It was the last week of February 2016, I was working day shifts in obstetrics and gynaecology, a busy job but rewarding in many ways. Working as a doctor in hospital means being in contact with sick patients, and therefore catching a cold off a patient isnt too surprising.
I remember very well that week i attended to a young pregnant teenager who had presented to the emergency department. Without delving into the details of her complaint i noted she had a cough and a slight fever. Two days after i began to develop a cough, sore throat, runny nose and a fever. I was convinced i had picked this off my patient and didnt think more of it. Over the next few days i noted that i was feeling much more exhausted than usual and i was struggling to bring my fever down, my colleagues at work sent me home on 3 occasions as i was too unwell to stay. It took a week and a half before my symptoms began to improve, I was back at work and that was that.
As the days passed i began to notice i was getting more and more tired, i was needing to eat more to keep me going especially as my job was busy and kept me on my feet. I began to notice night sweats which were leaving my clothes and bed sheets drenched in sweat, at times i was needing to change my clothes several times a night. I also started to notice a itch all over my body which was made worse by wearing certain materials and tight clothing. I began to wear clothes two sizes bigger which meant they were loose enough to give my skin some breathing space.
I had a flight on the 23rd of March 2016, i was heading to Kuwait see my fiance to surprise him on his birthday. I was in Heathrow airport terminal 5 waiting for my flight when my itch became quite intense, I remember panicking and thinking how would i cope on the flight. I headed to boots where i brought over the counter medication and a cream to help soothe itching.
I had a great holiday in Kuwait, my symptoms did not cause me too much distress and i forgot about them. I returned to London and was back at work.
My symptoms began to cause me more distress day by day. I has scratch marks all over my body and was needing to change my clothes more regularly due to the sweats. I decided i needed to see my doctor and ignoring my symptoms was no longer wise. However i had an important exam coming up in three weeks and therefore i scheduled the appointment so that it would be after my exam.
I was working a night shift and was due to see my doctor the following day. During my shift i had a fever and was constantly sweating, i had to go to the toilet repeatedly and wipe the sweat off my body. I spoke to one of my colleagues the medical registrar working that night, I explained my symptoms and asked him if he would suggest i do anything before seeing my appointment. He seemed concerned and arranged for me to have some tests urgently. I was adamant to finish my shift, being the stubborn person i am so i did.
Following my night shift, the morning of the 29th April 2016 i had some tests done – the convenience of working in a hospital! All along i was convinced i had some sort of viral illness, whilst waiting for my test results i was pretty sleepy and desperate to go home as i had been up all night.
One of the tests i had was an xray of my chest, I remember the radiographer who carried out the xray repeatedly asking me if i was due to see a doctor and when i would. Something in her voice was suspicious and at that point i knew something had shown up on my xray. What first came to my mind was that this may be a pneumonia and that would explain some of my symptoms, i was not expecting to hear what was to come.
I was pacing up and down the ‘ambulatory care department’ where i was being seen waiting to get my results. Finally one of the doctors who specialises in respiratory medicine (lung disease) came to see me. He was absolutely excellent, he listened patiently to everything i had to say and he examined me top to toe. Before he could tell me the results of my tests i looked him in the eye and said “this is just an infection isnt it?”, he paused and looked at me and said “i think there is more going on than just an infection”, he went on to explain how my chest xray showed some lesions which looked like swollen lymph nodes. I smiled and laughed nervously saying “you are joking?”, he explained to me that he was concerned this may be one of three diseases; TB, sarcoidosis (a condition affecting lung) or lymphoma (a form of blood cancer) and that i needed a urgent CT scan of my body. I froze at that point and something in me knew what was wrong…
I picked up my phone and dialled my mums number, i told her id be home late, i was having some tests at work and she didnt need to be worried. I had my CT scan within half an hour of seeing the doctor. As i walked into the scan room i felt quite overwhelmed and disorientated. I had worked in this hospital for 2 years and many times i had brought patients into this scan room and watched behind the screen as they went through the doughnut shaped ring of the CT scan. I was now the patient, a role i wasnt good at playing, simple tasks such as removing my jewellery which i would instruct my patients to do i was forgetting myself. As my body was going through the CT scan i could feel the warm sensation of the contrast (dye) they had injected into my vein, it gave me a strange sensation of wanting to empty my bladder. The thoughts in my mind were racing, i was switching between patient mode whereby i was anxious thinking of what this scan may reveal and the doctor mode of thinking how scans are interpreted.
As i walked out of the scan department i bumped into my aunt (dads sister) she happened to have an appointment at the hospital. I briefly said hello and mentioned that i was just having some tests but all is well. As i continued to walk down the corridor i saw one of my colleagues, a doctor working in the same department as me. He had known id been unwell recently and asked me how things were going. At that point i broke down in tears.. Yes in the middle of the main hospital corridor. I explained to him between wiping my tears and nose all that had happened and that i knew this was something serious. He walked with me back to the department and we spent some time talking about how to deal with whatever the result may be.
A couple of hours later i was seen by one of the consultants who was oncall. At this point i had contacted my fiance who lives in Kuwait and had explained to him that i was in hospital having some tests and that id let him know when i have more information. As the consultant walked into my cubicle i got up from the bed i was laying in, quickly fixed myself as i knew i looked scruffy after a long night shift and hours in hospital. He introduced himself and seemed quite serious yet very understanding and empathetic. He went through my results and explained that he had seen my scan however it hadn’t been formally reported. He told me i needed some more tests to rule out TB (Tuberculosis – a infection) and a biopsy (sample from one of the lesions) to rule out lymphoma. I was advised i could now go home and they would contact me once my scan was reported and give me more details.
