After a few tearful farewells in the Galapagos and Quito airport, and some bittersweet reunions in Quito, I woke up with a nasty pulled muscle in my neck. I say nasty but it wasn't anything special. I'd just managed to get a crick in my neck which made finding a comfortable place to sit and lie down pretty difficult. Also, I was being a big baby so I found it uncomfortable to move and stuff.
Georgie and Alex and I went for breakfast before waving Georgie off on her bus to Buenos Aires. None of this was particularly fun, and now my head had started throbbing - a cruel meal made from cruel ingredients: hangover from the day before, alcohol from the night before, sleepless night from the stupid crick in my neck. But Alex, always a plan in mind, had figured out getting a massage would be a cure for whatever ailed us, and I found it difficult to disagree. Little bit of exhaustion, a lot of emotion. What would be better than a nice massage, a dip in the pool and the Jacuzzi? We even finally convinced Sam to join us after he'd waved Bryony off at the airport.
Sadly the pool was closed. It was some public holiday in Ecuador which I knew very little about and cared even less for, especially as it inconvenienced me. Thankfully the masseuse was still about and willing to touch me for money (this was a classy joint and it definitely wasn't that sort of massage, but then this is South America so who knows what the dollar could have bought you!) I figure technically speaking she was pretty good at her job except my neck still ached, my head still ached, and now I was getting tired and hungry and oh so very grumpy. Considering I had an 11pm flight of several hours to look forward to, this was possibly as good as it was going to get.
But I was coming home!
Of that I was most certainly excited. I guess it's hard to convey, especially as all I'd heard from everyone I met is that they didn't want to go home, or if they were frequent travellers, never liked going or being home. I kind of thought when listening to most of them that maybe they needed to find a better place to call home if it didn't do anything for them. But I was excited. I had two weeks of TT to look forward to, I had friends I was super excited to see, and I had some planning to do before flying off to Korea and Southeast Asia (of which I'm pretty sure Emma Borch had been to before).
So I endured the airline messing up my baggage allowance, I endured the costly airport food, the lack of leg room, the outrageously expensive neck pillow which provided zero relief or comfort, I endured forcing myself to sleep in order to reset my body clock. I endured American immigration and their zealous scrutiny and distrust, more security, sleeping across three curved seats (which helped my stiff neck massively...), finding no food in the airport worth eating, and my constantly changing gate. I endured being stopped three times in Ireland because I looked like Rick from Rick and Morty (having travelled now for the second straight night) and having my passport full of South American stamps. I didn't so much endure Dublin as I enjoyed it - I went out to meet Eamon (who I met in Medellin and Cusco) for a couple of drinks. Because I was tired and had a whingingly sore neck and head I probably wasn't firing on all cylinders. But it was great fun, and I was getting more and more excited about being home that very night! And so I boarded the final flight from Dublin to Ronaldsway.
Then, like that, I was home!
In true Nicola fashion, she was excited about seeing me, but the excitement quickly turned to frustration when everyone was walking out of the airport and I was still waiting for my bag! "Where the fuck are you?!" was the gist of the first message I received when landing back on the Isle of Man for the first time in 2016. But I forgave her, because she was picking me up and dropping me home. I'm too much of a gentleman to mention that her driving around corners did nothing for my neck, but ho-hum, I was home!
Mum and Dad were waiting for me at the door and so was my dog. Slightly disappointing that Meghan took one perfunctory and disinterested sniff of my leg and then walked past me to greet Nicola. Brilliant. Hadn't seen her in months and she'd already shunned me. Canine mutinies aside it was great to be back. The sun was shinning and the air had a warm summer smell that only the Island seems to produce (though I'm sure this was mostly just my own sweat and excitement). I had a short time to clean and freshen up before heading to a meal and DRINKS. You see Bushy's beer tent was calling my name and I would feel just awful to ignore it.
Harris was playing at the tent that night. Sean was down there amongst a few other faces not seen in a while. It felt like I'd been away for years and years, and also that I'd not been away a day. We had a dance, more than a few drinks, some great laughs. A shame that the night ended so soon, but there were plenty more nights ahead. A fortnight of parties and beer tents to look forward to! Just needed to get a good night's sleep and sort this neck out...
...which was planned conveniently as I had an appointment at my regular osteopath. She had always sorted out my injuries, like my knees or thumb or back. I figured since I'd sprained my ankle 3 months ago while messing about in Ushuaia, it was timely to get that sorted out, so I'd arranged an appointment for my return. It just happened to be good timing that my neck was sore too. Kill two birds with one stone, was my thinking. So she went to work sorting out the crick in my neck.
