Friday, 23 July 2010


My relationship with hospitals goes back a long way. When I was a child I suffered from some silly kidney issue where my kidneys produced too much protein. This meant that I spent a faire amount of time in hospital and as a young child my main aim was to get well enough to go home. I still recall the feeling of abandonment, of despair and of desperation each and every time family would visit and then have to leave me behind. The power that a doctor who popped in from time to time, had over whether one stayed or went home was a power which I felt was wielded too strongly against me. This was the “Coloured” and “Indian” hospital in Rhodesia (The Lady Rodwell, I think it was called). Nurses were dressed smartly with little white hats, white outfits, cloaks and badges and if you cried too much or didn’t eat your dinner, you were threatened with a visit from matron, who would descend upon you in her blue cloak and give you a telling off. Although I was so unhappy, I was well looked after, partially because several of the nurses, matrons and assistant nurses (they wore pink, I think) knew my parents and grandparents.

Today, hospitals have changed. I won’t even mention what Zimbabwe hospitals are like now, but in the UK, nurses wear overall type outfits, crocks or trainers and one cannot (at least I couldn’t) distinguish rank. This past Sunday, after telling my psychiatrist friend Tony about how much pain I had been in, he decided that we should go and see the resident oncologist at UCH. After Tony rang her, she rang me and said that I should come in straight away. When we arrived there, we were met by a rather unpolished receptionist whose catch line was and still is: “who are you?” I am sure she doesn’t realise how rude she is being and I was tempted, once I heard her say it again yesterday, to point this out. But I didn’t.

My visit to UCH for my operation started at 06h50 when Adam met me promptly in reception downstairs. We went upstairs, got the “who are you?” treatment and eventually, a nurse popped her head around the door and said she was making my bed. After a fair amount of time, Adam wondered if she was literally making it from scratch using steel (you can’t take these engineers anywhere). Once inside the bed area, I was handed one of those embarrassing hospital gowns and a pair of paper underwear, most certainly not Calvin Klein’s brand either. I was also promised a pair of DVT stockings which I had to wear throughout my visit and a pair of non-slip could easily do a pirouette in a pair of those but as my bottom was exposed in paper undies, I decided not to demonstrate to Adam or the two beaten-up patients opposite me. A promising start with my throat specialist Mr. (don’t call me doctor, I’m a surgeon) Vaz, and being told I was no. 2 on the list, I thought yay, Ads can escort me to the theatre before having to go to work. However, this was not to be because by 08h40 I had clearly been moved well down the list. By 11h00 I was in agony with pain all down my left side (it has spread into my left thigh and buttock) and asked the nurse who was looking after me if I could take something for it. He said that unless I was cannulised there was no way but then another nurse in blue overalls arrived and said that I could take two tramadol with a little sip of water.

Unfortunately, the tramadol did not kick in by the time I was finally walked to theatre so I was hobbling along and just desperate to get knocked out by the anaesthetist. A nice surprise to see my sister Heather and my niece Fredalyne sitting in reception. They thought I had already been operated on but alas and alack, I was on my way. They were invited along for the walk, 14th floor to 2nd floor and were advised to go away for about 2 hours. Once in the theatre waiting bay, I was sat in front of a TV with as poor a reception as received Nick Clegg at a recent Royal do. All of us with our gowns, stockings and a few exceptions to the non-slip slippers, trying not to make eye or lower-body contact by staring at the TV screen. When I was called in, it all happened very quickly. After trying to anaesthetise me, the anaesthetist had to put a local anaesthetic into my cannula because of the pain that the anaesthetic was causing. Thankfully, he didn’t make me count down and I cannot recall anything other than waking up in the recovery room, not a pleasant place to be (although one should be grateful to actually end up in the recovery room rather than the morgue!). I was wheeled back to my ward where my sister, niece and Tony were waiting. I was still in great pain as the tramadol hadn’t seemed to kick in. I was also drowsy so my visitors didn’t stay long. Heather bought me some grapes at my request and the nurse told me that unless I ate most of them and some dinner later on, I would NOT be allowed out that night. I heard the guy opposite me being offered a snack box so I asked for one too. It had cheese and crackers, an apple and a packet of crisps. I managed the cheese and crackers and ate most of the grapes. Mr. Vas popped in to see how my voice was and it was stronger but unless it improves in the next few days, I doubt that I would call the operation much of a success. I am still dehydrated and need some strepsils so things might still improve. I know, however, that singing is out of the question. The doctor had said that he might need to operate twice and I have a review with him in 3 to 4 weeks’ time. Having eaten my hospital dinner which comprised lasagne, smash and boil the eff out of broccoli, I was allowed to go home with Tony at 7. Pharmacy, as usual, was late in dispensing drugs.

