Thursday, November 23, 2017

Four days face down

Thursday 16th Nov I had eye surgery. On the back of my eye, the front of my eye and the perimeter of my eye. Friday I felt fine, so I was quite unprepared for what happened next! Why wouldn't my body decide to protest at all that surgical intervention??

Sure my eye was sore, that was to be expected, but as Friday became Saturday, and the swelling and pain continued, it became increasingly impossible to spend time upright. Maybe a couple of hours but longer than that and the pressure build up forced me back horizontal with my face down, which only made my face and eyelids swell more!

One of the problems with pain is it turns you into a blithering self centred mess. Nothing else exists but your own little sphere of experience. You can't eat, can't sleep, can't hold much of a conversation with anyone, and you become completely obsessed with finding a position that makes you comfortable.

Yes I took painkillers and all the eye drops prescribed, but unless I was facedown, the pressure in my eye overwhelmed me. I have a pretty high pain threshold (ummm.... skiing with a broken arm anyone?) so by late Saturday afternoon I began to be just a bit worried that I had better ask the experts.

Stay face down was the advice I was given. But for how long? I could manage a couple of hours at a time upright, but much beyond that and I was back to a self absorbed painful wreck. Gosh pain strips us of our humanity doesn't it? I remember this from when I hurt my back in Japan a few years ago. No-one else matters, only you.

During this time I was staying with friends who were going through their own pretty confronting health issues, and I marvel at their generosity in continuing to extend their hospitality to me during their own very trying times. It is moments like this when you confirm who are your real friends, and I hope that I was able to be of some support to them during their ordeal.

By Sunday afternoon we were all keen to get out of the convalescent house, so went for a short drive to look out over the beach at St Clair. I was at 3 hours upright when we left. I shouldn't have gone. It didn't end well. I texted Harry with an exclamation mark! He replied that he could put a small hole in my eye with a laser that would allow me to get upright. I decided I would cope with staying face down a bit longer rather than undergo more intervention. Not that I don't trust him, just I couldn't emotionally cope with more surgery, even minor, just now.

Another day face down, listening to podcasts. ABC Radio's Richard Fidler interviewing fascinating people isn't such a bad way to spend a few days. Monday afternoon Harry asked me to come into the clinic for him to check my eye. All good, but the gas bubble effectively blocks fluid exchange in the eye, causing pressure buildup, which is only relieved by positioning the bubble so it doesn't obstruct the flow. Wasn't a problem when I had a lens in place, but this time is different. And it will take a few more days until the gas bubble reduces in size and the problem resolves. Harry would rather not laser a hole in my eye either, though it's a minor thing to do he says with a mere shrug of his shoulders....

Just pop those steroid drops in every hour for the next week or so!

One of the podcasts I listened to in my face down isolation was an interview with a Buddhist nun, Robina Courtin. Her explanation of Buddhist philosophy is probably the best most practical explanation I've ever heard. The concept of compassion without attachment really struck a chord for me as it's actually a way I have been trying to live my life for some time now. Here's a link to the podcast if anyone is interested.

No I'm not going all Buddhist on you, but it did help me to gain some clarity in my current situation. To understand my distress and fear, and to begin the process of letting go of those negative emotions. Of accepting that the eye sight I end up with is the best that my surgeon can offer me, and that there really is no point worrying about what the future holds. It is what it is.

I am also very grateful for the well wishes and love sent me over the web from friends far and near. My choice to live a solo, travelling lifestyle means that when I am confronted by health issues, particularly when they are far from trivial, I have to rely on my own personal resources to get through. Every comment, like and emoji has been appreciated, thank you. 💗

By Wednesday I am up for most of the day and feeling human again. There's still some pressure buildup but the gas bubble edges are now visible to me, meaning it's shrinking in size. I think the central distortion has improved (Harry says it takes 48 hours for the hole to close) but it hasn't resolved completely. My research suggested one can expect improvement to continue for some months, but I'm not giving myself unrealistic expectations. It is what it is.

I'm well enough on Wednesday to bake bread, go shopping and cook dinner for my hosts. Thursday they head up to Wanaka for the weekend, and I get myself prepared for heading south again.

My eye is still feeling somewhat precious, but I'm recovered enough to get out of Dunedin and go on another adventure. That's next...

