Sunday, 29 March 2015

Beyond the Miraculous

I had my urgent review with my lung specialist a couple of days ago. A month for an urgent appointment seemed fairly quick when NHS waiting times are so terribly long. The clinic was crowded and I spent the first hour waiting to see him. I then related my story of how the osteopath had worked on my paralysed diaphragm and I had improved. But after a while, I explained, my problem symptoms had returned. The lung specialist made notes in my file and sent me for a series of tests and an X-ray.

I returned with the results of the breathing tests. He was looking at the new X-ray and comparing it with the one I had taken in December. ‘Afraid I can’t see any difference’, he said and beckoned me over to the desk. Side by side were the two pictures of my chest. They were almost identical. On both, my raised left diaphragm was clearly visible.

I felt crestfallen. ‘He probably just moved your stomach a little’ said the specialist, ‘and lessened the pressure on your lung for a while.’ I was so disappointed. I thought I had been given a miraculous cure for my breathing problems. And now I had found it was an illusion.

The specialist explained that there was an operation, plication, which would lower the diaphragm and fix it in place. The trouble was that this surgery would mean that the diaphragm would never move again. He was keen for me to pursue this and referred me to a thoracic surgeon.

I agreed to go and see the surgeon to find out more. But this felt to me like a last chance option that I wasn’t yet ready to take. My diaphragm was only partially paralysed and weakly moving so I had to explore options for improving it first. I decided I would also go and consult a nerve specialist.

I left the clinic feeling extremely down. All my breathing problems and fears for the future came rushing in. After my raised hopes, these burdens seemed all the heavier. I sat with a pal in a cafe and related my story over a coffee and a caramel square. ‘What you need is a holiday,’ he said. I smiled for the first time that day - ‘we’re heading to Dubrovnik next week’.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Do you Believe in Miracles?

For most of my life I thought miracles were just ancient stories that had probably been recorded by the credulous. But now I’ve changed my mind. For the past five months I’ve had pronounced breathing problems and I’d been sent by a lung specialist for a series of tests. The last of these was a video fluoroscopy (an X Ray video); an odd experience, since you can see your lungs working in almost real time as the images are projected onto a screen in front of you. The report was brief and clear, I had a partially paralysed left diaphragm. It was a terrible shock.

A paralysed diaphragm is the result of damage to the phrenic nerve, the doctor explained. How did I get it? Probably during my major surgery in 2011 which opened up my chest to remove a tumour that had grown into my vena cava. The phrenic nerve runs from your neck around your heart and into your diaphragm. Apparently such paralysis is a reasonably common side-effect of cardiac surgery. These things happen, said the doctor. The nerve had been damaged and my diaphragm was raised and weakly flickering, allowing my stomach to move up and become wedged inside my ribcage; together these were putting pressure on my left lung and greatly limiting my breathing. And what could be done about it? Nothing much, I was told. It was a permanent impairment.

On top of the shock was fear. I’d had breathing and digestive problems ever since the surgery in 2011. After a series of tests three years ago, I was told that I had a hernia in my diaphragm and that this could be repaired by surgery. Still recovering from the first operation, I wasn’t keen for further surgery so it was agreed that I would have the remedial operation if my symptoms worsened. Over time I learnt to live with these problems. In January my breathing had deteriorated so much that I told my GP I wanted to go back and have the surgery. But now I was being told that this longstanding diagnosis was wrong and there could be no surgical solution to the problem. So did this mean that I was now moving inexorably to ever greater breathing impairment?

On top of the fear came anger. A moment’s carelessness by a doctor had left me with a lifetime of problems, which couldn’t get any better and may well get a lot worse. On top of that, when I had complained about post-surgical problems I was given the wrong diagnosis. If I’d been given the correct diagnosis three years ago, then perhaps something could have been done to slow down the deterioration in my breathing. I was full of questions. The GP couldn’t help me with any of them. I wrote them all down in a letter to the lung specialist asking to be seen urgently.

On top of the anger came depression. I tried doing breathing exercises I found on the internet but these irritated my already inflamed lungs. The stress on my lungs had given me asthma too. I felt I was in a downward spiral. Walking and cycling in the great outdoors had been such a big part of my life; I would have to face up to letting go of them. I began to imagine myself housebound with an oxygen tank as my constant companion.