It was great receiving a huge number of texts, emails and facebook messages wishing me a speedy recovery, including one from someone with whom I haven’t connected in about 17 years. It is now 05h13 and I have done my usual cup of hot milk thing when I wake up in the middle of the night and now I am ready to go back to sleep. Today, Reinhardt and Rob have organised some renovations to my loft room and I am very excited to see what the extra space is going to offer. Next on the list is the bathroom. I cannot wait to have a decent bathroom, particularly one with a shower that allows you to regulate the water temperature!

Thank you all, once again, for your amazing love and support. Without you, I could not do any of this at all.

Your honking but not-yet-speaking

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mind over matter

A very talented musician, intelligent and wise friend (Errol) said to me, over breakfast or dinner in France, “you have a strong mind and it is your mind that is going to get you through this challenge.” He pointed out that I have a rational mind and that while I think things through and like things “ordered”, sometimes I might need to just allow nature to take its course and not be disappointed when I cannot find an explanation for why things like pain persist. In a nutshell, he was speaking about mind over matter and the power of positive thought. This conversation came about while discussing the severe pain I have been experiencing of late, mainly lower back and kidney pain on the left side of my body. I was saying that while I can continue to fill myself with various painkillers of different strengths, I wanted to know what is causing this pain in order to treat the cause, not the symptoms. Errol’s wife Sue (ex-prima ballerina, excellent cook, baker and loving friend), a pharmacist friend Pam (brilliant song-writer and party-animal of note), and a doctor friend Robert (gentle, caring and very good at logical diagnoses), all worked together during my week in France to ease my discomfort and to help eliminate the pain that sometimes had me turning in circles, mainly in the middle of the night.

Back in England, another close friend asked me why I don’t call someone or wake someone up when I am in such pain and I explained that firstly, as there is nothing that anyone can do to help stop the pain it is simply distressing for this person to have to observe someone you care about writhing in agony and feeling absolutely helpless, and secondly, I do not want anyone to see me in such pain because I rotate my body and move about in such undignified positions in a desperate attempt to gain a modicum of comfort. My GP, pharmacist and advice from friends, have all helped me to manage my pain more effectively and I am pleased to note that I now tend to wake up around 5am and not 3am in pain. I have also decided to seek alternative non-drug pain control in order to avoid feeling like a total zombie all day long. Afternoon naps are taking the form of a coma which leaves me feeling much worse than if I hadn’t had the nap in the first place. Mild exercise is definitely on the cards and lots of vitamins and energy-boosting foods too. By focusing my mind on pain relief, I will pull through this part of my challenge.

Anyway, this blog is not meant to be about pain or trials and tribulations. It is about encounters. As those of you who read my last blog will know that I was in the south of France, Villeneuve-Loubet to be exact. Installed in the most charming loft which came with air-conditioning, I spent a lovely week resting, reading, eating amazing food, chatting to friends, and meeting the local villageois. Sue knows everyone in the village and I met most of her friends. There was Aida from Senegal who gave me a CD of songs written by her son and who said to Sue: “il est très beau” (yes, she had been to specsavers!), her grandson Tony who drew me a lovely picture, Sara, a young Arab girl, and many other villageois who owned businesses from restaurants to dog parlours. Unfortunately, with my husky voice and lack of energy, I was not able to talk the hind leg off a donkey as I usually do.

