Thursday, December 16, 2010

A trip to the theatre

After a day of mildly painful "trapped wind" during which I completely failed to belch my way back to a happy belly, I fell back on the obvious remedies - Andrews, Rennies, a couple of paracetemol for comfort. After a couple of hours of completely failing to begin a healing slumber, I tried some Zydol (normally used to erase post-operative pain). My "indigestion" chuckled and nipped me a little harder for my cheek.

My health insurer, VHI, provides a "nurse line" service, which I called. The very nice lady who answered my call immediately detected that I was speaking through clenched teeth and skipped the formalities, something that I really, really appreciated. Through a series of questions, she ruled out obvious suspects like gastroenteritis, and suggested that I visit my nearest hospital's casualty department. I decided to try my GP's out-of-hours service instead.

A nice South African doctor turned up pretty quickly, and offered sympathy ("Shit mate... I'm sorry") and some intra-muscular pain relief to supplement my own efforts (chewing my way through a leather belt and making a serious effort to put my fist through the arm of my sofa). He also thought casualty seemed like a good idea, and told me to phone if the drugs didn't help.

Feeling very silly to cause such a fuss over a simple case of indigestion, I woke my poor wife and got her to drive me to our local acute hospital, where a sympathetic triage nurse took me straight past the usual queue and into an examination room where a doctor gave me some morphine, intravenously. Light-headed as I was from the "discomfort" of my worsening "indigestion", I was interested to observe the effects of the "gold standard" of pain relief, a close cousin of heroin. Morphine acts directly on the central nervous system, and within seconds a warm sensation began to suffuse my body. My belly, however, felt no better. This was my lowest point: 4AM, sleep-deprived, very sore indeed, and now failed by the pain reliever. My Doc returned and doubled the dose... and, at last, the pain retreated.

Several hours of dozing on trolleys, examinations and blood tests followed. White cell counts indicated an infection. An IV line delivered antibiotics to fight it. Then a brisk, brusque gentleman quizzed me and poked me for a minute or two before announcing that I had appendicitis and would be operated on at the earliest opportunity. I added my autograph to proffered paperwork, and awaited developments. Another kind nurse brought me a fetching new outfit that tied at the side.

Eventually, I found myself in theatre watching my pulse on a monitor. Well past 100. Hmm. I must be nervous. As the aneasthetist's drugs began to pull me into oblivion, my fading mind made a final, terrifying observation: the wall-mounted computer provided to inform and guide my surgeon was running windows. I blacked out.


I came to after 90 minutes or so, feeling extremely comfortable and very pleased with the whole experience. A chat with my attending nurse and a glance at my chart explained this - lots and lots of pain-relieving drugs, plus a straightforward and successful operation. My surgeon stopped by my bedside looking pretty pleased with herself and told me how terrible my appendix had looked - said she should have taken a picture to show me (gangrenous, necrotic tip, etc).

And that was that, more or less. I've got three neat little slits in by belly, used to insert probes and remove the source of my "indigestion" and also 8 little stainless steel clips that my GP will yank out in a few more days. Not the worst possible result!

Lesson learned: take sudden and unexplained pains seriously.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Hauling out

Winter haul-out is a melancholy time; the final admission that, this year, there will be no more sailing... no more anchoring in quiet and beautiful places, no random encounters with big beasties from the deep. This winter, Briongloid will get new pintles & gudgeons, and maybe a few electrical tweaks to satisfy her owner's fantasies of hot drinks in cold places.

In compensation for having to leave the water, I did get to participate in the small adventure that is the haul-out. I'm aware that city-folk hire full-time experts who simply crane the vessel straight out of the water and deposit it neatly on a trailer or a stand. Where I grew up, the ritual is practiced in an older and more character-building and ingenuity-testing form, and this last weekend, my Briongloid experienced this form for the first time.

This haul-out went relatively smoothly, but not too smoothly (that would be boring). The local haul-out wizard and myself used van power, muscle power and ultimately an interesting grapnel+outboard engine technique to get the trailer into about 6 feet of water. Briongloid was towed on with an anchor laid out astern to check her way (boats don't have brakes!). Unfortunately, she landed just slightly off-centre on the trailer, missing the trough that normally holds her keel. I did try to fix this (setting a personal speed record for time taken to change into a wet-suit), swimming down to hold the trailer and kick the keel (it has worked before), but she was already too well settled (we had used the van/rope combination to haul the trailer higher on the slip, not a reversible procedure), but ultimately, it was not serious balance problem, and had the advantage of allowing us to clean beneath the keel.