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Beaches, sea lions and a lost gypsy

With 3 days on my hands before undergoing eye surgery, I jumped in the car and headed south to the Catlins. This is a coastal strip south of Dunedin which stretches from Balclutha to Slope Point, the southernmost tip of the South Island. The main town of Owaka is an old timber logging town. Now, most of the forests have been cleared and there is now rolling hills dotted with sheep and cows. Small coastal communities hug the numerous river estuaries, but are predominantly empty holiday homes, known as "cribs" in these parts. Sleepy would be an understatement, more like comatose....

The coastline is rugged, and home to NZ seals and sea lions, as well as yellow eyed penguins and numerous other seabirds. The next landmass south is Antarctica, and this coastline, like that I encountered in south western Australia, was once part of ancient Gondwanaland. Unfortunately the large trees and forests that once covered this land are long gone....

The Catlins do get their fair share of tourists, but not in the numbers other regions get because most people are on their way to or from Fiordland and have little time to linger. Not me...

First stop on the Southern Scenic Route was Taieri Head, which is only just south of Dunedin. Just over the bridge on the southern side is the start of a beautiful walk up the river estuary for about 8 km to Henley. I walked as far as John Bull Gully before returning the same way. I was serenaded by a Tui, and enjoyed the fern lined trail and small streams flowing into the Taieri River.

From Taeri Rivermouth I continued south through Balclutha, chuckling at the Glasgow themed street names: Lanarch, Renfrew... brought back some memories...

Then it was back to the coast at Kaka Point and along the rugged shoreline to Nugget Point Lighthouse. Perched on the edge of a precipice at the end of a narrow peninsula, this lighthouse is a photographic icon. There's also lots of seabirds and seals down on the rocks far below.

Being late in the day I took the opportunity to visit the hide at Roaring Bay to watch yellow eyed penguins returning ashore. These penguins are a lot larger than I expected, but I didn't manage to capture any decent photos.

The next morning I headed further south over rolling hills with views across expansive surf beaches, through the little hamlet of Papatowai and turned inland to visit McLean Falls. I do love an impressive waterfall, if only to photograph some moving water.

Following a lunch of seafood chowder at the nearby Whistling Frog Cafe, I headed back north again for some more forest walks. First off Lenz Reserve, which is a bush reserve managed by Forest and Bird Organisation. At the bottom of the reserve is a display of the old logging cableways they used to haul timber from the forests, using tractor engines, but these days it's a bird watcher's paradise. There's a three hour loop track that I plan to return to do, to enjoy more of the beautiful birdsong.

Next I visited Lake Wilkie, a perched lake similar to the lakes you find on Fraser Island in Queensland, but quite uncommon here. A nice boardwalk with explanations of the emerging vegetation makes it worth the detour but for real entertainment it's time to stop at The Lost Gypsy in Papatowai. The creation of one very curious man it should be on everybody's itinerary. So many little contraptions to enjoy, some powered by renewable electricity, others by manual winding. A total delight!!

A relaxing coffee and chat with the locals later I continued to Purakaunui Falls. Less imposing than McLeans, but certainly photogenic, especially late in the day when the light is less harsh.

My final visit of the day was to Jack's Bay, and the half hour walk to Jack's Blowhole, a massive sinkhole connected to the ocean by a 200m long underground cave. It's pretty impressive, although photos hardly do it justice.

My third day in the northern Catlins I went for a glorious walk from Newhaven, along Surat Bay and over the headland to the end of Cannibal Bay. This wild coastline is home to NZ sea lions, which are fairly common along this stretch of the South Island. Quite a few male sea lions were sunbathing on the beach during my walk, but later I watched them swimming and frolicking in the surf. What a joy to watch wildlife so close.

My final stop on the way back to Dunedin was Tunnel Hill, an old disused railway tunnel which was built by hand. They sure were tough in the old days...

Returning to Dunedin for my eye surgery with a great sense of peace and contentment, I knew I would be back. As much as I love the mountains, my soul is a salt water spirit. Catlins, I will be back....

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Homeless and once more grounded

My trip home to Geraldton went by pretty quickly. I flew over to Perth, where I stayed a few days with my good friend Naomi and her two irascible kids, before heading up to Geraldton on the bus. We made sure to take our 2017 funny photos of course!

Up in Geraldton for only a few days I managed to pack in a hair appointment, a dental clean, a one and a half hour therapeutic massage from my fave body builder Brad and host a bookclub with home made pizzas. I had to get around by bicycle because my car is in storage, so it was quite a workout into a good strong southerly for the 15km ride in to town. As usual the sunsets were spectacular.

