My daughter met me at Newcastle airport after the Fraser Island trip and took me to the emergency department at John Hunter hospital. I finally saw a doctor who I’m certain thought I was a raving hypochondriac, but he wrote me a prescription for some diazepam and painkillers and told me to go and see my GP if I was still having difficulties after a week or so.
As my GP hadn’t prescribed anything stronger than paracetamol, having decent painkillers and the diazepam helped matters a bit. When I went to see my GP the following week I made the mistake of telling him that a Bowen therapist had discovered the muscle wastage in my right calf. Ignoring the calf muscle, which he never even examined, he seemed to have taken offence at my seeing a Bowen therapist and said that my case wasn’t like anything he’d encountered in all his forty years of “medsin”.
I left his surgery. Permanently. If forty years of ‘medsin’ had rendered him too arrogant to accept that a Bowen therapist might have detected something that he had missed, then I wasn’t particularly interested in his medical advice. I changed my GP and got an ultrasound of my right calf and left gluteal muscle along with a referral to an Orthopaedic surgeon, who sent me off to get cortisone injections. After that proved ineffectual, the Orthopaedic Surgeon referred me to a Spine Surgeon who ordered an MRI and referred me to a Neurologist who did an EMG and nerve conduction study. Everything was normal apart from the calf muscle which was scarred and had degenerated. Although the EMG had allayed the darkest fears of Doctor Google, getting that reassurance had cost me a small fortune.
I had already reinstated the private health insurance that I’d put on hold when I left New Zealand, and shortly after I arrived in Australia, before this nightmare with my health started, I had taken out Income Protection Insurance. It was going to cost me dearly and I had no guarantee of a job when I got there, but I had made my decision. I was going home.
For a short while my daughter entertained the idea of remaining in Newcastle. She had completed her early childcare certificate and although she’d had a reasonably well-paid job in a day-care centre, a year earlier she had decided that childcare was not for her and quit the job, got some casual bar work, enrolled in a Music Business Course at the local TAFE and had signed up for singing and guitar lessons. She loved the music crowd at TAFE and she and a group of friends formed a band that occasionally played at pubs around Newcastle. The first time I went along to see her I felt nervous for her, but I didn’t need to be. Six-foot-tall, flame haired and with her own vintage style, she belted out songs like “Whole Lotta Love” with a breath-taking power that I didn’t know she possessed until I saw her on stage. I was awestruck, and I wasn’t the only one. She and her band were starting to get quite a following. Eventually though she reached her own decision to return to New Zealand with me. I was a saddened at leaving my job, saying goodbye my sister in law and having to re-home our dog. The cost of transporting such a large dog back to New Zealand and the regulations involved were too great and this time around I was having to pay our removal costs and airfares myself.
On the 26th of July 2013 we arrived back in Christchurch where we stayed with my son and his partner for a few days before moving to a rented house in the community I had longed to return to – Diamond Harbour. I bought myself a VW Beetle and set about searching for jobs. Things were still a bit slow in Christchurch after the earthquakes, but within a month I had signed a six-month contract working full-time for a global logistics company. I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the work, but I was given the opportunity to make my freight cost calculators on a freelance basis for their offices in New Zealand and Australia. I’d have preferred to be doing this within working hours rather than having to spend my evenings and weekends on it but as my salary in New Zealand was considerably less than what I was earning in Australia, the extra money came in handy although I found that this was largely being taken up in tax.
Still, I wasn’t complaining as I had some serious catching up to do financially, particularly since I had lost money on virtually everything from the exchange rate to the sale of my car in Australia. And I had unfortunately had to put an entire new motor in the VW I had bought. I was driving over Dyers Pass to work one morning and the engine cooling light had come on. I had no idea that this meant “pull over instantly and put water in the radiator before the engine blows up”. It’s one of those expensive lessons that you only need to learn once.
Financial and vehicular problems notwithstanding, I was absolutely loving being back in Diamond Harbour. It was something of a novelty having friends again – people I felt comfortable with and who knew me. I could have fun, have a meltdown, solve the problems of the world or talk shit until 2:00am and no-one minded what I was wearing, what car I was driving or what I did for a living. Some of our group were married and some single but we all supported and helped each other. And I loved that.