I was able to contact Robert, a doctor friend of mine thanks to Sue’s investigative skills and we had a lovely reunion in the village followed by a helpful visit to the local pharmacy for medicines. I also spent a day and night with Pam who introduced me to a lovely extended family, part Moroccan, to celebrate a birthday and watch the cup final. Turned out that their son Romain was at the Nice Conservatoire where I was once a student. And then, the cherry on the cake: Alistair Whitehair. I taught Ali French (International Baccalaureate) for 2 years at Whitgift school, pushed him hard in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation and he has been working in Marseilles for about a month now. Ali took the time to travel down to see me and we spent the day in Nice and the evening in Villeneuve-Loubet with Sue and Errol. Ali was the captain of my day House and as he was then, he is still someone of the highest quality and integrity. His French is excellent and it was indeed a pleasure conversing almost entirely in French with him for the whole day. All in all, my trip to Villeneuve-Loubet was awesome despite hearing some devastating news from one of my couchsurfers - Emilien - who had to return to Paris to face a family crisis. I am pleased to say that he is coping much better with this tragic event and will be returning to the couchsurfing fold in a couple of weeks’ time. Another set of bad news included the death of Angie Milligan, a dear and most caring and loving lady with a charming Irish accent, who sadly died of lung cancer. That really upset me as I was very close to the whole family. Angie always used to say “don’t put it down, put it away”. She made lovely chocolate cakes and quiches and full English breakfasts with black pudding, after Sunday mass.

Returning home was lovely. I was kidnapped within minutes of getting home by Alex who cooked me a lovely hot curry which we shared with the ever gorgeous Sarah. Back at 5A, I sat with my couchsurfers (one of whom doesn’t really appreciate that I use that that term affectionately but he’s decided that “squatter” is worse), catching up on their news. The next morning I had my pre-op assessment which involved answering a load of boring questions as well as a physical examination. For those of you who don’t know, the op will be done on the 23rd of July and I might have to stay overnight in hospital depending on my reaction to the anaesthetic. While I am hoping that the operation will be a success and give me all or most of my voice back, I am not particularly looking forward to it. It will be conducted under full anaesthetic, something that concerns me, my lungs being in their current state of disrepair. However, my friend John is an anaesthetist and is confident that all will go well.

Morse is whistling away from the living room, demanding his apple and other forms of breakfast snacks so I had best get out of bed and deal with his requests. He has sent John and Richard away to Portugal so that he and I can party the week away. Perhaps we’ll have some vodka shots to wash the apple down followed by a wild and splashing swim in his water bowl. I was impressed at how many CD covers he had managed to chew his way through yesterday...he clearly does not approve of John and Richard’s choice of music.

Until next time, start strengthening your mind. Focus on something you think you cannot do, and work towards doing it. Don’t let trivial issues get you down, use your mind and the power of positive thought to tackle the bigger issues. Love yourself and don’t wait for others to love you first. Lastly, if there is someone you really care about, spend the day thinking about them, willing them to call you. If they don’t, then just call them.

Love in abundance


Tuesday, 6 July 2010


I am writing from a lovely loft room in Villeneuve-Loubet (France), home to my friends Errol and Sue. Many years ago when I was a student at the Conservatoire in Nice, Errol and Sue were my refuge. I was always able to escape the boredom of public holidays by popping in to see them. But this blog is about Poland, not France, so I will speak about the loft room and this trip in another blog.

Last weekend I flew to Katowice in Poland to stay with Bart (one of my wonderful couchsurfers) and his family. Until I met Bart, for me, Poland was “that place” where Auschwitz was situated and whence came all our plumbers in London. The few Polish people I had met in London hadn’t seemed particularly friendly and I must admit that I hadn’t formed a positive opinion about Polish people based on my limited experience. However, in retrospect, this opinion was not justified as I recall having spontaneous drinks with a group of Poles who were renting rooms in the same house as my German friend Patrik in Brighton and they were extremely friendly. To be honest, I think that I allowed one or two minor encounters cloud my opinion, something we tend to do too often in life: judge an entire race by one or two negative representatives.

