Hah! Until I got repetitive strain injury in the early 1980s.
RSI started me off on the road less travelled health-wise as I turned to complementary therapies when the medical profession was unable to provide answers to my health problems.
Don’t get me wrong: I have respect for medicos and the huge advances in medical care. I appreciated hospitals when I broke my leg and ankle in 1996. I have appreciated the power of antibiotics when I’ve had a severe sinus infection, bronchitis and kidney infection. Blood tests, x-rays and so on are a boon.
And just as the general community are incredibly varied, so there are good, bad, indifferent and very conscientious doctors.
I don’t throw the baby out with the just because conventional medical care can’t provide all the answers. But also, when conventional medicine lead me to a dead-end in recovering from RSI, it also led me to query the power of Big Pharma and the industrialisation of medical care which reduces people to dollar figures and profits for the huge pharmaceutical corporations. I also see doctors too often reduced to pen pushers, overloaded with paperwork, bureaucracy and unrealistic demands on what they are able to offer the general public.
I found myself looking for non-medical treatment in the mid-1980s when I got repetitive strain injury. Ironically, at the time I was working in the office of a small union and had been organising publicity about a new work injury, RSI, which was affecting a lot of women working in call centres as, with new computer technology, they could key in input very fast and overuse arm and shoulder muscles.
I simply never believed it could happen to me. I used to keep going on the typewriter long after I felt a pain in my shoulder. I kept expecting the pain to go away but it got worse. It was agonising to move my right shoulder and arm. Then I started getting pins and needles in my left arm and a feeling which I can only describe as rats gnawing away inside me.
At the time my husband, Bryan, was working away from home in Bunbury, south of Perth, and most evenings I would just rest on the sofa and hope the pain would go away. If I tried to do a simple task like washing up, my whole shoulder would seize up and I’d have to stand stock still until the intense pain abated. But as it got worse, so I started getting severe migraines. I’d wake up around 2am with a violent pain starting at the back of my head, working towards the front at the back of my forehead, and for all the world like it was a brass band pounding around at full volume. I’d take headache pills which got stronger and stronger in order to cope. If I was lucky the headache might fade a bit and I could get to work and cope okay. If I was unlucky, I’d wake up vomiting and it was like a vicious cycle – vomiting exacerbated the headache which me throw up more which intensified the headache, and so on.
I had, of course, read all the literature about repetitive strain injury but tried to ignore the fact that it seemed to be happening to me. That was, until one day and I got into the office with my head pounding from another headache and I just sat there crying my eyes out. The union secretary came into the office, took one look at me, and thankfully for me, took charge. I wasn’t capable of thinking straight or taking action of any kind. She made an appointment for me at her doctor’s, got me in early and off I went to see a doctor who not only was incredibly kind, but also very helpful in supporting me through what felt like a nightmare.
She arranged physiotherapy for me but as this was something new on the medical scene, no-one quite knew how to deal with it. By rights – I found out later – I should have seen a rheumatologist, but I was sent to see an orthopaedic surgeon who was a butcher. He wrenched my head back and forward and side to side with the result that the pain got even worse. He told me he could operate and cut a nerve which might help. That sounded very dodgy to me and even more so when I saw a programme on the ABC about a pain centre in Adelaide dealing with patients, many of whom had had the type of operation the orthopaedic surgeon wanted to carry out on me. And as any small step forward I’d made with physiotherapy was wiped out by his lousy treatment and I ended up worse than when I’d first started treatment, I declined surgery.
I clearly remember sitting in my doctor’s surgery, tanked to the gills with anti-inflammatory medication and a soft collar around my neck. I hardly dared to move because the pain would flare up and feel like a knife being driven into my shoulder. My left arm felt as if rats were gnawing it inside. My doctor asked: “Are you feeling any better?” And I had to say no. She looked at me and said somewhat reluctantly; “Well, I don’t think there’s anything more we can do for you.”
Which is a bit depressing, folks. I’d always been on the go, active, restless, eager to get on to my next project. And suddenly I was sitting on a sofa all day, frightened to move, terrified about what the future held for me and very lonely because Bryan was still working down south during the week and home only on the weekends. I knew an older lady who said very kindly (but not very helpfully, to be truthful): “You young folk always think that life is a straight line that you can set out in front of you without any deviations. Life isn’t like that. All sorts of side paths, obstacles and cul-de-sacs happen. It’s life.”
