I Can See Clearly Now

Here’s a big picture. That’s me on the left of the stage, with my wife Nic on the right, giving a conference speech on Sepsis and Resilience this week at the Excel Centre, in London.

I love to talk. I mean, it’s odd, because I’m not really what you would call an extrovert – but give me a stage, give me a microphone, give me an audience, and away I go. I absolutely love it, the opportunity to lead a discussion, the sense of drama in the occasion, the desire to connect. Dialogue, with questions and answers from the audience. It’s precious.

It helps me make sense of our incredible story. Sharing with others, how I fell suddenly ill with Sepsis and ran headlong towards the precipice, how I lost both my hands and both my feet, and my face. How I woke from a four month coma and couldn’t remember anything of my past life. How I didn’t recognise even my wife and family.

On stage, I get the chance to ask Nic questions about what happened, how she coped with what was a complex crisis, how it changed from hour to hour, day to day, year to year, how she managed to hold everything together over an extended period of time. Each time we present together, I learn something new, and see some new side of her story as a carer, as a mother, as a wife and as a woman in her own right. It’s fascinating, it makes me feel alive, and it makes me feel strong.

At 38 years old, I had to start my life all over again. Had to learn to walk, talk, eat, drink, think, wash, dress. Had to learn not to be scared. I had to learn how to be a husband and a father. I had to find hope, and the courage to carry on – and I have to be honest, there were periods of time, when I couldn’t do that.
I like to speak about it. Resilience is who I am, it’s what saved me, it’s what impels me forward. And by now, 17 years on from my crisis, I’m imbued with strength that I want to pass on to others, to give them the confidence that they too can face their own problems. Divorce, addiction, bereavement, debt, loss in all its different guises. How do we come back from the brink?

Life has its own way of bringing you back down to earth, and after a week on the road speaking at four different events, we’re suddenly back in Rutland, and I have an important hospital appointment. Yes, just as the November wind blows in sudden gusts and squalls, the last Friday of the month bursts in quickly to the room, all boots and elbows, kicking over chairs and knocking down tables. After those busy few days bouncing between speaking engagements in Chelmsford, Birmingham, London and Newport, suddenly I’m walking into the Leicester Royal Infirmary on my prosthetic legs, summoning the lift to the fourth floor of the Balmoral building, asking the way to the Opthamology department, where I’m due to have a cataract procedure. My false arms and hands feel heavy and awkward as I follow the thin orange line on the floor of the walkway, feeling apprehensive, anticipating agony.

I’m not good in hospitals. I’ve spent at least a year of my life in them, all told, and I came so close to dying in one of them that a physical chill runs through me, whenever I’m forced through their revolving doors. The insipid yellow strip lights run the long length of the corridors to the very darkest parts of my soul. I’ve suffered so much pain in side rooms, fought like a wounded soldier to overcome my fear in operating theatres, and sobbed like an hysterical child in recovery rooms.

I’ve been over the edge. By which I mean, past the point where even the surgeons feel uncomfortable, into unknown territory, where they’re pushing boundaries, trying untested techniques, taking life or death risks. Facial reconstruction that was done under local anaesthetic because they couldn’t get a line in to sedate me, surgeons going back to WW1 textbooks to try and find a way to rebuild my nose. Surgeons who failed. Their tearful apologies to me. It’s not pretty, none of that was reasonable or decent or nice, there was nothing heroic about it, it was frightening and it was lonely. The last thing you want to see as a patient is that look of uncertainty on the surgeon’s face, as they reach for the knife.

But this time, it’s going to be easy, right? They remove cataracts in minutes these days, don’t they? Isn’t it just like having a tooth filled – surely you just lie back, distract yourself for two minutes, and then it’s done?

Wrong. Or, at least in my case, once again today, it’s not to be so straightforward.

The first inkling I get is, the waiting room is packed when I arrive at midday, but I instantly have that sense that I’m destined to be the last to leave. Turns out, I’m right, because when they come to fetch me at 4pm, they explain that I’ve been left until last because of my complicated medical history, just in case I hold up any of the many other simpler day cases.

OK, I get that. I understand. I really do. But all the same, since I have this difficult history and this spiky, uneasy relationship with medicine in general, it’s troublesome having to sit all that time – four hours, at least – waiting to get started.

Of course, it’s all about the anaesthetist. It always is. Although I’m to remain conscious throughout the cataract removal, they have to put a line in just in case something goes awry and you suddenly need to be put under.

So, when I finally get into the chair, they start asking questions and looking for a vein, tap tap tapping at my amputated arms, finding no way in. They try eleven times with a needle (yes, I am counting), but cannot get it done. Each time they try, they ask me if it’s painful, and although I’m shaking my head, of course it hurts like hell.

It’s dark. There are twenty people in the operating theatre with me, waiting to do their job. Getting to this point, represents a serious investment of expertise, time and money.

I’m in patient mode. I’m embattled. I’ve been here many times before, the territory is entirely familiar, and I know I will win. I am Winston Churchill, on the beaches, and although the odds are against me, although the suffering may be great, I know I will fight on through.

This is Resilience, pure and simple. This is what we do. That strength that I draw on, that resolve in the most difficult moments, that determination to hold my nerve and not lose the day.
Where does it come from? Where is it fashioned, what is it made of? This resilience, this precious stuff that holds me strong, that fills me with resolve, at the point where I either do or die.
Well, I know exactly where it comes from, and I can tell you.

Here’s a picture:

This is Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall. It’s a place of safety for me, with only happy associations.
This is my wife, Nic, taking a photo – probably in preparation for one of her paintings.

When I look at this picture, I feel three things.

First and foremost, I feel love for her as my incredibly beautiful wife and the mother to our children.
Second, I feel grateful to be alive and to have the chance to share this amazing landscape with someone I truly admire and respect.

Third, because I survived Sepsis, I feel duty bound to enjoy the enduring time I have and not to be hurt by the smaller inconveniences of life.

Because, how precious is this moment and how lucky am I to be connected to it?

Temporary pain, physical inconvenience, awkwardness – these things are nothing to me, when I have the beach, when I have my family, when I have love.

Yes, love, is everything I need. I wonder… if you’d agree?