First I must give a huge shout out for my in laws who gave me a fantastic week, in spite of the weather. Thank you for the break, the opportunity to rest without feeling (too) guilty and for generally looking after me! I really, really appreciate it.
We drove back home on Sunday, a damp, dreary drive. By the time we reached the first services on the M4 motorway I was beside myself – pain, nausea, swearing I would never make another car journey. I was grey – even I could see I looked awful, and whilst a fix of caffeine helped, getting back in the car took an enormous effort. But then something happened that put things into perspective.
From out of nowhere, a stream of motorbikes appeared, rider after rider bedecked in red. Their mixture of T shirts, scarves and even hats over cycle helmets formed a crimson river billowing out behind them. Many carried flags, wreaths or giant poppies. We left the M4 for the M25 and another fleet of riders was heading towards us on the opposite carriageway. This was the “Ride of Respect” and I don’t know how many riders turned out on Sunday on small bikes, Harleys, huge modern Suzukis, trikes, but they paid their respects to our forces in the most poignant way I’ve ever seen. Why was I complaining?
It’s funny, but the first time I “experienced” nerve pain was as a new student nurse caring for an old soldier. He had served in WW2 and had a wicked sense of humour. In other words he had great fun teasing us first years. “Nurse, please help, I need to get up to have a pee” and then he would roar with laughter when he saw the young nurse’s face as the bed covers were pulled back and realization dawned that he had no lower legs. He would never say what happened to leave him a double amputee, only that he was the lucky one. Most of the time he was happy go lucky with a throaty guffaw of a laugh, but every couple of days he would change. He would rock backwards and forwards, and weep as the pain in his feet became unbearable. Yes, that’s right, his feet. My first experience of phantom limb pain. The worst time for him was during the night when he cried out in agony, but there was little that could be done to help ease it. We cared for his stumps to the best of our ability, and helped him fit his prosthetic limbs when he could tolerate them, but it is only now that I can truly understand to a very small extent what this uncomplaining old soldier was going through.
At one of my outpatient appointments with my last surgeon, Mr B, I asked why he couldn’t just “snip”the affected nerve and be done with it. His response was that I knew better than that, as I would still feel pain after – exactly like phantom limb pain. The actual problem is not in my foot or my leg or even my sciatic nerve, but rather right in the nerve root which then tells my brain that my foot has pain. In the same way my patient’s brain was being fed false information that made him “feel” sensations in his non existent feet. The nervous system is ever complex.
Today as we remember our war dead on armistice day, it is so important to remember our war living too – those wounded and in pain, physical and emotional.