Writing a medical memoir

Regular readers of this blog will know that in 2015 my husband Brian had a near-fatal heart attack, and that this was followed by a whole series of medical and surgical emergencies affecting our family. I had spent many years working on the medical staff of hospitals and hospices, but experiencing serious illness from the perspective of patients and relatives was very different.

After recovering from the traumas I decided to write a short memoir about them, and this is now available on Smashwords, Amazon US and Amazon UK under the title Across a Sea of Troubles. The first part tells the story of what happened, and the second part is a review of various topics including life event stress, the mind-body connection, post-traumatic syndromes and the role of  the carer.

I wrote this partly for myself as a way of coming to terms with things. Whether it has actually been therapeutic I am not sure – revising the manuscript involved rather too much focus on painful memories. So even if it still not a perfectly finished book, I have decided to publish it and move on. I hope it will hold some value for people who are coping with illness, whether as patients or relatives or health care professionals. But as always when publishing something new, I feel apprehensive about its reception: have I revealed too much personal information about myself or others? does it come across as morbid and self-pitying? is the medical information accurate?

A memoir can be defined as “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation”. In contrast to an autobiography, it describes one particular aspect of experience rather than a whole life. Naively perhaps, I have always tended to assume that both memoirs and autobiographies are historically accurate. So I was a little shocked to be advised on one on-line site that it is acceptable, even desirable, to alter the facts to make them more interesting or inspirational for the reader. Although I did wish there were more positive aspects to my own story I resisted any temptation to embroider the truth, and wrote it exactly as I remember, checking all the dates from my diaries. So, rather than one of those books about “illness as a precious gift that transformed my life” it is an honest account of a rather gruelling sequence of events. Here again are the links for Smashwords, Amazon US and Amazon UK. I will share a short extract in my next post.

ast-smashwords-cover

My husband’s heart Part 2: Auckland City Hospital

Following on from my previous post: Brian spent 18 days in the cardiology unit of North Shore Hospital. On 23 September came the long-awaited news that a place for him was available at Auckland City Hospital. Accompanied by a nurse carrying a defibrillator, he was transferred by ambulance across the Harbour Bridge, and admitted to the cardiothoracic surgery ward in preparation for a five hour procedure to bypass his left coronary artery, replace his aortic valve, and repair the aneurysm of his ascending aorta.

We kissed farewell as he was wheeled through the doors of the operating theatre next day, and then for the first time since it all began I broke down in tears. Fortunately a close friend was available to take me out for coffee and listen to the story of our recent woes.

When the surgeon phoned me that afternoon to say that the procedure had gone well my relief was enormous. But when I arrived to visit Brian in the intensive care unit later on, I was told that he had had a stormy few hours. A group of doctors and nurses were gathered round his bedside. He was deeply unconscious and blood was flowing out through the drains in his chest.

Despite repeated transfusions of blood and blood products, his condition did not improve and shortly before midnight the decision was made to recall the surgical team and take him back to theatre. I was trembling with fear and distress, and very thankful that family members had come in to sit with me and then drive me home.

After the second operation, which involved the removal of blood clots and fluids, Brian began to get better. By next morning his vital signs were stable, and I was present to watch him being awakened from his drug-induced coma.

Two days later he was moved out of the intensive care unit into a four-bedded ward, where he stayed for over a week. On some days he made rapid progress, and on some days his condition caused concern. On two occasions he went back into rapid atrial fibrillation and required intravenous amiodarone to restore sinus rhythm. At other times his heart rate became too slow, and a week after the first surgery he had a pacemaker fitted. He had some brief spells of anger and despair, but overall remained remarkably positive.

Brian in Wd 42 after heart op.jpg

 

For myself, the physical and emotional demands have felt almost overwhelming, and I developed several apparently unrelated medical problems during the month that Brian was in hospital. These included an episode of hypertension and tachycardia beginning on the same night that, unknown to me, Brian’s recurrent arrhythmia was causing great concern. Anxiety and exhaustion were the obvious triggers for my own symptoms and, despite having done so much clinical and research work in the field of mind-body medicine, this was my first significant personal experience of stress-related illness. If I had had such an experience before my retirement I think I would have been a better doctor.

Brian has now been discharged from hospital, and although life may not be easy during the projected recovery period of three months, we are both happy and relieved that he is home again. Through this whole saga I have been tremendously grateful for the skill and kindness of the hospital staff; the marvels of modern medicine and surgery; the practical support, good wishes and prayers of family and friends; and the comforting presence of our three cats.