Before leaving for Poland, I asked Bart to inform his mother that I was not a big eater. I did this because during a visit to Prague with Vojtech, I was faced with table after table of wonderful but enormous servings of food. Since stopping the steroids, my appetite has not been huge and I was worried about causing offense. Well, Bart’s wonderful mother was not to be deterred. She produced amazing food and wanted to feed me from the moment I arrived. What a lovely family: the expression “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is so true. In London, Bart has been very caring and generous and has also shared his excellent sense of humour with us all. His family, from parents, sister, grandmother to aunt and uncle, showed the same high level of generosity, friendship, warmth and humour. Despite the language barrier (my “Polish in 60 minutes” didn’t work but only because I was too lazy and did 10 of the 60 minutes), we had many a laugh around the table. Bart was a great interpreter but was reluctant to interpret some of my comments about him to his family. I would have loved to have been able to recount anecdotes about Bart’s life in London, spin a yarn or two about him, and embarrass him a little, but alas, 10 minutes of “Polish in 60 minutes” only allowed me to greet and to say thank you! Bart’s grandmother was very much like my mom’s mother. I have been so lucky having known three awesome grandparents. I am always taken aback by people who have not had good experiences with their grandparents as they could and should play such a vital role in a child’s life. I tried to persuade Bart’s gran to come back to London with us and she jokingly agreed as long as we bought her a ticket. The whole weekend, I was spoiled rotten by Bart and his family and must say that the level of hospitality and friendliness was simply wonderful.

In terms of visiting Poland, one of my main interests lay in the second World War and the “final solution” regarding the Jews. On Saturday, Bart, his sister and I visited Krakow. After wondering around the town square by foot and visiting the market, we took one of the electric city tour cars. Both Bart and I got a little bored about the number of Churches and their history (Poland was a very religious country). From my point of view, it wasn’t that I was against all the Churches, it was just that there were so many and I was impatient to get to the Jewish quarter and to also see the remains of the ghetto that was erected to contain the Jewish people. All in all, the tour was very interesting and the story about the dragon (not to mention the statue of the dragon spitting fire), was endearing. After a late lunch we went to visit a salt mine. I recall threatening my students with banishment to the salt mines of Siberia but I had never visited a salt mine before. When we descended the 800+ stairs to the bottom of the mine, our guide was brilliant despite the rude tourists who spoke over his voice. One particularly funny comment he made was: “At this salt mine you can lick anything...EXCEPT the guide!” It was, once again, an interesting visit.

We arrived back at Bart’s home to find a barbecue in process and some of his relatives visiting. They were keen to know more about me and through Bart’s skilled intrepreting, we had a great evening of chatting, laughing and eating. We were viciously attacked by mosquitoes before moving indoors and I had a funny lump on my head where one mosquito had a go (my hair is extremely short as Adam, my barber, was not concentrating...he had also created two interesting – but very different - hair sculptures above each of Bart’s ears).

