• Nigel Bartram

When ‘999’ wasn’t ‘999’, but another ‘999’ and Spurs winning saved my bacon.

We live in France most of the time but have a flat in Folkestone, Kent. On one trip we planned to join up with old university friends in London and for me to have a first appointment with a UK neurologist.

Having arrived at our destination and put our car in the underground car park I was struck by just how biting the biting November wind was. It cut through me like a guillotine beheading a jelly baby as I scootered the short distance out of the garage and into the block of flats. I was jolly glad I wouldn’t be going out again anytime soon.

Dinner was great and lasted through to the wee hours. The next day my wife, Caroline, and our hostess went out for a riverside walk - the flat was right by the side of the river Thames. I declined the offer to join them, despite assurances that it’d all be mobility scooter accessible. Wimp that I am, I hid behind the excuse that my wife and friend were at the same college and had a lot to catch up on. The truth was that one has no chance of generating body heat rolling along on a scooter. I really didn’t fancy getting frozen hands, ears, nose, feet and much else for the chance of seeing a stretch of singularly uninviting looking water which I thought was best appreciated from the comfort of a 15th floor flat.

When it came time to go back home, I suggested that Caroline might like to stay on another day, take the river bus and go to an art gallery or five, as she and our hostess are both art lovers, which certainly isn’t my thing. In fact, even when I was fit and able I’d long suffered from ‘museum knee’ - a very disabling condition where, as soon as I set foot in a museum or gallery, my knees would immediately buckle. Caroline has never forgotten the occasion when I energetically gambolled across the Parthenon, in Athens, in the days when that sort thing was permitted yet the instant she suggested visiting the museum I immediately sought out a bench. I was still lying on it when she came out, an hour later, despite the fact that this was a stone bench.

In any event, I’d arranged to meet Olga, the artist who did the first series of illustrations for this book, for lunch. Although by this time my MS meant I could only walk short distances (with the aid of canes), I could still fend for myself. We agreed to part company: Caroline would stay another night and day in London and I’d head back to our flat, stopping for lunch on the way.

The restaurant which Olga had chosen was in a section of road blocked off for a bustling street market. Fortunately, I found a ‘legalish’ parking space (with CD diplomatic plates I had latitude!) not too far from my destination. I got my scooter out and navigated through the throng of marketgoers to the restaurant. Lunch was an absolute delight. Although Olga was on good form, she was somewhat distracted by having recently suffered a flea infestation: the unfortunate by-product of her then life as an impoverished art student unable to afford to be too choosy about her lodgings. Apparently, the landlord’s cat had fleas and, for whatever reason, he was unwilling to do anything about it.

Outside the restaurant we bid each other a fond farewell and went on our separate ways. The market was beginning to wind down and the pavement was noticeably less crowded. Without all those human shields, the chill wind had freer rein to do its worst. By the time I was back at the car and had heaved my scooter into it, I was shivering with cold, but still functioning (or so I thought). I was soon to be disabused. By this stage in my MS journey the illness had robbed me of the ability to lift my legs up from a sitting position. I opened the driver’s door, sat on the seat and as usual, set about lifting the first leg into car, but it wouldn’t bend at the knee. Try as I may, the recalcitrant leg resolutely refused to give up its ram-rod stiffness. What a flipping time for spasticity to take hold, I muttered to myself. In case you’re not familiar with this very common MS symptom, it’s when a muscle, or muscles, suddenly and involuntarily (at least as far as the body’s inhabitant is concerned) become rock hard. I tried getting off the seat, standing up and then lowering myself onto my haunches and massaging my petrified (in the sense of now seemingly set in stone) calf muscles in an effort to soften them. Nothing I did made the blindest bit of difference.

I needed help and so decided to ask a passer-by for assistance but was reluctant, fearing what the reaction might be when I said, “excuse me, could you help me flex my leg please?” Either I’d be taken as a crack pot or it might be taken as a solicitation, some kind of come on from a sad weirdo of a certain age (63 to be precise). I decided it was less likely to provoke a call to the police if I approached a man. The first few just hurried on by, all but body swerving away from the car to give me as wide a berth as possible. Some shot a backward glance to make sure they were safe from this deviant. I decided to change verbal tack in favour of the more oblique: “Excuse me, I wonder if you could help me please”. It worked first time but when I mentioned bending my lower member, the man soon made his excuses and scurried off. Nothing for it but to play the MS card.

That proved a winning gambit. Straightaway, I got somebody who appeared to be empathetic. But doubt set in as soon I explained that I needed help to flex my leg in order to get it into the car. In desperation, I said I wasn’t drunk, on drugs and this wasn’t any form of proposition but I genuinely needed help dealing with the effects of an MS symptom. Thank goodness it worked and I was on my way, albeit by now every bone in my body was chilled to the marrow. Well, I was on my way after a fashion. It took an age crawling through heavy traffic in South London. It was taking so long that I felt a call of nature coming on. I eventually made a pit stop but, try as I might, nothing happened. I stopped three times on the way back to Folkestone but to no urinary evacuation avail. Totally perverse really as I, like zillions of other people with MS, suffer from incontinence so normally it’s a desperate, disgrace-avoiding dash to the loo.

