Sunday, 27 November 2016

Speed Dating

T and I have never been car enthusiasts. We can’t stand Jeremy Clarkson or Top Gear. All we really want from a car is for it to start reliably, drive well and not cost us too much to get through the MOT. Due to a series of unfortunate events, T has become the owner of two cars. But neither of them works. And we have been forced to enter the murky world of automobiles in more depth than we ever wanted.

For years T had driven a German car with a reputation for its engineering. She never really liked the car that much. The seats weren’t comfortable and it drove badly in winter, needing two sacks of sand in the boot to keep it on the road. But it was very reliable, until one day a couple of weeks back when the engine failed and it rolled to stop on the motorway. The car was dragged away at some expense and then taken back to her garage. After some delay we were told the timing chain had broken and had seized the engine. The options were to fit a new engine for £3000 or sell it to a breaker for £500. As the car was nearly seven years old, the latter was the only realistic option.

Fearing the worst, we had already started looking for another car. I sought the weekly magazine called Auto Trader, but was told that it was now all online. Checking through the site we realised it was a little like computer dating. You surf the possibilities, look at their shining photos, read the description of their best qualities and make a short-list. Then you arrange to see them. But this often leads to disappointment, as you find they weren’t quite what you expected. And when you test them you can encounter some unsavoury features.

Car salesmen are also very much of a type, whether at a main dealer or on a small lot somewhere on a country road. They are full of blather and would say almost anything to get you hooked. Despite wearing sharp suits, they would be fully at home at a country fair selling horses with nods and winks. You can well imagine them spitting in their palms to seal the deal.

In the end, we bought a Fiesta from a main Ford dealer; it was three years old with a Powershift automatic gearbox and low mileage. The car cost £7500 with a year’s warranty. We picked it up on Saturday lunchtime, just before they closed. On the way home the car began to judder and rattle alarmingly, this got worse on hills.

We rang Ford and complained. They asked us to bring the car back in for a check. We did so the next day. They confirmed a fault with the automatic transmission. We asked for our money back.

A manager came over and spoke to us gushingly. He offered us our money back, but pleaded for an opportunity to fix the fault at no expense to us. As T liked the car in every other respect, we agreed. He also promised that if the fault was not fixed then we could have our money back. I asked him to put this agreement in writing and gave him my email. He looked at me uneasily and gave me a half nod, then shrugged.

I drove T home and waited for the email. When it didn’t come, I summarised the agreement in an email to him. The next day, I had to take T to her local appointments in my car. At the end of the day I got a call from the manager, he said he agreed with my email. I again asked him to put this in writing, he replied to my email but carefully avoided confirming the agreement. The day after I took T to the Belfast bus and picked her up on her return. Then we had a call to say her car was fixed.

Again we picked it up on Saturday lunchtime. For a wee while it seemed to be going better, then the juddering and rattling began again. Exasperated and unhappy, we returned the car to them. They said that they would fix it for good this time and offered T a hire car for the week. As T still liked the Fiesta, we decided to give them a second chance.

This car problem really bothered me. It was the same week that I was waiting for my scan results. I didn't need another significant stress. I was afraid that we had bought a lemon and that Ford would do their best to avoid refunding us. Might we end up being stuck with it? 

The following Saturday we again collected the car, hoping against hope that the fault might be fixed. But the car juddered and rattled, just like before. We raged and railed. It was over. We had reached the end of an unhappy road with this car. With regret at all the time we had wasted, we returned the car to Ford and asked for our money back.  

Several managers gathered around us with serious expressions. At first they told us that the juddering was a characteristic of the automatic transmission. We refused to believe them, shaking our heads with disbelief. Then they offered to take the Fiesta back, but only if we traded it for another automatic from the lot. We flatly refused to have another Powershift car. Eventually they agreed to take the car and give us our money back.

We shook hands on the deal. It would take some days to process the documents and our refund. We walked away from Ford with deep relief. We were back on the dating scene again.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Scans

I’ve had three scans over the past two months. The first two took place during my second stay in hospital in early September. The third was last week. My first CT scan was routine, on my admission as a new patient. It identified a suspicious spot on my tenth rib, which could be an early indication of a bone tumour. This scared me very much. My tenth rib was near where I’d just had a tumour removed.

The radiologist said I needed a bone scan to check this out. Three worrying days later, a radiographer appeared at my bedside with a small metal container with radioactive materials in it. This was injected into my bloodstream. She seemed very casual in handling the wee container, so I asked her how much radioactivity had just been pumped into me. Put it this way, she said, you’re exposed to more radioactivity than this when you have a CT scan.

In the scanning room I lay down on a raised bed. I had to be very still for half an hour as a large camera on a metal arm followed the contours of my body very slowly. The radioactive materials highlighted spots where your body was making new bone and the special camera recorded them. These hot-spots could be places where you had a new fracture or a tumour.

