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Wednesday’s Child – Part 2: The Summer of ’97

That Summer before I turned 16 was probably the best Summer of my life. Not that I haven’t had good Summers since, just that this was the last Summer where I could truly consider myself to still be ‘healthy’. Well, at least at the beginning of it. I had a lot of fun with Danny, and our mutual friend, Robert, But Danny would frequently miss outings, events and voluntary duties that we were supposed to do together. I just could not understand how he could be ill so often when he always looked and acted so well when I did see him. One of the older volunteers, a lovely man, Lenny, gently explained to me that that was what M.E. was like.

I was confused. When my Dad came to pick me up I told him that Lenny had said Danny had M.E. as well as C.F.S. My Dad explained they were different names for more or less the same thing. Suddenly, things clicked for me – there had been a boy at school with M.E. He had disappeared for a year and eventually came back considerably weakened. I had heard that he had been terribly ill. Now Danny’s absences made sense – if he felt that ill too, no wonder he couldn’t make it to things! I had new-found respect for him, that despite not being at school and having trouble sleeping he still tried.

From around April of 1997 I began getting terrible stomach aches. I also started to feel very run down and tired. I put it down to doing so much, as I was so busy with school and extra-curricular activities – the school play (in which I had a lead role) and volunteering as well. The French Exchange trip loomed. First, our penpals visited us and we spent 10 days on various trips and activities. Towards the end of the stay, a couple of the host families got together to have a farewell party. I remember having a stomach ache all evening, and pictures from that night show me looking pale and pained. As the party went on I just wanted to go home and curl up in bed with a hot water bottle, even though it was May and very warm out! We were due to see our pen pals again in 3 to 4 weeks, when we went to visit them in France.

It was blazingly hot the whole time we were in France, and our schedule was punishing. School started promptly at 8am and my pen friend liked to arrive half an hour earlier to talk with her friends. With the time difference it was effectively 6:30am for me when I got to school, after a 30 minute walk. Then we would go on various outings and tours, which were long and exhausting. It was great to see new parts of the world – this was only my third time abroad and I found I had a taste for foreign travel, but it was physically torturous. When at home with my pen pal I would just sleep and sleep, and the extra outings the family wanted to take me on had to be cancelled as I was such a zombie. My pen pal’s Dad would make comments about how English girls were spoiled, lazy and workshy, like the rest of my fellow countrymen apparently. I didn’t take (much) offence, it was just his way; he hated the English in that stereotypically French way. But all the same, my other friends on the exchange were managing to keep up – why couldn’t I?

It was so very hot, and I was running on less than empty. So it was really no surprise when one day I developed one of my stomach aches and the added heat made it all just too much for me and I collapsed as I was getting up from a seat. Unfortunately, there were a few copycat fainters on the trip and I believe we were all largely treated as hysterical teenage girls. For me though, this incident seemed to open a floodgate, and from then on, even when back in the UK I began to have dizzy spells and fainting episodes which were hugely embarrassing when they happened whilst I was out and about. I began to dread the times when I would get the metallic taste in my mouth, knowing that my vision was about to darken from the outside in and anticipating the sick and shaky feeling that would always linger afterwards.

Finally, one night in July, just days into the Summer holiday, I developed another stomach ache. Laying on te sofa, I couldn’t stand any movement when my younger sister tried to sit down next to me, yelping and complaining as she shifted positions even slightly. My Mum was worried, and when my Dad got home from work they both monitored me. I went to take my usual evening phonecall from Danny, but I was in a foul mood with pain and things quickly descended into an argument, ending with us hanging up on each other. Looking back, I wasn’t as upset as I would have been had I not been in pain. I really was quite angry at the world that evening. As the hours went by I just wanted to take painkillers and go to bed, but I could barely get off the sofa without crying out in pain, walking bent double and clutching my stomach. My parents decided that I needed to see a doctor, instead of my Dad making his usual nightly trip to check on his elderly father.

Having been to both the out of hours doctor and then Accident and Emergency at the hospital in the next town over and put through various tests, getting grumpy with staff constantly poking me, it was confirmed that I had acute appendicitis and needed to have an emergency appendectomy right away. I was whisked off to the operating theatre, appendix removed and returned to the ward within the space of a few hours. I was groggy from the anaesthetic, but aware enough of my Dad reassuring me that the family would be there with me in the morning as soon as I woke up.

All through the night I suffered terrible side effects from the anaesthetic used, pethidine (I have since found out I am intolerant to opioids and opioid based drugs and experience severe side effects from all that I have ever been given). Although my stomach was empty I couldn’t control the awful nausea I felt, and spent the night semi-conscious with my head hanging off the edge of the bed, dry heaving and clutching my stomach in pain. In too much pain to move, the nurse call button placed out of my reach, and completely alone in my ward bay, no-one knew how I was feeling until they came in to check me during the dawn rounds. Finally more comfortable, I was able to fall asleep properly for a while.

When I woke up, feeling understandably fragile, I was disappointed that my family were not there as promised. Because they had not yet arrived I had nothing to occupy me, nothing to wear except my hospital gown, with nothing underneath, and the children’s ward was not geared up to entertain a nearly-16-year-old girl. I grew angrier and angrier that they weren’t there and that the only message I had had passed on to me from a nurse was that they had been ‘held up’.

When they finally arrived, one look at their faces said all I needed to know, “Who’s died?” I asked, weakly. My Dad’s Dad, aka ‘Grandpop’. He had apparently died quite peacefully, in his favourite chair in front of the TV following calling around family the night before. He had been found with his ankles still crossed, so we knew he was unlikely to have suffered. My Dad had found out when his Aunt had called round to see his Dad that morning and found him. Later, my parent explained that as the surgeon had opened me, my appendix was ready to burst. Had I stayed home, taken painkillers and gone to bed as I’d wanted, meaning my Dad would have gone to see his Dad as usual and got caught up, then my chances of developing blood poisoning would have been quite high. As it was, I was being pumped full of intravenous antibiotics, much more than would normally be given. In many ways it was a good thing that my pain was as bad as it was that night.

I was supposed to stay in hospital for at least 3 days following the surgery, to keep receiving iV antibiotics. But in light of the circumstances, and my obvious distress, the surgeon discharged me the next day, with strong oral antibiotics, and strict instructions to rest in bed as much as possible, which I did, enjoying the rest. Obviously I attended my Grandpop’s funeral, and I also stubbornly refused to change an orthodontist’s appointment which ended 15 months of braces for me.

Following this I was able to sit back and relax, and look forward to going on our holiday to Spain, joining another family who we are friends with. As much as I tried to keep up with the activities and outings, my slow recovery was noticed. Despite this, this Summer of recuperation was good for me in other ways. I had time to think, time to plan a strategy for how I was going to handle myself upon my return to school. I probably did a bit of growing up, it was one of those ‘coming of age’ Summers, although not quite as you see them in films.

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