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Poetry Blog: Getting There

This is a poem I wrote about the early stages of my recovery from having pacemaker fitted. It happened in November – as you might know, if you read regularly – and especially in that first month or so, it was pretty much all I thought about. Still, three months on, it dominates my days.

It’s a simple enough poem, about the kinds of things I would find myself doing in those early days. Things like avoiding using my left hand side or getting used to the sight of another scar on my chest and just staring at it for long periods of time.

I didn’t see many people during that time; the fatigue and the pain and discomfort just made me want to hide away, but I did get a lot of messages from concerned friends. And when they’d ask me how I was I’d just tell them I was ‘getting there’ because I didn’t know what else to say and didn’t think they’d really want chapter and verse about how I really felt. It was also the kind of thing I told myself when I was feeling low or poorly – I must be getting there. Hence, the poem, written during any one of a huge number of sleepless nights, downstairs while every else in the house slept soundly above.

Getting There

Check your watch, swiping left three times,
lie awake, listening as your heart pounds,
strong but more vulnerable than ever now, you feel.
Trace the lumps in your scar all along its length, 
then follow the shape of a matchbox jutting out under your skin
and stare endlessly at these ugly changes in the bathroom mirror,
making sure that when you reach for something
it's on your right, never left.
This is the routine now.
Follow it like a child learning dance steps until it becomes second nature,
losing yourself for God knows how long
in a train of thought that feels like it might never switch off
and then remind yourself of them 
and however bad you feel, tell anyone who asks
that you're getting there.
 

So, since it all happened I’ve never been more aware of my heartbeat. At least nowadays it feels regular, unlike before. And then there’s the scar; a new one to go next to the one I’ve had for over 40 years now from open heart surgery. This new one is only about 3 inches long and at times looks fairly neat and tidy. However, sometimes it turns purple and has lumps in it due to the wires that come out of my pacemaker. Attractive, no?

On top of that there’s the actual pacemaker, which juts out of my chest – not literally – and is fairly visible under the skin. A friend recently explained that his grandad had one – which made me feel great, as you might imagine – and that it looked like someone had put a matchbox under his skin. So, that’s where that line came from.

The last part of the poem and the ‘them’ refers to my family. They’ve had to nurse me through this time, my wife and daughter especially. They were there when I passed out the first time as a result of palpitations and then it was my wife who took me to Accident and Emergency on the afternoon that I was admitted to hospital and her and my daughter who visited during the week I spent on the ward. It was especially difficult to watch how worried my daughter was; too young for all of this. So, when I would feel down about my health I always knew that I couldn’t let them see it and I had to just find a little bit more strength in order to get through the day.

As always, I hope you enjoyed reading the poem. Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Top 5 Benefits of having a pacemaker.

(I’ve added a couple of bonus positives to my Top 5 too. I always manage to think of more than I need!).

Since having my pacemaker fitted in early November, there have been quite a lot of dark times. Some if them have lasted for days, others hours and lots of them mere minutes when I’ve felt really sorry for myself before snapping out of the fog of it all. Ultimately, I can always fall back on the fact that I feel quite lucky to still be here, however dramatic that might sound.

Today though, I’ve decided that this pacemaker lark can’t all be doom and gloom. Obviously there’s a good side – it’s making my heart work properly – but there must be a lighter side too; a side that makes me laugh a bit. Because the lighter side of life is the one I’ve always liked to be on.

So, I sat down and gave some thought to what might be the positives of the fact that I’ve had a little machine surgically embedded into my chest! Because everything has to have a positive, otherwise what’s the point of bothering, right?

So, as a result of having my pacemaker…

  1. I can now tell people I’m part robot. That way, I sound cool, futuristic and I am easily the closest thing I know to Steve Majors, the $6m Dollar Man. When I get back to work I can tell amazing stories about what I’m/it’s capable of. I can make up ridiculous tales to tell classes because experience tells me that they’ll believe practically anything you tell them as long as you can keep a straight face. Come to think of it, I can easily get away with this type of thing with some of my younger colleagues too, as they tend to be quite gullible. I don’t mean that as an insult, they just are and I know this because of the sheer amount of bullshit I’ve told them over the years!

2. I got to grow a beard. I’d never had any interest in growing one before, but during my hospital stay, I couldn’t really shave on account of being attached to a heart monitor. I could have taken it off, but then I ran the risk of having nurses knocking on the bathroom door. I found this out to my horror one time when they were frantically hammering on the door because my alarm was going off and the panic was so evident that even I thought I might be dying, even though I was stood on the other side of the door just having a wash! So, I didn’t bother shaving. Then, once my pacemaker was fitted my left hand side was rendered useless, again ruling shaving out. Before I knew it, I had a beard and to my surprise I really liked it. Thanks, pacemaker!

3. I may be able to get work as Santa later on this year. My cool beard is a great deal more white than I’d like. But, if I can work on my “Ho, ho hos” and other such stereotypically Santaesque dialogue, I might have a rather rewarding sideline come December.

4. I’ve watched a lot of daytime TV, especially in the first four weeks or so of my recovery when my days consisted of getting tired out by washing and eating breakfast and napping. I mean, there had to be something in between. And so, I’ve become a connoisseur of shows on Discovery and Sky History, as well as every show that revolves around buying a house somewhere sunnier than England. I still can’t bring myself to watch ‘Come Dine with Me’ though.

5. I can move to the wilderness with my new found skills. For the first few weeks of my recovery I made a regular 10am appointment with the Raney family and their show, ‘Alaska Homestead Rescue’. From doing so, I’ve realised that all you need to survive in the wilderness appears to be a good roof, a gun to shoot bears with, a greenhouse (who knew?) and probably some sturdy fencing. With a good 7 years on my pacemaker battery, I’m toying with the idea of buying some land in Alaska and moving off grid!

