Category Archives: health and welfare

Reflections on 10 days in lockdown

It’s 10 days since the government announced the lockdown – telling most people to stay at home and to only venture out for exercise, essential shopping or medical needs.

My days have settled into a fairly established routine – up early for a walk around the university campus, breakfast and then down to work. Some days also involve a shopping trip – on campus we have a supermarket that is thankfully still open, and a pharmacy, and yesterday I ventured into our local town, Newcastle under Lyme, for petrol and more specialised shopping. We tend to use Lidl rather than the bigger supermarkets, and yesterday there was a short queue. They didn’t have everything we needed, but the essentials were there, thankfully. Angela had a successful trip to the independent butcher as well.

Regarding working from home, last week I posted about the challenges involved, and the assumptions made by our managers about what we can or cannot do. With my main problem being internet access, one of the suggestions was to try a WiFi dongle, which I have used before with mixed success. I ordered one from Vodafone, and found that it essentially doesn’t work because the phone signal is poor. I am hoping for better luck with O2, and I am also looking into trying a WiFi adaptor with an antenna (because there is a WiFi service close by). Both devices have been ordered, and the O2 dongle has just arrived, so I’ll be setting it up today. The WiFi adaptor will take longer to be delivered, but it is a long term investment, as it will still be useful when things return to normal. Also, my local IT services have been in touch to say they hope to send me a MiFi device. So things are looking more positive on that front.

Of course, the most important thing is our health, and Angela and I are both fine. My mother (99), who lives on the other side of the country, is as well as can be expected too, but not enjoying the isolation. For now she has adequate local support, but this must be a concern for many people who have elderly relatives. We just have to wait and see.

A challenging trip to London

On Thursday and Friday of this week, we made a short targeted trip to London. The aim was to see a couple of exhibitions that were about to close. I had made the hotel booking a couple of weeks ago, when I thought I was clear of the sciatica, but it made an unwelcome return a week ago, reducing my mobility again. Coupled with the bad weather, I did wonder if I could make the trip at all. But I was determined to try.

We set out mid morning on Thursday, and had a very good trip to London, getting to the hotel (the Tavistock, Tavistock Square) just before 1:00 pm. There was no weather disruption, and although we saw plenty of evidence of snowfall on the way down to London, there had been none in London itself. Our first exhibition was ‘The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution’ at the Science Museum. To get to the Science Museum involves a fair walk from South Kensington Tube Station, but I managed it with a few stops. I was concerned that this would be annoying/embarrassing to Angela, but she supported me 100% as always. When we got to the exhibition, it was excellent, and there were a few seats inside so I could rest from time to time. The exhibition was about the last years of the Tsar in Russia, and included the latest scientific evidence which explained how and where the Tsar and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks. There was also much interesting supplementary information on issues that affected the family, like the haemophilia which the Tsarina was a carrier of, which was passed on to the one male child in the family. How this originated from Queen Victoria was discussed, and led us to purchase a book called ‘Queen Victoria’s Genes’, by Potts and Potts, which I am currently reading.

We left the exhibition, had a fortifying cup of coffee, and headed back to South Kensington, perfectly timed for the start of the rush hour! But people travelling were very polite to me, and I was offered a seat when we got on the very crowded Piccadilly Line train. We made it back to the hotel (once again, I had to stop every now and then, but the main thing was that I kept going!) We had our dinner in the recently refurbished bar area (which was very nice).

The next day we had planned to go to the Gainsborough exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In the end I decided not to tempt fate, but to stay at the hotel. Angela went, and enjoyed it, although there was the usual problem of too many people in the exhibition moving too slowly and crowding round the paintings. I would certainly have struggled with that. When Angela returned, we went to Euston, and found no problems or disruption (there had been some overnight snow to the north of London). We caught our train back to Stoke and then a bus back home with no problems.

I was very pleased to have made the trip. I was concerned about my slow walking in London, and possible weather disruption. In the end the first was no problem, and the second didn’t happen. All in all I feel encouraged by the experience, and if my problems continue I know I can do something like this again.

A footnote on the sciatica – as I said, I thought I was clear of it, but it returned. After much thought and discussion, we concluded that it was due to 2 things – going straight back into my old routine without giving my body a chance to readjust, and the return of the cold weather after a relatively mild spell. As a result, I am taking things easy in the hope that it will diminish, and if/when it does, I won’t make the same mistake again, but give myself a chance. I’m hoping for the best.


