Regaining consciousness brought some tough new realities into sharp focus. Breathing being quite a major one. Paralysis of over 60% of my chest meant I could no longer breathe for myself. Waking up with a big tube sticking out my neck was a bit of a shock. It wasn’t a bad dream, I’d had a tracheostomy (‘tracky’) …
’Tracheostomy’, the medical term: a surgical procedure which consists of making an incision (cut) on the anterior aspect (front) of the neck and opening a direct airway through an incision in the trachea (windpipe). The resulting stoma (hole) can serve independently as an airway or as a site for a tracheal tube or tracheostomy tube to be inserted; this tube allows a person to breathe without the use of the nose or mouth.’
Waking up with your throat cut really hurts! Even if just a relatively small, red, inflamed hole. Ironic, when you don’t have any feeling in over 80% of your body, that … the hole has been made in the remaining 20% that does.
Looking up, I see my sister: “Mandy…!”, I call out.
Again, but louder: “Mandy…!”.
I don’t make any sound at all.
Later, I learn the medical wisdom explaining that you need air flowing over your vocal cords to make any sound. As the tracky bypasses the mouth, my vocal cords are redundant. So, I can’t breathe and I can’t speak. Great! Following the tracky with my eyes from my neck leads to a rather large, stainless steel trolley. This trolley is fully laden with two shelves of complicated –looking machinery with lots of wires, dials, tubes and the like sticking out in various directions. Not sure what this is but got a feeling it might well limit my spontaneity in life?!
You know you’re in trouble, when you need to start ‘weaning’ again at the tender age of 48. This is weaning off the tracky. Problem being, you need the tracky to breathe and you need to breathe to survive. Nasty vicious circle. Made worse as the longer you are on the tracky, the weaker the chest muscles become so leading to complete dependence pretty quickly. When two ladies in matching dark green tops approached my bed space a couple of weeks post accident, I was pretty suspicious. Didn’t need to be, these green ladies were Neuro Physiotherapists . They very quickly became my Guardian Angels. Armed with detailed instructions from the Southport Spinal Specialist Respiratory Service, we immediately started ‘weaning’.
This is how weaning works. In intensive care, the patient is constantly wired to a machine measuring critical observations (‘obs’): including blood pressure, heart rate and ‘sats’ (percentage of oxygen in blood). Physio turns machine off. Patient breathes under their own steam. Physio turns machine back on, ideally before patient expires. Physio looks at obs. If no change i.e. patient copes, then patient ‘promoted’ to next level. If patient doesn’t cope, then the same level is repeated until they can, or accept that they never will.
Now this was more like it! A challenge. Like these. 10 minutes off the tracky? Easy… or so I thought. After about 40 seconds, I was panting like a……… But the training mentality kicked in and second by second the necessary 600 ticked slowly past. I’m sorry tracky machine! I love you! I was so relieved to be reconnected. That was an eye-opener and huge reality check: used to cycling 12+ hours and well over 100 miles a day without batting an eyelid. Now I was the equivalent of a 90 year old, still trying to pack in over 100 Rothmans a day!
Spent the rest of the day in recovery mode. Lightly stretching (well in my mind) and reflecting on what was ahead of me. Somehow my obs hadn’t declined so I’d won the top prize: tomorrow, needing to survive the tracky being turned off for 12 minutes…
By the end of the week, I was up to 3 x 12 minutes a day. Rather pleased with myself, if I don’t say it myself. Every day, I felt like I’d trained to the limit. My well developed masochistic side was loving this: I really enjoyed beating the total crap out of myself ! And every day, the two green physios would examine my obs pre-exercise and post. I would watch them with bated breath… until a wry smile indicated they were identical. After two weeks, I was up to 3×20 minutes a day.
Transferred to Southport Spinal Unit, the Respiratory Specialists, and indeed gurus themselves, Mark and Aimi personally took over my weaning. Still my obs never declined. Every day progressing to the next level. After three weeks: 2×1 hour. Bloody mindedness definitely helped. One month: 3×2 hours. But being fit enough to cycle the entire 3000+ km, Tour de France was probably the main reason.
Five weeks: 2×6 hours. There came a point, a turning point. Before this point, I couldn’t wait to embrace my new mate, ‘tracky’. Desperate for him to pump the artificial, metal tasting air into my lungs. Six weeks: 16 hours. But after this turning point, we fell out big time. I hated him. Felt so free without him clunking away incessantly. And the air I breathed and craved was no longer metallic and artificial, it… had a very different taste to it. I had successfully completed my new, Tour de France. Seven weeks: 24 hours. And I discovered without question that… Air Tastes Beautiful.