6. I’ve discovered a love of pyjamas. For years, I had refused to wear them. But, having lived almost exclusively in them for weeks, I can tell you those PJs can be a hard habit to break. Even when proper clothes became an option again, I’d regularly head upstairs in the middle of the afternoon to pop my pyjamas on again. And while I feel like, months later, I’ve broken my addiction, I’m still strangely fond of wearing those comfy beauties!

7. I’ve been given a bit of time to re-evaluate – work, fitness, lifestyle, food and drink. Serious stuff now. Although there’s no damage to my heart and I’ve been told that there isn’t a risk of heart attack, I’ve decided to change a few things. Although I wasn’t a big drinker, I’m cutting right back. I’ve been forced to anyway, so I may as well just carry on. I’m trying valiantly to watch what I eat as well and last week I created a new milestone in my life when I cooked a stir fry (the first I’ve ever cooked) that had three (count ’em) different types of vegetable in it. Three! I felt like a proper adult as well! Also, with my fitness now completely gone, I get to stage some kind of Rocky style comeback. I won’t be punching anyone, but I will faced with some kind of training regime, which I actually like. If I can just get over my fear of going running again… Having time off work has also enabled me to sample retirement. And it’s fantastic, if you take away the pain, anxiety, nausea, confusion and exhaustion! But, I’m hoping that actual retirement won’t feature any of this! So now, I have an age in my head that I’d like to semi-retire by and for the first time in many years I’ve done some research into my pension. I love my job, but it clearly hasn’t helped my health, so there has to be some kind of plan, however tentative. It’s no good vowing to change and then doing all of the same things all over again, however much you loved them.

So there we have it. Apologies for ending such a silly, lighthearted piece with such a serious few sentences, but it’s all true. And even the serious stuff has come about because of my pacemaker, so it had to be mentioned as a benefit, however unfunny it was!

I hope you enjoyed reading.

Always Look on the Bright Side: more stuff that made me smile.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts. Over three months, I think. I suppose given the state of my health there have probably been less things that have made me smile, but having given things a bit of thought, I’ve been a lot less miserable than I imagined I’d be. And I like to write these posts to remind myself – and hopefully others – that there’s usually something to crack a smile about! So here’s a selection of things that have brought a smile to my face in the last month or so.

Walks in the park. If you happen to read my blog with any regularity or you follow me on any kind of social media, you’ll know about the park. Or parks, as we have a few good ones in my corner of Yorkshire and I don’t have to walk far to get to any of them, which is a relief, given the sorry state of my body for the last few months! I’ve been concentrating on one – Dartmouth Park – which was landscaped/built in the Victorian era and is just lovely. This week especially, while we’ve had bright blue skies, frost and crisp Winter temperatures, it’s just been brilliant to walk round. Such is my regularity there that I’m even on nodding/”Good Morning” terms with some of the older folk who go there too! Walking there this week has almost allowed me to forget the fatigue I feel and the irritation of having a little machine sat in my chest, working my heart for me!

Sammy Squirrel. We have a squirrel that visits our garden regularly. When our children were younger we christened him Sammy and to this day, we still refer to him as such. I realise, by the way, that it’s possibly more than one squirrel…I’m not an idiot. In fact, sometimes there are a few running about in our garden. They’re all Sammy. There’s no cause for discussion here. Earlier this week I filled up the bird feeders on our trees. The ground had frozen and although some would advise you not to feed the birds, I just felt sorry for them. About an hour after filling them, I was doing the dishes and some movement at the back of our garden caught my eye. Sammy. And thus, for the remainder of the week I’ve smiled daily at Sammy as he finds ingenious ways of positioning himself in order to raid my nuts (and yes, I did just intentionally make that very childish joke). As the week has progressed he’s got bolder and bolder, appearing at the side of the house, right by the kitchen window, perching on our shed, doing parkour all around the place and even sitting on our patio table to either eat or squirrel away his somewhat ill gotten gains. And yes, that’s another deliberate joke. As I type he has just removed the top from our largest feeder and is now gathering nuts before disappearing over the fence to hide them in the trees behind the house. This process has been going on for a good five minutes. I think he may be preparing for a party. It’s ever so slightly annoying, but I can’t deny that it’s made me smile. Good on you, Sammy!

Sammy, as bold as brass on our patio, chatting to a garden gnome about breaking my bird feeder, no doubt

I fitted a new light in our cupboard. Now this may not seem much of a thing to smile about, but if you had my light and didn’t smile as it comes on when you opened your cupboard door, I’d have to say that we couldn’t be friends anymore. It didn’t take any fitting; it literally sticks to the ceiling of the cupboard with a combination of sticky stuff (technical term there) and a magnet, which is good because my left arm doesn’t work as well anymore and I couldn’t have fitted anything difficult! However, it is very much a wonder. Now, when we open the door of our walk-in cupboard, where we keep our fridge and our big coats, it is lit up instantly like the Vegas strip! Sometimes, it really doesn’t take much to make me smile!

The prospect of snow. As much as I miss work, if it snows anytime soon, I will certainly not miss trying to drive through the snow to get there. I won’t miss doing an outdoor duty and having to scan the area like Action Man for fiendish snowballs being launched in my direction. I won’t miss the hideous feeling of slush soaking through my shoes. And I won’t miss trying to drive home in the snow as it freezes, adding potentially hours onto my journey. What I will do is sit in my front room and smile at the fact that I’m warm and dry, if still a bit poorly, in my house!

Ted Lasso. We recently got Apple TV free (I think) for 6 months. We’re three episodes into Ted Lasso and it’s superb. Biscuits with The Boss never fails to raise a grin! I think I actually want Ted to be my friend.

So, there we have it. Contrary to popular belief, I do smile. I hope you enjoyed reading about it!

Fighting fit: The mind boggles!

As I write, it’s been 62 days since having my pacemaker fitted. A rough estimate puts that at 1492 hours or 89,543 minutes. That’s a lot of time to think. A lot of time to worry, to feel low or even just to find yourself giving up. However, there have been positives in that time too and I hope that from today, I’m going to start feeling the positives outweigh the negatives.