And then my face felt as though I had hot needles in it. Sort of like pins and needles, only hot. And sore. This struck me as odd and despite every British-gene in my body urging me not to mention anything lest it be rude, I tentatively managed to voice "My face is somewhat sore". Probably, she said, she had pressed against a nerve, which seemed legit to me. Until I tried to sit up...and couldn't.
Like being struck with a sudden and massive rush of blood, I felt the mother of almighty head rushes and couldn't stop giggling. The laughter didn't stop either when I tried and failed to get my wallet out of my pocket. It turned out, having finally managed to sit up, I couldn't move. The positive to this was that I was struck with how amusing it was. The amusement faded somewhat when my cloudy and dream-like thoughts coalesced and I realised it wasn't a benefit to be immobile. Thankfully I quickly regained movement over my right side and, between sporadic laughter, I managed to say I was fine and quickly urged my mum to drive me back home where I could regain my composure. As a slight wound to my pride, I needed both my mum and a rather shocked and paled osteopath to walk me to the car. But once in the car, I was more comfortable if a little confused and weirded-out that previous movement was now denied to me. Confused and weirded-out but not really much concerned. This was, after all, the effects of a trapped nerve caused from a pulled muscle. It'd pass in no time!
After some heavy and worried frowns by my parents, they eventually managed to help me to get on to my bed. My left side still stubbornly frustrated my efforts to move. Well, not entirely. I could lift my elbow occasionally, though it just sort of jerked itself at a sharp angle and then flopped back to reality like a landed fish. With admittedly Herculean effort I could raise my leg off the bed to all of an inch or something, but it was progress! Sweaty, annoying, and difficult progress but still progress! And I won't even mention how much effort it took for me to undo my belt and shorts with the intention of having a piss!
When my right leg wouldn't stop twitching randomly, and usually into the wall, my attempt at having a little power nap (with my medical assumption being that I would wake up fine and dandy) became an exercise in futility. Still trying and failing to move the digits on my left hand and foot and some 2 hours after feeling all funny and numb at the osteopaths, I begrudgingly agreed that mum could call the doctor. After all, why struggle to fix what a doctor could just poke or something and make all better? I might even get a lollipop...
But the doctor said to call the hospital, who called out the paramedics who were brilliant and before I knew it I had begun explaining "What Had Happened" to what would turn out to be the first of an innumerable number of doctors and nurses. The paramedics figured it to be some sort of trapped nerve and helped me walk (controlled fall) down my stairs and drove me to A&E where I was stuck with various monitors that all, for no medical reason I could deduce, had to be placed over what little chest hair I possessed.
I didn't quite mention at the time what was only starting to dawn on me. I couldn't really speak very well. It wasn't as though I didn't know what I wanted to say but when asked a question I had to focus very hard on what I wanted to say and to say it with the upmost haste. As if I only had a certain amount of time and muscle usage in order to form words and sounds. So when they asked me a question invariably I chose a simple Yes or No. It was only after having to explain over and over again what had happened to me that I was suspicious I may not have been up to my eloquent best - of which my best falls far below acceptable.
Nobody seemed particularly worried and neither was I. Sure I couldn't move the left side of my body and I wasn't going to be giving a speech anytime soon, I could feel everything a-okay and I didn't have any trouble thinking or being rude. In fact what I was most concerned about was missing my lunch appointment (that I cancelled with ridiculous levels of mumbling incoherence, which was cringingly laughable when played back to me) and making sure I was ready for the next beer tent trip! With such thoughts in mind I was constantly trying to move my toes and fingers. So long as I could move them, my thoughts were that everything else would fall into place. Blood samples were taken and my various levels of alive-ness were read. I don't know what my levels were or what they should have been but everyone was musingly happy with the results, and so was I.
Even better, having now been less than semi-mobile for the best part of 5 hours, two of those in A&E, I suddenly felt a twitch in my thumb and finger. Having spent 5 hours trying and failing to move, my fingers were now shifting about. I looked down at my toes and those happy little bastards were wiggling free and fancy too! My smile dropped a little bit when I got up ready to leave and the doctors gently eased me back to bed as they still had "tests" to run. "It" was still a curiosity to them. Sure things were looking good that I was fully mobile (although they now didn't appreciate how verbose I was; so swings and roundabouts for them, I guess) but "it" had happened and whatever "it" was they wanted to prevent from happening again. Fair play, I reckon, but I carefully reminded them about the presence of the beer tent. They didn't feel this was a primary concern. Eager to have things done and boxes ticked, I was excited to be wheeled to my scans. I was feeling fine and happy and very much able to move about.
