This weeks blog was supposed to be a follow on from the piece I wrote about my trip to France with Michele back in June. Life has had other ideas though and I feel compelled to write about something that was not even on the radar five days ago. Over the last five years I become accustomed to battling my mental health and all the things in my life I’ve had to change in order to begin to manage that.
I haven’t felt particularly good this year but I’ve tried to be relaxed and take what’s on offer instead of pushing myself as I have done in the past. Over the last three or four months I’ve been adjusting to riding a recumbent trike instead of my faithful upright bike: Irene. I’ve got stronger and fitter as time passed and have begun to really enjoy the challenge of Devonshire hills whilst effectively sunbathing. As my body and mind responded positively to the work I’ve put in I began to plan some rides for the next month or two that I hoped I could use as contributions towards a new series of books I hope to write.
I’d already made a list of the routes I thought would provide interesting material with some suggestions from a few friends for me to go and try out. I was excited about it as it is something new and a departure from my Riding2Recovery series of books. Day rides, short tours, and family routes, they are all on my hit list. All I had to do now was to ride the rides, make lots of notes, and take lots of photographs. All of that would occur while I had the pleasure of enjoying the great outdoors from my tent, and not far from home to boot.
On Sunday a friend threw a BBQ on some land he had purchased a while ago. Last year he, accompanied by a group of friends, planted 1000 trees on the land. The BBQ would allow those who had helped, along with others, to see the progress of the new forest while enjoying the wonderful atmosphere high up the valley side towards Exmoor. We had such a good time, eating, meeting new people. Watching the faces of people as they rode around the grass on our recumbents is always a joyful experience. It was a beautiful day and I had a strong sense that everything was gently coming together just at the right time for me to go and do some longer and more challenging rides.
On Monday morning Michele and I set off for the shops in Hatherleigh where I live. We had only gone a hundred metres or so when I was stung on the back of my leg. Looking down I saw a wasp doing a floor show on the pavement and concluded that this was the culprit. I’ve been stung many times previously. It always hurts and swells but has never had a bigger effect than the general soreness that you would expect from a sting of this type.
We continued to the shops, me smarting a bit, trying not to think about it. By the time we were on the way back I felt quite ill and voiced this to Michele, who at that time thought I was making a fuss. As we walked back I noticed there was a wasp nest in the retaining wall by the pavement. By the time we reached home I felt very poorly, wheezing with a sense of being light-headed. I felt incredibly itchy and lifting my shirt I was horrified to see my whole torso, front and back, covered in angry red welts, spots, and patches.
Michele called the NHS help line and they immediately called an ambulance, something we should have done ourselves but were clueless as to what was happening. I sat and tried to relax feeling a little tight in my chest and still light-headed. I now know I was experiencing Anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction that is considered to be life-threatening emergency situation. The first responders who arrived a couple of minutes later were quickly joined by a paramedic who took control of the situation until an ambulance crew arrived.
I soon had a canula in my wrist with various drugs being introduced to my overwhelmed body systems. A mask and nebulizer were placed quickly over my face giving pure oxygen, a drug to keep my airways open. This, along with steroid injections, helps to prevent respiratory collapse and organ failure, the outcome of Anaphylaxis if left untreated. Whilst this was going on my levels of oxygen (sats), blood pressure, and pulse were monitored constantly. I just sat quietly and did as I was asked. The paramedic commented on my heart rate and blood pressure saying how good they were. All that physical exercise was paying me back now I needed it too. I had no fear during this process but are sure I would have had my breathing deteriorated further.
While all this went on the local surgery was called and an immediate appointment made that I would attend as soon as I was stable enough to be left by the paramedics. Michele was brilliant, not panicking, and reassuring worried neighbours that everything was okay. Meantime my vital signs slowly returned to an acceptable level. The paramedic would have left at that point had the ambulance crew not departed with her car keys. I laughed, not yet understanding the gravity of what had just occurred.
The doctor couldn’t have been clearer. She explained firmly that this episode constituted a medical emergency and that I needed to take it seriously. Any reoccurrence and I must dial 999 without delay as it could prove fatal. She prescribed Piriton to fight the excess of histamine in my system and an Epipen, an adrenaline injector for emergency treatment. From now on I would have to take one of these everywhere I go. I listened carefully as she handed me some information on anaphalaxsis to read later on but wasn’t really in a position to take on board everything. A second appointment was made for a blood test to identify the allergens that caused the attack so I could modify my life to minimise future risks with the help of specialist support.
If this reads rather matter of fact, that’s because it’s how I felt. It happened so suddenly I didn’t feel under threat, even though I was. After my doctor’s appointment Michele drove me to Budleigh Salterton for my regular therapy appointment. I wanted to go as it was the last one prior to my therapist taking her summer break. I spoke about the incident but failed to give it any weight at all. I had a sore leg which was reddened but the weals and the rash had all but disappeared from my torso. Outside of that I felt absolutely fine.