My last ‘fighting fit’ update was a few weeks ago. In the time since then there have been good and bad days. Christmas and New Year came and went and if anything, they slowed my progress down. Not only was my diet a bit worse, but the festivities take up so much of our time that I didn’t manage to fit in anywhere near enough exercise. Turns out no one wants to wander slowly around the streets keeping an eye on a wobbly, wheezing middle aged man dressed in a long coat and a bobble hat when there’s Christmas films to be watched or left over turkey knocking around.

However, I enjoyed both Christmas and New Year. We managed to see some family and despite the fact that my kids are a bit older now – 13 and 16 – it was still nice to see them open their presents. And I always enjoy seeing what my wife makes of the gifts that I’ve bought her. It’s nice to give gifts and it was nice this year that I bought my wife something she really wouldn’t have expected, but really liked. It was a print based around The Fairytale of New York, her favourite Christmas song. If you’re a music fan and enjoy artwork you might want to check out where it’s from – www.stuffbymark.co.uk – his art really is ace!

Once all of the celebrations were out of the way and the kids were back at school, there was a lot to think about. Given the return of a quiet house, the bonus of having the ability to think returned too! My main conclusion has been that I need to do more exercise and to do it regularly if I’m going to get my normal life back.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve had a few more visits to my favourite park and gone back to look at the two animal sculptures. This time I made sure to read the inscriptions and one of them gave me a lovely glowing feeling. It was on the Harry the Hare sculpture and it was about the fact that a local business had commissioned it. One line in particular got me. It just read, “For the people of Morley.” What a great gift! I hope others appreciate it and take time out to go and have a look. It’s literally a work of art! Whether it’ll succumb to vandalism, who knows? But I sincerely hope not. Anyway, here he is below.

And here’s the owl that I visited again the next time I was in the park.

The mental side of my recovery is something I’ve found really tough going. I’m not used to being poorly and not used to being unable to do the things I want to, physically. I’ve found it all very frustrating. I enjoy my work, but haven’t been in since all of this started. Furthermore, I’m faced with another month off sick now too. It’s led me to see pretty low days and I joined an online support group to see if it would help me.

Talking about my problems isn’t really me, but I’ve managed to ask a few questions and listen to what other people have been through and it’s really helped. Apart from anything else, it’s comforting to know that there are lots of people going through the same as me and lots of them who know a lot more than me and are happy to pass on advice.

The support group has also encouraged me to read a bit about pacemakers and what’s happened to me and that’s been a real positive. It was explained in hospital and on the visit to the cardiologist, but I suppose understandably, I didn’t really take it all in. Anyway, reading about my pacemaker and its genius has really made my mind boggle. It’s about the size of a matchbox but it has the technology to store a ton of data about what’s going on in there, while also pretty much making my heart work properly. I guess we shouldn’t be that surprised by the capability of modern medical technology…but I still am.

Another form of support came as a Christmas gift. My daughter bought me the book below – with her own money for the first time ever – and told me it was so that I could read it and not feel like I was going through it alone. Even typing that feels emotional, so you can imagine how I felt on Christmas day!

It’s quite a remarkable book by a poet called David Toms, who was born with a rare heart condition and faced up to his problems in many ways. In the book he talks a lot about the power of walking and, as this is something I do a lot, I could really relate to his story. He also eventually had to get a pacemaker, so what he had to say about that felt really useful too. Reading the book also helped me to see that I could get through what’s going on with me. David Toms has faced up to a great deal more than I have and despite whatever setbacks or challenges, he’s found the strength to just keep going. So, keep going is exactly what I’ll do.

I’m beginning to realise how long it’s going to take me to feel better both physically and mentally. Two months on and I’m still tired out very easily, especially compared to the way I was before and the level of fitness I had. The area around my pacemaker and my scar is still sore and my movement still restricted and I’m left breathless much more often than I’d like. And mentally, testing myself out terrifies me, but I’m just so incredibly frustrated by how weak I feel. Even when I get back to the normality of work, I know that I’ll still be nowhere near fitness and nowhere near feeling confident. It seems it’s going to be a long road.

And with that, I promise to update you whenever something interesting happens. Fingers crossed that it’s not any kind of setback though!

New Year’s (quiet) resolutions!

It’s that time of year again. Time to put the last one behind you and start kidding yourself that everything will be a great deal better for the next 365 days simply because one year rolled over into the next one. A new year, a fresh start, time to make some changes and all that.

As it happens, things have been so bad for me lately that the turn of the year is actually just convenient for change in my life. My previously documented health problems mean that things need to change and I’m now just about well enough to start changing them. On top of that, I think I can be more than hopeful that next year will be far better than this one was!

I’m keen not to set myself too many big targets though, hence the quiet resolutions. And I know that there are previous targets and goals that I’ve set and then never really done anything about, so I’ll stick to a manageable number this year. I mean, it’s still very early in the year and healthwise, I already feel shattered, so let’s keep things in perspective!