About halfway through the week I became increasingly aware of a new visual disturbance in my affected eye. I had a traumatic retinal detachment in August, and had required two bouts of surgery for the retina to heal. As a result of the surgical gas, which is pumped in to the eye to aid healing, I am left with a thick cataract. This cataract will need to be removed and an artificial lens inserted to give me back my eyesight. In the meantime, the vision in that eye is cloudy.

However, I became aware that right in the centre of my vision I couldn't see well at all, and that the vision wasn't cloudy, but distorted. As in wavy and weird. I was also getting some interesting white psychedelic flashes, like if you drop a stone into a pond and get the expanding ripple effect. Not unpleasant, but worrying when you know what this may signify. So I began composing a message to Harry, my eye surgeon, and quietly flew back to the Land of the Long White Cloud on the red eye via Melbourne, arriving 5am Tuesday morning in Christchurch. I patiently waited one hour until 6am so I wasn't completely antisocial, then sent the message off to him. Thankfully Harry replied promptly, suggesting it might be swelling of my macula, and recommending I increase the frequency of the steroid drops I was using and take regular anti-inflammatory medication. I did as I was told, travelling back to Wanaka by bus, and then on Wednesday I received an appointment for the eye clinic in Dunedin for Friday.

My original plan had been to move out from my house in Wanaka on the Saturday and begin travelling, in the South Island initially, whilst awaiting the rest of the surgery to restore my vision. This new symptom didn't seem to be a big issue, so on Wednesday I packed up the ski/winter gear to leave them with a friend in Wanaka, then Thursday I packed the car, farewelled my flatmates and drove down to Dunedin for what I thought (as did Harry) would be a fairly straightforward minor post operative issue. How wrong could we all be??

It turns out I didn't have macular swelling, but another hole in my retina, this time involving the macula, and hence compromising my vision. Which means more surgery and another 8 weeks of surgical gas and altitude restrictions. Yep, grounded again!

I cannot even describe how gutted I was, especially as there isn't a guarantee that my vision will recover fully. My research suggests that a small macular hole of less than 6 months' duration has a reasonable prognosis of vision recovery, but not having it in the first place would have been a much better scenario. The cause is just bad luck.  My severe myopia, and age, has caused my retina to be fragile and shit just happens. For what it's worth Harry was pretty gutted too, as all his other recent retinal repairs have behaved themselves after one surgery, and here I am being worked up for surgery number three!

I spent the whole Friday morning seeing doctors and nurses, getting all the paperwork and bloods done for theatre, which was scheduled for the following Thursday. This time I will be having a general anaesthetic, my scleral buckle will be removed, as will the cloudy cataract so that Harry has a clear field of vision to repair the macular hole. Then in goes the gas again, and I go back to being completely blind in that eye again.

The positive is that Harry will be performing elements of the original planned surgery (removal of the buckle) so once this hole heals I will then only require one further procedure. Normally a cataract repair is just a replacement of old with new, and needed to be delayed four weeks after the buckle removal to allow the eyeball to settle into a permanent shape before attempting vision correction, but my cataract needs to be removed now so that Harry can see what the hell he is doing. So I will be left with an empty lens capsule for a month or more and will probably have to patch the eye as the vision may be so bad as to be distracting. Another interesting new experience to look forward to...

Of course this new development completely changes my travel options as I will be again restricted to low altitude pursuits only. This creates some conundrums as getting around NZ even by car involves going over mountain passes. Going north to Nelson requires crossing over mountains as the coastal road north of Kaikoura is still closed following the earthquake there last year! So the eastern coastal strip will be my playground for the next month or so. Given I'll be on fortnightly eye clinic reviews post surgery number three I can hardly travel far anyway.

This time I don't have the driving restriction, as I am coming up to three months with single eye vision, meaning I'm well acclimatised to gauging distance with one eye. So I can still get out and about and go for long, not too strenuous walks whilst my eye heals again. My mental health, and my waistline, desperately needs me to stay active or else I'm in danger of succumbing to self pity and depression. This sure has been a tough few months on the psyche....

On Saturday I went for a good long walk along the beach from St Clair to Lawyers Head and back, which really cleared my head after the bad news on Friday.  It meant I wasn't a depressed sad sack at the dinner party Sue and Graeme hosted on Saturday night. I am so grateful to them for offering hospitality to me yet again in their Dunedin home.