But in a nice little piece of synchronicity (although I’d never heard of synchronicity at the time), I happened to see an advertisement for a reflexology course at the local community centre. I will be very honest and say that the first time I’d ever heard of reflexology was when a friend said she was going to get a treatment with this alternative therapy. I asked them what it was as I’d never heard of it before, and was quite revolted when they told me it involved foot massage. Errr, yuk, fancy getting your smelly old feet massaged! But, as the old saying goes, never say never.
My husband, Bryan, had told me that Mum was losing weight before she was diagnosed with lung cancer as he’d been working in the country and had visited my parents’ farm nearby. Then Dad rang to say mum had been admitted for a gall-bladder operation due to her weight loss. And finally he phoned to say that the shadow seen on Mum’s lung during an x-ray was cancer. I can remember putting the phone down, turning to my husband saying: “It’s lung cancer” and then bursting into tears.
I looked up everything I could find about cancer and found that Mum’s version, small cell lung cancer, was the hardest to treat. Mum’s doctor advised she have chemotherapy and radiation or she would be dead within 18 months. Mum had both and was dead within 18 months. But it certainly boosted the coffers of the oncologist and Big Pharma supplying the oncology drugs.
The first time I saw my mother after her diagnosis I didn’t know what to do. We’d driven down to Busselton, in south-west Western Australia where my parents lived, and I just stood and stared at her after I’d climbed out of the car. Then she said: “Just hug me” and I thought I’d never let her go. She returned with us for her first chemotherapy treatment. She was scared and it was terrible leaving her alone in the hospital ward. But although she lost her hair, Mum never got really sick and seemed to respond positively to the treatment. The only time I saw her lose the plot was when she thought she’d had her final radiotherapy treatment and then found she had another session of radiotherapy to her brain. She seemed to give up after that.
I remember suggesting nervously to Mum as I was driving her home after chemo that she might give up smoking. Both Mum and Dad had taken up smoking when they lived in London during the war years and the Blitz. Mum had narrowly avoided being killed by two bombs – one a doodle bug which hit Woolworths in Lewisham, London, during peak-hour shopping and which she missed because she slept in; and the second time was because she had been transferred to the Central Telephone Exchange in central London from the local telephone exchange in Lewisham a week before the bomb shelter with all her telephonist friends inside scored a direct hit by a bomb. All her friends were killed. When Mum came to Australia, she had to have regular, annual chest x-rays as the doctor told her they kept an eye on people migrating due to the stress and possible health problems. But he said he never ever advised anyone who had taken up smoking during the Blitz to stop smoking as he said it was pretty much impossible and he’d never had any success.
When I made the comment about packing in smoking, my mother replied bitterly: “Everything else has been taken from me. I’m not having my cigarettes taken away.” It was the only time she came close to admitting that she hated Australia. We – Bryan and I – were both aware that she had not settled in this new country. Mum had left her own mother, sister, brother, nephews and friends behind in the UK. She was a sociable woman had had loved working at the jewellery and wig counters in Debenham’s in Canterbury. But in Western Australia, Dad bought an isolated farm in the south-west where the house was ramshackle and they had to travel a long distance to get any groceries. Mum told me later that she’d finally told Dad she’d divorce him unless he sold the farm. They did move into Busselton but again into a run-down home where Dad proceeded to make a complete shambles with all the rubbish he collected.
Finally they bought a house in Rockingham so Mum could be nearer medical treatment. And it was here that Mum finally died.
We had a dreadful time when she was in Sir Charles Gardner Hospital in Perth. One night the phone rang around 1am and it was the hospital advising that mum had been admitted as an emergency. We rushed over to the hospital to find Mum blue in the face and her heartbeat up to 160/minute. She was fighting for breath and it turned out that the tumour which had disappeared in her lung after chemotherapy and radiotherapy had spread to her larynx and was choking her to death. It was only the fact she had a strong heart that prevented her dying then and there. Mum was taken in for laser surgery to clear out the tumour temporarily and she looked right as rain when I next saw her which was quite amazing given her condition in the middle of the night.
But then I was out in the corridor talking to a young doctor when he casually told me my mother was now terminal and would die within a few weeks. We were standing among lots of people and I remember staring at him in disbelief. Mum had appeared to be reacting well to the medical treatment and no-one had even mentioned that she had a limited life span.