By the time we got home, after chasing all over East Devon in order to acquire the Epipens I needed, I was exhausted. The shock was wearing off and the impact on my body was beginning to make itself known. My leg was still swelling in response to the anaphylaxis and so I sat, leg up, with a cold towel over the affected area. It was only then that I began to realise that everything in my life had just changed. From this moment nothing would ever be quite the same. No more nonchalant wandering barefoot across campsites. No more eating outside where it might attract insects like wasps. This whirl of irrational thoughts swam around in my mind until I decided that now wasn’t the time to contemplate these things further, so I put them in a mental box and shut the lid.
A restless night followed and by morning my leg appeared the same size and consistency as a large log. Putting my foot on the floor at all was extremely painful as I dragged it, quite literally, to the bathroom. The inflammation was now much greater with an angry red rash from my swollen ankle to my thigh. I had marked the area of the swelling the prior evening so I could gauge what was happening and the swelling had advanced around five inches overnight. The heat coming from my leg could be used to keep the house warm as my body fought and battled what was happening internally. As Tuesday morning progressed it worsened so I made a call to the emergency line at my doctors practise. Luckily it was my doctor that was on-call and I soon had another appointment to see somebody that morning. The doctor I saw felt that there may be an infection in my leg as the area affected was travelling upwards as well as down from the sting site. I left the surgery with more drugs, this time in the form of antibiotics.
The afternoon was spent with my leg raise and covered with a cold compress. I felt as though I’d been in a war, tired annumb from battling. Each and every time I had to get up was a painful experience as restricted blood tried to flow through a limb swollen with water. I would stand and wait for the pain to ease before moving futher. For whatever the reason I sensed that this was the peak of it and that tomorrow would be better. I tried to reassure Michele this would be the case but the worry of uncertainty was etched on her face. I’ve always been a good healer and didn’t see why this wouldn’t be the case in this instance. For the rest of the day I dutifully took my medicines: Piraton to counter the histamine and antibiotics for the potential infection, it always seemed time to be taking something.
It was with some relief that I woke on Wednesday to find I could stand without pain. The worst was over and I could now begin to recover and move on. My poor leg was still purple from my thigh to my ankle but I knew there would be no further reoccurrence. I was fighting back, at least as far as that regarding the initial impact was concerned. I felt flat, recognising that my body had been hammered for two days. It began to dawn on me just how lucky I had been. The’what if’s’ began to rise to the surface. What if I’d been out in the middle of Devon on my trike? What if Michele hadn’t been around? what if……………………… it went on and on.
I tried to control the spiral of negativity but this was a moment of realisation that I needed to face squarely. I looked at the two Epipens and packets of Piraton knowingly. They would be my constant companions from now until the end of my life. A possible life-saver but a reminder of the seriousness of a condition that I felt was out of my control. A friend put it best when he said he had an Epipen for Ibuprofen (to which he is allergic) but his condition doesn’t chase him around the garden.
Michele departed for home and work I felt fragile and vulnerable in a way that I’ve only felt a few times in my whole life. The world I love and trust, the great outdoors, no longer felt like my friend. How could I face it now knowing that any moment……………………….. I tried to keep the chimp in its cage, the one Doctor Peters helps athletes deal with, and the one that brings destructive and negative thoughts to the fore. I told myself that there must be things I can do like not using perfumed shower products, taking care where I stop and eat, and covering up my limbs when I’m out. I searched online, with some success, to find an association that might answer the mass of questions that were forming in my mind. This is the beginning of the recovery process. The moment you reject helplessness and stop being a victim you start taking control back. It’s a process I know well from the last few years. I have no idea how long it will take me to feel safe enough to go out alone on my bike/trike as I have always done but that doesn’t matter at this time.
Thursday’s challenge was to walk to the shop, a first step towards feeling normal again. As I opened the door I felt apprehensive, my heart pounding with anxiety. That didn’t come as a surprise. I had covered up for added protection which felt odd in the warm weather we are currently experiencing. As I strolled along the pavement it became clear that my perspective on the world had changed. I was looking for potential hazards all the time like Hanging baskets, rubbish bins, flowering hedges, anything that might hide stinging insects. I could feel the panic lurking near the surface waiting to pounce. I crossed the road to avoid the place where I had been stung. We had reported the wasp nest that was hiding in the wall by the pavement and I hoped the council had dealt with it. It all felt uncertain and a million miles away from the genial and relaxed stroll I make most days to the shops in Hatherleigh.
It felt good to see friends, all of them knew what had occurred earlier in the week and all showed empathy and concern. I also learned that the council had dealt with the nest, knowledge that buoyed me up as we chatted. As I walked back up through the churchyard I looked out across to Dartmoor. Devon was just as beautiful as it was previously and the outdoors still looked as inviting as it always did. I still felt the pull to be out there amongst it as I always have. “Give it some time,” was my thought as I drank in the view.
To be able to do that I need to know more as I don’t want to take unnecessary risks by going out into rural Devon alone, even with a mobile phone and Epipen, as there are many blind spots for mobile signals. Future doctors appointments should answer my questions but for now I was happy to have been outside and made a first step.
I would like to thank all those who attended me: the paramedics, first responders, and ambulance crew. Their actions helped me stay relaxed as they dealt with the problem calmly and effectively. I appreciate their professionalism, skill, and abilities along with the NHS system that trains them and allows us to access it at times of need for free.
If you are unlucky enough to experience this first hand don’t delay action, call 999 immediately
Until next time…………………………….