Here goes…

  1. Stop keeping secrets. An important one, this. It’s not me blatantly telling anyone who reads that they can’t trust me, by the way. However, I kept my heart problems to myself last year, in the hope that they’d go away and that I wouldn’t have to bother anyone. Fat lot of good that did me! Hopefully, there won’t be much to report, but if there’s any action in my chest, I’ll be sure to let someone know. Anything more and I’ll blab to the nearest medical professional. Common sense, I know, but that’s not always been my strong point where health is concerned.
  2. Get fit…again. Heart problems blighted last year for me, culminating with time spent in hospital and the shock of having to have a pacemaker fitted. It’s been a long recuperation and it’s left me feeling decidedly unfit and still pretty poorly. I’m breathless and wobbly on my feet if we walk too far! Just before Christmas though, my cardiologist gave the all clear to start running again, albeit really gradually. I’ll freely admit that this is something that scares the living daylights out of me, but once I find a bit of courage, I’ll be back out there getting fit. Hopefully, come the Spring time, I can start taking part in races again. Baby steps for now though. I’ll keep you posted!
  3. Get healthy and stay that way. I’ve been off work now for around 7 weeks and to be honest, while I know when my latest sick note ends, I’m really not sure when I’ll be well enough to go back to work, although I hope it’s sooner rather than later. And then there’s the matter of getting back to normal life. It’s not just been about being off work. If I run upstairs, I’m out of breath. If my clothes are too tight, I struggle to get them on or off and it hurts to do so. Tying my laces still hurts. If I take one thing too many out of the cupboard, I struggle with the weight on my left hand side. I can’t think fast and I struggle to get my words out quite frequently; I don’t know why. And I’m genuinely quite scared when I feel any kind of activity in my chest. So it’s not just the physical side of things that need to get better. It’s all too easy to tell people that you’re ‘getting there’ or whatever other platitude I might use when asked how I’m doing, but I’m not coping anywhere near as well as I’d like. So, getting healthy is going to continue to be a big old job!
  4. Finally send some poetry to somewhere other than my blog. I’ve had this ambition for a while now, but although I write poems on a fairly regular basis, I always seem to end up just adding them to my blog. I’ve resolved to enter some poetry competitions before now, as well as looking into sending stuff into literary magazines. I’ve just never found the time or I suppose, the courage to do it. However, I have a few things that I’m working on at the moment and a few finished poems that I’ve done nothing with, so 2023 has to be the year that I break my duck in this area.

And that’s that. Part of me wishes I had a fifth resolution, just because it looks like a better number. But then, if I’m trying to lessen the burden a little bit, adding a fifth would just be counter-productive and I’d be even less inclined to actually do anything about it. Anyway, that top three is going to keep me pretty busy, I reckon!

I’ll keep you posted about how things are going. In the meantime, perhaps you could let me know about your own resolutions in the comments? Maybe someone might yet inspire that fifth one for me!

Fighting fit; an occasional diary.

Last time I wrote one of these diary entry style posts I was getting fitter and stronger as I was able to get out walking every day. Not far, but enough to keep myself ticking over and gaining in fitness. I’d also grown a beard, simply because my circumstances meant that I couldn’t shave and finally, I was having trouble sleeping. So, in short, I was writing a diary entry about how mind-numbingly boring life was in recovering from an operation!

Well, I’m not sure it’s got anymore exciting.

A couple of weeks ago I had a little bit of a set back, albeit in terms of the rough plan I had in my head. With only a week to go of my sick note from work I rang them and tentatively agreed that I’d be back teaching at the start of January. It was more my call than theirs, to be fair. Sadly though, only a few days later, having spoken to my doctor, I was forced to call them back and let them know that I’d had to arrange another month long sick note. I had a really rough weekend, feeling tired all of the time, sick and still in quite a bit of pain from my scarring. It simply dawned on me that I was rushing things far too much. I spoke to some friends, family and people who’d had similar procedures and they reminded me of just how much I’d been through and that it wasn’t just a case of getting fit enough to go out for a walk that would get me back to normal life. My doctor agreed and was more than happy to renew my sick note and so, I bowed to the greater knowledge before me and made probably the best decision I’d made in years. I’m not very good at just resting, but I’ve realised that I need to stop rushing things too. I’m discovering that patience is key in this recovery business!

Since then, there’s been a real disruption to my safe little routine by way of Christmas and all that comes with preparing for big day. I’ve not been able to do a great deal in terms of decorating the house or going out on shopping trips to get what Santa’s elves can’t make, but I’ve been able to join in with some of the wrapping, despite my very limited wrapping skills. Truth is, I wrap presents like a moody child in a hurry to do anything but wrap presents, but needs must I suppose.

I also managed to fit in two hospital visits, both of which threw my routine out , but more of that later.

All of this has meant that my daily walks have stopped. In fact, before today, my last walk was on 15th December, meaning that some of the fitness that I’d built up has probably been lost.

However, before that I’d been managing to get out for a walk every day and for the last week of doing so we’d had some lovely weather too. For a couple of those days I ventured up to one of our local parks simply because it would mean walking a little bit further than I’d been managing and also as I knew it would look lovely in the sun, as you can see below. Being in the park felt lovely though; a great deal better than just sticking to the streets close to where I live. So, even though I was really tired out just getting there, it was well worth it…even if when I walked there for the second day in succession my legs felt like jelly and I had to have a sit down on a park bench for a short while just to make sure that I’d get home in one piece!

The plan now that Christmas is out of the way though, is to start getting back out there and making the most of the fresh air. I found some new sculptures of animals (pictured below) on one of my park visits and am assured that there are more, so I’m definitely going to head up and explore again, all in the name of fitness!

The final major thing that’s happened over the last few weeks is the hospital visits. My first was a pacemaker clinic just over a week before Christmas. It only took around 30 minutes, but in that time the specialist was able to let me know that there had been no drama since I’d left hospital. She adjusted my pacemaker a little bit in order to help with my breathlessness and told me a little bit about its battery life and function and I left feeling pretty good about it all. It’s fascinating stuff when you see that they just drape a wand-like piece of machinery over your shoulder which then reads the data off your pacemaker. The kind of technology that makes me feel even older!

Then, almost a week later and a few days before Christmas, I went in for an appointment with a cardiologist. It turned out that this was actually to do with a previous problem, but when he saw my notes and learned of my procedure, he was able to talk me through quite a bit about what was going on, which was great.

It was quite the good news day. Firstly, he told me that there was no damage to my heart. Apparently my problem is merely ‘electrical’ in that my pacemaker cells haven’t been controlling the rhythm of my heart very well at all. Hence, the need for my pacemaker. Although I’d been told this in hospital it was still comforting to know as I’d had some of the symptoms of a heart attack on more than one occasion leading up to my time in hospital. But, it seems I’m made of stronger stuff than I’d thought!