In truth these were not separate phases but all mixed up together. Each day became a real struggle. I found myself getting very frustrated and reacting to irritations that I would previously have brushed off. With no response from the specialist to my urgent request, I decided to explore other options. I had been to an osteopath in Holywood who was trained in Eastern medicine and acupuncture, I booked an appointment.

Ralph McCutcheon listened to my story and asked me to lie on the treatment table. He got me to open my mouth and pressed his thumb hard into the roof of my mouth telling me to breathe deeply at the same time. Next he worked on vertebrae in my neck and back. Lastly he manipulated my abdomen at the bottom of my ribcage for a while. That’s fixed it, he said.

I left the treatment room and did some breathing exercises. There was an unusual ache in my left side. I thought it was due to his pressure. But the ache persisted and later I had more feeling at the base of my ribs where my left diaphragm should be. That evening, my breathing seemed easier. I began to hope that he had made a difference. I spent an anxious night. On waking I tried the breathing exercise and felt the left diaphragm flex. It got sore quickly but my diaphragm seemed to be working much better than before; I could fill my lungs and breathe more clearly. And my stomach and digestion felt better too; instead of feeling bloated after eating just a little, I felt hungry and was able to eat heartily without stomach ache.

It was miraculous. I’d been told by conventional medicine that there was no hope. I’d been given the laying on of hands. And I seemed to be cured. Thanks to the blessed Ralph I have a new lease of life.

Monday, 2 March 2015

A House for Pangur Dubh

I’ve been putting food and milk out for Pangur Dubh for over two weeks now. He comes each day and eats it all. I don’t know when he comes; he doesn’t seem to have a regular pattern. Some days I see him several times, other days not at all. But each morning the bowls are empty.

I started off by putting the bowls under a trailer at one end of the house. I did this to prevent the magpies from stealing the food before he arrived. Then I moved the bowls to the other end of the house behind a wooden panel. Pangur had no problem finding his tucker. I noticed that he had sprayed the panel to mark it as his territory. After another five days in the same place I moved the bowls and panel to the side of the house next to the bins.  

My plan was to move the food bit by bit to the back of the house. An old shed languished there and I wanted to fix it up for Pangur. I reckoned he slept in the old graveyard, probably under a fir tree. This was probably the place where he had been born and had grown up. He always ran off in that direction if I came out of the house and startled him. I wanted to offer him a home. I was hoping that he would become my resident guard cat against rodents.

I had a cat box that my late father had made. My ex-wife had a cat and my father made the box as a present. But her cat, called Izvestia (my ex-wife had been a Young Communist), never took to the box. When we parted I reclaimed the box and stored it. I brought it down from the loft and cleaned it up. I would put the box, lined with old clothes, in the shed and place the bowls next to it.

All seemed to be going well, when one evening I came home to see a strange ginger cat on the black bin above the bowls. Pangur Rua - was this a pal or a rival? I had got used to Pangur Dubh and didn’t want to see him ousted. On the other hand, if Pangur Rua was a practiced rodent killer he would be welcome too.

I proceeded with my plan and fixed up the shed at the back of the house with the lined cat box. I just didn’t know if one of the cats would take to it.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Pangur Dubh

I got home from the hardware store and opened the yellow sachet. The bait was wheat seeds impregnated with poison. It was a lurid green colour. I put it in dishes at either end of the loft. The rodents loved it; every night I could hear them scurrying above my head. The row was very disturbing, I couldn’t relax and sleep. I tried earplugs, they helped a little. Each morning I refilled the dishes and looked carefully around the loft. But apart from the eaten bait there were no signs of them. I imagined the rodents were under the insulation, sleeping off their nocturnal exertions.

This was war. I decided to escalate. I went back to the hardware store and bought four traps. The woman advised me to bait these with something sticky that the rodents couldn’t steal without activating the mechanism. She suggested I use peanut butter or chocolate. I put both on all four traps. The next morning I eagerly went up the loft ladder to see if there had been any success. None at all, I was crestfallen. The rodents were avoiding the traps but kept eating the bait in the dishes. They were smart, but not smart enough. After a week or so, the scurrying and bait eating had stopped. No trap had ever been sprung.