Physically though, I still felt ghastly. The leg weakness was still bothersome and although I wasn’t in a huge amount of pain, I’d get quite severe cramps and pins and needles. Although I was now covered by private medical insurance, the ‘normal’ findings of the various tests and procedures I had undergone in Australia made repeating them seem unnecessary, so for the next two years I became stuck yet again in a fruitless round of physiotherapy sessions, chiropractic manipulations and massage therapy. I would often become overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to fall asleep at the most inconvenient times, but I assumed that this was either down to menopause or from spending entire weekends sitting at a computer.
My GP eventually gave me a referral to a neurosurgeon who ordered yet another MRI. While I was awaiting the results I became so exhausted that I knew I must sort out the extra-curricular work before it dragged me down even further. As my repeated attempts to encompass this into my role within working hours was met with nothing more than empty promises, I finally got approval to reduce the paid employment to three days a week, leaving me two full days at least to spend on the contract work. The first month of this new arrangement worked well, however as soon as a business analyst was employed at the company’s head office the work doing Excel dashboard reports disappeared and the freight cost calculators began to dwindle.
Thankfully a piece of good news came along that overshadowed my gloomy occupational crisis. I went to see the neurosurgeon who now had the results of my most recent MRI. It had revealed scoliosis and a condition known as spondylolisthesis. I was shown evidence that a bone in my curved spine had slid forward over the bone below it, causing the nerve roots to be squeezed. At last I had a diagnosis and the good news was that it could be remedied with surgery! Filled with hope, I was admitted to St Georges hospital on 29 June 2015 where I underwent four hours of surgery which incorporated a spinal fusion, laminectomy and a decompression.
For the following two weeks I was in a lot of pain despite devouring large quantities of Tramadol. I returned to work for my three-day weeks but the additional work that had occupied so much of my time previously, had now vanished completely. Four weeks later when I received my performance appraisal, there was nothing I could do except gape at it in horror before going to the bathroom to bawl my eyes out. Never in my working life, in my thirty plus years in the freight industry, have I received such a poor evaluation of my performance.
How could I have been such a fool? With the writing so clearly on the wall it was obvious I would have to go into damage control mode. I approached a friend in Diamond Harbour who had an empty self-contained flat underneath his house which he was happy to rent out at a cheaper rent than I was currently paying. I started looking for alternative employment however, although there were a few jobs on offer, I didn’t hold out much hope. Even if I managed to get an interview, the recent surgery meant that my back was still extremely painful and I was hobbling around using a stick which wasn’t likely to inspire confidence in a prospective employer. I applied to withdraw money on hardship grounds from my superannuation fund. I had done all I could think of. Now I just needed to wait and see what was going to happen next at work.
I didn’t have to wait long. A week later I was presented with a letter notifying me of a formal meeting to respond to the matter of my impending redundancy. The meeting never eventuated. I considered my options, saw a solicitor and for the next two months I remained on unpaid stress leave which at least gave me time to move house. The matter was eventually resolved, and I went on the unemployment benefit for a short while afterwards.
By this time, I had recovered from the spinal surgery but there was very little improvement to the original problem with the weakness in my legs. As there were no real job opportunities over the Christmas/New Year period, I had to bide my time until mid-January when businesses got back to relative normality. I was still getting unbelievably tired but since I wasn’t working, I was at least free to have a short sleep in the afternoon to re-charge my batteries. In February 2016, my patience was rewarded. I found myself a job with one of the most supportive and trustworthy companies I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
I waited in hopeful expectation for nearly a year after my spinal operation but eventually had to conclude that the surgery had done absolutely nothing. My symptoms were neither relieved nor worsened by the surgery, although I was now less supple and unable to do the yoga postures that I had previously slipped into effortlessly. I didn’t doubt the existence of the condition that was diagnosed, but plainly the corrective surgery had failed and I was firmly back at square one.