Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unexpected Call

A week ago I got an unexpected phone call. It was from the office of a bone cancer specialist at Musgrave Park Hospital. I needed to come in and see Mr Barr. I was given an appointment, it was for just five days ahead. As I put down the phone, I began to worry.

I knew the scan I'd had last month had shown up something strange - a lesion inside my left femur. I'd sent the report to my kidney specialist, who'd treated me for cancer in 2011, and he told me he was sending it on to a bone cancer specialist. It was good to see the NHS working so quickly, I told myself. But being called in by phone with just five days notice was suspiciously quick. Too quick. It could only mean one thing - bad news.

I looked up the lesion on the internet. These bone lesions were common and ninety percent of them were benign and untroublesome. The rest were sinister: early-stage chondrosarcomas. Oh dear, I thought, I'd done well over the past three and a half years but now my luck seemed to be running out. The five days to the appointment were interminable. I did my best to distract myself: easier in the day, almost impossible at night.

At last, I drove in to Musgrave Park and sat in the waiting room. The clinic nurse, a Sri Lankan, couldn't pronounce my surname and called out 'Mr Paul'. I stood up and she escorted me along the corridor to the small consulting room. I sat alone for a while, then a young man of Middle Eastern appearance came in accompanied by three pasty-faced teenagers. He introduced himself as Mr Barr's Senior Registrar and asked if I minded the medical students being there. Too wound up to speak, I shook my head. He told me to get on the couch and roll up my trouser leg. I complied and he conducted a thorough examination of my left knee, giving a running commentary to the students.

The Senior Registrar then fixed me in his gaze, 'I've looked at your scan,' he said.

I nodded.

'You have a lesion in your left femur,' he said, pointing to the spot.

I nodded again, trembling.

'It's nothing to worry about,' he said.

I heaved a large sigh, then grinned.

He smiled back, 'it's probably been there since childhood.'

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Seamus Heaney at the BBC

Not only did we have a great day out in Magherafelt (and a splendid meal at Church Street) but I learnt a good deal about Seamus Heaney. T and I joined the On Home Ground Festival last Friday and caught up with Geraldine and Eugene Kielt, Maura Johnston, Marie-Louise Muir, James Kerr and Medbh McGuckian. Excellent readings and performances of course, but for me the most memorable was to see two of the many programmes that Seamus Heaney made for BBC NI, followed by a talk from Pat Loughrey, the ex-Controller of BBC NI, about Heaney's work for the BBC.

I only had a sketchy knowledge of Heaney's broadcasting work. I didn’t realise that he had begun working for the BBC in 1966, having been introduced by Philip Hobsbaun, the leader of the Belfast Group. At first Heaney worked only for the Schools Broadcasting Department, writing and narrating radio broadcasts for children on diverse topics such as language, mythology, landscape, poetry, childhood and farming practices.

In many ways this was a radical step for BBC NI, for here was a Catholic nationalist writing and narrating programmes at a time when such voices were not normally in positions of authority on the airwaves. Yet Heaney also had impeccable credentials, as a lecturer at Queen's and being published by Faber and Faber. Surprisingly, Heaney's early radio work passed off with very little comment in NI. Whereas, his later television work (a series of programmes in a similar vein to his radio work) provoked more reaction, being described by some as 'papist propaganda'.

Heaney was a gifted broadcaster. The films I saw were apparently simple, but with considerable depth. The first concerned the language of boundaries as Heaney roamed across the landscape of his childhood in South Derry. The second was set in Lough Erne and concerned pagan beliefs and the early Christian church. Heaney had a natural flair for engagement with both his subject and the audience - he informed, educated and entertained. As Pat Loughrey observed, his scripts were almost written in verse.

Well done to Marie-Louise Muir for putting together the excellent Festival programme at Laurel Villa. Many thanks to Geraldine and Eugene for their hospitality. It's a little over a year since Seamus' passing and only now are we becoming able to assess the extent of our loss. He was not just a great writer but also a great broadcaster (amongst other things) - all in all, a great communicator.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

As I was Young and Easy under the Apple Boughs

My front room is filled with the sweet must of freshly harvested apples. There has been a good crop this year, around two hundred and fifty apples from my sole tree. Most fruits are large, well ripened and tasty. Indeed, this year some are very large, a fair bit bigger than an orange.

