Courage: when you are willing to do something difficult or dangerous.
A year and a half after my large intestine had been removed and a pouch reconstructed from a portion of my small intestine, I was leading a full life typical of a newly- married speech therapist whose professional- cricketer husband played all over England while I mostly stayed in London with many of my close friends living no more than a tube ride away. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Exiting and disappointing. Fulfilling and painful. It was a time of feeling invincible, at the beginning of a journey that had the promise of following a more predictable course than the journey thus far.
I went to work one morning, going straight into the clinic on the Kingswood Estate, a huge council estate about an hour by bus from my base in Camberwell which was also in South East London. I was the speech and language therapist on a team of health visitors and nursery nurses who were involved in a government initiative called the Neighbourhood Renewal Project. The aim of the project was to allow vulnerable communities who did not qualify as sufficiently disadvantaged to access existing government programs, to access speech and language services that provided shorter waiting times, more therapy and better access to healthcare professionals than the standard National Health Service (NHS) provision.
I phoned a mom to confirm that I would be seeing her son later that day and then phoned my husband to tell him that I was feeling unwell. Those two conversations would later guide my colleagues in their search for me.
While taking a short-cut through a grassy quadrangle, I was overcome by such intense abdominal pain that I could not stand. I started vomiting repeatedly and, although the day was cool, perspiration ran off me.
I became so overwhelmed by the pain that I could not move, nor draw a deep enough breath to speak, much less shout for help. Because I had taken a short-cut and was still in the quadrangle, I could not be seen from the flats or the road and was lying in a low-traffic area. I became truly afraid that I would lie alone in a deserted area of a council estate in London for hours and hours unheard, unseen and unaided. The feeling of helplessness was terrifying. I could hear my phone ringing and cars driving past, but I could not move or speak.
I have read of superhuman strength in times of crisis and I experienced it that day. I decided that I had to get up and walk to the road. I must have looked as terrible as I felt because when I made it onto the road people stared, but did not stop. I managed to cross the road and go into a pharmacy where I collapsed again, vomiting and unable to speak. By shaking and nodding my head, the pharmacist could determine that I was neither drunk not high, but very ill and he called an ambulance. For years and years after being loaded into an ambulance that day and driven to Accident and Emergency with the sirens blaring, I felt a cold, scraping fear whenever I heard a siren.
The mother of the child I was due to be visiting phoned my office to check if I was okay when I failed to arrive for the scheduled and confirmed visit. My colleagues called my husband when my cell phone rang unanswered and he could tell them that I had felt unwell when we spoke that morning. They phoned all the hospitals in the south of London and when they could not locate me, they started searching by car and on foot. By the evening, after a frantic day of searching for their missing female co-worker and friend who had disappeared alone on a council estate, they arrived at a teaching hospital close to our base. It still makes me cry twelve years later when I retell the story of how two of my friends walked in and recognised my shoes. They said that they were almost too afraid to come and look at the bed behind the curtain because they were unsure of what they would find. It is painful to imagine how they felt. I was, of course, very much alive although unwell.
Part of my small intestine had fallen into my pelvic cavity and eleven centimetres had to be removed during emergency surgery because the tissue had died. The trauma of this unexpected surgery and the horror of being in an understaffed government hospital in one of the most deprived areas in London cannot be overstated.
But the courage I saw from my colleagues that day was inspiring. My friends, my family, my patients and their families and my colleagues were, and still are, examples of bravery. Danger and difficulty did not overwhelm them. Fear did not make them give up. Hardship did not make them lose hope.
I continue to be inspired.