So it was a little pause-inducing when the doctors came back to tell me that I had had a stroke. Not quite a stroke, actually, but a stroke. Which seemed confusing to me and, to be fair, they didn't seem to be very clear on what had happened themselves, but stoke was their initial diagnosis and stroke they went with. Well, several strokes all at once. Acute was the word they used, and when that's used in conjunction with "multiple" and "stroke" it tends to dampen the mood somewhat.
But, like an excited Labrador, I still wanted to know if I could go out and play. This confused the doctors who narrowed their eyes suspecting some degree of brain damage. But Mr Wright, you've had...a stroke. Several, in fact. And you won't be going home tonight. Phooey, I thought. But I guess one night isn't too bad and it'll be a story to tell, I guess.
So I was stuck with needles for more blood tests. More scans due the next day. It was pretty good staying on the ward in that it wasn't dreadful. I mean, it was no beer tent, but perhaps given the floor of the beer tent, that was a good thing. The nurses and doctors were all really nice and made me feel damn comfortable considering I had wires pulling at my chest hair all the time.
Sadly though, one night turned into two nights, which then turned into being flown to Liverpool on the Air Ambulance to be admitted to Walton hospital, which is a neuro specialist hospital. This wasn't exactly ideal for my TT plans. Having flown back from South America to be closer to the fun and festivities I was now edging further and further away. Although, I guess, what could I do? I was being treated and taken care of.
Walton took no time in setting me up with some rocking stockings and a fancy drip to thin my blood. The idea being if I had several blood clots in my brain that maybe my blood should not coagulate. Try and break down those pesky clots. I'd had various tests up to this point and seen A LOT of different doctors and nurses, and I must admit it still wasn't perfectly clear what had actually happened to me. I knew pretty much what: I'd suffered a trauma to my neck which had caused blood clots to rush to my brain and temporarily starve it of oxygen. But it was a vague sort of understanding and the specifics of it seemed to change.
All that changed with the arrival head Head Doctor coming out. This was one of the top dudes at one of the specialist hospitals in the UK for neurological problems. So he'd know what was what and he'd sort it out no problems. Only thing is, I didn't expect him to be so happy about it (that's a joke, he was humourlessly serious).
Technically, I didn't have a stroke. Although technically I did. It's hard to categorise but medically speaking, apparently, it technically wasn't a stroke. It was not congenital; it wasn't a hereditary disease or the result of a health problem. It was a provoked transient attack causing vertebral artery dissection. This part is the only point they're not sure of, and never can be, but it is their strong diagnosis that this is the cause. When I bungee jumped off the bridge in Banos a month ago and embarrassingly buggered my shoulder, they believe that caused the trauma to my neck. It then got worse and worse over the following weeks as I continued to do more and more active things and refused rest. That's what they think caused it.
This is what they told me actually happened: There are two arteries at the back of my neck, and each artery has an inner and an outer layer. The inner part of my left rear artery, due to trauma, burst (dissected), filling the outer part with blood clots. When I told the osteopath I had pulled a muscle in my neck and she worked on it in an attempt to fix me, the outer artery burst and all the blood clots rushed to my head along with some blood and nastiness that tried to fuck my shit up. What they didn't know at the time of my A&E admittance was that the right artery at the back had also dissected and was full to bursting with more blood clots. Thankfully this didn't burst. The reason, he explained, that I was surprisingly mobile and not suffering any ill- or side-effects was because the two carotid arteries at the front of my neck were still working fine. Somehow, the connection between my broken arteries at the back and my working arteries at the front had remained intact (a feat of some luck as it's a normally weak link that breaks during an event like mine). It's this link that I largely have to thank for staying alive--
--say what? I asked him. Yeah, the main doctor was quite emphatic that I should have died. What happened was not really something he would expect to see someone be lucky enough to live through let alone have no side effects. I was a lucky, lucky man. Trying to raise the tone a little I suggested I was doing well and that was a good sign then. I laughed. He didn't. He said that I could die any moment. While he acknowledged I was past the 48 hour mark, I still was not out of the You-Could-Still-Die-At-Any-Moment woods. That was less good but I wouldn't be beaten. I nodded to the drip on my arm. Least I was on the good stuff, huh? This was helping. Oh yes, he said happily. That was working just fine. Which was good, because getting the levels correct was a dangerous tight rope. If my blood levels were too low (i.e. normal), my right artery would probably burst and I'd die. If my blood levels were too high, I'd start bleeding in my brain and then, well... Wait! I told him. I knew the answer to this one. It was that dying thing again, wasn't it?
It's easier to look back and make light of it all, but that Monday afternoon was a right shitter. It wasn't like I was having the time of my life in hospital up to that moment, but I'd been in for 5 nights at this point and I'd not had a moment of feeling even slightly less than fine since recovering movement way back in the Isle of Man. To be told quite plainly how fatal this should have been and still could be was not a panacea to my ears.
