I’d been feeling tired for weeks. Couldn’t manage the dog walks I’d been doing for years without stopping for a breather. Wanted to sleep all the time. I began getting striking pain in my lower abdomen. Then signs of a nasty infection. I tried to book an appointment with my doctor.
“There are appointments available, but they haven’t been released yet.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have to keep ringing until an appointment comes available.”
“So, take a lottery ticket, then. Is that what you’re saying? I’m feeling really ill. I have a terrible infection.”
“Call an ambulance then!”
Phone slammed down by little Hitler receptionist.
I don’t call ambulances. I don’t make a fuss. I hadn’t seen a doctor for five years. I tried for another two weeks to get a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t win the lottery. Eventually I staggered into the surgery and asked to see the nurse. I must have looked like crap because little Hitler at the desk called her. The nurse gasped in horror when she saw the state I was in and called a doctor. Not my doctor; I had to wait another two days before I was allowed to see her.
She told me there was nothing really wrong with me, “You’ve always been a little anaemic,” she said. “You just need antibiotics for the infection.”
I thought at the time, ‘Funny, I’ve only seen you twice in a decade and no, I’ve not always been a bit anaemic.’ But hey, only 40% of premature deaths are due to incorrect diagnosis and treatment, so what was I worried about?
I finally convinced her to send me for a blood test. Virtually had to twist her arm.
The following day I went to West Suffolk hospital for the blood test. The following morning at 5am I received a phone call from the path lab, “Get back into hospital immediately.”
I waited a couple of hours, then asked my dear friend Sarah if she could give me a lift.
I was prodded and poked for a while, then sent to a small private room. I remember saying to Sarah, “Oh well, now I know I’m dying, I’m in a private room!”
We both laughed.
We waited for so long I sent Sarah home, she’d dropped everything to get me there and had things she needed to do. We didn’t think there was really much to be concerned about. Only half an hour later a doctor came into the room, sat down and told me, with admirable pragmatism, “You have acute myeloid leukaemia.”
How do you respond to that?
I didn’t feel fear, or anger, or sorrow. All I could think of was the promise I made my father just before he died, only two years past; “I will look after Mum for the rest of her life.”
In those moments, only I and the doctor knew. How would I tell Mum? She’d lost everyone but me. How could I leave her alone? I took comfort in the knowledge that Sarah would step into my shoes. Mum would never be alone. I called Sarah and asked her not to tell my mother until a doctor could talk to her. I don’t remember what I said, or what Sarah replied when I told her. I don’t think I was really fully in control of my senses. All I know for certain is, she was devastated. We are sisters, but for DNA.
Someone told me to wait for an ambulance to take me to Addenbrookes, Cambridge. I am yet to unscramble the thoughts that went through my head during those couple of hours. Or during the journey there. I talked to the medic, but I have no clue what we spoke about.
When I arrived, I was taken to the sixth floor, where Sarah was waiting. As was my dear friend, Amanda. And my mother. They hadn’t told her. But of course, she knew something bad was happening.
I took her hands and smiled. “Now don’t get too worried, I’m going to be fine. I have leukaemia. They say I need a blood transfusion straight away.”
She held her head in her hands and moaned, “Noooo, my family!” Taking the blame for my condition on her genes. So many of her family died of cancer.
There were two nurses standing in the doorway to the hospital room, wearing sashes across their uniforms with, what I soon discovered, were advertising slogans for a new chemotherapy drug. The one they wanted to test on me. A doctor told us the treatment I would receive would be exactly the same as royalty would receive. The lie was surreal. The entire episode was surreal.
Much of what happened next is still a blur. I was put in a sterile room and transfused with two units of blood. That first night has come back to me in nightmares several times since, but it’s another twelve hours of my life that eludes me in waking hours. Probably a good thing.
The following morning, Sarah came in to see me. Serendipitously, the specialist consultant arrived while she was there. The doctor, again with admirable pragmatism, told me that if I didn’t have immediate treatment, I would be dead in two days.
How do you respond to that?
Enough for now.