Back from the dead

Will I ever write again? Am I even capable of writing any more? Sitting at a keyboard concentrating and articulating and organising thoughts is a daunting prospect. When I was released discharged from the University Hospital of Wales two months ago I had lost 20 kilos (3 stones) in weight, was so frail I couldn’t turn the key in the front door, getting up a single step of the staircase left me gasping for oxygen and just walking to the corner shop was an impossible task. Gradually, incrementally, I am getting stronger, gaining weight, restoring withered muscles and doing more and more physically. But it’s a long road; the consultants tell me it will take a year to get back to my normal health. The process can’t be rushed, so I’m having to be something that doesn’t come at all naturally: patient.

I nearly died. Again (see It was a 999 job: I couldn’t breathe. My lungs had collapsed. The ambulance was here in 15 minutes and within 30 minutes I was on life support in the Intensive Care Unit. Let nobody criticise the Welsh NHS: when it really matters they deliver a superb service.

For two weeks I lay semi-conscious, fevered and hallucinating in the ICU, hooked up to a multitude of wires, tubes and pipes and kept alive entirely mechanically. At first the doctors were baffled and could not figure out what was wrong, despite running batteries of tests and scans and calling in specialist medics from across the UK. Finally a specific blood test turned up the culprit: an extremely rare fungus that had somehow lodged in my lungs and combined with a bout of routine winter flu to produce catastrophic effects. Only five previous similar cases had ever been recorded in the UK – and all five victims had died. Now treatment with powerful anti-fungals could begin and I started to recover enough to be moved out of Intensive Care and into my own room with round-the-clock nursing support on the top floor of the vast Heath complex. Immunologists, endocrinologists and pulmonologists flocked to my bedside. I was a cause célèbre, a case to be written up in medical journals and scientific papers and used to advance future knowledge of how to treat the many billions of microscopic fungi spores in the air we breathe should they ever move in for the kill. When I reached the stage where I could survive without an oxygen mask I was allowed to go home. That alone was a massive boost.

Two months on, I’m still taking the anti-fungal tablets and must attend outpatient clinics for blood tests and monitoring every fortnight. All the indicators are going in the right direction and it’s beginning to look like I might make medical history and survive – although I’m loathe to make such a complacent assumption yet. What I can tell readers with some confidence is what happens when you come face to face with imminent death. It’s not really a revelation; in fact it’s obvious when you think about it. At the end you go back to where you began. To mother.

Soldiers who survived the WW1 trenches reported that their injured comrades dying slow agonising deaths in no man’s land universally cried out for their mothers until falling silent. When there’s nowhere else to go except death’s eternity of non-existence, our minds invariably take us back to when we were safest and happiest. In popular culture there are few better illustrations of this invariable phenomena than in the brilliant 1946 western My Darling Clementine by America’s supreme auteur John Ford (1894-1973). Chihuahua, played by Linda Darnell (1923-1965), has been shot and her only hope of survival is for alcoholic Doc Holliday, played by Victor Mature (1913-1999), to remove the bullet without anaesthetic. Ford pans away from the scene as Doc Holliday makes the incision, leaving us with the heart-rending sound of Chihuahua crying out “Oh Ma!” She does not survive. Check it out on YouTube.

So it was for me. In my delirium, certain I was dying, I went back to my cot in Albany Road in the 1950s. In real time, my beloved mother was again reading me the bedtime stories that first implanted my love of language.

John had
Great Big
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
John had a
Great Big
Mackintosh –
And that
(Said John)

It turns out that the entire contents of When We Were Very Young (1924) by AA Milne (1882-1956) were in my memory banks, and it was these that I summoned up in my moment of ultimate crisis.

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Mortimer (Richard) is saying his prayers.


I would like to thank all the people who have sent me emails and messages wishing me well. It has been quite overwhelming and very moving. I never thought I would be missed by anyone.