The other bit of good news was that I was told to work my way off my beta blockers, which have been fairly responsible for me feeling so rough and tired all of the time. So for now, I have a half a tablet per day, but soon I’ll leave them behind altogether. In turn, this means that I’ll be able to go out running fairly soon, although I’m happy to force myself to wait until I feel as right as possible until I actually do it. If I’ve learnt one thing in all of this it’s that I need to start listening to my body more and to stop being so eager to be on the move all of the time. That said though, I cannot wait to get out and run again. My last run was on October 14th. After that, everything started to go downhill and within a month I was in hospital.

It’s been 50 days since I was admitted to hospital. I went in thinking I’d be back to full fitness within a few days, only to be brought crashing down to Earth by the news of a pacemaker. Fingers crossed that I’m closing in on getting back to normal.

Christmas Films: Five Underrated Gems.

It’s that time of year again. The nights have closed in, there’s a fair chance of snow and really, you should be out doing some Christmas shopping. But, out there in the not too far distance you can hear the annual call of the Christmas film. Or, if you’re American, the Christmas movie. It’s telling you to ease your way down onto the sofa, snuggle in with family or the dog, grab some snacks and something warm and cast those eyes over something you’ve seen umpteen times before.

So off you go, repeating all of the catchphrases in Elf, signing along to The Grinch and howling at the festive funnies in any or all of the Home Alones. But what do you do when you’ve exhausted those old favourites? Allow me.

I thought I’d offer you some Christmas film options that you might not have heard of or even have rejected if you’re one of those people who rely on reviews. Here, in no particular order are my 5 most underrated Christmas films!

  1. A Christmas Carol (U). Yes, I know that this is not an unknown film. I’m more than aware of the popularity of the film and of course the Dickens novella. However, I’d suggest that you watch a different version of A Christmas Carol than you possibly already do. Lots of people will watch the animated version with Jim Carrey being brilliant as Scrooge or even the Muppets Christmas Carol. Plenty more will enjoy the brilliant old Alistair Sim version too. But what about the 1984 made for TV version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge and Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present? I mean, the bloke who played General Patton and the bloke who played the original Equalizer! What’s not to like? Scott plays Scrooge perfectly; gruff, cold and with a little bit of a sadistic twist in the way that he seems to thoroughly enjoy telling people “Humbug!” or when he’s just scaring the bejeezuz out of random children on the street. Better still, Scott is equally brilliant in redemption, carrying Tiny Tim around town on his shoulders and laughing like a drain! And then there’s Woodward playing his ghost like some kind of deranged Yorkshire Santa Claus! Trust me, it’s great stuff and well worth a watch.
  2. Daddy’s Home 2 (PG13). With a 6.0 out of 10 rating on IMDB and a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 21%, you might well ignore this one. But, in my opinion, you’d be missing out on some fantastic comedy and a bit of a classic Christmas tale. Co-dads Brad and Dusty (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) take their families away for Christmas, along with their own dads Don and Kurt, with disastrous and often hilarious, if a little bit predictable results. If you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, you’re going to get what you’d expect here and alongside the comedy, there’s a heart warming Christmas tale, just as soon as everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. A must watch for us, every year!
  3. Fred Claus (PG). Another one where you’d be better off ignoring the reviews. This one is another 21% scorer on Rotten Tomatoes and only gets 5.6 on IMDB. However, all I can say is that the ratings are wrong. Vince Vaughn plays Santa’s slacker older brother Fred, who couldn’t give a figgy pudding for Christmas, but ends up in the North Pole against his better judgement. And just when it looks like that Christmas spirit might fall flat, Fred is there to save the day and see the light. Another family film with a big chunk of redemption running through it. A comedy with some interesting takes on what Santa’s home and workshop at the North Pole might actually be like. The kids will love the elves and hopefully you’ll laugh along too.
  4. Arthur Christmas (PG). This time, we’re focused on Santa’s son, Arthur, who while he’s a well meaning, friendly sort of chap, is a bit of a disappointment when compared to his dad. Mind you, who wouldn’t be? So when Arthur and a team of oddballs end up on a mission to deliver one last forgotten Christmas present at the last minute, perhaps this is the very time that he proves himself worthy of the Claus name. A fantastic cast, an excellent and at times ridiculous story and some amazing animation. This is a funny and original feel good film that puts a twist on the Santa Claus story and comes out as a classic underdog tale. Well worth your viewing time.
  5. Bramble House Christmas. A bit of a different one to end with. I suppose that in amongst the cheesiness in this film, the overall message would be something about showing good will to all men. But in between that, this one’s got a lot going on. When a wealthy man leaves his young nurse a big chunk of money in his will it leads to suspicion, fear of treachery, a mystery Christmas trip to what would appear to be the perfect town and at then end of it all, a love story. In the end, Christmas cheer is the big winner and your cheeks might just ache from all of your smiling if you’re so inclined! I like this one – even though I’m not that big on smiling – because although it’s a little bit cheesy and a little bit predictable, it’s just a nice, harmless film to watch at this time of year. A good one to watch with the kids too!

Hopefully, there’s at least one film on my list that you’ve so far overlooked, meaning that you might get the chance to add a little bit of variety to your Christmas. So here’s to, picking one out, settling down with some hot chocolate and snacks and enjoying a good, new Christmas film on me!

Ward Wisdom – Stuff I learnt in hospital

As anyone who reads my particular brand of nonsense will know, I’ve spent a little bit of time in hospital recently. And it was quite a serious situation. However, if you’ve ever spent any time on a hospital ward you’ll possibly agree with me when I say that there’s often lots to smile about.

While I was in hospital I got my wife to bring a notebook in, as you never know when inspiration might strike and I spend enough time scrawling things down on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper. I thought it best to have somewhere where things would get written and not lost.

As well as notes on more serious articles and bits of poetry, I was able to write down the stuff that I learnt and that made me smile, knowing that as long as I could find it again there’d be something I could do with it. So, here you go; some ward wisdom for you!