On Sunday, Bart and I woke up early for our visit to Auschwitz. The visit lasted approximately 3 hours and was everything I expected it to be. While waiting for the visit to start, I asked myself why I was there...I was thinking in terms of how people “rubber neck” when driving past a gruesome car accident on the highway. Why do we want to see the misfortunes of other people? Are we all inherent voyeurs, and was I in Auschwitz as a voyeur, someone who wanted to look in from the outside and in some way, both bask and squirm in the misfortune of millions of Jews? The guide’s opening remark put my visit into perspective. He said: “Auschwitz is NOT a tourist attraction; it is a reminder of what can and did happen. It was about one simple objective: the extermination of the Jewish race.” The guide reminded us, throughout the visit, about how cold-blooded and simplistic this objective remained. I kept my emotions in check despite the obvious evidence of the suffering and humiliation that the prisoners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, suffered. I thought about current attitudes towards the Roma, in England and elsewhere in Europe, about how we regard them with suspicion, and how the Germans extinguished so many of them based on the exact same suspicions and disdain we sometimes show for their race. It made me reflect on how dangerous racial prejudice can be in the hands of someone with power (and I am not speaking about colour, but about race and ethnicity). In fact, any prejudice for that matter. I used to tell potential couchsurfers (and in fact my students) that they had to leave all their prejudices outside the door to my house or classroom, that tolerance was my core value, and seeing the results of incomprehensibly destructive prejudice was a stark reminder to myself of the need to guard against the ever-present temptation to show prejudice, no matter how mild. We ended our tour with a visit to Birkinau, and to be honest, the open space, the barbed wire fencing and the wooden sheds which housed the prisoners, had more of an impact on me than Auschwitz in terms of being able to picture the level of degradation the Jews and other “unwanted” races had to endure. Seeing the offloading ramp/area where people were divided into groups, and seeing the communal toilets and the incinerators which had been destroyed by the Germans when they realised their time was up, brought it all home more realistically.
We returned to Bart’s home in time for a lovely lunch and sad drive to the airport to say goodbye and to fly back to London. All in all, an excellent trip, my first to Poland, and a truly great experience.

Health-wise, it has been a bit of a struggle of late. Coughing has been debilitating and back pain has been, at times, excruciating. It is all on the left hand side of my body. I saw my GP who has prescribed a stronger painkiller but we really need to get to the cause of the pain...scans a couple of months ago showed my spine and liver etc clear of cancer but I think that further investigation is needed as there has to be a reason for such pain to be present. As always, I am well looked after by friends and family, and my couchsurfers (read ‘wonderful friends’) are as attentive as ever. Good news is that I have a date for surgery on my vocal cords: Friday 23rd July. I have a pre-hospital assessment on the 14th. I cannot wait to see if the op is successful as I am desperate to get my some or all of my voice back. It has been approximately 10 weeks now that I haven’t been able to speak properly and it is tiring, frustrating and getting in the way of my desire to coach as much as possible.

Some days I feel strong and believe I can last “forever”, and others, particularly when I am writhing in agony because painkillers haven’t kicked in yet, I wish it were all over sooner rather than later. I still have plans to travel more and have no intention of leaving this earth until I have had a good trip to Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as NYC and other places. Right now, I can look forward to a relaxing week in the South of France, being spoiled by Sue and Errol.

Whatever it is that you are doing, do it with love, passion and enjoyment, or don’t do it! As a coach, I know that even if you think you hate your job or your life, upon closer inspection, you will find that you only hate certain aspects of your job or life and those aspects can be changed or improved. Often, it is a matter of changing your perception and attitude before further positive change can take place and you can start loving what you do. It is not where you do something that matters, it is what you do and how you do it that matters. So fill your lives with love, passion and laughter and if you don’t know how to do it, find someone to teach you how. I recently said goodbye to Remi, a 21yr old French couchsurfer whose level of self-confidence and enthusiasm for life was a huge lesson to me. I learned to stop moaning about unimportant things, or at the very least, to look at them differently. Remi broke every rule within my “book of rules” yet I learned so much from him, not all good - in which case I was able to become the teacher - and the main thing I learned, was to seize the moment, to open up my mind and to live. In his last days in London, Remi told me: “I will not say no to anything that my friends or people suggest to me in London”. Alarm bells rang in my head and I tried to lecture him on the inherent dangers...blah blah blah...Well, of course he ignored my lecutring, but he also left London safe and sound, having had the most amazing experiences, all of which he recounted to me, often between midnight and 4 in the morning, and I listened without prejudice, just neutral interest and a certain amount of envy. All the worrying about his safety and possible disastrous outcomes was unnecessary.

So, once again, I encourage us all to live life with passion and enjoyment...we don’t know, each and every one of us (not only those of us who have been given a time-limit), when we will “pop our clogs” so why waste time being miserable?

Until the next time

Much love from