2018: My Annus Horribilis

It was in a speech in November 1992 that Queen Elizabeth II referred to the year just passed as an ‘Annus Horribilis’ (Latin, Horrible Year). The way this year has turned out for me led my wife Angela to suggest that 2018 has become an Annus Horribilis for me, and I should write about it. This will not replace my review of the year, which will have some more positive things in it!

It all really started before 2018 began, in November 2017, when my phone was stolen in London (see separate post). This really shook me. However, I got back on track, and enjoyed the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

For the first three months of 2018, I was still Acting Head of School. This coincided with a strike by the UCU, which affected my School quite seriously. Our Management expected Heads to ‘manage’ the strike, by informing them, and students, when teaching sessions were affected, but this was a no-go because striking staff had the right not to tell anyone they were going to strike! My attempts to implement this policy were met with bad grace (probably justifiably so, but I was in a no-win situation anyway). It affected relations with some colleagues, and for some there will simply be no going back. Eventually the strike came to a temporary pause, with the possibility of its extension into the summer exam period. But in the end it didn’t, so when my successor as Head took over on 1st April, it had finished. I had rejoined the UCU while Head (largely as an insurance policy, see ‘Part of the Union’ post), but I left as soon as I stepped down from the post. My experience of dealing with the Keele UCU was enough to put me off, plus it is quite an expensive insurance policy! (I wrote several posts about the strike, including re-posting one of Angela’s posts, so I refer to those for more detail).

The stress of the last three months of being Head of School probably contributed to a return of my anxiety issues, particularly relating to travel, but also my tendency to worry about all manner of things, whether I can do anything about them or not. This led me to try once again to get some support, and as described in another post, I got help from three sources, which I hope has helped me to face these problems. But I was in a very low state initially, and the counselling definitely helped.

For a number of years I have had hearing problems, mainly (I thought) due to a build-up of wax in my ears. Previous attempts to get my ears syringed by our local Health Centre had only been partly successful, and they were always very unwilling to do anything, possibly due to fears that they might damage my ear drums. I decided this year to do something about this, and I tried ear candle treatment at a Chinese Medical Centre in Newcastle. This helped a lot, but I had finally to go to Specsavers Audiologists to get the last of the wax removed by vacuum pumping. I then went to Amplifon for a hearing test, and discovered that I had about 60% hearing (in my best ear, less in the other one), even having had the wax removed. The result was that I had hearing aids fitted, at considerable expense (but worth it), and I now have what Angela refers to as bionic hearing when wearing them! (This is actually a positive development, but it took a long time to sort out, and contributed to the stresses of the year).

The final, and probably worst thing, happened (or started happening) in early November. I initially noticed low back pain, which spread down my left leg. I tried to ignore it initially, hoping it would go away with rest, but it didn’t. It became clear that I had to seek medical advice, and I was aware that it would probably take a long time to get the relevant appointments. So, to get things started, I tried the Chinese Medical Centre again. Annie (who runs the Centre) diagnosed sciatica, and gave me acupuncture and massage, which helped. I also booked an appointment with my doctor, who agreed with the diagnosis (although I didn’t mention it, of course!) He initially prescribed paracetamol and naproxen, which seemed to make very little difference, so after a couple of weeks when things got so bad I could hardly walk I went back, and he added amitriptyline (an anti-depressant!), which again didn’t make a big difference, although it was possibly working in the background. Finally, he agreed to prescribe tramadol, which is a serious painkiller (when things got so bad, and with virtual begging from Angela and then myself), and which at last helped to deal with the pain. This got me back on my feet, although I wasn’t up to going to my Christmas conference (for the first time ever in 37 years), and in the previous week I signed off sick for 4 days, again for the first time ever). And then, the sting in the tail! Tramadol has a known side-effect, constipation, and I got a bad case of this, culminating in the Keele Health Centre calling an ambulance for me on Christmas Eve afternoon. By the time it arrived, things were already looking better, but the paramedics gave me a thorough check-up, and arranged for me to speak to an emergency on-call doctor about my medication. This was an awful day which Angela helped me get through. As I write this, 2 days later on Boxing Day, sciatic pains remain. However, I would rather put up with them than risk another constipation episode. I will be seeing my doctor to decide on the best way forward, but for now I am OK, and hoping the rest of 2018 will be quiet!