The worst pain is found via the canula. After a number of heart operations, I know what it’s like to be opened up and it’s uncomfortable to say the least. It hurts while the scars and bruising are healing too. However, without doubt the worst bit accompanies the canula. This time, my canula was placed in the top of my right hand early on Monday afternoon. I thought it would be out on Monday night after they’d discharged me with some tablets. They finally took it out on Thursday afternoon about an hour before I went home! By that point my hand was bruised and every movement that my hand made caused me pain. The worst of it was when they pumped antibiotics through the canula. The nurse told me that it wouldn’t be bad. However, just before my operation and I had to really clench my teeth to try and disguise the horrible pain as the fluid went in. I’ve never faked a smile like it!

You never know what to expect on a ward at night. My first night was alright really. Quiet, apart from the bloke in the next bed who snored and talked in his sleep. Hearing him groan the words “Come on, I won’t take long” will perhaps haunt me forever and I truly hope he wasn’t having the dream that it could sound like if you use even the tiniest bit of imagination. Mid-way through the second day of my stay I remember thinking that things would be alright. My ward mates were all quiet and that would mean I could read, write or just relax without interruption. And then the bloke opposite was sent home… Cue a certain level of mayhem. I was awoken not long after midnight that night by a man with a foreign accent shouting, laughing and crying in equal measure. He was from various Eastern European countries until he finally decided that he was actually from Slovakia. And even then, he was claiming to be Romanian a couple of days later! He was unhinged for the rest of my stay on the ward, sometimes nice, friendly and polite, other times ranting and raving and even deciding to put his shoes on with his hospital issue pyjamas on a few occasions to leave the place entirely! He even befriended me a little bit and at one point claimed that the other two men on the ward got preferential treatment because they were both ‘the big boss’, while intimating that me and him were just common or garden scumbags! We’ll hear more from him later.

Medical science is incredible. My pace maker is about two inches long, stores data about my heart and while I was on the ward managed to solve my heart palpitations wirelessly! When my post op heartbeat was over 200bpm a technician appeared and told me he was just going to have a chat to my pacemaker. He did it via a laptop that looked a bit like a child’s toy. Within minutes my heart was beating normally and I was having a well deserved nap. If that doesn’t make you smile, then nothing will.

NHS staff are wonderful. When I was growing up, if anyone asked my mother what she did, she’d tell them bluntly, “I wipe people’s arses.” Why, I’ll never know. She was a dentist, after all. I’m joking. She was an auxiliary nurse and this was indeed part of her job. But it was far from what her job amounted to. Nurses wiping other people’s arses happened regularly on my ward. Not to me, I hasten to add. And it wasn’t being done by my mother either. But nurses cleaned up anything and everything that leaked out of their patients! They also lifted us, helped us walk places, provided endless cups of tea and coffee, plumped up pillows, laughed at our attempts at humour, came running every time a monitor went off (usually every ten minutes or so and usually mine!) and were relentlessly nice and caring, regardless of what they were faced with. If you live in Britain and don’t realise how amazing NHS staff are, why not?

You cannot treat a stomach ulcer with pop. This came courtesy of watching my Slovakian ward mate. When he wasn’t sleeping he was calling out. This usually took the form of moaning and sounding like he was pretending to be in a lot of pain. Then he’d beg the nurses for tablets, often asking for stuff he’d heard other patients talking about taking hours before, which given that we shared our ward with two gentlemen in their 80s, was a wide range of tablets. However, when he didn’t just get given tablets other than those already prescribed he’d throw his shoes on and leave the ward, against the nurse’s advice, returning later with several two litre bottles of bright green limeade and what looked like a bag of oranges. He’d then spend the next part of his day guzzling the limeade while demolishing the oranges. Shortly after this, he’d inevitably lie there clutching his stomach, squirming around on the bed complaining even more loudly about the amount of pain he was in. It turned out that as well as his heart trouble, he also had a stomach ulcer. And guess what? Carbonated drinks and citrus fruit are not an effective way to treat a stomach ulcer. Oh, and it also turned out that he was smuggling in paracetamol to take with all of this too! None of it worked!

Being in hospital wasn’t any fun. It was frightening, it was painful and it was mind-numbingly dull at times too. But, it’s always important to try and find something to smile about! I hope you enjoyed reading.

Fighting Fit: an occasional diary (volume 2)

With time on my hands following heart surgery, last week I started writing an occasional diary. It seemed only right, especially after more than one person (including myself) joked at the time of my latest cardiology drama, that I’d do anything to get something to write a blog out of! Well, the joke’s on them; it’s very much more than one now!

Not a lot has changed in my routine this last week. It can’t really, as I’m just not capable of doing a great deal at the minute! I am now managing to walk every day though, without fail. I don’t go far. I’m not commuting out to beauty spots and hiking for untold miles across rugged terrain. Rather, I’m shambling my way around the streets where I live and making sure, that if I take an occasional selfie if it has a field or a tree in the background, so that my life looks slightly more interesting.

The positive with my walks is that they are edging ever further in distance. Or rather, I’m taking more steps each time. I haven’t yet recorded one on my Strava app as I feel pathetic enough as it its, without recording it on a form of social media that shows a map of my route and the invariably embarrassing statistics that yell, ‘Hey everyone, Graham used to be really fit, but now he can walk just short of a mile in 40 minutes!’

It feels quite lovely to be out though. I’d hesitate to say anything about how it feels to still be alive, but there is a small element of that. While I haven’t found myself standing marvelling at the magnificence of trees, I do feel quite lucky. And actually, last week’s diary did blather on about how dramatic the fog was!

In other news, I’ve grown a beard. This is largely down to circumstance, as I can’t really lift my left arm up for very long without it really hurting because of the scarring from my op. It’s also just an action that I’ve been told to avoid for something like 6 weeks, while my pacemaker settles into my chest, so the action of stretching my skin with my left hand while shaving with my right is a bit of a no-go area. Hence, the beard.