But thankfully, and I really am thankful in ways I can never repay, I have great friends and great family. After hearing the news and being a little blue and miserable, I went and had an angry power nap. Again, I hoped I'd wake up feeling better. It didn't work, but I did wake up to find my mum sat by my bed. Having followed me over in the Air Ambulance, my mum had been to see me every day making sure I could want for nothing. I promptly and grumpily relayed what the doctor had told me. Can't say she took it well - she hadn't taken any of this easily - but she was great company too and always picked me up. After I asked to not try and find the silver lining quite yet we just sat and played on her iPad for a the short hour remaining for visitors. But it was happily distracting and my mood began to lift. I'm not sure what I would've done after that without having friends to message. Nicola and Lou were watching Danny play at the Bushy's stage on Port Erin beach. This was one of the very specific events I was most looking forward to so they kept sending me videos and snaps of the music. Gina sent me a care package filled with things to keep me busy, as well as chocolates and superman pyjamas (yes I put them on straight away). I had messages making me laugh, others telling me I was being thought of. Silly pictures and a few to make me smile. Messages of strength and others of determination. I had a visit from my niece, who was more interested in her tablet than me, but she's a cute little bastard, so I still love her.
I'm really not sure what I would have done without them all. I just wanted to lie down. The ward wasn't the cheeriest of places at the best of time but on that Monday night I felt like wallowing in my darkening mood. Just my friends and family had other ideas. I can't really thank them enough for getting me through it, but through it they got me. Eventually that night my mood started lifting. It was a miserable set of facts for me to hear, but I couldn't exactly escape it either. The truth was I was lucky. A lucky bastard. When I played it back in my head I was stupefying lucky. Somehow this had not happened while I was in South America, or in the middle of a flight somewhere, or scuba diving! Somehow this has happened while I was home and surrounded by friends and family. Happening where it did was lucky enough, but I didn't have any side-effects and, going strong, I still don't have any. I didn't lose my memory and haven't got any madder (that I know of). I didn't need physiotherapy to move again.
When I woke up the next morning I figured if I was that lucky then I owed it to myself to fucking smile and make the most of being fucking alive and able to fucking smile! There were more than a couple of people in my ward that couldn't even do that. So what was the next step? That was making sure my blood was at the right levels (and not too high or too low, cheers doc!) which I couldn't really do much about. But I didn't complain about being woken in the night for more blood tests, or having my cannula dressing changed every couple of hours because my blood was so thin it leaked everywhere. Aside from bantering with the nurses, I stopped trying to get out of the hospital as soon as I could. Aside from it being depressing to think I was getting out only to be continually kept in longer, I figured I should probably stay in as long as I needed to get better. I had tests all the time making sure I was coordinated (when was I ever coordinated?!) and still had full use of my body. I started to delight in the doctor's surprise that I didn't have any loss of movement. The phsyio came to check on my shoulder and was very happy that I had no lasting problems with my joints of movements. Whatever else I'd been through, my muscles and joints looked like they'd be fine. Already on the constant drip of heparin I was now on warfarin tablets to aid in the thinning of my blood. Once the warfarin levels had been perfected, I was off the drip and homeward bound.
Eventually, after nearly 2 weeks in hospital, my blood levels were at the correct levels and I was to be discharged. This was a logistical nightmare but mum and I finally made it to the airport and got on a flight home. Almost immediately after having the drip taken out of my arm I began to experience neck pains and headaches like I had right before all this started when I woke up in Quito. I didn't realise at the time - and neither, it turns out, did the doctors - but as soon as I was disconnected from the heparin IV my bloods had dropped from where they needed to be at 2.0 to 1.2 (the normal level is 1.0 but mine needed to be between 2.0 - 3.0). Thankfully the anticoagulant clinic sorted me out and got my levels back to where they needed to be, but it took over a week for things to level out properly.
I have to stay on my warfarin tablets for at least 4 months, with another MRI scan due in 3 months to see how my neck has healed. I would hope that I'd be healed by then but who the bloody hell knows? The best I can do is follow the doctors orders and try to make sure I don't fuck my neck up. That means no driving, swimming, running, cycling, or bungee jumping. And it means no more travelling until I'm all healed. I've had to cancel any plans of Korea and Southeast Asia for the moment. I may have missed out on TT and I can't drink until I'm off the meds, but I'm fucking alive. There is always next year. I still have my friends and my family and after a trip like I've had in the Americas, I am eternally grateful for every silly little part of my life.
Stephen King said it so well in the closing of his latest book, End of Watch, but (and I won't go into too much about in case my dad reads this) it relates to someone in hospital:
"See past the earth's dark curve to the next sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath."