October Symphony

October is my favourite month. We live in Oakham, a small market town in the East Midlands, so we notice the seasonal changes, as winter steadily approaches. The nights slowly draw in, the chill and tingle of the evening begins to take you by surprise as the autumn weeks fall away, the trees turn golden, yellow, the afternoon sky burns endlessly blue. A kind of cool calmness descends, settling the end of the year. The surface of Rutland Water ripples pewter grey, and above it, ospreys wheel and turn, their beady eyes fixed on the green hillsides, seeing every living thing as it moves. Down by the silver lakeside, as dusk falls, even as disabled and broken as I am, I feel like I’m part of nature, I feel surrounded by it. The landscape is perfect, and deep inside of me, there are still fine things that remain. I feel the cool breeze at my brow. I know this place. I feel rooted. It’s as if in some way, I’m protected.

Music on the air. A symphony of strings, reassuring me. Piano notes, picking out the tempo of nature, busy all around.

Nicola and I travel to London this week. It’s a fast journey on the train, but first we have to get to Peterborough, which takes around forty minutes in the car. Nic drops me at the entrance to the station, then I wait while she drives around the corner to the long stay car park. I’m used to this routine, I quite enjoy the interlude, whilst I linger in the station foyer, people watching. Sometimes I’ll see a rough sleeper, wrapped in blankets, cradling a hot cup of tea. Always, I look across the road to the hotel where my mum used to stay, when she visited me in hospital. She died nearly two years ago. I miss her. She was so much on my side. Now, people scoot by. Strangers. I lean against the wall and think about it. In contrast to our Rutland life, I’m suddenly reminded that life is fast, unforgiving, that people are in a hurry, with no time to stand and stare, no time to connect. Around me, there’s a rush through the ticket barrier, a crush at the coffee shop counter, hushed platforms, after an intercity express crashes through, leaving a sudden void behind it.

Normally, it takes Nic just five minutes to park, so after ten minutes have gone by, I’m starting to wonder. Something’s wrong, I can sense it – but I don’t know what. It’s OK, I tell myself, it is what it is. No need to panic. I take another tour of the station foyer, and a quick peek outside at the cab drivers, lining up for business. I can wait. I’m good at that. Everything resolves itself, I just have to be patient.

It’s twenty minutes before Nic appears, agitated, edgy, flustered. I notice this immediately because she’s never any of these things. She’s normally calm personified. Turns out, the car park barrier had failed just as she was at the head of a long queue, so she’d been trapped, not able to advance, or turn around. What made it worse was that the drivers in the cars behind her decided immediately to take it out on each other, prolonging the inconvenience for everyone concerned.

Anyway, it all got fixed, apparently by an intelligent, practical Asian taxi driver, who was able to take charge of the queuing traffic and direct it around the obstacle. Like the astronauts on Apollo 13, he analysed the problem, worked on the facts, and found a solution. This reminds me of a mantra I’ve clung to in recent years that helps me overcome sticking points in my disability: work on the facts of your situation, not how it makes you feel.

To London, then. Nicola and I are guest speakers at the Queen’s Nurses Institute who are running a session on Resilience for their Nurse Leadership programme. So it’s a select group of outstanding nurse leaders, a chance to present our experience of Sepsis, rehabilitation and recovery, with the emphasis being very much on the message that the smart actions of nurses as individuals and in teams can make a real difference.

Because minutes matter. With Sepsis, there’s no room for delay, no question of waiting hours and hours for test results to come back, no reason not to check immediately for signs of the Sepsis Six. For patients with septic shock, there is an 8% increase in mortality for every hour of delay in antibiotic administration. This is all about awareness, and timely action: nurses and nurse teams who can actively intervene on the basis of the Sepsis Six will be saving lives, limbs, families. It’s as simple as that, so it is hugely important for Nic & I to tell the story of the long delays in A&E that came so close to killing me.

It’s humbling to be in contact with these nurses at the QNI. It feels like, these are people who can make a practical difference – right across the UK. After everything I’ve been through, all the anguish, pain, despair, all the amputations, all the PTSD, the resulting poverty, the humiliation: after all that, finally, it feels like our voice is being heard by people with the power to change things.

We discuss the importance of sharing best practice in A&E and Intensive Care, the possibility of improving the timeliness of taking blood tests and receiving results. In my case, this took 12 hours, but this was obviously disastrous. Talking to the nurses at the QNI, it feels like these are the experts who can lead on the implementation of time-saving procedures that will actually save lives.

We also share our post-sepsis experience, following the discharge from hospital. We are able to report that at this point, the role of the Rutland community nurses became all important. For many, many months, they visited me at home to dress wounds, and these interventions helped us in all kinds of practical and emotional ways. Because, they weren’t just treating me, as the patient – they were very much involved in helping us to cope as a family, to come back to life. Most important, their presence and attendance meant that Nicola wasn’t isolated and alone in trying to deal with what was an incredibly complex situation. The nurses got to know the children too, and could offer helpful advice about local services. They encouraged us to realise that we were not alone in our predicament, combining expert care with a strong pastoral role, in so many ways re-connecting us with the world outside. Every time we had a visit from one of the community nurses, something changed for the better.  From our point of view, the community nurses were very much the local foot-soldiers of the NHS, and the denigration of their role in recent years is a matter very much to be regretted.

We have so many positive messages, in difficult times. So I feel euphoric after the event, and I’m in London, which is one of my favourite places in the world, I’m down by the river, the weather is sunny and I’m feeling fine.

London, so vast, so busy, so exciting. From a beautiful riverside apartment, I stare down at the Thames. I see the swell and the momentum of the water, running eastwards. It’s the colour of steel, ochre grey, muddy brown, with flashes of sunlight, like diamonds thrown from on high, and swirling.

Battersea Power Station. Westminster Bridge, in the distance. Tall apartment buildings going up. The jade green leaves of the trees lining the road across the river. An October symphony, played out before me. Fresh air on the apartment balcony.

Sepsis nearly killed me. I have been given this second chance. I am the lucky one. Life is so very, very precious. And although there are times when I feel so disabled and so alone, like in the station foyer, my role as a public speaker about sepsis and resilience gives me this unique experience of connecting in such an important way. I have a voice.

I’m reminded how important it is to pay very close attention to the things that surround us, other people, the animals in our world, the night sky, the wind, the way people behave. We are uniquely fortunate even to have the chance of responding to these things. It’s like treasure all around us. It’s easy for us as individuals to forget all this, to forget about natural beauty and to disregard love. But honestly, just to be alive, this is such a privilege – it’s something that struck me deeply on coming out of my post Sepsis rehab from hospital, and now, I try actively not to forget this.

Friendship, Love, Generosity, Life, nature, the forests, the sky, the sea: all absolutely marvellous in their utter gratuity. If we open our eyes and just acknowledge this, we might be able to be consoled for some of the pain we carry within us. If we encourage ourselves in this way, we may be reconciled to the sense of any disappointment or loss or hurt we might have concerning the difficult things that have happened in our lives.

That’s what I think. Together, let’s enjoy October together. On the autumn wind, in the rippling river tide, in the waves of Rutland Water as they run to and fro and in the whispering leaves on the trees, I see and hear only good things about how our lives can be mended.