I’ve never had any inclination to grow a beard before. However, despite its whiteness, I’m quite pleased with it and for the near future at least, it’s staying. My wife and children don’t like it so much. It tickles when I’m near them. I’m certain that my parents will hate it too. Others have said it looks good though. I worry I might be turning into Roy Keane, while hoping that I’m actually morphing into George Clooney. Who knows what the truth is? Actually, me and it’s not the Clooney truth! I actually quite like it though and I’m surprised with how much I’ve taken to it.

As time has moved on and I’ve felt less pain, I’m writing more too and as well as some blog posts, I’ve written first drafts of four or five new poems. It’s very tiring though and so there’s only so much that I can do. I suppose I need to find some kind of balance between resting and trying to do more, while also kerbing my urge to just get stuck back in again at full pace. Some days I long to be back at work, but for once I’ve been sensible enough to listen to what the professionals have told me and stick to getting the rest that I need. Hopefully it’ll pay off and everything will get back to normal given time.

I worry that all I seem to write about is being poorly though. I suppose it’s obviously still fresh in my head, but while I had a tentative brush with something serious, I really don’t want to bore people to death about it now! With that in mind I’ve made a list of things I can write about so in the coming days I need to find the energy to research a couple of things and possibly write some Christmas themed posts.

The final thing that has been on my mind this week is my lack of sleep. Since leaving hospital I’ve managed one unbroken night of sleep. And by unbroken, I don’t just mean not waking up. I always wake up on the night. What I mean is not having to get out of bed.

Almost every night for over a month now has been punctuated by an extended amount of time out of bed. The pattern seems to be that I sleep for anything up to an hour before waking up, unable to get back to sleep. This then usually means a couple of hours or so spent downstairs, reading or doing a bit of writing. I even did the dishes at 1.30am the other day! I’m hoping that I can find a way to sort this out!

Overall, this week I feel noticeably better. I still get tired out easier than I’d like, I’m still bored a lot of the time and I still miss seeing people…but I feel more human.

Until next time…

My name is Graham and I’m part robot…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bloke in possession of what he thinks are a perfectly good pair of legs, will NOT be allowed to walk up to a cardiology ward from his A&E bed, no matter what reason he gives or how ‘ok’ he feels. And so it was that I found myself clinging to an overnight bag while a porter wheeled me through the eerily quiet hospital corridors up to my new temporary home.

Having spent around 7 hours working my way through the various stages of A&E, I’d almost got sent home. Almost. Then, minutes after the cardiologist doing my ‘final’ echo scan had mentioned discharging me, he found a problem and performed a rather neat about turn, admitting me to a ward.

So, having had my sleep disrupted on several occasions during the night, either by a nurse checking a monitor or taking my blood pressure or by a fellow patient making loads of noise in their sleep, I woke next day to the wonderful hospital sensation of a nurse turning on all the lights, yanking the curtains open and asking if I fancied tea or coffee! This would be the first of several occasions that I’d be woken from a slumber, hospital wards being both great places to nap and probably even better places to get woken up.

Now this was most unexpected when I started my working week. I thought I’d just be clinging on for Friday to arrive, as usual, and now here I was clinging on to the hope that I might still go home with just some tablets to take.

However, as the day went on things just seemed to get gradually worse, culminating with the visit of the head cardiology honcho, who broke the news that I’d be having a pacemaker fitted. Despite my relative youth for such a procedure, my condition just meant that it was the common-sense decision. Staggering. A pacemaker wasn’t on the menu as far as I was concerned; not for at least another 20 years. Yet, when everything was explained, it made perfect sense. I could either carry on not knowing when I might black out again – and have my driving license taken away – or I could have a pacemaker.

I was told that I’d have the operation that day, meaning that I could even be home that night. But in the end I never even got my next echo scan and so was told that there’d be another night in hospital.

To be fair, this didn’t much bother me. I think I was still quite stunned by what was going to happen to me and so the thought of having a bit more time to think was quite welcome, really. So, the rest of my day was spent mulling things over, reading, napping and snacking until it was time to go to sleep.

I got to sleep that night without a problem. Truth be told, I was shattered. The latest episode with my heart had worn me out and the news that accompanied it had been mentally draining. However, it wasn’t to be a quiet night and I was woken up by a new patient being admitted to the ward. Clearly drunk, my new Slovakian friend veered between laughing or crying hysterically, insulting the staff and praising them and telling anyone who’d listen that he’d been homeless for the last 6 nights as well as having been wrongfully imprisoned at the same time. Welcome to the ward my friend! I felt sure that I’d never get back to sleep, yet I did.

The next day was a whirlwind of activity that will stay with me until the day I die. And for a short time, it felt like it would be just that; the day I died.

Having had some breakfast, I was taken down by the now familiar wheelchair to another part of cardiology where I would have my pre-op echo scan. On my return to the ward I imagined that I’d have a bit of a wait for my operation, so I called my wife just to explain what was going on. However, within about a minute a nurse appeared with a gown for me. It was pacemaker time!

Thankfully, for this operation I managed to avoid the paper underwear that the NHS usually insist on, but even wearing my own pants, the gown and NHS slipper socks didn’t really do a great deal for my dignity.

The operation itself was successful – or at least it seemed so from my experience – so I won’t bore anyone with a blow-by-blow account. Rather, let me tell you a few interesting things that either struck me while I was there or have done since.