The keel: ah yes. The one part of the boat I couldn't reach to anti-foul before launch. I knew the result would not be pretty, but... wow! After 4 months afloat, the bottom of the keel was encrusted with sea-life. Most prominent were several kilos of mussels - which I seriously considered saving for the pot, until I remembered how close to lots of very toxic paint they had grown. There were also several mysterious animals that were quite transparent - oblong, featureless, with a small yellow structure inside. When squeezed, they squirted. I asked the haul-out wizard their name; he said a local boat man had called them "pissers" - but this wasn't the actual Linnean name. I was amazed to find a relatively large and completely static animal I've never seen before in water I've spent quite a bit of time snorkeling in.

Funny thing about that haul-out: technically, it is mere drudgery, part of the price of owning a sailing boat. This one ate up some hours on a sunny flat-calm Sunday, and involved some moderately heavy manual work, a few good chances to get a nasty crush injury, and at certain points I was cold and wet. Oddly enough, I really enjoyed the whole thing. Water Rat has a point about messing about in boats.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Checking the weather

Last night, a tiny light blazed above our neighbour's rooftop, far brighter than Vega or Deneb. It couldn't be the ISS (which really whizzes past) , so I knew I was looking at Jupiter, currently a mere 368.8 million miles away. I can resist anything but temptation, so I finished my chores as quickly as possible, pulled a middling-sized Newtonian reflector out of my car boot and took aim at the heavens.

My luck was in, and my sighting tube was still calibrated; Jupiter appeared almost immediately in my field of view, and seconds later was focused perfectly. I could see the bright disk of the giant himself, and four bright points almost in a line - the 4 largest moons, 1 to the left and 3 to the right*. Knowing the moons to be only a little smaller than Earth, the vast scale of Jupiter was obvious. As I watched, I realised that I could a dark reddish band running across Jupiter's disc, some distance south of the equator.

Standing beneath the glowing windows of my home on a chilly autumnal night, it boggled my mind to be looking at alien weather. Of course, I've seen pictures of Jupiter many times, but somehow, this was much more real. Just think...
  • 70 minutes previously, the photons now hitting my eyes were leaving the roiling surface of our star
  • 30 minutes previously, those same photons bounced off freezing cloud-tops in the very toxic upper atmosphere of a truly enormous planet, and off towards a tiny blue speck...
  • ...where they whizzed down a plastic tube, bounced off two small curved mirrors, and into my eye.
How amazing is that?

* The informed reader, comparing my observations of cloud bands and moon positions with Jupiter's actual orientation might think I'm either observing while standing on my head or an Australian. Well, I'm innocent on both counts - a reflector telescope typically doesn't preserve up/down left/right.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Glacial Galtees

Week after week, the frost has held fast; on some days, the sun can chase it from the grass, but rarely from the shade. Below the sun's reach, the ice is creeping deeper into the earth; mud has set like cement, and the ice reaches a full foot below the ground. Freezing fogs turn bare branches into a freezing filigree, every twig heavy with ice crystals. Apart from the fog, the sky stays clear, and the stars shine bright and hard, the colours more brilliant than I can remember, with Mars a brooding red, Sirius a really cool and brilliant blue. All over Europe, the snow is thick - but not here.

Serious frost foils local arachnid

Now, a weather front rolling in from the east has delivered the coup de glace; at dawn, a weak sun cast a rosy light on the Galtees, covered at last in a deep blanket of fresh snow, smooth and dangerous. I can resist anything - except tempation; packing for the mountains takes fifteen minutes. My walk starts in an oak wood, as fresh snow begins to fall, whitening a path that had been bare. Beyond the last trees, sheet ice makes the lower mountain treacherous and adds an extra frisson to fording streams. Higher, knee deep snow lies beneath an icy crust that nearly supports my weight. Unfortunately, I have no snow shoes; and so the going, on a trackless mountainside, is brutally hard.

Icy stream, the Galtees

Then, a devastating disappointment; reaching the slope that I wanted to sled down, blades of grass rising above the snow have collected thick sheaths of ice. They form an endless forest of finger-thick spikes, glittering like glass as the sun breaks through. Gorgeous, but totally un-sledgable. I am getting tired; the going is too hard, the snow too deep, the ground too rough; I need a way out. There is my own trail up, but even that will not be easy going. Suddenly, sunset seems all too close.

At exactly the right moment, walkers appear higher on the slope, moving very quickly and easily; the ground allows me only a waist up view, but I can see they have found a better way. More slogging gets me higher, to a mountain trail; here, the snow is well trodden, and at last I can walk easily, and look beyond my next step. After the slog of the deep snow off-trail, the relief is incredible. The air is very clear, and I can see a great distance over a completely frozen landscape. At this height, no stream can flow, and the only sound is the crunch of the snow beneath my boots and the whistle of an east wind carrying arctic overtones. It lifts and flips my improvised sled (a bodyboard) and numbs my face, so that when I call my wife, I stumble over my sibilants.

This high place is wild, beautiful, and killing cold; reluctantly, I turn to descend the path as the valley below sinks into shadow, muscles already two-thirds spent, fresh bruises darkening. I am exquisitely happy, intoxicated with the magic of deep winter in high places.