Despite the traffic, I arrived back in Folkestone earlier than originally previewed. So Martin, a neighbour, wasn’t yet back from watching a football match in a local pub to help me unload. Fortunately, another neighbour soon turned up in the car park. He kindly unpacked my luggage and, even more kindly, huffed and puffed to help bend the still recalcitrant leg so I could get out of the car. Anybody remember that daft British pop song from the mid 60s: ‘Bend it, bend it, just a little bit’ by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich? Well, this was more a case of bend it, bend it, much, much more.

It was dark and the wind was chillier than ever as I made my way to the only mobility scooter navigable entrance to the building, pausing only to fall off my scooter as I rounded a corner. I had to be scooped up off the pavement by my neighbour and burly passer-by. Boy was I p****d off. By this time I was shivering with the force of a Richter scale eight earthquake. Once at the entrance to our flat I assured the neighbour I’d be alright. I went in, unpacked and got myself something to eat and had another fruitless waterworks workout. Miserable as sin, I decided to retreat to the womblike comfort of my bed. Let’s just say that getting changed was challenging, with one lower leg still behaving as though it was in a plaster cast. Getting into bed was doable but only because I was able to plant and pivot my leg like a pole-vaulter. Nose in a book for a couple of hours, I managed to retreat from my slough of despond. But with lights out and just lying there I became increasingly aware of my by now grossly distended abdomen. I felt empathy for how it is for pregnant women. Sleep was just not going to happen.

As if things weren’t bad enough, I was in the eye of a perfect telephonic storm with no chance of calling for help. Our fixed line phone was up the spout and our French mobiles never worked in the flat because it was too close to France with the result that a strong signal couldn’t obtained from either country. What’s more, by now it was half past midnight. The only thing I could think of doing was to send Martin a text hoping and praying there was sufficient signal strength for it to get through and he would read it in the morning. It read something like: “I’m in serious problems here, Martin. Can you come ASAP please? Nigel.” I was gobsmacked when , quick as a flash, I got the response: “I’ll be right there”.

And indeed he was. I explained the problem and said I thought I needed to go hospital, the sooner the better. Martin said he’d phone 111. “What’s that?” I asked, as it didn’t exist before we left for France. Martin explained that it’s an alternative to calling 999, whereby a medic would advise if it’s an emergency or not. After a little wait, I got through to a doctor who, hearing that I had MS and what the symptoms were, said she’d call an ambulance.

It took over four hours for the ambulance to arrive. Martin, the brick that he is, stayed with me until it arrived, at about 5 a.m. So there was time aplenty to chat. The first thing I asked was: “how come you were still awake, well past midnight? Do you normally turn-in that late?” No, it’d been a thrilling, high scoring game which Spurs, who we’ve both supported man and boy, had won. He was just too pumped up to be able to sleep, so hadn’t gone to bed.

The ambulance carted me off to A&E. By now I was at bursting point. Think in terms of a poor goose force-fed for foie gras. After being seen by a doctor right away, I was passed onto a nurse who asked me what had happened while he started doing an ultrasound on my bladder. As he was gliding the probe across my abdomen, which by now looked as though it belonged to a 7 month pregnant mother, I mentioned that I’d called 111. Looking at the monitor and then sucking through his teeth, the nurse exclaimed “999”. Feeling that my efforts to show that I’d dutifully followed the guidelines and called 111, not 999, had not been understood I barked “no, I called 111, not 999”. “No. 999 is the number of millimetres in your bladder,” he retorted. “What’s the bladder’s capacity?” I asked. “Normally about 400-600ml”. So I was way beyond full term as it were. And 100% a 999 case. So, there but for the grace of Spurs went I, alive to fight another MS day.

Although I was seen quickly and my problem dealt with very effectively by A&E, the aftercare was next to non-existent. I was discharged sporting a catheter with no clear plan as to how, when and where I’d part ways with this decidedly less than welcome encumbrance. By chance, a couple of weeks later I had a first appointment with a neurologist in another hospital in the same NHS Trust. He was excellent and utterly charming into the bargain. Just before I left, I explained how I’d come by my new accessory, adding that I’d been discharged without being given any idea how, when and where we could part company. Looking straight at the doctor, his eyes betrayed a mix of surprise and horror. I say betrayed because his voice remained serenity personified as he summoned a senior nurse to do the necessary to sort me out. And his name - no word of a lie - Dr Harikrishnan. A man who certainly lives up to his name and not a man to get over-excited at footie I’d imagine!

Nigel Bartram

Primary Progressive MS

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