Approaching 40 part 1: The day my life changed forever

I’ve been wanting to write this story for a long time. I turn 40 in 6 days’ time and it seemed like the right time to do it. If you’re having a bad day, I hope it raises your spirits. If you’re having a bad time generally, I hope it helps you to put things into perspective. If you’re having a good time, I hope it helps you be thankful for what you have. 

The story is a three parter. There’s a lot to say.

13th February 1997

My girlfriend (now wife) and I packed our bags, left our jobs, jumped on a plane and moved in together, 11,500 miles away from everything we owned and knew. Living in Sydney, Australia had been a dream for ages and we’d spent over a year making the dream come alive. I’d even flown out there the year before, looking for a job. The plan had worked. We were over the moon.

I had a medical through my sponsoring company – BT (British Telecom) a couple of days before we left the country. The HR dept weren’t overly organised, which in a funny way worked to my advantage. If they had have been, we would never have even left the country.

We landed and set up base in a hotel until we found our feet. A couple of days into the trip I received a fax (remember them?) asking me to call the doctor who’d carried out my medical. I called and he told me, “it’s probably a mistake, but your blood counts are a bit low, you should probably get them checked out…”

I put the phone down and did exactly what any perfectly healthy 27 year old who’d just landed in Sydney would do.

Ignore him completely.

There was no urgency attached to the conversation and I felt I had more important things to worry about at the time.

Fast forward to July 1997

I woke up one morning with a pain in my buttock. No sniggering… I was struggling to walk which was pretty odd, not to mention uncomfortable. This then forced me to register with a local doctor (I had to remind myself what the inside of a surgery looked like) and asked her to take a look. After much prodding from not one, but two doctors, I was about to be sent away with some anti-inflammatory pills. Before I left though, the wise doctor suggested she took some blood from me, just to be on the safe side. I then remembered the BT doctor’s phone call.

A couple of days later the pain had gone, but I went back to the surgery anyway as she’d asked me to report back that all was well.

I walked in smiling and she told me to sit down.

It turns out all wasn’t well.

It was around midday and anyone who had an appointment after me was going to be kept waiting for a while.

In the space of 30 seconds, my life turned on a sixpence.

It turns out the pain in the buttock was an infection. The reason it was unusual was because my blood should have been capable of fighting such things with ease. It seems my BT doctor should have made a little more of a fuss about the blood test I had back in February.

She proceeded to say sentences with words in that no one wants to hear in a doctor’s surgery which involved  “10% of normal levels”…. “blood transfusion”… “haematologist and “leukaemia”….

My girlfriend was called from work.

I had tunnel vision and my life flashed before me. The invincible, 27 year old, healthy, fit, Asia-Pac travelling, young man, was no longer invincible.

Considering it was 13 years ago, I remember the next few weeks vividly.

I was with a specialist haematologist within about 2 hours.

He and I sat stony faced across his desk and after some initial introductions, I asked the very simple question anyone reading this would have asked, because it’s the only thing that matters at that time.

“Am I going to die?”

“I don’t know”, was the reply. “We need to do some tests to find out what’s wrong.”

Later that afternoon, I had dozens of viles of blood taken, a bone marrow scrape (which is the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever had happen to me) and various other scans over the space of 2 hours.

Our walk back through the station at Town Hall in Sydney I remember so clearly – it was like one of those sequences in the movies – where they put a mist round you and everyone else is slightly blurred out… “Why me?” is all I remember asking time and time again.

We then went home to call our respective mum and dads. Not the call they were expecting. Not easy calls to make.

For the next two weeks I had lots more tests scheduled in. The doctors and nurses were incredible and the private health insurance I was given 24 hours before I left the country was a godsend. For those two weeks I had no idea if I was going to have my life shortened to just 27 years or whether I would be OK, or something in between.

I drove a lot, for some reason. I remember heading out into the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney and sitting and looking at the view. I also remember taking great comfort from knowing that I had lived my life to the max. I wouldn’t have changed anything. I have to say that was very comforting. The biggest battle in my head was coming to terms with not being with Suzanne any more – that was hurting me in a big way and there was nothing I could do about it.

I went back to the consultant for the diagnosis a couple of weeks later. By now it was the middle of August and a beautiful Sydney winter. The sky was so blue as we went in to the consulting rooms – I remember looking up at it before I went in, unsure of how I would be feeling like when I came out. As moments go in life – this was a moment.

Narrowing it down

They’d narrowed it down to three possible causes – one very bad, one bad and one not too bad. In order to complete the diagnosis, I had to have my spleen removed. It was three times the size it should have been, as it had been filtering pretty rubbish blood for who knows how many months or years. Removing it would help with treating me, as well as helping to absolutely diagnose the problem.

We left and called my parents. It was news… it wasn’t great news, but it could have been worse. There was hope and things were starting to happen. Everything is so much easier when things start to happen. It’s probably one of the reasons for me being obsessed with taking action today. Sometimes pausing is a better solution.

A week or so later I went into hospital to say goodbye to my spleen. My days as a sixpack model were numbered, and trips to Malarial countries were now out the window, however it was a small price to pay.

The operation was on 28th August 1997.

Three days later on 31st August 1997, as I was recovering from the operation and the morphine had been taken away 🙁 the doctor came to see me. My spleen had been whisked off to the lab and chopped into tiny pieces and put under a microscope. They could finally see what had been going on over the last few months and probably years.

They had narrowed it down to one of the three possibilities on a day where history was being made for all the wrong reasons back in the UK.

I’ll publish part 2 on Friday. (Part 2 is now live – here!)

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8 Responses to “Approaching 40 part 1: The day my life changed forever”

  1. Andy hart says:

    OMG mark! You can’t leave me hanging like this! Finish the rest.

    It’s funny I never usually read these kind of stories but just recently I started realising how I’m not invincible, I’m 28 now and life can be cut short at a moments notice, every second with my partner and kids is precious.

    Looking forward to reading the rest, waiting with nervous anticipation.

    Andy

  2. Robert Somerville says:

    The suspense is killing me…can’t wait till Friday!

    Robert

  3. admin says:

    Absolutely Andy – “it’s not a rehearsal” is one of my mantras… and without ruining the story, I am still around 😉

  4. Approaching 40 part 2: The day I found out I had Leukaemia | Build a better consultant business says:

    […] The story is a three parter. There’s a lot to say. Part 1 was here. […]

  5. Nez says:

    As someone who knows some of the story, I think it’s brilliant that you’re taking the time to write this. People sometimes need a reality check to appreciate just how fortunate they are. Well done Mark.

  6. Casey says:

    Dude the suspense is horrible. At least we know you’re alive now so I can assume there is to be a happy ending….!

    But seriously thanks for sharing your story Mark, it couldn’t come at a better time for me. I had my 5 year all clear from Lymphoma last year yet still suffer from panic attacks over a recurrence.

    Seeing and hearing from other people who have been in a similar situation yet have managed to get on with their lives is a huge help. As Nez points out getting a reality check is sometimes needed. So cheers to you Mark and Happy Birthday!

  7. Maggie says:

    Just a quick note, your social network flyout from the left-hand margin covers uo a large portion of your article when viewed on an iPad, making it unreadable. Though you might want to check on it. I know it’s why I opted not to use that plugin.

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