This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Borken, but will be fixed

In which I wax lyrical upon the causes and circumstances medical of my inconvenience. Apologies if I overshare, but this isn't secret, it interests me, and I feel some value in collating and sharing my thoughts and feelings at this time.

I have a prolapsed disk in my neck. This means that down toward the base of my neck, between the 6th and 7th bone counting down from my skull, the protective layer of cartilaginous gunk that lives between those bones, and allows them to smoothly pivot about each other, has come unstuck from its home and wandered, or been squirted under pressure, to where it ought not be. In my particular case, the place is the channel, also between vertebrae number 6 and vertebrae number 7, where the nerves looking after about half the muscles in my arm branch off that great and terrifying trunk line of all nerves, the spinal column.

The initial noticeable impact of this incursion by my wayward disc was a crushing and excruciating pain all down my right arm on Saturday morning some five weeks ago. Only the night before I had returned, late tired and happy, from a three day visit to BBC Wales in Cardiff, meeting colleagues from production and introducing them to the work of the BBC R&D department. I was joined by lovely colleagues from my own department and from the great Blue Room team, but there was a lot of kit to lug about, some fairly late nights exploring the ideas and challenges thrown up when we introduce new tech to new program making areas, and I'd had a pretty intense week putting this and other events together. In short, I was shattered, and the chronic ache of a stiff neck had been bad.

This chronic neck pain is worth a brief diversion- about eight years ago I got a terribly stiff neck after a flight back from Cyprus. It was terrible, stiff as a board any activities were extremely painful, and it was six weeks before I was back at work. In retrospect I should have demanded an MRI then and there, but I didn't- it was a one off, a newly found osteopath helped get it mobile again, and I made sure I fitted in some yoga where I could. Over the next five or six years I got occasional twinges- I could feel them coming on, so would apply hot and cold packs, rest a bit, pop to the bone cruncher, and see them off for a few months. Generally it nagged, and I'd get a knot in my shoulder, but it was ok. Manageable. A timebomb I didn't really hear ticking.

Since Christmas just gone we've been living in Eastbourne, not Brighton. the commute is longer, and though my manager is understanding of a desire to work from home when possible, my role, as we both recognise, isn't amenable to such arrangements. I need to talk to people, face to face ideally, because what I have to do is grasp the impact and potential of new technology and understand how to relay that to colleagues in non-tech areas, and conversely understand their challenges in order to feed back to the engineers and scientists building the new tech. It's a translation role, all about getting inside concepts that the people who know most about them may not even understand themselves those concepts in terms in which I'll need to explain them. It's facinating, frustrating, exciting and challenging, and needs face to face discussion to work.

So, day in day out I leave home around seven, board a train to Clapham junction which I'll reach around nine. I'll wait for a short while, then board another train to Shepherd's Bush, then after fifteen minutes I'll have a twenty minute walk to the office. I'll be in by ten, if all goes well, and I'll have done at least an hour, probably more, on the laptop already. Then at the end of a busy day, at five if I can, but more usually around six, I'll start the journey back. Being less able to tightly control that departure there will be a longer wait at Shepherd's Bush, and longer again at Clapham, where I'll get a seat if I'm lucky, and settle in to another hour and half of work on the laptop. If all goes well I'm home by nine, just in time to eat and sleep, then off I go again.

This isn't the whole of the story- there is travel to Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff too, and to be honest that sometimes came as a relief. Though any journey from Eastbourne is necessarily a slog, having to go via London and usually requiring an overnight stay, the attitude and atmosphere in the more distant offices always lifted my spirits, and being able to flop back to a bed, even a hotel bed, relatively easily always helped.

However, all in, this has done for me. I am now convinced that this exhausting schedule, and the dreadful posture I had to adopt whilst working on my laptop have combined to destroy the structural integrity of my neck. I'm writing this lying down, as I have been for most of the last five weeks. I am unable to stand for more than a few minutes as any more extending vertical deployment leads in rapid succession to a tingling in my right arm, cramps in my neck, a stabbing sensation in my shoulder, and then a slow building crushing searing agony down my whole arm. In addition to these terrifying symptoms of nerve damage my right arm now has no reflexes- tap my elbow, nothing, tickle my palm, nada. My triceps have lost much of it's muscle mass and most strength.

Because I've been lain down for five weeks with no exercise I'm generally more feeble than I think I have ever been. Going upstairs I pant, I tire easily moving about much, and I feel like I'm lifting a wardrobe getting out of the bath.

Next week, I hope, the ruined disc in my neck will be replaced. The process is simple, and low risk. Low risk in terms of chance, high impact if it did go wrong though. It won't. All the surgeon will do is create a small incision a few centimeters long in my neck, off to one side of my windpipe. He'll go in past my esophagus, taking care not to damage the nerves to my voicebox, and dig back to expose the front of the vertebrae. Then he'll separate the load bearing bodies of the 6th and 7th vertebrae a little, and remove (probably in little chunks) the cartilaginous material in there, and that which has been squeezed out behind. This will remove the pressure on my arm nerve, and that which was edging toward the spinal cord. All clear he'll then prepare the surfaces of the vertebral bodies to take the two parts of the replacement disc. This has, depending on the model he's chosen, a few metal and plastic parts, but in essence all share common features: two metal plates with spikey backs that bond into the bone of the spine, and a plastic surface in between to connect them, often with a shallow ball and socket type connection. When all the parts are in, he closes up and out he comes. I wake up, and after a single night in hospital I go home, well on the way to being mended. And I'll never look at the video below in trepidation...

Recovery is quick usually, and within six weeks I should be fine. I'm going to work hard at that, not just recovering, but getting better, taking better care of myself and, I hope, the people who I care about and who have cared for me so tenderly and generously these last five weeks.

I just don't know how I will fix my life, but I know how I'll fix my neck, and that's the first step.

And Rowan, thank you. For more than everything.


Zoe Kleinman said...

Good luck with the op Ant - glad you are getting fixed. You have given me food for thought re long commutes... I have some big decisions to make on that front in the next few months x

Tixylix said...

Very much hope that next time we see you, you are fighting fit and frolicking around. Morwenna x

herbkim said...

Oh my word! I really do hope you get better very soon. Please let me know if I can be of help in any way. Sorry to hear about this but hopefully it will be remembered as a useful warning sign that steered your life and/or way of life in a new, healthier & happier direction :-(