Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Blackout - Call 999

I feel sufficiently recovered to tell you about the events of Sunday night. Those of a nervous or sensitive disposition should skip this post and find something nice to do like decorating a pine tree.

Sunday evening had been very pleasant. Polly had performed at her last party of the year, danced the 'I've finished! I've finished!' dance, and we had celebrated with a rare Indian take-a-way. We don't eat take-a-way very often because oily food makes my chest bubbly, but the last party of the year is always a momentous occasion and must be marked accordingly.

By the time the carers arrived I was feeling a little bubbly but was not unduly concerned because I would soon be in bed on the BiPap ventilator. And so it proved. While Polly watched Cranford, a BBC costumed melodrama on TV, I was retired to bed to happily read Bernard Knight's Fear in the Forest. It felt a bit like breathing soup but the BiPap forced air in and I relaxed into it knowing that eventually the mucus in my lungs would be broken down into a kind of froth that could be relatively easily coughed up. The process was taking time but I was engrossed in twelfth century Exeter's problems and so focussed on those rather than on the crackly noises coming from chest.

And then there was a power cut.

The air being pushed into my lungs stopped mid-breath. The room was plunged into darkness and the alarm on the ventilator started its piercing shriek. The rational part of my brain assured me I wouldn't suffocate but the more primitive part knew this was nonsense and that death was imminent. I tried to suck in air through the now useless mask but the froth in my lungs gave the illusion I was drowning. The suddenness of having the breath snatched from me caused me to briefly panic and I had to fight to calm down. All this took only a few seconds. I then heard Polly rushing up the hallway and her voice telling me it as all going to be okay.

My bed is an electric profiling bed that can be raised or lowered, tilted or reclined to help me change position or sit up. The operative word here is electric. During a power cut it is just a bed. Polly came into the bedroom knowing she had to sit me up because breathing whilst lying down is difficult for me. Using leverage and brute force she raised me to a sitting position and removed the mask. She then rushed off to find a torch and then the emergency battery pack for the BiPap. It took a few moments but soon the ventilator was working again and the mask was back on. Air rushed back into my now aching lungs but the mucus had shifted and part of my lungs were blocked off. Polly helped me lie down again.

Other problems were arising. Our heating had gone off and as snow was falling heavily outside the temperature was already plummeting. My electric blanket was now just a rapidly cooling thin sheet. In addition, my electrically powered air mattress was deflating beneath me. Still, at least I could breathe. Polly looked at the control panel on the BiPap. It told her that the emergency backup battery was only a quarter charged. I had, perhaps, an hour and a half of breathing time. I couldn't get out of bed and transfer to the wheelchair because the hoist is, you've guessed it, electrically powered.

Polly rang the power company and explained the situation. The outage was extremely local, affecting only a few houses around us. Our upstairs neighbour had no power but the flat above her did. The house next door was in darkness but across the road Christmas lights shone. The customer service manager at EDF was full of sympathy at my plight but regretfully informed Polly that they would not be sending an engineer out before morning. What, Polly asked, was I supposed to do when the backup battery ran out and I started turning blue? Call an ambulance, she was told. Polly dialled 999.

Within a short while an ambulance duly arrived complete with two green clad paramedic type women who quickly grasped the situation but were at a loss at what to do. They could take me to hospital where there was at least power and warmth but transferring me there would require another ambulance team to safely move me without the use of the hoist. Even incapacitated as I was this seemed a bit too much. The weather outside was treacherous and the emergency services were already stretched. The ambulance woman called the power company herself and put a flea in their ear.

By now our neighbours were anxiously hovering, alerted by the presence of the ambulance, and offering any help that they could. Then Polly had a brainwave. We could run an extension lead down from the top flat where there was electricity. Fortunately our next door neighbour was able to rummage in his company van and produce an industrial length cable which could be trailed three floors down and through our flat into our bedroom. Within a few minutes we had limited power again. My mattress began to re-inflate and my electric blanket began to warm up again. Crisis over. Or so we thought.

Polly said goodbye to the ambulance crew and apologised for having called them out. Oh no, they said cheerfully, it made a pleasant change from picking up drunk people who had slipped on the ice. They departed to fill in forms about the incident.

I'm not exactly sure what caused what happened next. I think the sudden changes in pressure, position and temperature had caused the sticky and frothy mucus in my rather abused lungs to foam into my mouth where due to the forced breaths from the ventilator I swallowed it and great mouthfuls of pressurised air. The contents of my stomach rebelled and a grim combination of semi-digested curry, mucus and medication came up in to my mouth. This would be nasty under any circumstances, but remember, my ventilator was forcing me to take regular breaths regardless of whether I was being sick at the time. I was in real danger of choking.

Polly took one look at me and came as close to panicking as she ever has with me. She made a dash for the front door and waved down the departing ambulance. Moments later the two ambulance women were back looking down at me anxiously. “Get some suction,” said one of them, and I suddenly felt like I was in an episode of Casualty. One of the crew admitted frankly they were a bit out of their depth. They took my sats (96% on the BiPap) and my blood pressure (slightly raised) and my temperature (normal) but since they didn't know what my baseline was they weren't sure how useful the information was. Still, it gave them something to do.

I kept being sick and they kept telling me not to breathe it into my lungs. It is generally agreed among medical folk that aspiration pneumonia is something to try and avoid – so I did. It wasn't easy but, as you will have gathered, I somehow managed. When there was nothing left in my stomach I finally stopped being sick. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Well, everyone except me; I sort of bubbled.

Once they were satisfied I wasn't going to expire the ambulance crew left to pick up more drunken ice-skaters. I drifted off to sleep leaving Polly to recover from a near nervous breakdown. “God, you're a lot of work,” I heard her mutter. Good job she loves me. The power came back on a couple of hours later. Apparently EDF relented and sent out an engineer. I woke up a few times during the night with a raging thirst but Polly would only let me sip a few drops of water for fear of me drowning or something.

I would like to thank the ambulance crew who were a reassuring presence and very patient. I would also like to thank our neighbours who rallied round and made a real difference. I am a fortunate fellow indeed to have so many people around me who are prepared to endure snow and freezing conditions to help.

This will probably be the last post before Christmas. This afternoon we are taking the boys to see Father Christmas at a local grotto and last night we took them to see Thumblina at the Charles Cryer Theatre in the village. After the events of Sunday night I'm grateful to be well enough to enjoy these seasonal experiences with them.

Merry Christmas to everyone kind enough to spend time reading this blog. I truly appreciate it. I'll try and squeeze in another post before the new year.

Seasons greetings. Until next time...


  1. Stephen, what a frightening near miss, and what a wonderful wife and neighbors you have! Thank you for sharing this story. It's reassuring, when there is so much news of evil people do to each other, to be reminded that everyday, regular people rise to work together for good.

  2. I felt moved to answer using my own blog.


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