Home Alone in the time of Coronavirus

Strictly speaking I am not home alone. My two whippets are constant companions. Their playful antics keep me amused and there is an unspoken, unconditional love and understanding between us. Even in this early stage of self-isolation, we live together in complete harmony and unlike us humans, their daily life has not changed at all. They are doing the things they have always done. Their daily routines have a reassuring effect on me too. Sleeping for long periods of time in warm places, play-fighting for possession over their favourite stuffed toy animals, and enjoying long walks together. Only the long walks have been cut shorter these days – not because of ‘social distancing’ – but because three weeks ago to the day, I underwent a major operation to remove a malignant tumour the size of an orange from my guts. The whippets don’t know that, other than they had a lovely play away with Poppy and Tinks, their other whippet family. Willo still likes to be curled up beside me and I have to shield the scars of surgery on my tummy from the impact of 10 kilos of whippet flopping down beside me in her usual way.

Barely into our second week of self-isolation, even Willo (short for Will’o the Wisp), has started to wonder why people passing our house aren’t stopping to say hello anymore. She looks up expectantly, ears cocked, waiting for the familiar click of the gate latch, which doesn’t come. Even when she goes to the door barking excitedly, there is still no-one there. She walks away disappointed that she won’t be able to curl up on the sofa next to a familiar human who has just dropped in for a coffee and a chat. Both Willo and Tami are also missing the fun and games to be had with their doggo friends. Where has everyone gone? It feels like we have been left alone, standing on the platform after the last train has left.

And as if in sympathy, my wonder pony, Tommy, had a bout of colic over the weekend. He has never suffered from colic before and I had no option but to ask the vet to come and see him. Twice. (Why is it always an emergency, during ‘out of hours’ over the weekend?) Tommy had suddenly gone off his food and just wanted to lie down. He was uncharacteristically listless and sleepy and uninterested in anything much. Except lying down and rolling to alleviate the sudden spasms in his tummy. Walking him around did nothing to alleviate his discomfort and I couldn’t stop him from suddenly lying down in order to try and roll away the pain.

The vet administered two separate doses of fluids (with electrolytes) to ease some impaction in his guts, administered through a tube that went up his nose and down into his stomach. This was after having the indignity of an arm being inserted up his bottom to try and identify where the blockage was. However, after a very worrying time indeed, these interventions over a couple of worrying days seemed to do the trick. I told the vet I thought Tommy had probably been very dehydrated. I was up as soon as the sun rose today and went to see how he had fared overnight. It was heartening to hear the familiar whinny as soon as Tommy heard the latch go on the gate. And a perky little face greeted me as he ran up the hill to see who it was. A stark contrast to the sorry state I had found him in the day before where he was lying in a stable, no welcoming whiny forthcoming. Now, seeing me means there is likely to be a hay net in the offing. I didn’t disappoint, delighted that his appetite had been restored.

(Warning: the next bit is not for the squeamish!)

The relief of seeing my Tommy returned to vitality again after not knowing if he would pull through this episode, is joyful beyond measure. But he is a native pony and as brave as they come. And I’ve just had a message from Gretta (who’s Dales Pony, Anna, shares the field with my boys) to say that Tommy has just done a poo! Hallelujah! The first time my own bowel movements worked again for the first time, three days after surgery, was very much a hallelujah moment for me too. Up to then the only thing I had passed was a lot of wind which was a consequence of the surgery. Even though I was in the loo for over half an hour and had people knocking on the door to see it I was OK, the whole experience brought back memories of giving birth to a baby! Even what came out resembled a baby’s first nappy poos. It was like my guts had gone back to basics. However, once that plug had been dislodged, I have not looked back since. Such are the miracles of modern medicine.

And now back home with my whippets, I am wondering what being in the ‘at risk’ group means for me and countless others like me? The pages in my diary for the coming weeks, months, are ominously blank. What is scheduled, has already been – or will have to be – cancelled. The ‘How to Get Published’ seminar in Exeter. Postponed. The ‘Communicating with Pets’ day with Susie Stoner, already postponed because of bad weather in February. Now cancelled. The planned visit of my daughter and her family to stay with me over Easter and any hunting for eggs in the garden, is cancelled. There is even doubt at this stage whether I will be able to run my art course, No 36, ‘Painting Panoramas‘, during Marlborough Summer School in July this year? Even though MCSS sent a message out last week fully expecting to run the Summer School, I have my doubts.