I grew up on a smallholding with a sizeable orchard filled with apple, plum and pear trees. There was also a hazel that produced a good crop of nuts. I patrolled the orchard every day, herding geese and chickens with a stick. My favourite tree to climb was the hazel, it had a spread of hanging branches and I would haul myself up to survey my demesne through its swaying boughs.

When, as a teenager, I began to read poetry, Fern Hill quickly became my favourite. I had left my orchard years before, when we moved to a village near Gloucester. So Dylan Thomas' tone of loss chimed with me, even though I was only fourteen. And then it was just a couple of years until I followed his path and began a drinking career - on scrumpy, of course, in a back street cider-house called The County Arms.

This hostelry, long since demolished, was a drinking den for those with little money. It sold only cider, most of it locally made, very strong and extremely cheap. The place was run by a wizened old woman, called Mother, and her son, called Ocker, a silent brute three times her size. They had little regard for the licensing laws, or any others for that matter, as long as you had money to pay for your drink you were alright.

The County Arms was dirty and disreputable - me and my schoolpals loved it. The place was full of characters: one old fella, called Bristol, would sing sea shanties and do hornpipes around the pub to earn money for his next pint of scrumpy, another would tell tales of his adventures which included fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Ah, when I was young and easy. I hardly take a drop anymore. I only have one kidney now and I'm looking after it. It's great that my apples are good eaters.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Rafa and Me

There is much I don't share with Rafael Nadal: a great forehand, latin good looks, vast wealth... but there is one thing we have in common - Hoffa's Impingement. This is the very knee injury that Rafa had last year, which curtailed his season so painfully. But, after an extensive programme of treatment, he came back as strong as ever this year. I'm doing my best to emulate him.

My new physio doesn't believe in treatment machines, she prefers to get to grips with your flesh with her powerful fingers and arms. Earlier this week, I lay on the treatment table and she began to manipulate my knee. Then she pointed her elbow, placed it on my patella tendon, leant her weight onto it and started to rub very hard from side to side. I gasped and gritted my teeth, red-hot knives were shooting across my knee.

'Is that your pain?' she asked.

'Aooow,' I howled in assent, thinking she would stop.

'Good,' she said, digging her elbow in further.

'Really, really hurts,' I gasped, gripping the sides of the table as my body began to shake.

'Don't worry,' she said cheerily, 'it'll go numb in a minute or so.'

'Aooow,' I howled again, sweat coursing down my face. It felt like she was trying to saw my leg off. I kept wishing I had a piece of wood to bite on.

'Gone numb yet?' she asked

'Yes, yes,' I moaned, thankfully.

'Fine,' she said, moving her elbow to a fresh part of my tendon and the intense pain began again.

After what seemed an age, she stopped and left the cubicle to get something. I lay back on the treatment table, took some deep breaths and tried to relax. My patella tendon was throbbing, but numb. No ball-boy came to proffer barley-water, banana or towel. I sighed. My physio returned and strapped my knee. The treatment was over, until next week.

I may never reach SW19 or trouble Hawkeye. At this point, all I want to be able to do is to walk to the bottom of the lane outside my house without pain.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Hoffa's Impingement

I've been given the results of the scan on my knee. I'm very pleased and surprised to find that my cartilages and ligaments aren't damaged. I went for the scan because my local Physiotherapist thought I had torn a cartilage. Happily, I do not need an operation. But I am still in pain. At this point, the Osteopathic Surgeon seemed to lose interest and handed me over to another Physiotherapist for further treatment.

