Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A brush with mortality

Saturday was a big day for the Rileys. To be followed by another big day on Sunday.

On Saturday Jean and I were hosting a charity sporting dinner at Matt's school. 250 parents and friends were coming. I had organised the quiz, silent auction and guest speaker. Jean had sorted catering, the raffle, tables, money etc. As I said - a big day. Sunday was Free Radio's Warwickshire "Walk for Kids", one of our regular radio station charity walks. This was our "home town" walk too - and a bunch of friends were walking with us - and of course the station would be out in force to make sure all the walkers had a good time and raised lots of cash.

But first the Saturday charity dinner. Lots of early prep came to a halt at 11, as we settled down to watch the first Lions test.

Half time came, and Jean nipped out to pick up some last minute items for the dinner. She called from the car ".....lots of neighbours have the flags out - union jacks - we should put ours up....."

Now I realise the Union Jack is not quite the right flag for the British and Irish lions - but its the thought that counts. So, game paused, I went out into the garden. We live in a big house, with an even bigger garden. The flagpole was there when we bought the house, and we do stick a St Georges Cross or Union Jack up for big sporting events. I grabbed the flag from the shed and proceeded to hoist it. At this point it got stuck and I needed to go back to the house to grab a step ladder to untangle it.

Back with the ladder...... Just up a few feet ........ stretch up to grab the flag ......a gust of wind ...... slightly knocking me off balance ........ the stepladder shifts slightly as one of the legs sinks into a spot of soft ground ........ I lose my balance ever so slightly ......... I grab the flagpole to keep myself upright as I fall off the ladder....... I sink to the floor still holding on to the pole, only a few feet down........I realise I have a sharp pain in my forearm.......and I look up to see my forearm skewered on the cleat, the metal prong which you loop the rope around........I am well and truly skewered too, and have to physically lift my arm off the cleat as I get back up on my feet.

I then look at my forearm. It is completely ripped open, exposing tendons, muscle, bone etc. It's a truism in life that if you can see your insides, you are not in a good place. I was not in a good place.

That scene in The Terminator, where Arnie slices open his forearm - it was just like that, except there were no steel rods or cables exposed - just tendons and bones - I was mortifyingly human - and really exposed.

Not much blood though, I thought, as I gingerly grabbed my left arm in my right hand and walked quickly back to the house, hoping I wouldn't faint, or trip, as I went inside.

I shouted for Matt, and in I'm sure slightly overexcited tones asked him to call 999 and his mum "...I'm not in a good place here son..." I said, as I sat down, put a tea towel round my exposed flesh and thought of the many horrible outcomes that could befall me.

Jean got back in around 10 minutes. She looked as shocked as I felt. I've fallen off my bike a few times, incurring cuts and bruises, but this was something potentially far more serious, and we both knew it.

Keith and Kirsty were the paramedics who arrived shortly after. Keith an experienced, calm health professional. Kirsty younger, learning the ropes. Keith calmed me down and tested my fingers and wrist for damage.

Amazingly, there didn't seem to be anything wrong mechanically. In what must rank as one of the luckiest escapes ever, I appeared to have missed slicing anything important. I could squeeze, push etc - although actually being able to see the tendons moving was hugely unnerving. At this point I just looked away. "Right..." said Keith "...if you want, we can sew you up here..."

"Go for it" I said. And so Keith and Kirsty proceeded to put 16 stitches into my arm on my dining room table, in full view of my wife and son, at 12.30pm on an otherwise unremarkable Saturday afternoon.

Out came the "Gas and Air" so frequently given to expectant mums starting childbirth. You women have kept this secret from us blokes for too long! Within seconds I was high as a kite. We were laughing and joking with each other as the sutures went in - nothing had ever seemed as funny as falling off that ladder, slicing my arm open, leaving the flag half erected. I laughed so much we needed a second tank of the gas! Or was it because putting 16 stitches into a nine inch long wound just took so long?

1.30, and Keith and Kirsty were gone. I might have some strong views on how we organise and pay for the NHS - but I've never doubted the professionalism of those who work in its ranks - and Keith and Kirsty lived up to every ideal we like to imagine the NHS strives for - cool, calm, courteous, professional, and good. Life savers.

2pm - dosed up with codeine, I am contemplating what this means.

In the short term, it means I can get the charity dinner sorted, which Jean and I do, me through gritted teeth and more painkillers. Never has a fun evening seemed so long and arduous! We raised £12,000 though, to help rebuild a school in Christchurch in NZ devastated by their recent earthquake. Job done, we left just after midnight - as bone tired as we've ever been.

Sunday was our Free Radio "Walk for Kids". I was planning to walk it - as I have walked every one we have ever done so far. I was in no shape though, so Matt stepped in and did it for me. I did go along to cheer everyone off - and many of the real walkers must have looked askance at the tall chap in the official green jacket who looked like he was missing an arm! I will do it though, later in the Summer - I'm not going to have that blot on my copybook.

During that first two days, everyone I met, at the dinner and on the walk, told me I looked pale and shocked. And that's because I was - and I still am if I'm honest.

Given how tightly I was gripping the flagpole, completely unaware of the damage I was about to do, I was maybe half an inch away from tearing into muscle and/or tendon, severely damaging my left, dominant arm, causing me a lifetime of pain and inconvenience. More worryingly, I was also half an inch from tearing open my Radial or Ulnar artery. And that's what haunts me. I could easily have bled out, lying by a stupid flag pole, on an otherwise perfectly normal, boring Saturday, with no-one knowing quite where I was, my wife out doing errands, my son a few hundred yards away, watching rugby on the TV.

It isn't very often you come that close to your own mortality and live to tell the tale - but I did. That image, of me lying there, bleeding out, has been in my dreams for a couple of nights, but thankfully is receding. I will get over this, and will fully recover I'm sure. Writing this down and sharing it is part of that recovery process. But I understand just a little more now how folk can easily get post-traumatic stress disorder, even when people tell them how lucky they are to have survived a car accident, or industrial injury etc. it's the thought of what might have been, how close you came to something far worse, that lives on in your mind.

I do feel lucky, incredibly so. In fact, for an arch-rationalist, I did the unheard of on Sunday, and bought a Euro millions lottery ticket. I'll let you know if I win!

Quite how Jean, Matt and Alex (who came back from work helping set up for the Walk when Jean called her) coped with the blood and gore unfolding on their dining room table is beyond me.

Even more mortifying for me was the thought that had something terrible happened to me, Jean would have blamed herself for making the phone call about the flag. We had a heart to heart about that late on Saturday night.

So my three takeaways from my brush with mortality are:

  1. You need to tell those you care about that you love them as often as possible.
  2. You need to take care on ladders - and never get on one on your own if you can help it. There are thousands of serious accidents in this country every year, and dozens of deaths, from falling from height. I am glad I am one of the former rather than latter.
  3. We all need to be grateful we live in a country where you can make a call, and in 15 minutes someone like Keith can come by and potentially save your life.

He's given me a bloody big scar though - I'm going to have to invent a more dramatic back-story than falling off a ladder.

Here are the pictures - take a deep breath.

1 comment:

  1. Phil. I saw the photos at the weekend and what happened. I am pleased that you are on the mend, but man alive, what a war-wound you have. Thanks for sharing - if knowing that I have read it has helped you in your mental recovery, then it's the least I can do. All the best and I salute you for your bravery... with my right hand obviously! Best, Nick