I walked out of the hospital holding back my tears.. I knew i had more than an infection.. I knew i was ill.. I just hadnt listened to my body.
As i stood outside the hospital i contacted one of my colleagues who does our work rota, i wanted to give him the heads up that i have upcoming tests and may need time off. He insisted on meeting me as i didnt sound right and so we met in one of the doctors offices, one of our senior colleagues also joined us. I told them everything, there was something comforting about speaking to them as they were doctors like me, they understood the medical jargon that came out of my mouth. My colleagues were more than just colleagues, they showed me so much love and support and i knew whatever my scan showed I was never going to be alone.
On my way home i called my older sister, who in actual fact is one of my best friends, i struggled to hold back my tears as I explained the doctors were suspecting i may have lymphoma and that i knew thats what my results will show. I was an emotional wreck..
Later that day I received a phone call whilst at home from the hospital, the doctor told me my scan had shown lymphadenopathy (swollen lymph glands) in my chest, breats and under my armpit possibly suggestive of lymphoma. As there was nothing inside my lung the chances of this being TB or sarcoidosis was less likely. This didnt surprise me but confirmed what my gut instinct was telling me. I was told that i had a urgent appointment arranged to see a haematologist (blood specialist) and that i had to attend the next day for more tests.
I am fortunate enough to have the best fiance who is more than my other half, he is my soul mate my bestfriend. My fiance flew in to London as soon as he heard about my CT scan result. Having the support of those you love is paramount during difficult times. I am thankful that my family and loved ones have been by my side. I remeber waking up one night and crying, the fear of being ill and the baggage that comes with it scared me. I decided to message one of my close friends a loyal lawyer who has stood by me for years, i felt i needed to reach out and ask for help, someone outside my family and work circle. I said a few prayers that night, put my head on the pillow and tried to sleep. The next morning my friend called me in utter shock, she asked to meet me and so we met for coffee. We spoke for a long time, i expressed my fears, i hadnt realised how much talking and sharing your feelings could be therapeutic, i felt i gained a boost of confidence that day.
You may question why as a doctor I had ignored my symptoms for weeks. Being a doctor can be a two edged sword, i never listened to my body, I could always find an explanation to why I wasn’t feeling great. I had convinced myself that i was a young healthy active person and my symptoms would just go away. Many times i sit down and think if a patient presented to me with the symptoms that I was experiencing how differently i would have acted.. Sometimes its best not to look back and to just keep moving forward.. I try my best not to feel guilty and blame myself.
I attended my first haematology appointment with my mum, my fiance and one of my friends who also happens to be a doctor working with me. The haematologist who i saw was great, she was very thorough asking many questions and listening to my every concern. She explained to me that there is a big possibility i have lymphoma but there are over 40 types and the only way they could be sure of the diagnosis is by removing one of my lymph nodes. This would need to be done urgently by one of the breast surgeons and i would need a general anaesthetic. I told her i knew my biopsy would confirm lymphoma as i had classic “B symptoms” (i will talk about this in a future post), i explained to her my biggest anxiety is not being able to work as my work is my happiness. My consultant advised me that work was not an option at present and that i need to learn to ‘listen to my body’, she may have given me a pep talk but her words and advice resonated, her words were the inspiration for my blogs name.. I had never listened to my body and now was the time to start listening.
Having worked in the breast surgery department last year i knew the team who would be operating on me. My surgeon was one of the best doctors i had ever met and therefore i was in safe hands, i had no concerns about my surgery.
The day of my surgery came by quickly, my mum, fiance, sister, aunt and cousin and her baby where with me.. Yes i had a full entourage much to the horror of the staff at the hospital.. My surgeon suggested we sit in the coffee shop and i would be contacted when its my turn to go into the operating theatre. So me and my gang went along and took our loud voices half arabic half english conversations with us. After 3 hours of waiting i got a call on my mobile telling me the surgeon was ready for me, so i said quick goodbyes to my family and i followed the theatre nurse.
Many times had i entered theatres wearing my scrubs with my bleep and mobile in my pocket, hoping that the surgery would be uncomplicated, and the scrub nurse working in the theatre would be a nice one. This time i was opening the theatre doors and entering as a patient, dressed up in my hospital gown with only a surgical cap on my head. I must say i was not your usual patient, i mean i walked myself into the the operating theatre and popped myself onto the operating bed, usual protocol is for patients to be rolled in a bed, but i didnt need that, my legs were functioning pretty well. The anaesthetist and scrub nurse introduced themselves, they had figured out i was a doctor – i mean lets not forget a year ago i was standing by their side assisting in similar operations. My operation was for the removal of a 3.5cm lymph node from my left axilla (below my left armpit) – a procedure known as ‘surgical excision biopsy’.
As i lay on the operating bed i looked up at the ceiling said a few prayers as the anaesthetist gave me a injection to put me to sleep. The next thing remember is waking up in the recovery unit, the sensation of waking up from a general anaesthetic is strange and difficult one to describe, it almost felt like swimming out of deep water (not that i can swim.. so maybe a innaccurate comparison!). As soon as i was awake enough i asked to see my family, i was in no pain or distress but craved my fiances warm hand squeezing mine to say ‘it will be okay’ and my mums warm hearted love. I thankfully recovered well from the operation, i cant thank my surgeon enough for the job he did.
So my biopsy was taken.. the result of which i would recieve in a week and my life would change forever…
The next part of my journey will follow in coming posts.. Stay tuned xxx