What the scan did show is that I have swelling inside the knee joint, inflammation of the tendons that attach to the kneecap and some misalignment of the kneecap itself. But my primary problem is Hoffa's Impingement. This is where the large pad that fits between the ends of the shin and thigh bones (and behind the kneecap) gets pinched and inflamed inside the joint. This pad is the most sensitive part of the knee, having more nerve endings than any other, and gives an excruciatingly painful injury. When my knee is bad, it feels like red-hot knives are being stuck into me.

After two months of pain, confusion and disappointment, I'm relieved to finally get to the bottom of the knee problem. The treatment for this injury is frequent icing (I have two large packs of frozen peas that do the job three or four times a day), stopping the activities that cause the pinching of the pad (for me this means most walking and standing) and taping the kneecap to restrict its range of movement.

The next step is a programme of special exercises to strengthen some leg muscles and to stretch others, in order to achieve healthy alignment of the knee. Some of these exercises are quite odd, like squeezing a football between your ankles and doing gentle squats with the ball between your knees. My current exercise programme takes over half an hour and I need to do this twice a day. All being well, my knee should recover in a couple more months.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

My Long Lost Pal

Out of the blue, I got a message from Patrick. We were the best of mates at primary school. Patrick lived along the canal from me at Bridgend, near the small town of Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. I lost touch with him aged nine, when we moved house to the other side of the county. 

We used to play together along the canal tow-path and across the fields and railway line that separated us from the town. Yes, we grew up (literally) on the other side of the tracks. Patrick's family had a TV (mine didn't) and I used to go home with him after school to watch cartoons. I recall us eating sarnies and shouting at the screen. The Lone Ranger was another favourite of ours.
We walked to primary school down a lane, across a main road, over a railway line and along a footpath to the iron railings that guarded the school. It was a journey of about a mile and a half each way and we did this every day without adult supervision. The school was Victorian in its construction: there was a bell in a turret above the main entrance, with separate doors for boys and girls. And in its ethos: you would be beaten regularly, on pretty much any pretext. I recall being caned one day for failing to eat my pudding. I still hate tapioca.
Patrick now lives in Orkney, so other than through Facebook, there was little chance of us encountering one another again. I must admit I can easily live without the pictures of cute animals and obscure homilies that seem to represent the majority of the traffic on the site. But putting you in touch with someone who you lost contact with fifty years ago, that's a real achievement.

Stonehouse Primary School, outside the main building at break.
Picture courtesy of Stonehouse History Group, date uncertain (late 1940's - early 1950's, I'm guessing).

Monday, 28 July 2014

Pauls Knee (ii)

My bad knee continues to be a problem. It's been five weeks since my fall and I've been getting treatment every week. The swelling has now gone down to leave a large lump on the top of my tibia. The lump is egg shaped and gives a little if you press it. I'm told this is a haematoma, a blood blister that formed on top of the bone when it was bruised in my fall. The lump is no longer very painful and I'm told it will go away in time.
The knee joint itself is the most painful: it still feels weak and I get stabbing pains with certain movements, especially when walking. I've been wearing a support bandage a lot of the time. The physiotherapist now believes that I have torn a cartilage. I'm booked to have a scan on my knee which will tell for sure.
You have two pieces of cartilage in each knee. They are crescent shaped and look a little like the segments of an orange, thicker on the outside of the knee and thinner on the inside. The cartilages fit between your tibia and femur, working as shock absorbers. A sudden impact on your knee, particularly with a twisting movement, can damage them.
The outer edge of the cartilage has a blood supply and thus can repair a small tear. So I've been doing plenty of hot compresses on my knee to help stimulate this. The inner surface of the cartilage doesn't repair. It's possible to have surgery to repair large tears of the cartilage and for damaged pieces to be removed. But, especially given my recent experience, I don't want to go down that road.
As driving is a little painful, I'm leading a fairly enclosed life. At home with my injury I surf the internet and watch plenty of TV, which has driven me to fix the drip on the kitchen tap and other minor tasks around the house that I had been putting off. I don't seem to be in the mood for writing very often. It's pretty frustrating, this is the longest interruption to the active life that I've been enjoying over the past three years. And of course I'm very worried about what the scan will show.