Since I was 28 I have worn a ring on my right hand, a cabochon star ruby set in a gold band. Also known as corundum ruby, this complex, plum-coloured stone is the bedrock that nurtures ruby crystals – the bright, red, glassy stones more common in jewellery. In sunlight the hexagonal crystal structure shines a six-pointed star.
Similarly, my recent regime – the probiotics, the supplements, the gym routine, the three symptomatic treatments I was on – was feeling like a bedrock of stability. Not a cure, but a rich, strong foundation from which stars sometimes shine, from which crystals can grow.
Until the day the ambulance arrived.
Neuralgia. A stab of intense pain, a sharp spike that radiates briefly and dissipates, then there’s just the anticipation of the next one. Maybe a minute later, maybe 30 seconds, maybe three. At three seconds there’s not much respite between the jabs. At times all that exists is me, the pain, and the counting.
Previously I’d always had attacks in one location – under my ribs, or in the side of my neck, or the side of my head. But the neuralgia gods really went to town this time. As well as being more intense, the pain was in my ribs and my head. So there was no respite – as the jab from the ribs subsided, the one from the head went off.
After 36 hours of this, I was exhausted, weak and scared, and the Mechanic had had enough of running hot baths and boiling heat packs, to no avail. It was time for the big guns.
The ambos took my temperature – 40.5. Clearly there was more to it than neuralgia. I told them I suspected a kidney infection – infections can worsen MS symptoms, something I mentioned lightly – presciently! – in my last post. A urine test in Emergency confirmed it.
In the High Dependency Unit they started infusing broad-spectrum antibiotics and tried a range of analgesics. The waves of pain came and went at will. This neuralgia had assumed a personality of its own, and it was resilient. As resilient as the Mechanic, who delivered three nutritious meals a day for a week to save me the added pain of NSW Health cuisine.
Allow me, please, a moment of overwhelming gratitude, too, for the HDU nurses at Bega Hospital. Rowena with the bleached hair, looking forward to completing her Critical Care Certificate in two weeks’ time, met me and the neuralgia on admission to the unit, overseeing attempts with various drugs – with no effect. That attack subsided into a few hours of pain-free, endorphin-fuelled haze, as they do. Then the pain arose again to meet Sue, kind and motherly, back on staff from retirement to help out her daughter, studying medicine in Canada. Later it greeted Leonie, candid and droll and good for spirited, cynical exchanges about the new Prime Minister in my lucid moments. It returned with a vengeance for Rob, gruff and competent but helpless in the face of my sudden tears, at the end of both his shift and my inner resources.
That’s when, in a moment of despair, I sent out a plea.
It was a profound entreaty, a prayer. I’m not religious, so it was a measure of my desperation and went out to whatever gods, whatever guardian angels, whatever higher power there was. Then I settled back and waited for the pain to stop. And that’s when Francesca came on late shift.
Francesca, a Botticelli angel. She massaged my feet, she re-positioned me in bed despite the tubes and wires, she placed a pillow between my knees, she rubbed my back. I fell deeply, deliciously asleep, and slept for eight hours, only elusively aware of her two-hourly ministrations – like surfacing briefly from a tropical lagoon before sinking again into its warm, shimmering depths.
By morning it was clear that something had shifted. They had hit on the right drug, an opiate, something I’d avoided in the past but now I’d take anything. At first, five shots at five-minute intervals settled the pain, then three shots, then two. Then the waves slowed up, and the spikes were less severe. They transferred me to the Medical Ward. Another attack started but the Mechanic had brought a heat pack in, which by now did the job.
Relieved but drained, I gazed at a poster opposite my bed: the turquoise waters and scalloped, sanded, forest-fringed Sapphire coastline, tacked roughly to the wall with gaffer tape.
A nurse was helping me gather my things on discharge the next day. She caught my hand. “What a lovely ring,” she said.
I still hold faith in my regime, my bedrock. But to my supplements, my intestinal health, my physical training and that handful of medications, I now add this: the respect for my almost 50 years of experience inhabiting this body, that when I go to a GP with a suspected kidney infection, armed with a urine specimen, and he does a dipstick test and a cursory abdominal examination and says it’s muscular pain and to take some Panadol, I will insist gently that he send the specimen off to pathology. I was too polite, too deferring. That was two weeks before my admission and the infection had been brewing all that time.
My new, improved regime: a rich, strong foundation from which stars sometimes shine, from which crystals can grow.