign that I am getting better. The physio from the CRT say my lungs are still crackling but I am getting better so everything is now being reduced gradually. Today I managed over an hour at our Church Fair and everyone was very understanding. Tomorrow I won’t take the service but I shall chair the AGM with a croak and a prayer. And I’ve knitted 4 eternity scarves which made £20 for the sale. (My hands were too shaky to paint and I can’t concentrate on reading.)

So the moral of my story is… look after yourself. Right at the beginning of any kind of cold or virus, stay in and care for yourself. Don’t soldier on. Don’t spread it around. Don’t think you can do it because the payback may be more than you can bear. Be good to yourself.

And thank you to all who’ve looked after me.

In which Ruth goes to the gym

Yes, I bet those are words you never thought you’d hear from my lips. For the past six weeks I have been going to the gym. Gasp!  But not just any gym, oh no. This is a very special gym – a gym for old fat and skinny folk who have lung problems. I was referred by my doc some time ago because I have asthma and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) which gives me lots of chest infections and breathing problems. When the physio suggested that this gym might be a good idea, I laughed. I laughed and laughed and coughed. Me at a gym? And you’re laughing too at the very thought, aren’t you? I can sense it.

Gym cartoonI use my car for everything, even driving about half a mile to get to the car park in town when anyone could walk there in minutes. In my defence this is because cold air and wind sets me off coughing and is bad for asthma and being so fat makes it exceedingly hard work. And then it becomes a vicious cycle – fat people don’t walk, right? And waddling is never attractive. But I was assured by the phsyio that there would be other people at the classes in the same boat – we’d all be wheezy, clutching our inhalers, and many would be overweight because of the lack of exercise and overuse of steroids.

So on 4 November I set off for the hospital gym clutching my bottle of water in ‘comfortable clothes and flat shoes’ with more than a little apprehension. The gym part would take up an hour and then we’d have a talk for half-an-hour when the second group would join us and then they’d stay on for the gym when we staggered off to our cars, wobbling on achy legs and wheezing like old crones.  I looked around my group and discovered that I was in fact the only overweight one apart from one man with a big belly which might have been a hernia. (The second group had loads of plump ladies, many of whom brought their own oxygen tanks, which beat any attention seeking I might have been planning.) My group was full of painfully thin old women with deep husky voices and smokers’ coughs. I was the youngest by about 20 years. We were nervous and shy with each other and very unsure of what this gym was going to entail.

Ruth the Physio had us sit in a circle for warm-up first. Tapping toes, stretching lunges, rolling of heads and marching on the spot and we all joined in awkwardly. This was all accompanied by disco music (which I will never hear again without starting the warm-up routine) and soon we learned who had rhythm and who did not. We also discovered that some just couldn’t do the exercises on the spot but traversed across the circle. Nobody got smacked in the gob which was a miracle really. After warm-up, we were shown the 14 exercises we would be expected to do each session: lifting weights; cycling; squats; steps; treadmill; wall presses; goalie (the most embarrassing one where you stand with your back against a wall, crouch and put your hands on your knees and then stretch out to the right as if catching a ball, back to knees, and then repeat to the left sliding up and down the wall as you go); etc. We were to begin with 10 of each and 2 mins on bike and treadmill and mark them on our sheet. On duty were Ruth the Physio and a scary pulmonary nurse who kept an eye out for bad wheezing and were ready to gently encourage us.

I began the 12 sessions with the remnant of a bad chest infection and was coughing like a dirty old woman. Several times I had to stop and have a good old cough and splutter and that’s when I learned that exercise is good for getting phlegm up. Yes, phlegm. A revolting word for something which we all get from time to time. I feel as if I am now an expert on the wretched stuff. But by the end of the first session I had managed all 14 exercises and had time to sit down and wheeze before our hour was up. I had quite a sense of achievement.

Then two days later we had to do it all over again but this time we had to increase the exercises a bit. We tentatively spoke to one another getting to know what our health problems were, and helped one another figure out how the bike worked and how to lower the seat. We stopped being quite so embarrassed about swinging our arms and sitting down and standing up at the same time. We learned that some of the weights and poles were heavier than others and all opted for the lightest ones. We learned that Jessie was too scared to go on the treadmill and preferred to walk up and down the gym floor. We encouraged one another, asking how long we’d managed to cycle for, and comparing heart rates.