Sunday it rained, but on Monday I headed off south to the Catlins before returning to Dunedin on Wednesday afternoon. I had 3 glorious days, where I went on long walks along river estuaries and along beaches, visited waterfalls and crazy tourist attractions, and watched sea lions frolicking in the surf. Getting back to nature totally transformed my mental state back to a positive mind set and I'm ready to take on whatever next challenge awaits.

The Catlins are stunning. There's a whole blog post on them coming soon. But back to Dunedin and eye surgery number three....

I went in Thursday morning to the eye day surgery unit where I was met by the slightly quirky Jane, who got me ready for theatre and put the necessary eye drops in. After a wait of an hour or two I was wheeled up to theatre, met the anaesthetist, and was delighted to also see Hong, the eye registrar who had been present at both my previous surgeries and would be assisting Harry yet again. And then I was in sleepy land until I woke up a couple of hours later in recovery. Half an hour later I was back in the day unit, getting back into my clothes, and heading home with an eye patch on. Having Sue and Graeme home at their place in Dunedin meant I could be discharged that day without needing an overnight hospital stay, so I was able to sleep more comfortably.

Friday morning I fronted up to eye clinic for review and removal of my eye patch. I saw Hong again, who I cannot praise enough for his exemplary communication skills in explaining how the surgery had gone and what I had to expect from it. The surgery went really well, in fact Hong was extremely complimentary about how well the macular peel went (apparently Harry has a very steady hand!!), but they also found another retinal tear at another site (which they lasered successfully). This brings my total tear count to 11, if we merely count the second operation as a failed repair rather than as the result of new tears. Hong says the surgery causes swelling, which then causes vitreous bands to form and contract, which pull the retina off. He says they have now completely cleared the vitreous from my macula, so that can't pull off again, but there is still a chance other parts of my retina could still detach. So I'm now on the high alert list and will be getting another scan of my retina in 2 weeks and Harry will be keeping a close eye on me till everything heals up.

I really do have an awesome bunch of professionals looking after me.

For the next two weeks I'm on 3 different eye drops, at frequencies of between twice a day and six times a day, to ensure that the swelling and inflammation remains under control. I'll stay in Dunedin a few more days, then I plan to head back south to the Catlins to recuperate, go for long walks, and just chill out.

Mentally I'm now in a really good place, and I'm really looking forward to more time in nature. Ciao for now...

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Traipsing around Wanaka

Here's a little commentary, complete with photos, of some of the walks and cycle trips I've been doing in the last few weeks.

Mt Iron is a piece of left over glacial debris sitting at the head of Lake Wanaka. I'm pretty sure it isn't made of iron or it would have been mined into extinction by now! Well that's what we do in Australia at any rate....

Being a mere 500m above sea level, and about 240m above Lake Wanaka, it's an easy climb to capture great views right up the Lake, and also overlooks Albert Town and the Cardrona River. It forms the backdrop to my rear garden and is the only mountain my eye surgeon says I can climb at the moment. It's also a favourite for exercise training amongst the super fit Wanaka locals. The climb is short but steep in sections, and the preferred option is to run it. I'm sticking with walking myself!!

From Albert Town there are a series of tracks radiating up and down the various rivers that meet there. There's the Hawea River Track which crosses a swing bridge and then follows the Hawea River (funny that!) up to the small township by the lake's edge. I love the serenity out at Lake Hawea, though I am reliably informed it can get hellish windy and not bad for kitesurfing and windsurfing either. Brrr!!! I'll stick to my warm ocean wave riding back in West Oz thank you!

Travelling in to Wanaka from Albert Town you can either ride around the base of Mt Iron (the quick way in) or take the much more scenic Outlet Track, which is a fairly narrow track heading upstream next to the Clutha River to where it begins at Lake Wanaka. From there you ride along the lakeside with spectacular views across the water to snow capped peaks on one side, and jaw dropping mansions on the other. And most of those mansions are holiday homes of the rich lying cruelly vacant. Sigh....

A third and fourth alternative from Albert Town is to follow the Clutha River downstream. There is a choice of tracks either side of the river as it flows swiftly southward. Both tracks (Newcastle on the true left, Upper Clutha on right) finish at the Luggate Red Bridge which makes it a good 26-28km round trip. Considerably easier to do on a bicycle, but I decided to walk it! Bit of preparation for some long day and overnight walks I have planned. Aside from sore legs and a blister on one little toe, I nailed it.

Across the Albert Town bridge on the other side of the Clutha River is Deans Bank. This is a more technical mountain bike track so I've been holding off on riding it until my vision is a little better. Now that the gas bubble in my eye has mostly reabsorbed I am left with a thick cataract that limits my ability to see with clarity in that eye. But I have enough vision to have better depth perception than is possible with just the one eye, meaning I'm now overtaking and passing others with ease, and downhill riding is no longer a completely terrifying experience.