I looked around the outside of the house to see if I could find the holes that they might have come in through. I found nothing. Perplexed I asked a neighbour who was a builder for advice. He told me that mice can get through tiny holes. ‘If you can put a biro through it’, he said, ‘then they can get through too’. Apparently mice semi-dislocate and flex their bones to do this. Mice are also great mountaineers; with their sharp claws they can climb vertical walls. Getting into the loft of a pebble-dashed bungalow would not present a great problem. He told me to check the edges of door and window frames as these were likely places for small holes. I spent two hours going around the house investigating holes with a biro. I found three tiny holes high up above door and window frames and filled them.

I kept the bait in the loft for over a week. It wasn’t touched. I started to hope that the rodent war might have been won. I called the alarm engineer who came and replaced the cable. He advised me to remove the bait as it was an attraction, but to leave the traps. He also said the best deterrent was a cat, as rodents had sensitive noses and were afraid of the scent of a cat.

There are several groups of feral cats in the parish; one of these seemed to live in the old graveyard not far from my house. A neighbour about a mile away had been feeding a different group of feral cats regularly, they came every day for food and slept in one of her outhouses. What a good idea, I thought and put out some cat food and milk. I kept a watchful eye during the day and was very disappointed to find that by twilight my offerings hadn’t been touched. But the next morning the food and milk were gone. It might have been a fox in the night I mused, but I put the food and milk out again. No sign of anything during the day, but in the morning the bowls were clean again. This persisted for several days. Then I saw him. A muscular black cat slunk across the lawn late one afternoon. He drank the milk first then ate all the food. With a stubby tail, he looked to be a real bruiser. Pangur Dubh himself. The next day he came again. Those rodents had better watch out.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Wee Sweety Mice?

The house burglar alarm went off. I blinked at my watch, the strident tone banging in my ears. It was 3am? What? The alarm crashed on, bouncing off the walls. I got up, stumbled to the flashing panel by the front door and punched in my code. The alarm stopped, the tone still echoing around my head. What was happening? A burglary?  But I hadn’t put the alarm on. I glanced at the control panel, one red light was still flashing. It said ‘tamper’. I racked my tired brain, didn’t that mean the circuit was broken somewhere? Bloody hell, a burglar was preparing to break in? I put the outside lights on and peeked out, holding my breath. It seemed very still and quiet outside. I kept listening. The driveway was gravel and I’d hear any footsteps. Yet the night was dead quiet. The alarm must have scared them away.

Then I heard a scratching noise above my head. Were they on the roof? The scratching continued. It sounded far too slight for a person, was it a bird? I plucked up courage and went outside in my dressing gown with flashlight. Shivering, I shone the beam up into the night. The roof seemed clear. Back indoors, the scratching started again. Must be something in the loft, I thought. I climbed up through the hatchway, my flashlight beam glancing off the roof timbers. Quiet as the grave, nothing seemed to be there. If it was bird, I reckoned, it would have flapped to try and escape. I went back down and closed the hatch; nothing for it but to go back to bed, try to sleep and begin again in daylight.

I lay in bed but couldn’t relax. I kept listening intently for any noise. Soon the scratching started again. Then some scurrying. I gasped: mice of course. It was freezing outside and they’d found a way in to escape the cold. I sighed and turned over; the bastards had gnawed through my alarm cable, I’d sort them out in the morning. I slept fitfully and woke feeling burnt out. First thing, I went up in the loft again; an expanse of timbers and pink insulation, no mice to be seen. I drove into town after breakfast, to the hardware store.

‘I’ve got rodents in my loft’, I told the woman behind the counter.

‘Mice or rats?’ she said with a smile.

‘Don’t know’ I replied.

‘This kills both’ she said, handing me a yellow sachet. ‘You keep putting the bait down until they stop eating it.’

‘How long for?’ I said, holding the sachet gingerly at its corner.

‘Kills rats in a week’ she grinned, ‘mice take a bit longer.’