The talks were all different and aimed at our health problems, and some were more useful than others. We learned about Gym smugour lungs and how they work or don’t; about diet and stopping smoking; about benefits and deep breathing; about exercise and relaxation. We took home DVDs with Angela Rippon encouraging us to exercise from our armchairs and CDs with a man speaking gently to us encouraging us to chill out. (No, I have never played the DVD nor listened to the CD but that will come as no surprise to you.)

After my first session at the gym I had an appointment in another part of the hospital for a check-up for my liver. I have something called PBC (Primary Billiary Cirrhosis) which was picked up in a blood test 5 years ago and for which I take four enormous pills every day and mostly ignore except for annual blood tests. But at this appointment I had a new kind of scan and found out that my old liver is not very wobbly at all. Wobbly livers are good, it would seem. Mine was like a lump of tough old gristly liver and riddled with fat. This is serious, you have NAFD said nice consultant. (I think this is Non Alcoholic Fatty Disease – NON Alcoholic, please note!) You must lose 4 stone. 4 stone! Just like that. (Not before time, I may add, but it still came as a bit of a shock.) However, it did seem fortuitous that I should be going to the gym at the same time as starting the radical diet.

And now here we are in my last week of hospital gym approaching my 12th session. I now cycle 10 mins and stride out on the treadmill with a gradient too! My cough has all but gone and I have lost 9 lbs. On Thursday at our last session I will be filmed for some new promotional material to encourage others to try the gym, and even heard myself saying yes to an introduction to the local gym where I’ll get a discount and can go exercise with the big boys and girls. I know! Who’d have thunk it?

I’ve made some friends too and you will be delighted to know Jessie now toddles along on the treadmill, Mary had her cataracts done and it was a great success, and Roberta is worried that it might not be a happy Christmas for her. And I can run up the stairs of the rectory and now speak when I reach the top. And I can walk into town, albeit with a scarf over my mouth, without having to stop several times and lean on the wall. Result!

And that, dear reader, is why I haven’t had time to blog for the past six weeks. It has taken quite a chunk out of my diary and I’ve had to work extra hard to catch up at this busy time of year. Will I go on to the ‘real’ gym? Who knows? Watch this space.


In which Ruth gives up the evil weed

Tomorrow it will be five weeks since I last smoked a cigarette. I gave up on the 11 November, Remembrance Sunday. It seemed as good a date as any to remember. smoking2

I first smoked at the age of about 14. My friends and I smoked in the toilets at school, huddled together in one cubicle with our feet up on the seat so they couldn’t be seen below the door. We shared our cheap Sovereign ciggies, bought in packs of 5 or 10. We smoked in our lunch hour wandering round the shops in Marchmont, ready to throw them away if a teacher passed by. We stole our parents’ cigarettes and suffered untipped cigarettes or much stronger brands. We grew into Consulate menthol and finally St Moritz with the gold band and white tip, if we really wanted to impress.  And when my uncle came home from Kuwait he brought with him Sobranie cocktail cigarettes in black and gold, or rainbow colours. They really made you cough and were terribly strong but worth the pain to be seen with such sophisticated smokes.

We smoked because it made us look older and that was what we desperately wanted in those days – to look older. How ironic that cigarettes do indeed make you look older – physically, by wrinkling your skin and your mouth. We wanted to look cool and sophisticated and grown-up and we thought that boys would want to talk to us because we looked so trendy.  And there was always that moment when you had to ask someone for a light and got to cup your hands round his for just a brief moment, while looking up under your eyelashes in a sexy kind of way. That was until the smoke got in your eye and made it water profusely. Not so cool then.

I smoked just like my parents before me, and like my sisters after me. I smoked when I was pregnant because nobody told me it might not be a good thing. They did hint in 1978 at my second pregnancy that it might be an idea to give up because the baby might be smaller, but as Baby #1 had been 8lb 4oz, a smaller baby seemed like rather a good thing really. So I puffed my way through that pregnancy too and indeed Baby #2 was smaller at 7lb 11oz. I could live with that.

