1 - Toxic Shock and Purple Squirrels

Apparently I was born on 21st January 1984 - I have to trust people on this as I can’t remember it, and, even if I did remember I highly doubt I would have taken note of the date.  The first four years of my life are blurry, a mix of doting parents, colourful cakes and endlessly playing at the beach.

I do have one clear memory from this blurry time.  My mother and I headed from Lytchett Matravers on the South Coast of England further West to Teignmouth.  There we visited her friend Donna but, most importantly, we met a little black and white kitten, we named her Suky (pronounced Sookie) and she would become my sidekick for the next 22 years.  My father had been on a hand-gliding course, and when we picked him up Suky was on the seat in a tiny green Clarks shoe box, he nearly sat on her.  I can’t remember if he was joking around or not.  

That was that, and the four of us headed to our home with the bright red door.  Life was all joy.

When I was four my mother noticed that I was not my usual playful self and extremely low on energy, she took me to the doctor, but he could not find anything wrong with me.  She was told to give me more ‘tender loving care’, she assured him I was drenched in 'tender loving care' and that there was indeed something severely wrong with me, but he did not hear her.  

My mother took me home, but was deeply concerned and immediately called another doctor, an emergency doctor, and again she explained all the symptoms.  This doctor spurred into action and within minutes was at our house.   One fantastic outcome of the panic of this situation was that it jolt started my memory and from this point onwards I have a pretty comprehensive memory reel.

I was laid out on the couch, the doctor rushed in, called an ambulance but then realized there was not enough time, he whisked me up and my mum, dad and the doctor got in our car and raced to our local hospital, when we arrived three doctors were waiting for us at the main entrance with a trolley bed and oxygen ready!

I was rushed through and hooked up to lots of machines, they put me on a drip and took blood tests.  Within hours the first results came back and we learned that I had severe blood poisoning.  I was then rushed to ICU.  They stabilized me with a concoction of antibiotics and over weeks carried out their research but no-one had any idea why I was now in toxic shock.  Whenever they tried to reduce the drugs my temperature soared to 107°F which confirmed the mysterious infection had not improved.  The drugs were the only thing keeping me alive.  The fact was that I was slowly dying and my periphery had started to shut down. 

I was in isolation for a while as the medical staff thought I might have some kind of infectious tropical disease, unbeknownst to my parents I had actually left at the age of three to go on an early gap year and map out the Congo, or not!

It felt like they gave me every medical test under the sun to try to find the source of this mysterious infection, even the world renowned Great Ormond Street Childrens Hospital in London got involved to try to find out what on earth was going on!   After an insane number of tests, an outstanding amount of intellectual effort they had no conclusions.  Everyone was incredible in their efforts but they were simply perplexed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and there were some really lovely moments that happened in the hospital.  To my childhood brain it was totally normal that a big talking elephant came to visit me, he was an elephant from the local fire department and pretty much just stopped by to say hello.  I loved meeting him, and now my adult brain is very appreciate to whoever took time out of their day, to experience sauna like temperatures inside a massive elephant costume to brighten the day of a very sick little girl.  Although with a temperature of 107°F, I was winning the temperature competition.

When I was able to muster a little energy I would paint for a very short while, it was a bit of a palaver as I was hooked up to my machines but enjoying the colors and delving into my imagination was a wonderful little escape from the confines of the four sterile walls of my ICU room.  I was in ICU so long that I had hundreds of ‘Get Well’ cards, and a lot of them were of the same design so I would get very excited when new cards came and they matched another, and my mother would organise them on the wall for me in a our own unique version of ‘snap’.  I think we had seven of one card design and for some reason that made me really happy.

I also had a lot of flowers sent, which was lovely and set us up for an hilarious night.  It was stormy outside so my mother decided to open the windows so we could listen to the storm, but the flowers were jam packed all the way along the windowsill and with a gust of wind every single vase fell off of the windowsill and onto my mother’s little bed.  There was water and soil everywhere.  We laughed a lot.

Some of the hardcore drugs induced hallucinations and I would tell my mother about the pretty purple squirrels, pink rabbits and other cute creatures that were hanging out in our hospital room.  In hindsight, seeing all of these things was weird, but it was also kind of fun and again was a wonderful distraction from the otherwise sterile white room.  

But, one day, it was clear that despite everyone’s efforts it was essentially game over and the medical team were standing by to put me on life support, my mother, thinking of others as always, signed away my organs knowing that my death could help others.

They still continued to do an array of different tests and research but to no avail.  However, a few weeks later a new doctor arrived on the scene and with a fresh perspective arranged an immediate ultra-sound.  Onlookers watching a four year old going into the ultrasound room must have thought they were witness to the world's first toddler pregnancy.  I was, of course, not pregnant but to be fair a pregnancy test was probably the only test they had not given me.

In the ultrasound room I remember the blue roll of tissue paper, the cold jelly and the little hand held machine as it glided across my chest - and there it was… finally the source of my infection, a mass, the size of an apple, in my lung.

They now knew what they had to deal with but I was too ill to have surgery.  It was decided that intensive physical therapy of my chest was the best alternative.  My mother was instructed to leave the room and I was surrounded by the medical team and through what can only be described as absolute agony they gave me treatment over three days.  They positioned me so that my head was tilted downwards at about a 45 degree angle and then they intermittently hit my body in intense, specific motions from my abdomen to my chest.  Every time the physician walked into the room I used up the little strength I had and went berserk. I was petrified of the pain that was about to engulf me.

However, as the saying goes ’no pain, no gain’ and it was certainly true in this case.  Enduring this pain, had saved my life and thanks to a huge amount of awesome people I eventually coughed up a substance similar to wet sand.  Within hours of coughing up the sand I showed signs of improvement, by temperature stabilised and the blood flow to my periphery improved.  It truly was an incredible turn of events and I had a lot of people to thank.

With the infection now gone I was no longer 'nil by mouth' and was able to eat again, but I was only allowed plain burnt toast and black coffee, I know that sounds odd, I don’t believe it either, but it happened.  Apparently in England during the late 1980’s the medical advice was to deprive this little girl of cake even longer and get her high on caffeine.  To this day, I don’t like burnt toast or coffee.

When I was finally able to leave my bed I was incredibly weak.  I had to relearn how to walk which was a very interesting experience.  I was wheeled out in my little wheelchair to the corridor and I remember my mother in front of me with outstretched arms as I attempted to walk.  It took a couple of days to regain my balance but when I finally got an upright wobble going on my mother would say "Come on Jenny, just walk towards me", the issue was that I was four, so I knew that she was walking backwards with every step I took.  I doubt I would have registered this the first time I learned to walk.  But, I wanted to walk so it was fine and plus I knew that further up the corridor on the right hand side was the playroom, I had seen it through the glass doors many times when I had been pushed past it, but had never been allowed in, but today was my day!

At the end of my hospital stay their “best guess” to the cause of my sepsis was a complication with ‘chicken pox’.  The fact is that no-one really knows but one thing I do know is that my medical file is so dense it could be a foundation block of a house.  

Within a week of coughing up the wet sand I arrived back home to the house with the red door.  There was a banner hung across it saying ‘Welcome Home’ and my cat Suky leapt up on me and wouldn’t stop pushing her face into my face and purring like a maniac, the love of cats was etched into my brain forever.

Mum and Jen Home from Hospital.jpg

I finally got to have cake, surrounded by my family and my cat, this has been a staple of my life ever since.  Best of all, despite my mother’s good intentioned signature to help others, as I didn’t die they allowed me to keep my organs.