Soon I would be reflecting – how could I have avoided this? The answer was clear: nothing. Yet decisions were made and a number of them were a key to my survival. Firstly, I was not alone.
Yet I could have been. In fact, should have been. The original plan for that morning was for Alison, my neighbor, to take her son and mine to the aquarium for an excursion. We decided, no, she could do that later in the day so I opted to look after the boys first while she caught up with work.
So there I was – making the bed, while a room away, the boys played happily with Lincoln Logs. We had an extremely heavy mattress, the latex kind and as I lifted it, I heard a loud “POP” in the back of my head.
And with it came a sharp jolt of pain, but it seemed to be in the base of my skull. Something spinal, I thought. I’ve cricked my neck.
Ouch! I’m going to have to get to a physiotherapist for this.
Then the headache really began.
My immediate concern was to get their friend, Max, home to his mum. Alison and Max lived across the road and once she had picked him up, then I would be free to lie down. My boys, Nikos and Alexias – at 12 and 8, could look after themselves if I needed to rest for a while.
The nausea was beginning to rise, but resting would fix that too, or so I thought. I did lie down, but promptly threw up on the pillow.
I called Nikos, “I’m not well. My head, my head! I have such a head-ache. Get me a towel. Call Alison.” Nikos rushed over the road and then gave Alison a valuable bit of misinformation.
“Mum’s hit her head”, he said.
I seem to remember saying, “I’ll be all right. I just need a good physiotherapist.
“If she’s hit her head”, said Alison to Nikos, “we had better call an ambulance.”
“An ambulance for a crick in the neck? How ridiculous!” I countered.
Alison could see that I wasn’t making sense. All I knew was the light outside bothered me. The nausea was intensifying.
“Close the curtains,” I begged. Photophobia had set in.
Is this a stroke? I lifted my arm. No paralysis there and was somewhat relieved.
It was such good fortune to have someone like Alison nearby. With someone else, things may have turned out differently. My partner grew up with a mother who had frequent migraines. A painkiller, followed by a good lie-down in a darkened room was the usual remedy.
Of course, that’s how we lose them, the neurosurgeon would later say.
The pain in my head, and also the neck, was excruciating.
These were the classic symptoms of a subarachnoid hemorrhage, where there is a bleeding leak into one of the membranes that covers the brain and spinal canal.
At this point in time, ten percent of patients die.
Location, Location, Location. Not just a real-estate mantra, but a life and death one too. The paramedics were soon on the scene.
“Have you taken anything? Did you hit your head?” No, No. Pain relief injected into my arm. I was terrified to get into the ambulance as I truly realized this might be my last trip anywhere.
Alison held my hand, but then let go when they made her sit up in the front of the vehicle. She saw the look of fear in my eyes and said, “Don’t worry, I can still talk to you from here.”
The race to the hospital, with one of the best neurological wards in the country, was only 15 minutes from our house. All the while, one of the officers was trying to fill out the paperwork.
“How old?” “Fifty.” He misheard and wrote down sixty.“So she’s sixty”, he checked with Alison.
“God no,” she argued, “if she sees sixty on that form, that will finish her off! What are you trying to do?”
They were chuckling so maybe it’s not too bad. Out of the ambulance and in emergency, Alison was back beside me, holding my hand again. She is a gentle, calm and reassuring soul. It was just the kind of hand I needed in mine.
A year later I would read about a similar case of a much more famous patient. Actress Natasha Richardson died from an epidural haematoma which, like a subarachnoid hemorrhage, is a bleed under the skull.
She had hit her head in a skiing accident. It was not a spectacular fall. She was on the beginner’s slope and although there were ski instructors with medical training there to attend to her, she laughed and joked and sent them away. Instead, she headed to the little clinic that was near the resort. Perhaps she thought as I did, that a little physiotherapy was all that was required. Perhaps she didn’t want the media attention that a visit to a major hospital would bring. So another four hours went past, her condition deteriorated and she was raced to hospital for CT scans all too late.
Doctors said later she probably could have been saved if she had got to hospital sooner.
She had a wonderful life, two gorgeous sons and a celebrity husband in Liam Neeson.
What she lacked though was the gift that I had – a wise and thoughtful neighbor like Alison.