Wednesday, 29 August 2012

God of the Sea

This is the beach where Ulysses was washed up after his battles with god of the sea Poseidon.  Ulysses, hair in damp straggles, naked and unconscious on the sand, was revived by Naussica, daughter of the King of the Phaeacians.  So wrote Homer.  And as a reminder there’s the Naussica Taverna full of sweating and Homer reading diners staring down at me from the cliff edge.

Naussica – in Greek her name translates as burner of ships.  But out in the bay there are nothing but peddalos and heat. 

The beach itself in the parts that aren’t forever British is entirely Russian. They don’t look like us.  The men have bellies that protrude but don’t flop.  They wear tight and tiny bri-nylon swimming trunks, just like ones I used to have in 1977.   They sprawl across the Thompson Holiday loungers smoking their Russian cigarettes.  They don’t read.  They play cards, they drink. They lunge at the sea and emerge bronzed and dripping.  A woman with a tattooed Venus on the half shell climbing her belly.  A man with a bear growling up his.

I’ve gone to Greece with my prednisolone packed into both my check-in and hand luggage and with an extra packet in my pocket just in case.  The polymyalgia bubbles under.  The treatment is working.  No more proximate muscles like rusted slabs aching like they were trying to jump me to Mars.  Instead I have my new fellow traveller, the sly and slippery synovial cyst.

This one sits somewhere in my lower spine and can only really be subdued by high-strength co-codamol supplemented by Naproxen, a sort of super ibuprofen on speed.  Sounds good on paper but in practise it just makes you numb.  A better cure turns out to be alcohol which relaxes things enough to ease the agony.  We brought gin out bubble-wrapped in Sue’s suitcase and the local beer isn’t that expensive so things should be good.

Out walking I can feel it, Mr Synovial, pressing the sciatic nerve and making my lower leg feel like it’s got a cold chisel in its centre moving up and down.  With PMR you could run a bit and the pain would go.  With this one you have either drink or lie down.  And as the one often leads to the other, I find myself doing both.

In Corfu Town – Kerkyra –  after a long sit in a cafĂ© opposite the truncated British cricket pitch we visit the Church of Saint Spyridon.  His remains are here in a gilded box, closed today but still touchable.  A line of Greeks take turns to kiss the place where his feet might be.  On high days they take him out and parade him through the streets.  He’s a preserver and a fixer.  Saint of salvation and health.

A women next to me scribbles something in Greek onto a piece of paper and puts it in one of the saint’s waiting bowls.  There’s a whole stack of other slips there.  They tower.  Prayers, pleas for help.  Worth a go I decide.  Help me, I write, Saint Spy, see if you can do something about this spine of mine.  I leave the slip unsigned.  Saint Spyridon will know who put it there.

I follow up this uncharacteristic act by buying a six inch candle from a box near the door.  I’m heading for the spot just outside where similar candles of supplication have been stuffed into a pit of sand and melted wax.  They waver and flame.  They look the Orthodox part.  Behind me an entire extended Greek family are emerging from the Church.  They carry candles too, all nine of them, women in black, children in trainers, men in suits.  The difference is that while my candle is 6” long theirs are five feet and thicker than your leg.   Aflame like Thor rockets they dwarf my miniature squib.  Beijing Olympic fireworks beside my November the fifth. Next to the candle dump is an icon depicting the great man in his golden beatitude.  The family take turns to kiss the image.  At this level of investment they are bound to get whatever it is they want.

Me?  Not a hope.

But then again it’s now a week later and I’m back home in the drizzle again, Saint Spyridon  a sunny memory.   The Cyst is still there but, amazingly, it is quiet.  No flares, no return of the lower leg cold chisel and no repeat of the shaking electric razzle scream of a pain I was getting up and down my right leg just before I went.   And I haven’t taken a naproxen since last month. 

Good boy Spyridon.  I'll be back.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Road Race

In an afternoon when the rain holds off long enough for the sky to go blue the best place to be is not in the city.   So I’m out on the roadside in Wales’ green desert, somewhere north of Builth.    The verge here has to be wider than my home garden, thick green, lush, durable.  The sun is on my back warming through my shirt.   It could be Hawaii but it’s Cefn Coed.  In the near layby a couple towing a caravan with a four by four are sitting on deckchairs drinking tea.  They watch the traffic roll by.  This is how we relax these days.  Roadside get away from it alls.

I’m  here actually to watch the Kate Auchterlonie Memorial Cycle Race.  Women in  lycra with numbers on their backs going past in a great herd on bikes.  As a spectator sport this one isn’t much.  The women do fifteen mile circuits passing me every half an hour.  They go at a hell of lick.  Lead motorbikes with flashing lights clearing the traffic, then a tight cluster of furious peddling followed by a few stragglers spread out down the road.  Blink and they’re gone.  And then it’s back to watching the breeze move the grass beyond the hedgerows and the kestrels hovering overhead until the women come round again.

To fill in time I march up and down the layby trying to free up the pain from my leg.  Is this the polymyalgia returning in a great flare?  I’ve upped the prednisolone from 5 mg to 10 mg.  The GP says it won’t matter in the short term but the head is already filling with fog.  I do a series of leg stretches, squats and knee presses.  I am watched blankly by the couple drinking tea.  I smile back  but they do not react.   

I go behind a tree for a pee and am immediately spotted by a vehicle traversing an otherwise totally abandoned dried up off road track.  The occupants wave.  The countryside’s synchronicity.  I pee on pretending they are not there.

The cyclists come round again.  I give them a cheer and clap a bit to offer encouragement.  For them traversing this circuit must be like watching paint dry.  They disappear into the distance.  I do a few more knee bends to beat the PMR back.

Up at the clinic the following day I get the news.  This isn’t polymyalgia bubbling up from where it’s been sort of slumbering.  Instead it’s my new friend the spinal ganglion cyst.  This is the growth the size of a small grape that’s insinuated itself somewhere in my lower spine disrupting the way the nerves work.  The result is leg pain, foot pain, and thigh pain, often all together,  in long slow burns, in starts and shakes and rushes and aches.  They fade and then they come back. They go and then they stay.   

The consultant puts me in the loop for another MRI scan and a further set of spinal injections.  Might fix it, might not.  You’ll also need to see a neurosurgeon who will discuss with you the risks involved in having the cyst surgically removed.  Risks?   The surgeon will explain it all to you. Doesn’t sound good.

I do the anticipated circuit of bloods, weight, urine sample, and BP measurement ending at the pharmacy where the great team of twenty or so NHS dispensers, heads down hard at work, take an amazing 30 minutes to get my prescription filled.  At the local Co-op the single pharmacist turns my monthly prescription for four different drugs and a tub of chewable calcium round in five minutes.  There’s a lesson here.

On the wall of the UHW Pharmacy next to a sign reading “Antibiotics will not get rid of your cold” is another which says “To ensure patient confidentiality please do not stand or wait against this wall.”  Better not hang about here I say to the old lady on sticks queuing next me.  She frowns.  I don’t have a cold she says, shaking her head.

On my way out under the grey shell of a sky, new tablets in a giant bag under my arm, I go through what the consultant has told me.   Hope for the best but the best is often elusive.  Try.  Live in the moment.  We’ll see what these new tests throw up.  Let’s see how you get on.   I’m really sorry this has happened to you.  She is too.

I’ve asked her if there’s anything I should now not do.  Stretch?  That’s fine.  Exercise?  That’s good but try to avoid running.  The action of all that pounding jars the spine.    Go on the bike instead.  It’s the perfect activity.  Cycling – much better than watching paint dry.  Sure is.