That this young man could be so insensitive as to give me the news in a crowded area left me stunned. I fell apart, gut-wrenching tears hit me, I was howling with grief and struggling to breathe. It was then the young trainee doctor said I’d better see the oncologist treating mum. I phoned Dad who returned to the hospital and we went into see the specialist. I can still remember his words: “Ah, yes, Vera Davies. I’m afraid the tumour has re-occurred in her throat and she’s terminal. We’ll keep her in hospital and sedated until she chokes to death.”
To this day I can’t believe that someone could be so cold and insensitive. I know when we first went in to see this miserable specimen of humanity after Mum’s lung cancer had been diagnosed that he started going through Mum’s test results and got to a point where he mentioned the lung cancer may have metastised in her liver, which frightened the life out of both of us. Then he broke off to answer a phone call, had a nice chatty session with a fellow physician, while we were left hanging in the air, unsure how bad the news really was. Finally he put the phone down and said: “But a closer inspection shows that’s not the case”. Personally I could have ripped the guy’s head off, but my Mum was very respectful of and intimidated by the medical profession so I stayed quiet in order not to upset her.
It was this same ratbag who so casually talked about sedating Mum until her death and not one skerrick of compassion crossed his lips. Years down the track I found a poem I wrote about him, where I expresssed my rage and fury at his cold-heartedness and I must admit, I laughed me head off, it was a very healing experience for me. Unfortunately it’s far too libellous to reprint here!
Dad and I walked out of the specialist’s office and stared at each other. We both agreed that we had wanted to reach over the desk, grab the specialist’s tie and strangle him for his utter insensitivity. Dad said then that he would take Mum home and make sure she died in her own surroundings rather than be left in a hospital which had so little regard for her dignity and well-being.
We were also pretty sure that the hospital was giving mum some drugs which were causing her to hallucinate, as she was doing really odd things in the hospital, like dropping pins into the water glass of her neighbour who was in the two-bed ward. Naturally enough, the neighbour wasn’t too impressed. We know they offered mum an experimental drug which she accepted as she was desperate not to die. But of course, she was dying so the medicos where quite happy to use an experimental drug on her as if she was a guinea pig to be used and discarded when she died.
We then we found out that one night she’d gone running around the hospital demanding the drug. The nurses’ reaction was quite unsympathetic, just annoyance at the interruption to their routine, and no sympathy for a very sick woman scared stiff of dying. We mentioned the use of the experimental drug to one of the nurses who said: “Have they told you or her of the side effects? ” When we said “No – what side effects?” she looked disgusted and said we should have been told. And as it happened it was supposed to come from America and never arrived.
When Dad got Mum home, he said the first night she got out of bed, got a chair and sat in the corner of the room, staring into the corner. When Dad asked my mother what she was doing, she said the doctor had told her to act this way. Dad told her the doctor had informed him that it was now okay to return to bed which she did. And after that, as whatever drugs my mother was being given in the hospital wore off, she returned to normal although her health continued to deteriorate.
What was hard about mum dying was that she never admitted her condition was terminal. The only time she came close to alluding to her death was when she turned to me shortly before she died and said: “You’ll write to my friends and tell them about, well, you know, won’t you?” which I did but none of them bothered replying.
Dad nursed mum right through her last days with the support of the Silver Chain hospice care. She seemed bright and breezy on her birthday on the 19th September and again was bright when I visited on the morning of 21st. But in the afternoon Dad phoned and said she’d deteriorated rapidly and her death was imminent.
I drove down to Rockingham and found Mum fighting for every breath. She would inhale and breathe out and each time we’d think it was the last breath. I was able to give her a cuddle but her torment was appalling. I know other relatives of cancer sufferers will say the same as me, that a lovely person like my mum didn’t deserve the awful death she suffered. It wasn’t until around 7.30 that the Silver Chain gave her some morphine to ease her pain, she fell asleep and then slipped into a coma. Finally, just after midnight, she took her final breath and was at last at peace.
A huge storm was passing through Rockingham and Perth that night, but an angel from the Silver Chain braved the filthy weather, came out to us, washed mum’s body with my help, and we dressed her in a lovely dress she had adored. The funeral home came for her body just at dawn and it was when I saw her being wheeled away that I finally broke down and started crying. I remember being doubled up with grief and Dad saying: “Cry all you want, love. I wish I could do the same”. I cried all the way home and I guess didn’t stop until late in the evening.
