I know I promised to get the round-up of EoMEoTE#7 up this weekend but as the more observant among you will have noticed, it’s not up yet. Nor is my own entry. And for a change, there is a reason for this lack of posts – a reason that is not connected to my pathological procrastination problem.
Occasionally on this blog you get to meet friends of mine – and some of the first friends who appeared were Donnie and Christelle at whose house we prepared our IMBB#6 entry. I met Donnie through Paul (he of the butternut soup!) and not long after, I met his girlfriend Christelle who is fabulous and gorgeous in every possible way. They quickly became good friends and I was thrillled to hear that they were moving to London at about the same time as Nick and I. They are some of our most cherished friends in London – people with whom we can laugh about good times shared in SA, chatter away in Afrikaans and at whose house we always feel at home.
Shortly after they came to have lunch at our house this February, Donnie called me out of the blue late one night and told me that Christelle had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had experienced a few symptoms but always managed to rationalise them as something harmless, as you do. But after a proper examination, the doctor had diagnosed cancer and had urged them to start treatment as soon as possible. Although the invitations for their planned wedding at home in South Africa in April had already gone out, there could be no delaying treatment, and so the wedding was postponed and at only 31, Christelle embarked on the frightening and lonely road of chemo- and radiotherapy.
Although she desperately wanted to go home and be with her family, she could not. At home, she would have no medical insurance and no way to pay for treatment, whereas in England, she has both medical insurance and access to state hospitals. So instead, her parents flew over to be with her for about two weeks of the six week treatment. The treatment finally finished in about mid-May and despite the doctors’ initial optimism that a single course of therapy might be sufficient, they had already started making noises about a second course. And in addition to the side-effects of the therapy, Christelle was experiencing daily pain from an inflamed bladder and kidneys which had dogged her from before her diagnosis. But we assumed that she would slowly start returning to her old self as the treatment took effect and the side-effects wore off.
Last week I received another unexpected call from Donnie to tell me that Christelle was in intensive care after her kidneys had apparently stopped functioning. She was not conscious due to the heavy sedation she had been given and was consequently on a respirator, being fed via a feeding tube. She was also on 24hr dialysis and Donnie had been advised to tell her family to fly over if they could. The doctors were not sure if they could reverse the effects of the kidneys ceasing functioning and felt that anything could happen over the next few days. In the space of 6 hours, her parents had arranged plane tickets, emergency passports for Christelle’s brother and sister-in-law, packed and boarded a flight to Johannesburg to fly to London. I cannot begin to imagine how long that 11 hour flight must have seemed to them.
I saw both Christelle and her family at the hospital on Thursday night (the night they arrived). They were all trying to be strong and positive for her and she looked so frail and so alone amidst all the tubes, the drip stands, the monitors and the dialysis machine where you could see her blood circulating and being filtered. It was both extremeley upsetting and completely surreal. She was not conscious, but we had been encouraged to talk to her as the sedation was not so heavy that she might not hear and remember things said to her. So no crying and despondency by her bedside, only talk of positive things, however hard that seemed.
Last night I saw her again and the news was largely good. She is off the dialysis machine as her kidneys are functioning again. Her sedation is lighter so she was somewhat responsive (although still not conscious) and her family are over the moon. The doctors are hoping that when she is stable enough she can be moved out of ICU and ultimately to another hospital which has an oncology department and the facilities to perform an MRI scan to see whether it is the cancer that has caused her kidney trouble or an unrelated infection. So we are pretty far from being out of the woods yet, but somehow her family can stay positive and rejoice in the tiniest scrap of good news. They are truly inspirational people.
Why am I telling you all this? Partly to explain why blogging about food is the last thing on my mind right now. Partly because I hope that Christelle’s story can be a cautionary tale to my female audience. Please never neglect your regular check-ups. And get anything unusual whatsoever checked out by your doctor. Fast. Cervical cancer is eminently treatable if caught early. And partly because I am hoping that everyone reading this can spare 30 seconds to say a quick prayer for Christelle, light a candle or just send her some positive thoughts.
And if you feel you want to give to a worthy cause, just before she went to hospital, Christelle set up a fundraising page to raise funds for Jo’s Trust, a charity offering medical advice and support specifically to women with cervical cancer. They really helped Christelle and Donnie with information both in the early days after diagnosis and throughout the treatment. You can donate securely on-line and if you are a British taxpayer, 28% (the tax saved) will be added on to your donation at no cost to you.
Christelle and Donnie have also had nothing but praise for the Willow Foundation, a charity which arranges special days out for seriously ill young people (16-40) – kind of like the Reach for a Dream foundation for grown-ups. Sadly, Christelle’s special day out arranged by the Willow Foundation was scheduled for this past weekend, but we are hoping that she will recover sufficiently to be able to take her day out later in the year.
Christelle, please be strong and please come back to us soon. We love you so much.
**UPDATE – 7 June 2005** Went to see Christelle in hospital again tonight. They are reducing her sedation gradually, so today she is conscious. Still a bit drugged up and sluggish, but conscious! They only removed the ventilator tube from her throat at lunchtime, so her voice is barely there and she is mouthing words rather than really speaking, but she is at least communicating again. Her family are over the moon. She is still having oxygen every two hours and still has a nasal feeding tube, but her kidneys are functioning again and there is a reasonable expectation that she will be stable enough within a couple of days to have an MRI scan so that we can see what the status of the cancer is. So not out of the woods yet, but at least she seems to have found her way back onto a path that might lead out of the woods.
**UPDATE – 11 June 2005** Visited Christelle again late this afternoon. I can’t believe it’s the same person we saw last weekend! She was on dialysis again when I arived, but is sitting up in bed and is speaking again and even laughing a bit. Yesterday morning they removed her nasal feeding tube and the challenge now is to get her to eat to regain her strength. Nothing rich, sweet, salty or spicy appeals to her – even some of her favourite foods from before the treatment now leave her cold. Her dad Bennie is suggesting a cold beer and the doctors say that’s fine, as long as she starts taking in calories again. I tell her to make the most of it – it’s not every day you hear your doctror say that. The next step is to get her out of the ICU and into a general ward, and from there to another hospital where she can have an MRI scan. I had dinner with her family after our visit and they are like people reborn – the relief in the house is actually palpable.
**UPDATE – 14 June 2005** Just spoke to Christelle on the phone for the first time in ages! Yesterday she was moved out of ICU (after almost 2 weeks) and into a general ward – so clearly the doctors are very happy with the progress she’s made as regards her kidney problems. She says she is astonished at how much her muscles weakened over the past two weeks – it feels as if she is a baby again and learning to walk all over again. Of course, now that she is no longer sedated, she has had time to ponder her future again. She’s finding the wait for a bed at another hospital where she can have an MRI scan extremely frustrating and tense. There is talk that a bed may become available later today or tomorrow, but being an NHS patient, everything depends on how far along the queue you are. So we wait and we hope and we pray.
You may have noticed that Christelle’s dad Bennie left a comment below. He is overwhelmed by the kind messages on support that so many of you have left – people who haven’t even met his daughter. Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and prayers – they mean more than you will ever know.