Just before the start of 2012 I died. Luckily for me I was in a hospital at the time and was resuscitated within a couple of minutes. No white lights for me, no angels, and no celestial choir. Just waking up with my wife stroking my head and looking more worried than I had ever seen her. My family surrounding me while I had no idea what had happened.
It started fairly innocently with my going in for yet another growth removal from my scalp. This was about the fifteenth such procedure, most of them being uniformly standard procedures in which I had received local anaesthetic and had the growths excised. I had long since been used to the discomfort from these procedures. However, as time progressed the operations had become progressively bigger, more complex and uncomfortable.
The origins of these growths apparently started when, as a young man I had worked on distant and mostly very hot locations as a rapidly rising filmmaker. We filmed in and around the goldmines of South Africa for the big action movies “Gold” starring Roger Moore and again with him and this time Lee Marvin in the wild Skeleton Coast of that country for “Shout at the Devil”, in Israel with Mickey Rooney and others in Barcelona, Vancouver, Malta, with Keith Moon in Los Angeles for “The Kids are Alright” and many other such places, almost always in the open air without a hat, and however hot it got. These were the days that the most we feared was a touch of too much sun, not enough liquid or perhaps a burnt skin. We had no idea we were at risk from skin cancer.
As time went by more often than not the tiny growths in my scalp or on my face were turning out to be pre-cancerous or basal cell carcinomas and then a month or so back I was told that one of the nasty little things was a squamous cancer. Fortunately the surgeon got to it good and quick and although there were a few nasty moments when I was calmly informed that they might have to check for secondary growths in my lymph nodes it turned out I was to receive the all clear.
I can confirm that the episode had me worried about secondary cancer and my family suddenly started wearing hats when they were outside. But I couldn’t have been luckier, I had dodged the bullet, as it seemed I would need watching but no further treatment.
Just then, when I thought the saga was finally over I was discovered to have three, maybe four more small but significant growths on my scalp. Yet again I was to have a procedure, the third in five weeks, this time to eliminate what should be the last of these. Now I was having what was referred to as “twilight sedation”, more or less the same but less powerful than general sedation, but I was more or less to be “out of it.” while the excision was made and skin grafts put in place from other parts of my body.
I am a 61 years old, film maker, writer, business man and one time academic and as brave as the next person, but I had undergone so many procedures on my head that I simply couldn’t tolerate any more while aware of the surgeon digging and cutting into my head if I had the choice. I asked for sedation.
This was going to be general anaesthetic but because I have sleep apnoea the anaesthetist decided it should be the less dangerous form of sedation, known widely as Twilight sedation. “Not to worry.” I was informed, “You won’t remember a thing!” In fact for procedures one and two this was true. I was a little disconcerted that the surgeon found it necessary to hack off some of my hair after I had been so happy that I still had a fair covering but otherwise I was able to remain phlegmatic when I was told that yet another procedure was going to be necessary.
Everything appeared as if it was going to be a simple repeat of the first two little operations. The only difference was that my first anaesthetist was to be replaced by another fellow. He seemed perfectly fine when he introduced himself with the reassuring words that he was going to be using precisely the same methods as his predecessor.
I was prepared for the operation in the same very nice private room in the lovely surroundings of the smart and well-run private hospital. I wasn’t nervous, as this was something I had undergone so many times I had lost count. Slippers and dressing gown on and I followed the nurse down to the operating theatre. On to the trolley, slippers and dressing gown removed and the anaesthetist tells me that he is going to slip in the catheter through which he is going to administer a tiny amount of sedation to start the procedure prior to wheeling me into theatre.
I don’t remember much after that since the sedation clearly worked very fast. From this point on I have to reconstruct what happened to me via the anaesthetist, the surgical sister, the chief technician and my surgeon. Very vaguely I remember not feeling right as I was being wheeled to the operating table. I started to struggle and apparently said something like, “I’m not feeling right, and I’ve got pins and needles in my arms and in my hands.” The medical team immediately noticed that a red rash was appearing on my neck and shoulders and I was rapidly becoming more agitated.
The surgeon was simultaneously preparing the hidden area behind my left ear for a skin graft to my head as I became even more resistant. As this became too much for him to contain the crash team, led by the Chief Technician, realized that they had to take over my care. This was exactly what they had trained for and I shall always be grateful that the man in charge had been a paramedic in his native South Africa before settling in the UK. The team immediately ascertained that the pulse in my neck was very weak as were the others in my ankle and wrist. Very quickly my body was closing down totally. Apparently I was struggling with the five-person team who were trying to look after me. It had become a life or death battle.
My blood pressure now read 70 over 40 and my last pulse had vanished. I was immediately injected with more adrenaline but it didn’t work. I had stopped breathing as my heart stopped. The Chief Technician had repeatedly thumped my chest hard trying to get a reaction. Another member of the team shoved a tube down my throat to breathe for me. Apparently there were five people all around me and I had failed to react to another shot of adrenaline. A little more than two minutes passed before they got my heart and lungs working.