And with Mum’s death, the intermediary and peace-keeper between myself and my father had disappeared. I found that people didn’t want to talk about death and dying and losing your mother, and felt incredibly lonely and beside myself with grief and no-one to share it with. So I decided to see a psychologist and it was one of the best things I’ve done because not only could I talk about loss, the issues between myself and my father began to surface and I began to work on healing those issues.
I’ve had quite a long break because I’ve had a lot of trouble with severe sciatic pain and I’ve been concentrating on my artwork at:
because basically it keeps me sane when things get somewhat painful.
Suddenly, however, a fair few comments have popped up about this blog so I decided I’d better get myself into gear and get writing again.
Since my last post was about leaving Australia for the UK in 2002 (it lasted two years, by the way!) I decided to continue with the start of my adventures in Australia in which:
The Intrepid Life Traveller, Ms Goody-Two-Shoes,
Stepped into the Telephone Box in Perth, Western Australia,
in dreary, conscientious, reliable clothing
With Purple Hair
And Bright Red Knickers over the Purple Tights
Founding Member Arty-Farty Brigade!
To be very honest I was quite surprised recently when the guy I travelled with (we broke up but remain good friends) told me recently he was really grateful I’d suggested a holiday in Australia. I actually don’t remember this but I guess Australia had always been on my horizon knowing my parents had got all the approvals to emigrate Downunder in the post-war period until my mother changed her mind at the last moment.
SHIP-JET TO PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
We, Jack and I, travelled to Australia for a working holiday via jet to Singapore and then ship to Perth, Western Australia. It was dirt cheap and, in those days, because we were British, we could enter Australia without visas and work also without needing any visa.
The jet part was one of the early budget flights and I remember it going on and on seemingly forever. I’d muddled up time change so had no idea how long we’d been in the air and how long we’d keep flying. I do remember feeling a bit airsick and had just got a glass of water to take some tablets when we hit severe disturbance. The jet dropped god knows how many feet, the water stayed in the air while the glass went down with me, and looking up it was like slow motion as the water – free of the constraints of the glass – fell down on me and left me soaked to the skin!
Finally we arrived in Singapore to warm, humid weather and a hostile Customs officer who decided that, as Jack’s hair was a bit too long, his passport would be confiscated and only returned when the ship set sail. I remember Singapore being squeaky clean and full of flowers but really was too jetlagged to take much notice.
We set sail on the Patris ship, full of excitement at embarking on a sea cruise, but I have to tell you that it was utterly, utterly boring. I don’t like constant entertainment and every available public area had something on – nightclub, movies, bingo, etc., etc. I spent a lot of time lolling around in deck chairs or down below in the cabin. We were also, by the way, segregated. Women-only cabins and men-only cabins. The only thing to fill the endless days and empty seas were food and booze, and the food was not particularly brilliant. It was even less brilliant when we hit rough seas and meal times were more an exercise in not throwing up rather than getting food down as the restaurant was towards the prow of the boat! So it was with a sigh of relief that we both emerged above decks early one morning in the hazy light of sunrise, to see the shoreline of Australia squatting hazily on the horizon.
And it was THEN I thought to myself, what the heck have we done? Set sail to a strange country the other side of the world, without too much in the way of back-up funds, where we need to find work and accommodation pretty much pronto! Bit late for commonsense to hit but I remember really getting butterflies in my stomach as the dark coastline of Australia came closer and closer, looking quite mysterious and a bit malevolent, until finally we sailed into Fremantle port, south of Perth, and docked at the quayside.
Disembarkation took a while but soon we were traipsing across to Fremantle train station to buy our tickets to Perth. We had a great introduction to Australia: when we asked for our tickets, the ticket officer asked where we’d come from. We said England, just arrived via ship-jet, and his response was: “More Pommie bastards. The place is sinking with ’em. Why don’t you all stay at home?” We were somewhat taken aback but found others we met later were, luckily, a lot more friendly and helpful.
