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A Life in a Year, 10th April, Medical Journals, Self Diagnosis and Emergency Surgery

On 1st April 1980 I started a new job at Erewash Borough Council in Derbyshire but I only managed a couple of weeks work before I became ill and had to take six weeks sick leave.

I woke up on 10th April with a dull ache in my abdomen and right side but thought nothing of it and expected it to pass but by midday it was getting worse.  My wife, Linda, was a trainee nurse so there were plenty of medical reference books around the house so I began to earnestly consult them.  Having medical encyclopaedias on the bookcase I find is generally a bad thing because untrained self diagnosis quickly tends to become something horrible, nasty and probably terminal so these days I refuse to keep them and my advice to anyone would be that if you’ve got one then throw it away!

I digress here for a moment but take Man Flu for example.  This is a strain of flu so powerful and so deadly that it can only be matched by the Bubonic Plague.  It is an incurable virus, which has adapted to only effect the “XY” gene found in men. The virus attacks the immune system ten thousand times more seriously than the average flu virus and causes excruciating pain and discomfort for the victim.  Man flu has no cure and although this deadly virus is mostly laughed at by women this is almost certainly because, luckily for them, they cannot contract it themselves and consequently have absolutely no idea just how awful it is.  When a man gets this terrible affliction all he could hope is that using all of his strength that he will eventually pull through and recover.  Incidentally, and I want to clear this up here and now, there is no substance in the alternative (female) definitions of the affliction as ‘Sympathy Fishing’ or ‘Chronic Exaggeration Syndrome’.

Back to my story and by early afternoon the pain was getting worse and with tenderness midway between the groin and the naval I was virtually certain that this was appendicitis!  By the time Linda came home from work I was doubled up in pain and always one for a medical drama herself she drove me to the surgery where the doctor examined me and declared it to be indigestion and suggested that I stop off on the way home and buy some Rennies!  Indigestion indeed!  I don’t know where he studied medicine but he must have missed the lecture on appendicitis! I didn’t enter into any medical debate or explain my own suspicions to him but with crippling pain meekly accepted what he said and went to the newsagents.

Linda could see that I wasn’t well and, slipping as I was towards a medical emergency, that I was becoming disorientated and not thinking straight so it was now that she hatched a cunning plan to take advantage of my condition and instead of taking me straight home she dragged me into town and to ‘Country Casuals’ on High Street where I was coerced into parting with quite a lot of money to buy her a sheepskin jacket that she had had her eye on for a few weeks!

Well, the indegetion tablets didn’t work of course and the pain just got worse and by eight o’clock was so bad Linda had to stop admiring herself in the mirror in her new coat and phoned the doctor, but he had no intention of coming out to visit and told us to go directly to the hospital where following an examination by an Australian doctor he agreed with me – it was appendicitis!  I was admitted, allocated a bed and settled down for the evening.  By the next morning I was virtually in a drug induced coma when I signed the forms agreeing to surgery and by early afternoon was in the operating theatre.

These days a festering appendix is generally removed using laparoscopic surgery where a scope is connected to a monitor outside the patient’s body and is designed to help the surgeon to inspect the infected area in the abdomen.  Another two small incisions are made for the specific removal of the appendix by using surgical instruments.  Recovery is relatively swift and the patient is running around and back to work within a few days. In 1980 however having an appendix removed meant real invasive surgery called a laparotomy which involved a three inch incision  just above the hip, lots of digging about, stitches, staples and bandages and a much longer recovery time.

I spent the next day attached to a saline drip and a pretty nurse with big breasts came by regularly to check on my progress.  I especially remember that she had big breasts because she used to unnecessarily lean across the bed to reach for the thermometer on the other side and drag them across my face.  I think she did this on purpose as a sort of alternative recovery remedy for male patients.

After a couple of days I began to enjoy being in hospital in a ‘Carry-On’ film sort of way and to be honest I was a bit disappointed when, on the fourth day, I was discharged and went home for the start of six weeks recovery.  My stomach was sore and I took it very easy for the first few days because I had this ridiculous fear that at any moment the stitches might give way and my intestines would spill out all over the floor so I permanently kept a hand over the bandage just in case.

I got better of course, the stitches were removed and I have a wonderful scar which has faded over the years but is still quite visible.  I was embarrassed about work because by the time I went back after six weeks I had had three times as long on the sick at home than I had had behind my desk but it was only local government after all and everyone was good about it and told me not to worry so after a day or two I didn’t!