I spent a terrible night on the ward, waiting for the results. And when I got them I wasn’t put out of my misery. ‘It’s not positive,’ said the doctor, ‘and it’s not negative’. I looked at him perplexed. ‘There’s no evidence of bone-making going on in your tenth rib,’ he said, ‘but the type of cancer you have can be present without any bone-making going on’. I shook my head in disbelief. ‘We’re discharging you,’ he said, ‘and sending these results to your Oncologist.’

This mental distress was on top of my recent surgery. I was in a lot of pain and still disorientated from the anaesthetic. Three very difficult and fraught weeks later I got to see the Oncologist; or rather the Oncologist’s ‘Reg’ (Registrar), the most senior of the junior doctors, who seemed to end up doing a heavy workload.

‘I’ll be frank with you,’ he said, ‘we don’t know what the spot on your tenth rib is.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘but what might it be?’  
‘It could be nothing, a false reading, or it could be some damage connected to the surgery you recently had,' he paused, ‘or it could be a new tumour.’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘so what are you going to do about it?’
‘Wait and see,’ he said. ‘We’ll scan you again in six weeks and see if anything has developed.’
‘Six weeks,’ I gasped, ‘aren’t you going to test it now?’
‘Not at this stage,’ he said, ’a biopsy would have to be done under general anaesthetic, almost the same procedure as to remove the rib itself.’
‘And what would you do if it was a bone tumour?’ I asked.
‘I couldn’t speculate,’ he said, ‘but when we see a tumour in the bone, that’s usually a sign of more widespread recurrences’.

I went home with a dense black cloud hanging over me. I was still recovering from surgery. My body was sore and complaining. My head was full of dread. I hoped against hope that the spot was caused by some damage from the surgery. The surgical table in an operating theatre is narrow and your body must be pulled and pushed around when you are anaesthetised. However, the suspicious spot was on the inside of the rib. I imagined the surgeon cutting away at my rear abdominal muscles with heavy pressure and tearing the attachment to the rib, like when I was carving up a chicken for Sunday dinner. Equally well, I could imagine the tumour cells, that had been just a few inches away from the rib for the best part of eighteen months, spreading there and then throughout my body.

The wait was interminable. I was irritable, moody and couldn’t concentrate. I went for walks, watched TV, surfed the internet. Friends called. Nothing seemed to distract me from the black cloud for very long. Not even the always patient and considerate T, who did her very best to help me.

I returned to the dilemma again and again. Night was always the worst. In sleepless hours I weighed the scant evidence repeatedly. I became my own jury. And often I was my own hanging judge.

The day of the CT scan came. I headed to the Cancer Centre, like I had done so many times before, and went through the machine.

Back home, I waited for days for the call. It normally came from my GP, who would access the scan report online.

The mobile rang. My heart leapt. It was the GP. The hospital intranet was under repair, so he couldn’t get the report. I begged him to try again. I just couldn’t wait the two weeks until my next hospital appointment.

Two terrible days later, another call. Breathless, I listened. The scan was clear.

I gasped. Relief flooded through me, then deep exhaustion.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Surgeon

I returned to the Mater Hospital for a review appointment with the surgeon who did my operation. He examined my wound and said it was healing well. I told him about the pain I was experiencing in the lower part of the wound. I pointed to a raised patch of skin that became irritated when I slept on my side and by the waistband of my trousers. So much so, that I normally went around with my waistband undone, my zip at three-quarters height and my trousers only held up by a loosely fastened belt. I’m sure if I bent over, which I don’t do because of the wound, there might be an episode of workman’s bum.

He explained that this surface pain was from a fold of skin that protruded because of some of the stitches underneath. He described this as a corrugation and told me the surface layer of skin would soften soon because the stitches underneath would break down and become fully absorbed. I also asked him about the deeper pain I experienced in my lower abdomen. He said that this came from my rear abdominal muscles and nerves that he had to cut into to remove the roots of the tumour. He felt it ought to settle in time. He described this part of the operation as tough work, for he had to ‘hack away’ at the muscle and then ‘haul out’ the tumour which was very reluctant to be dislodged. As he spoke I imagined some nineteenth century surgeon on the battlefield, removing a wounded soldier’s leg. Thankfully, I hadn’t been given a piece of wood to bite on.

He then talked me through the pathology report on the tumour. The good news was that the tumour was fully encapsulated by healthy cells, although in places the clear margin was rather fine, at 1mm. Further good news was that the tumour had abutted onto, but had not invaded, any of the structures of my liver or my small bowel. It seems that it had just been caught in time.

I was extremely relieved and thanked him for his great skill and judgement. He smiled but advised caution. I would have a CT scan shortly and this would be the first real test of whether there was any evidence of spread. After all, cancer cells had been active inside my body for the eighteen months prior to this surgery. I needed to be vigilant.

T and I held hands and walked out of the consulting room with a much lighter step than we had entered. We called in to Ward F; where I had been for a week, two long months ago. I thanked the nurses and gave them presents of chocolates and biscuits. Then I noticed that the young man who had been in the bed next to me was still there. I went over and commiserated with him. He had been discharged but had then relapsed and had been back in hospital for the past month. He had no idea when he might get home. I wished him well with his treatment and left the ward thankful that I had come so far on my journey of recovery.