For now, I need to use this time of solitude in the midst of a deadly global virus, as the perfect opportunity to concentrate on beating my cancer. It had crept up on me so sneakily. For months, I had been going backwards and forwards to my GP saying that something was not quite right, slightly alarmed by a low grade ache in my ribcage and an alarming dip in my energy levels. Enough to warrant taking some painkillers. I had mistakenly thought it might have been something to do with my heart or lungs. My GP had thought it was more likely to be connected to my gut. (Rightly as it turned out). Eventually she sent me off for a colonoscopy after I had complained of a change in my bowel habits.

After that first procedure at Derriford Hospital, as I was being wheeled away to the recovery room, the surgeon asked to see me before I went home. Alarm bell number one. I was then ushered into a waiting room which was comfortably furnished with sofas covered in a calming blue fabric. On the coffee table was an opened box of tissues. Alarm bell number two.

A nurse came into the room and sat down opposite me. She said, ‘do you want to ask someone to join us?’ I told her I had come on my own and there was no-one waiting for me. Alarm bell number three. Then the surgeon came into the room and on seeing me, suddenly, his facial expression changed to one that someone makes when they have something life-changing they are about to tell you. Alarm bell number four. By now I knew what he was going to say. But first he said, ‘have we met?’ ‘You have just done my procedure’, I said, rather puzzled. When he had delivered the news (that he had found a large lump in my colon – the result of a polyps gone wrong), they left me alone and I sat in a state of stunned silence in that room for about fifteen minutes trying to process what I had just been told. I don’t remember much of the drive home. My overriding thought was, how was I going to tell the children?

The actual diagnosis came two weeks later when the biopsies confirmed that I had a stage three colon cancer. This was all explained to me by Mr Federico Luvisetto, the handsome Italian consultant surgeon who was going to carry out the removal of the cancer in my caecum. He told me if I was going to get a cancer of the bowel, one on the right side of my body was a good place for surgery. He also told me that the CT scan had shown some enlargement of lymph nodes that were not close to the bowel, and he indicated with his hand, a vague area in his upper torso. ‘Would that be connected to my thyroid’, I asked, but he was unwilling to commit to an explanation.

Now I knew what I was dealing with, I wanted the unwanted, unasked for ‘thing’ out as soon as possible. The surgery, a right hemicolectomy, went ahead two weeks after diagnosis, on 2nd March, with 30 cm of my guts being removed and the knitting back together the end of the colon with my small intestines. The extracted bit of gut included the large lump plus 20 cm of colon along with two lymph nodes. The surgery, all done via keyhole, was a complete success and I was turfed out of hospital four days later being told not to lift heavy things.

I could barely walk, let alone lift anything at that stage. Shuffling the few yards to the bathroom left me weak as a kitten. Yet, three weeks down the line, the stitches have dissolved and my scars are healing nicely. My mobility has improved beyond anything I could have imagined though I have to keep reminding myself not to lift heavy things. I am even able to sleep comfortably on both sides now. Still having to inject myself with a substance to thin my blood every day to avoid clots entering my brain is a necessary evil. I thought if my daughter Georgie (37) – a Type 1 diabetic since 12 – can do it, then who am I to complain.

My friends and family have been amazingly supportive, rallying round with offers of transport, a bed for the night, nourishing home-made soups and bread and Spring flowers from the garden. Even my ex husband came out of the woodwork to accompany me to hear my diagnosis and take me into hospital on the morning of my op. My house is now filled with cards of well wishes and flowers that lift my spirits with all the love and kindness I have been showered with. In a defiant gesture, I decided to cut off my plaits after three years of growth, as a new and determined-to-fight-this ‘me’ emerges.

But these are uncertain times. As the virus races around the world and the priority goes to those who have contracted the disease, I don’t know if I will be recalled to undergo chemotherapy to tackle the other lymph nodes that were a cause of concern. Therefore, I must think of a way to tackle this thing myself and I am getting my head around a strategy to eliminate any lingering cancer cells in my body. I know there is a way for a radical remission. I just need to find out what that is.

Ask and you shall get. The universe is providing me with the prompts towards information about how I might go about doing this. The BIG message is coming in loud and clear. Through a mixture of measures, such as – for the body: eating mostly a plant-based diet and regular exercise. All backed up with a spiritual practice and a strong belief in a life that is for living and not a life that is for dying. Plus, having a targeted goal to aim for seems to help. And a massive dose of TRUST. So my next post will be how I go about doing just what the doctor would never order!