We stayed in a cheap hotel the first few days and got ourselves acclimatised to Perth while we looked for a flat and jobs. Perth at that time was more like a big town than the big metropolis it is now. It was like stepping back twenty years in time as it was old-fashioned, parochial and very quiet after the hustle and bustle of London where Jack and I had both lived and worked prior to our Australian adventure. On Saturdays, shops closed at midday, older ladies wore really old-fashioned dresses (frocks) with long sleeves, stockings, ghastly shoes, prim hats and gloves, all this in really hot temperatures! When we first came across The West Australian, the local newspaper, we thought it was a weekly local rag, a bit like the newsy local publication which appeared once a week in Canterbury. But, no, this was the daily newspaper and it was pathetic – bad layout, anti anything from “the Eastern States”, utterly WA-centric, and hostage to the mining cowboys starting to make their mark. Actually, when I last saw the newspaper when we stopped in Perth on our way to North Cyprus, it hadn’t changed much except to get worse!
JOBS AND SETTLING IN
We found a flat quickly as in those days they were plentiful, cheap and cheerful. After the miserable digs we’d experienced in London we thought we were in clover – a nice bedroom, separate shower and bathroom, fridge, and it was clean and bright. What we didn’t realise was that the flat we’d found was the bottom of the pile, the flats that young people and young couples moved in to to start an independent life. To us, though, it was absolute luxury after the really awful housing you used to get in London if you weren’t among the super-rich. We rapidly bought some more necessities like kitchenware, coffee tables and so on, and then turned to the question of jobs.
On the Monday after we arrived we caught the train to Perth (we’d found a flat on the Fremantle-Perth line) and started haring down the platform when we arrived. Then we noticed the looks of surprise on the faces of other train passengers and realised everyone else was strolling along at a gentle pace! Yes, life was in the slow lane in Perth in 1972 and we soon adapted.
Jack found a job delivering bread to houses which was common in those days while I found a job working in a French company quite a way from where we lived, but it was a job and we both had an income coming in. We were amazed to find how high wages were and how low income tax was compared to the UK. In London I’d been earning £26 a week, with nearly half going on taxes. In Australia I was earning $70 a week and when I saw I’d only paid $3 in taxes, I approached the accountant as I thought there’d been a mistake. But no, tax was minimal and, even more surprising, a couple of weeks later I got a rise to $75 because there was something called an Award which was regulated by a commission and they’d given my class of office worker a raise without my even having to ask! Neither of us could believe our luck!
THE STIRRINGS OF REBELLION
Australia was, however, a huge turning point for me. Until we arrived in Perth, I’d been conventional, conservative and pretty myopic in my thinking. The first stirrings of rebellion in me happened when the guy I worked for in my first job called me “the girl”. I was mortally offended by this term as it was so derogatory. I remember one day my boss and his partner went to a liquid lunch (i.e., they went to a pub and got stuck into the booze) forgot an appointment and when the guy turned up he was ropeable. He rang back later that day and I heard my boss blame “the girl” so I leaned over, grabbed the phone and shouted down it: “I’m not the girl, I didn’t forget, they went and got drunk”. Amazingly I didn’t get the sack, but it was the nail in the coffin for me as far as that job was concerned. I also got further impetus to leave when the accountant, who’d acted rather oddly at times, turned up late one morning as pissed as a parrot and I found out he was a raging alcoholic.
I had a look in the local paper, The West Australian, for a job and found one as the office supervisor and secretary to the Managing Director in a small engineering firm not far from where I lived and, best of all, it had air-conditioning! The first time it hit 100F/37.8C in the brick block which was my first place of work, I thought I’d die with the heat. I stuck it out for a while then crept into the restroom, whipped my pantyhose off and scuttled back to my desk with bare legs which I thought was incredibly daring. Actually, no-one noticed and young women in 1972 had started going without pantyhose in the summer as it was so much more comfortable. It was only the older generation of women who turned out in pantyhose and how they managed to look so cool was quite beyond me!
I also got cranky when I stayed in our flat on a Sunday while Jack went out to play football and have a good time. I did try going to one football match which I found incredibly boring, it seemed to last forever and I had no interest in the women who only talked about their babies, nappies and homes. And so, when I saw a report on members of Women’s Liberation, who had picketed schools to hand out contraception information, I felt the first stirrings of interest. I wrote to them via the newspaper but never heard back. However, when I quit my office job, because the area organiser for Western Australia for the Australian Union of Students and came into contact with members of Women’s Liberation, it was as if lights went off for me and I was off and running on the path very much less travelled!