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Saturday, 24 October 2015

Vacation Decided

Vacations should have been torturous, horrid experiences but I don't remember them that way at all.

Early on, my existence shrunk my poor parent's borders of adventure.From having a normal child and the continent as their vacation playground, to having one repeated vacation destination for the next seven years because of me.

You see in those days in South Africa a small city like Port Elizabeth didn't have the fancy equipment or medical experts in Pediatric Cardiology that the doctors thought I'd need. Port Elizabeth was beautiful, small and charming and lacked everything needed to explore this little enigma they'd stumbled upon. From hence forth our annual vacation was a road trip from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.

Whether it was "strongly recommended" by the doctors or obligatory, I don't know. What I do know is that I'd been sentenced to an annual checkup and so our annual vacation was always taken in Cape Town for two solid and simple reasons. Cape Town was home to what I remember being The Red Cross Children's Hospital which had the best Pediatric Cardiac unit and the best Cardiologist, Dr. Christiaan Barnard. As a child, I didn't realize the magnificence of this man and I'm sorry to say that I don't even remember him. 

There are things I do remember. Painful things.
I have small veins. I believe it's part of this condition. Now try to imagine a small child who has small veins and large needles to draw blood.
One of my worst memories is being repeatedly stabbed by a young nurse trying to draw blood. The nurse calling for help because she couldn't get it right. Then the help calling for help. There were eventually so many medical personnel around my bed that there wasn't room for more. It felt like they were ganging up on me. All stabbing and pricking and prodding. Honestly most of it was more frightening than painful but some of those jabs were no picnic. The jab for my femoral artery, the one at the crease between leg and body right next door to the naughty parts, was no joke.
Perhaps they got their pint of blood, perhaps they simply gave up. I can't remember. I was just glad it was over eventually.

 I can also recall a dim room. There were many silhouetted figures there because the light was always behind them. These people were faceless and featureless because they were surgeons with those caps and masks on. I recall it going very dark and the faceless people there all leaving the room as one without any perceived sign or warning. They stopped what they were doing and left! I remember the shock of realizing I wasn't alone in the dark when one of the surgical team grabbed my hair brutally from behind with heavy rubber gloves. The gloves protruded through a barrier of sorts that separated us above my head where I lay on the operating table.  I remember crying out because my hair was pulled so badly and he (or she) did it so roughly. I remember the sensation of an expanding spherical wall of crackling energy starting in the center of my body and expanding outwards. As it hit my stomach I remember fighting the incredible urge to vomit. As it hit my bowels it felt as if my intestines would empty in a liquid explosion of diarrhea. I remember my sphincter burning and feeling as if I were losing control. Travelling up my body my lungs felt as if the air inside had been super-heated and my lips, like my sphincter, burned and felt uncontrollable. The air I breathed out tasted rank and extra ordinarily hot. As suddenly as this sensation started, so it disappeared as if it evaporated out through my skin.

As a child, these ordeals were horrible. As an adult I understand them far better.
Blood is always taken before surgical procedures to check that the individual is healthy enough to go through with the procedure and that there are no underlying infections or problems.
The procedure was a cardiac catheterization for exploratory purposes. It enabled the doctors and professors the best way to look inside me without cracking my chest open. Unfortunately those many years ago it was important that the patient remain conscious so that the heart performs normally. This was achieved by giving the patient (injected) medication that made them drowsy and incapable of much motion.
The burning sphere I think is a radioactive dye injected through the catheter into the strong flow of the heart's blood so that it gets dispersed quickly and of course gives a clear image of the heart itself. The dye flowing through my veins is what that sensation was all about.
If there's a doctor reading this blog, perhaps you could shed some more factual, better light on the above?

This cardiac catheterization (or one of them) also left physical scars on my arm. The scars never bothered me but evidently bothered other people. We'll get to them in another blog though.

At age five, I was to have a heart transplant by the miracle maker Dr. Christiaan Barnard. On the morning of the operation after reviewing my file with his panel one last time, they decided against it. I believe (and I think I recall one of my later Cardiac professors telling me this) that had they cracked open my chest and done the transplant, I would have died at five years old. As much as they had tried to explore and survey this unknown, beating territory within my chest, their findings were not complete. As medical equipment advanced and more of me was discovered it was realized that they had made the right decision not to do the transplant.
A narrow miss.

I should hate going on vacation with that kind of association with it. Perhaps I do hold that association because I prefer 'home" vacations but I'm not overly averse to having an away holiday.
In fact I don't have an association with these procedures and vacation at all!
I'm not sure if it was intentional on my parent's part or not but they played it well. The second part of the vacation seems to always have been awesome enough to erase any bad association with the nasty part. Weird thing is the happy parts weren't even that extravagant, they were just cool!

Cape Town had a lovely public park with oak trees. These oak trees had very special inhabitants - squirrels! My happiest memories was going to this park and feeding the squirrels.
There was also a memorial on the foot of Table Mountain. A massive monument and at this monument they had buck. Tame buck that would come and eat out of your hand.
There were the trips up Table Mountain by cable car too and the useless yet obligatory tourist trap flannel flag that I'd want every year. I think I had one in practically every colour they ever made.

We'd go and visit my uncle and stay at their home for a few days while we were in the area. There was always crayfish, massive food feasts and plenty of grape juice for me and wine for the adults.

There was also the trips to the Stellenbosch wine farms which I hated as a child because then they were boring but would love to do now.

I remember these happy things from my vacations. Perhaps I don't recall. Perhaps my perception has changed. Perhaps the happy things associate better with vacation because somehow I was happy that the necessary had been done and I knew everything was okay for another year. That the happy stuff was a celebration of this.
Whatever the reason, vacation was always welcome!

Bye for now until the next blog.

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