Aside from Deans Bank, there's the Dublin Bay track, a rutted and at times steep, sandy and still terrifying for me downhill run out to the tranquil waters of Dublin Bay on the eastern side of Lake Wanaka.

I'm yet to tackle the more serious mountain bike tracks in Wanaka, of which there are many that I haven't even mentioned. Tackling the tracks out to Dublin Bay via Deans Bank were a bit challenging so perhaps I shall leave the others for another year, when my eyesight is fully restored.

On that note, yet another eye review has been and gone, and I am happy to report that there is a slight possibility that my two remaining operations will be done before Christmas to restore my sight back to what it was. In fact better than it was as the plan is to correct the myopia so I won't need to wear a contact lens in that eye!

Right now I'm preparing a list of all the things I need back here for the summer and the following year in NZ, because soon I'll be jetting home for a few days of sun, sea and surf, bookclub and catchups.

Woohoo! The grounding is over!!!!!!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What to do when grounded

As anyone can tell who reads my blog, I'm a pretty active individual. I like to keep both my body and mind busy, and my recent enforced grounding due to eye surgery has stopped me in my tracks somewhat. Not only can't I drive or fly, I am limited to less strenuous physical activity until the retina looks like it is well and truly adhering well. Negotiating the world with vision in only one eye also takes a lot of getting used to!

Everything that happens in life can be viewed through many different prisms. When an obstacle occurs in my life's trajectory I've always tended to look for the opportunities it creates rather than dwell on my personal misfortune. Fact is, shit happens. And I'm pretty sure feeling sorry for myself doesn't make that shit go away.....

So, after the initial shock of having to undergo a second surgery and the prospect of an even longer recuperative period, I returned from my review appointment with some clear ideas about when and what I could and couldn't do. I could fly at the end of the 8 week period post operatively, I could walk up Mt Iron, and I could cycle as long as it wasn't too strenuous. Driving is still out of the question.

David, my landlord, has an old mountain bike in his back shed that he has let me use. It's not too shabby a bike, so after dropping the seat height I took it for a little run around the local streets to see how it felt cycling with one eye. It's a little weird, but doable. So a day later I rode into town along the Outlet Track! Now that was quite an experience: narrow track, cliff one side, river the other, am I crazy?? Overtaking people is still a problem, and going downhill is terrifying, but otherwise, I'm nailing this one eyed cycling gig. And there are so many bike tracks around here I'm spoilt for choice.

To keep my brain busy I've enrolled in an online TEFL course. I'd been thinking about the idea of teaching English in a foreign country as an option for some time, and having the down time right now to complete the course is an opportunity worth taking. It's quite interesting too, especially as I've never learnt much phonetics or grammar in the past.

Finally, the food one. I thought of this when Kathy was still here because the seed of the idea began in Sapporo City a few years ago when we decided to do a gyoza crawl. Gyoza are Japanese fried dumplings, and are particularly popular in Hokkaido. The plan was to head out from our hotel and order a plate of gyoza and a beer at the first restaurant we came to, consume, then move on to the next gyoza joint. We sampled quite a few varieties that night, and got quite drunk as well... but what's that got to do with New Zealand?

I was thinking how this idea of sampling an individual dish could be transplanted to New Zealand and I immediately thought of seafood. Being an island country it certainly has a surplus of the stuff, but what dish could be used to sample the bounty? Good old seafood chowder of course! It's a basic, home cooking type recipe, which is also quintessentially Kiwi, so the NZ Seafood Chowder Trail was born!

Go check it out! I've had friends and flatmates join me on this quest, and as I travel further in NZ there'll be a lot more entries. It's a bit of fun, and chowder is both inexpensive and not too filling, so it's an opportunity to eat out without breaking the bank.

Since I began writing this post I've had yet another trip to Dunedin for my one month post surgery review. The retina is healing well, so aside from scaling mountains (because of the altitude) I now have no exercise restrictions at all.

After 6 weeks of relative inactivity from skiing 5-6 days a week for the previous 2 months, I'm pretty keen to get my heart pumping and regain my fitness. And with awesome sunny Spring days here in Wanaka you can bet I'm going to be out getting a few hours of cycling or walking done. So you chaps can look forward to some spectacular Kiwi scenery coming soon.

That's next...