I'm lying in my bed at the John Ratcliffe Hospital in Oxford. I've been here for four days and was in MK General over the Bank Holiday weekend. I'm minutes away from being taken to Radiology for life-saving neuro-surgery ...
I've been in hospital for a while now. Some serious headaches had been building over the previous month or so, and when my left eye stopped co-operating with the right one last week, I knew that something had gone seriously wrong in my head and that I desperately needed medical help.
After spending seven hours fighting my way through a barrage of sceptical A&E doctors who just wanted to send me home with some painkillers - thank you Julie for your determination that day - I was finally admitted to the Acute Stroke Unit at MK General and spent the next three days surrounded by screaming geriatrics who had no clue where - or even who - they were.
Every hour of the day or night, I was woken up for blood pressure checks. I think they mostly just wanted to see if I was still alive. With the constant disturbances of the last few days my already high blood pressure was spiking and I felt something pulsing behind my eye with each heartbeat. It was getting more and more intense as time went by. I just wanted to hide under the covers and cry; I was in so much pain.
Finally, I got a neurology consultation and was told that I most probably had an aneurysm behind my left eye that was pressing on the Third Nerve which had stopped my eye from moving and locked open my pupil. I would be transferred as soon as possible to Oxford for surgery. The benefit of seeing the consultant was that he ordered me to be immediately moved and I was swapped into a quieter bay where the night terrors of my bedmates wouldn't disturb me so much.
I was surrounded by women who were recovering from strokes rather than enduring them - girls with legs and arms that didn't work - who were grateful that they still had their mental faculties and were able to go home soon - albeit in a wheelchair. The word "luck" was mentioned a lot. I was very grateful for some quiet that night and although I was still being woken up every hour, I was able to stay calmer and work on keeping my blood pressure down.
During my entire stay in the hospital, that was the only thing I had power over. My world was completely regimented by the nurses. I was woken, I was fed, I was offered tea, I was told when to shower and change my PJs. I didn't have to think about anything at all because I always knew what was about to happen. It was quite cathartic in a weird sort of way and I felt almost child-like again being so out of control.
I realised quite quickly after being admitted that all the stress and worry that had happened since Easter had put me into hypertension and brought me to a breaking point. How did I know? Because each time I thought about what had happened and how I'd been treated I got a searing spike of pain shooting up my neck and through the back of my head which made me whimper, my temple throb and my eye hurt even more.
And neither could I worry about what was going to happen in the future because the exact same thing happened. How was I going to save my business from collapsing in on itself now I had been completely abandoned? It all had to be pushed from my mind because as the consultant told me "the next stressful event could make your aneurysm explode" which would kill me immediately. He said it was like an over-inflated balloon and he was pretty damn serious about me keeping calm because my blood pressure had been hitting 190 over 140 even in the middle of the night.
I became a Zen Mistress purely out of self-preservation. I lived from moment to moment, not thinking about the past; not even considering the future. Right up until this moment in Oxford when I'm about to be wheeled off for surgery all I thought about was keeping my blood pressure down and fighting off the sickening realisation that my next breath could actually be my last one.
This was the first time I've ever had to really face my own mortality. It wasn't just a Saturday night ponder with friends about the frailty of the human condition. This was a completely focussed, pin sharp terror that hung in my mind like the Sword of Damocles consuming every moment of my conscious world and waiting for me to worry myself just a touch too much. Oh Goddess, I'd never felt anything like this before. I pray I never will again.
Maybe you think I'm being overly dramatic? If you've ever been so ill that you've felt a hazy darkness lurking in the room with you - just waiting - then you know that I'm not being at all flippant. "Overcome your fears or come with me" it whispered.
As I lay in my hospital bed crying and clutching my head it, would have been comforting to have had a caring hand to hold and to hear some quiet reassurances giving me a reason to stay. It's what I would have done for a close friend who was gravely ill - visiting hours wouldn't have applied to me.
So now we're exactly seven days after I burst into tears in A&E and the overworked on-call Doctors took pity on this gibbering wreck of a girl. The surgeons have been in to see me and have explained what is going to happen. I've been prepared for the operation by the nurses and have signed the waiver documents to indemnify the hospital. I've showered and put on a new gown. I'm feeling a little nauseous but I know that's just nerves.
The porters have arrived now and make a big fuss of me. Again, another regimented procedure carried out a thousand times but they do make me smile. I keep breathing calmly as they wheel me down the corridor, into the lift then finally into Radiology where the operation will be performed under the watchful eye of a massive real-time X-Ray machine.
The Anaesthetist greets me with a warm smile and introduces me to the team who will be looking after me. I'm transferred to the operating bed and marvel at the technology in the room - more monitors than the sblogit.com secret underground bunker and numerous machines that go ping!
They check my wristbands to ensure I am who they think I am and ask me a number of questions so we all know why I'm there and that they have the right patient for the right procedure.
They stick an arterial cannula in my left wrist. It's uncomfortable. The Anaesthetist says "time for some pain relief ... tell me what you think Steffi" and I feel a warm and comforting calmness spread through my body and into my head. Two months worth of pain just falls away and I suspect that they've filled me full of Fentanyl. All I can say is "mmmmm, funky drugs .... thanks". He smiles at me and strokes my hair for a while as people continue to fuss around me. "Ok Steffi, here's the anaesthetic. Can you count backwards from ten for me?"
The Zen Mistress has made it to where she needs to be and I know I'm in the best possible hands. The terror that I've been fighting for the past week has finally gone. The hazy darkness that lurked in the corner of my hospital room hasn't followed me in here and at last I can finally relax and let the experts do what they need to do to save my life.
I smile gratefully at him and start counting. "Ten ... nine ...". I never made it to eight.