  1. It always surprises me how many people are involved. Mine was quite a routine operation, but I swear there were at least 8 people present. In fact, at one stage a random man appeared in an adjacent room and began talking to my team via some kind of intercom. It was a bit like he’d just wandered in to have a look, like a competition winner. Perhaps someone on the team had told him, ‘Hey, we’ve got that bloke from the Middle Age Fanclub blog in again’ but I highly doubt it.
  2. The sheer talent of these people is awesome. At one point they were chatting about the songs on the radio while one of them had my chest open and was concentrating on turning me into a robot. Meanwhile, I still stick my tongue out of the side of my mouth while concentrating…on anything.
  3. My gown made me look like something from the hot counter at Greggs, such was its colour and design. I’d like to think that the operating team also had me down as something from the hot counter. Again, I very much doubt it.
  4. Knowing that the area around my scar was numbed, the surgeon just kept dropping his instruments on to my chest. It wasn’t that numb and I felt every pair of scissors as they hit my collarbone!
  5. They have to make a kind of pocket in your flesh to put a pacemaker in. To do so, they drag your skin and flesh around like you’re a particularly heavy and stubborn bit of furniture and although it’s not painful, you are fully aware of what’s happening! So, you’re kind of lying there thinking, ‘Ooh, he’s ripping my flesh!’
  6. While pulling stuff around in my chest, I could feel the sensation in my throat. My voice has changed slightly since my op. No, really, it has! I take it this is not a coincidence.
  7. They cover you up completely in a kind of big sleeping bag and have you face the right, leaving a gap you can see out of. It’s to protect the wound from your own germy mouth!
  8. While looking to the right through my sleeping bag gap, I could watch my own heartbeat on a monitor. It goes unrecognisably mental when the pacemaker is switched on and looks nothing like a heartbeat anymore. I was also able to watch – in some horror – while my heart stopped a few times as the pacemaker started to get used to its new home! Coupled with the fact that, prior to the op, my cardiologist told me, “You’re heart stopped for 4.2 seconds this morning”, this was a development that I didn’t need to see. Indeed, it was at these points where I had the dubious pleasure – and not for the last time that day – of quietly telling myself, “Just breath and you can’t die”.
  9. My feet were freezing for the whole op.
  10. The whole thing took around 45 minutes, during which time the team involved chatted, danced (I think) and sang, while also telling me exactly what was going on and why. These people are incredible.

It was a relief when I got back on the ward and I was fairly sure that they’d send me home within a few hours. But not every story has a perfect ending, does it?

Having messaged a few people to tell them I was back on the ward, I sat back in my bedside armchair to relax. But, in what now feels like some kind of twisted tradition, my heart had other ideas.

Without warning, my heart began to race again and it didn’t feel like it would stop. I told myself that my pacemaker would kick in and take over, but that didn’t happen either. Suddenly the alarm on my heart monitor was going off and within seconds there were nurses and doctors at my bedside and the curtains were being frantically pulled round. If you’ve ever watched a film that has any kind of hospital-based emergency, it was just like that. Bodies everywhere!

No one was panicking, but clearly there was a problem. And I was it.

My heart wouldn’t slow down. In fact, it was getting quicker. A doctor told me that they were in touch with the people who’d fitted my pacemaker, whose customer service was thankfully as good as their operating skills, and that this would be sorted out and my heart would be slowed down. In the meantime, it seemed that lots of them would ask me how I was feeling, and I would reply as calmly as I could, that I was ok. I wasn’t ok, I was terrified and reduced to telling myself that I couldn’t die if I just kept breathing. So, I kept breathing.

Sadly though, my eyes were still fully functioning and the last time I saw a monitor my heart was hitting 209 bpm. They took the monitor away after that, but I’m led to believe that it went higher.

The ending of this particular episode still seems slightly surreal. After what seemed like a couple of hours, but was probably only 7 or 8 minutes, a man from the pacemaker team arrived at my bedside and ushered everyone else away. Then he uttered something incredible in both its calmness and ridiculousness.

“Hi Graham. I’m Dan from the pacemaker team and I’m just going to have a chat with your pacemaker.”

I think I laughed, which in the circumstances was great, given that I was fairly sure I was going to die, whether Dan was going to have a chat or not.

But then, he got to work. Dan pressed a few keys on what I swear looked like some kind of Fisher Price My First Laptop and then strolled around my bed doing I know not what. As he went back to his laptop, I noticed he’d placed some kind of device on my bed. It looked just like e Wi-Fi router. Then, he said,

“OK, we’re going to chat to it wirelessly now”.

After this he tapped a few keys on his Fisher Price toy and within seconds I could feel my heart slow down. So, I told him I thought it was working, to which he replied – cool as you like – that he knew it had worked. At this point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d made himself a martini.

The rest, as they say, is history. I think I had a major brush with death. Dan from the pacemaker department probably hasn’t thought about it since. However, for at least a few of those minutes I thought my time was definitely up. I didn’t panic, I didn’t see any light (people have asked!), I didn’t cry or shout. I just kept thinking that I should keep breathing.

My cardiologist decided that they’d keep me on the ward for the night, so that everything could be monitored, so again it meant that I wouldn’t be going home. For once, I was delighted. The ward was safe. The ward had Dan or a Dan alternative that could sort me out if anything happened again. So, I called my wife to let her know what had happened before having a bit of a nap. When your heart’s been beating at over 200bpm, you’re going to get tired out.

I’m now a few weeks down the line in my pacemaker journey. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, by the way. It’s not been easy. I’ve not spoken to many people about exactly what happened, because it’s quite a difficult thing to talk about. Easy enough to write about and crack the odd joke about though. I can’t do much and what I can do tires me out. I feel guilty for not working and I miss being around my ‘big sisters’ and my students. I can’t hug my wife and kids and I’m not allowed to kiss them as I can’t shave and have grown a very tickly beard! And I really feel for them, because none of this is easy for them. I hope none of them ever finds themselves wondering when the next episode will happen, but I think they will and that might just be the saddest thing to come out of all of this.

On the bright side, I’m alive. I have a future, even if I don’t really know what it looks like yet. There’s thinking to be done. I also have a couple more stories to tell and a lump in my chest where me pacemaker is, meaning that in years to come I can lie to anyone and everyone about what that is and how it came to get there. Live a day in my shoes and then tell me that’s not one of the best things ever!

Be thankful for what you’ve got, tell people you love and cherish them daily, listen to your body and try to enjoy life as best you can. Stay safe everyone.