In the meantime the hospital administrative staff were letting my wife know that there was a problem. They were very kind but quite direct, and when my wife asked if I was going to wake up brain damaged they responded with honesty that they didn’t know. I don’t know how she coped with that information but cope she did, and immediately called our two kids that live fairly locally as the hospital advised her to get our family to hospital quickly.
After a few more minutes of doubt I was able to breathe for myself as my vital signs began to recover.
As ever our children responded wonderfully to an emergency and materialized as if by magic within minutes. I knew nothing about any of this. I was slowly being brought round in the post-operative room. My wife was insistent, she wanted to see me for herself. I began to recover consciousness with her stroking my head. My eyes opened to see her crying quietly. I was confused, everything but my head hurt. My chest felt like a herd of elephants had been tap dancing on it, and my ear felt like it had been half ripped off, but worst of all was the pain in my throat where the medical team had intubated me, inserting a tube into my larynx through which they had kept me breathing. But I had been blissfully unaware of the extraordinary minutes and hours leading to my finding myself in the recovery room.
My wife slowly began to explain what had happened to me as the medical team began their extraordinarily thorough checks to see if I had come through the ordeal without damage. For the next two days I was confined to the High Dependency Unit where I was monitored, measure, prodded and tested continually by the continually attentive staff.
Over these next days the entire team who had resuscitated me or been present visited me. I saw that they were more traumatized by what had happened than me. I began to realize that mine had been an extremely rare occurrence.
Initially I hadn’t take the whole situation terribly seriously, after all I was a very fit and active man, with the strength of an ox, used to being in control of situations, finding a way to make things bend to my will; I couldn’t really take in the fact that this had been totally out of my control and that I had crossed the border and visited death. This realization came home to me when my anaesthetist came to see me for the second or third time and asked did I want him to take me through the entire proceedings, no holds barred. I said yes and while he told me about my death I saw his eyes start to cry as he explained that he had never had this happen to him in twenty years of practice. His obvious trauma triggered my reaction as I started to feel just how near I had come to not being here for to enjoy the holidays and the future with my family and friends. It was then that I cried; yes some tears for me, but mostly in gratitude to whatever life force there is that decided it wasn’t yet my time to leave this place. I’m not a religious man but at that moment I could have sworn that I looked up and the good Lord was smiling at me.
I was then taken by ambulance to the Cardiac Care Unit of Watford General Hospital and after a bit of a shuffle getting a bed they were wonderful to me. Yet more tests, this time organized by the Cardiac Consultants including angiograms were performed with amazing rapidity, good humour and kindness. Yes, apart from the discomfort and the food it was wonderful treatment. I have to admit for a privately insured person usually terrified of the idea of the NHS that when you’re potentially really unwell it’s a fantastic service.
The outcome for me is that almost unbelievably I have dodged the bullet yet again. I have no heart problems as a result of the problem that turned out to be anaphylactic shock brought about, almost certainly by my being severely allergic to the anti-biotic used in my sedative. No one could have known that this would have happened and no one is to blame. It only remains for me to book another operation, this time with different anti-biotic, to remove the lesions on my scalp.
The outcome was different than I could have anticipated. Tests went on for months from dedicated medical teams to determine the exact nature of my allergies that eventually confirmed the details. In addition there was a lengthy spell of time when I was running from hospital to hospital meeting new consultants for ongoing treatments for the seemingly never ending series of small growths on my scalp. Now the treatments were less invasive, sometimes involving the freezing off and at others small surgical procedures.
My new consultant deals with everything immediately, so instead of going home and thinking about what was going to happen the new growths were removed straight away. If they could they treated these with a very mild form of chemo cream that would take six weeks of treatment for each incidence. I have so far had three cycles of this treatment, which involves five days of application, with two days off for each week. It burns the growth away and begins to hurt after a while but so far it has worked very effectively for me. So yes, the basal cell carcinomas seem to keep coming but I’m thrilled to be able to report that so far we are winning the battles, who knows about the war.
I have found there were dark times when I couldn’t work, I simply wasn’t very well and I admit to becoming clinically depressed. This alarmed my family and I was convinced to seek yet more medical intervention and that resulted in therapy and some happy pills. The former has benefited me enormously and I have tried to limit the intake of the mood altering medication.
All of this meant my bills continued but for a long while there was no income at all. In the words of Charles Dickens character Mister Micawber “annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.” We certainly had good reason for some misery but when you get to the bottom you either give in or go on.
I’m only now, a little more than a year later, beginning to see the famous light at the end of that previously very dark financial tunnel.
I still have that worry which just wouldn’t go away. How many times could a person keep dodging the bullet? I hope and believe that I shall but I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this good fortune.
I don’t know what I’ve been spared for, perhaps to write more books or make more films? More likely it is to spread the word that everyone needs to wear a hat when they’re outdoors, especially in the hot sun if they don’t want problems later in life. In the meantime I intend to try and enjoy every day as if it’s my last, because one day it will be.