And on and on I smoked. When I was a single parent with no money I smoked. I smoked instead of eating. When I was homeless I smoked. Friends bought me cigs and somehow I always managed. I smoked and it calmed me down and slowed my breathing until I felt at peace. When I was anxious I reached for a smoke, and when I was relaxed I smoked. And I had asthma and in winter I coughed as I smoked and that was not good. One year I had pneumonia and could hardly breathe but still I lit one cigarette after another. Friends nagged me and strangers look disapprovingly. But still I smoked.  And the Budgets came and went and cigarettes went up in price but still I smoked.

You see, smokers always seem to have more fun. There was always laughter coming out of the smoking room when we were separated like lepers. Non-smokers would linger at the door, inhaling our secondhand smoke and watching the fun. And we cracked open another bottle and opened the window a little as our eyes started to water with all the fug. We were the rebels, the naughty ones, the ones who had more fun.

Then I became a curate at a cathedral and nobody else smoked and I gave up. For two years I didn’t smoke and I smelled better and other things smelled better and I could walk and climb without stopping to gasp for breath. I had so much more money that I was able to buy nice things for my house, things I could never have afforded before.  Sure, I put on some weight but that soon came off as I walked and walked and walked.

It was all undone though in just a moment. All it took was a crisis, several G&Ts, some bubbly and a social-smoker friend who offered me a fag. And that was the end of that. How lovely it was to smoke again. How comforting to inhale that soothing smoke deep into my lungs, until my breathing slowed and my worries lessened. Any time my anxiety would return all it took was a long white tube and a purple lighter before my blood pressure returned to normal. Who needs Valium?

Smoking 1By now, of course, the Chancellor has really got it in for smokers and you had to be pretty dedicated to be a smoker in the 21st century. Then the Government banned smoking in the workplace and then smoking in bars. We were reduced to huddling in groups in doorways or alleys. The rain fell, the snow fell but still we huddled together, sharing a camaraderie among strangers. Somehow the smokers were not such fun anymore. We had statistics thrown in our faces, lectures from doctors and friends. We had threats of no treatment in hospital for smoking-related illnesses because they were self-inflicted. But still we smoked, defiant and determined.

And we tried to give up secretly. From time to time we put on a patch or sucked a tab or took a mood-altering pill that was meant to help us stop although nobody knew quite why… and do get in touch if you have suicidal thoughts. And we managed a day or two, perhaps a week. And every sweetie that we substituted made us feel even more depressed. Then one night at 10pm we sneaked out to the all night supermarket and bought a wee packed of 10 smokes with the intention of never letting it get back to 20 a day, but within 48 hours it had.

So that, dear reader, was my life until a few weeks ago. That was when I had such a bad cough my asthma started to play up. One dose of antibiotics and steroids didn’t do the trick and the Practice Nurse did a new test of my lung function. “You have the lungs of an 85 year old,” she said. “And the beginnings of COPD.” An 85 year old?! I am 56. And I couldn’t climb one flight of stairs without stopping half way, and coughing at the top. And at night I wheezed as I lay down and in the morning I coughed and coughed. And I went to visit Durham with friends and I couldn’t climb the hills and had to keep stopping and friends walked on.

On 11 November 2012 the time was right. I had my last cigarette and now I live one day at a time. Occasionally I have a puff of an electronic cigarette (melon or spearmint flavour) but no more than about 3 puffs a day. That’s not even one whole cigarette. Some days I don’t use it at all and forget all about it. Those days are getting more frequent. Of course I feel better. I won’t lie and say the cough has gone because it hasn’t. But it is getting better and I know that if I hadn’t given up I would be on my third dose of steroids by now and probably back on the nebuliser, gasping for clean air.

I haven’t noticed that I’m better off financially yet. In fact, I haven’t been able to put the money away because there hasn’t been any. So something would have had to go, I’m guessing. And yes I’ve put on weight. A lot of weight. I have eaten my body weight in Maltesers, in fact. In the past when this happened I’d give up and go back to smoking but this time I can’t. This time I have to keep going because fat women don’t all have 85 year old lungs. And that is reversible.

I still miss them. And I may fall off the wagon again. But please don’t judge me. It is bloody hard and I loved smoking. Whether I love being healthy more remains to be seen.