‘Mice are tougher than rats?’ I said, with a shake of my head.

‘The bait makes them thirsty’ she said, 'they go outside to drink and then the poison reacts.’

‘So they die outside?’ I said.

 She nodded, ‘it does cause them some pain.’
‘I don’t mind’ I said, and bought a supply of the sachets.

Monday, 2 February 2015


Wednesday 4th February is the midpoint between the Winter and Spring solstices. This is a quarter day; there are four of these a year, one between each of the solstices. In the ancient Celtic calendar this particular quarter day was called Imbolc; it marked the end of Winter and beginning of Spring. Imbolc was essentially a festival of fertility that celebrated the coming of Spring and was first practiced by small farming communities that settled these islands some 6000 years ago. This celebration fits well with the rhythm of the land as early February often brings snowdrops and the birth of the first lambs.

In early Mediaeval times the long-standing pagan fertility festival of Imbolc began to be appropriated by the Christian church who initiated St Brigid's day on Ist February. Brigid was an ancient Irish goddess who was of the bringer of Spring, as well as the patroness of smithing, poetry, crafts and medicine. St Brigid was an Irish nun who lived in the 6th century, she founded a monastery and was said to have performed miracles of healing.

After the church fused St Brigid with the mythological Brigid, the saint was able to take on the functions and powers of the pagan goddess but with some interesting twists. St Brigid became typically portrayed with a cross woven from reeds (a fertility symbol) and a lamp with a sacred flame. Importantly, one of the greatest saintly acts of the nun Brigid is said to have been that she blinded herself to preserve her chastity from the amorous advances of a nobleman.

I attended a service at St Columba’s in Derry yesterday, which illustrated the complex interrelationship of the saintly and pagan myths. The homily described St Bridgid as the harbinger of Spring and new natural growth. Later, babies that had been born in the past two months were brought to the altar, blessed and given small crosses woven from reeds. Clearly the power of this saint was being invoked in relation to fertility (in plants, animals and humans) but this saint was also a nun who blinded herself to preserve her chastity (a symbolic inversion of the pagan meaning).

So the contemporary church manages to both reiterate the pagan meaning and take on its power (the giving of blessings for fertility) as well as to reverse it, embodying this paganism in a saint who emphasises the values and rules of the church itself (sacrifice, chastity).

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sing for Life On Tour

I joined the Sing for Life Choir when it started. It’s a vibrant and lively community choir for those who have been affected by cancer. The choir has played a really important role in my long recovery from Kidney Cancer. It’s been so therapeutic and a tremendous support for me at a very difficult time in my life. You can be feeling very low but singing your heart out among friends really lifts your spirits. I’m not a great singer, yet all together we make a great sound. I get a real sense of achievement and motivation from the choir.

The initial idea for the choir came from Tenovus, a Welsh cancer charity. They launched a similar project called Sing With Us, to run choirs across Wales for patients, survivors, their families and people bereaved through cancer.

The Sing for Life Choir now aims to travel to Wales to meet and sing with the people that inspired the setting up of our choir. To do this we need to raise £16,000 through crowd-funding. 

Please help by donating what you can and forwarding the campaign link to friends, family and co-workers.

All of the choir are very much looking forward to meeting Tenovus. We’re hoping to get new ideas about how to develop the choir, to learn new skills and to make the choir even better.

We don't want to leave anyone behind. If we can't raise the full amount unfortunately not all the members of the choir will be able to go on this inspirational journey. With your help and support our voices can travel further.

Please donate what you can to help us see our dream fulfilled and join the Sing With Us Choir in Wales. On the campaign page you can see all the perks that you will receive for helping us.

Please also help us get the word out and make some noise about our campaign. Share it, tweet it, email it, sing it from the roof tops; we don't care how you do it but please try to help us fulfil our aim.

The Sing for Life Choir was developed through a partnership between the Crescent Arts Centre and Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and began meeting in Belfast in September 2012. Research has proven that singing in choirs reduces anxiety and pain and helps to improve physical function and wellbeing.

The likelihood of you or someone close to you being affected by cancer is increasing all the time. My, and many others experience, is that the choir plays a vital role in recovery and support.