Friday, 13 January 2012

Mountains and Choppers and Doctors - Oh, My!

If you've been following along with my 101 Things, you'll know that #39 was to climb Mount Bogong. I had been planning to do it for some time, and had even been hitting the gym pretty hard in preparation for it, but as the time drew closer it became apparent that perhaps I shouldn't have been quite so ambitious.

So, upon the timely suggestion of my BFF Ness (yep, there's two of us! We're partners in crime from way back), we decided to go with a hike of approximately the same length, but one that I had done before with a Day One bail-out option as well as several evacuation options. We were always going to take a sat phone and an EPIRB as well as enough people (including men) to carry my stuff and/or my lifeless body, should the need arise.

Oh, and a quick rewind - for anyone who doesn't know me or hasn't been reading for a while, I suffer from a congenital heart condition called Long QT Syndrome. You can read about my quite exciting diagnosis here, including (but not limited to) a Medivac by the Peruvian Airforce. So this hike was kind of a big deal for me, because it was to be the first overnight hike since I was diagnosed with LQTS.

Because I live quite a large slice of my life fearing that I will have another cardiac episode, I also spend quite a lot of time assessing the risk of any physical activity I undertake. This includes things as big as a hike, to smaller things that most of you in good health would take for granted such as a short jog, to going to the gym/having sex/climbing a flight of stairs/walking up a tiny hill/helping carry a couch/climbing a ladder/lugging heavy - or especially awkward - luggage around an airport etc. when I'm at all tired or run-down.

The weird thing is, I don't fear death. That's quite odd, considering how much living I have yet to do - the things I want to achieve; the places I want to see; the people I want to meet; the skills I want to attain or develop. No, what I fear most is a) making a fuss or inconveniencing anyone; b) embarassing myself; c) scaring my loved ones; and d) not living. Note that "not living" and "dying" are two VERY different things. Dying is dying - it all ends. Kaput. Conversely, not living implies simply existing and nothing more, and I just can't stomach that thought. As frightened as I am pretty much every single day (or at least, the days where I feel my heart throw in a dodgy beat, which is most days), sitting on my mum's couch and not pushing my boundaries frightens me more. I refuse to be a shell of a person, and I refuse to let this diagnosis ruin my life. I'm a stubborn little so-and-so, so when I set my mind on something I tend to achieve it *resists the urge to complete that sentence with the words "or die trying"* And I am setting my mind on living.

Anyway, if the title didn't give it away, long story short, I went on a hike - something that I love - , had a cardiac episode, was airlifted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital and spent New Year's Eve in there (as well as 4 other nights. Awesome.). So settle back and I'll tell you the story!

Day One was what I would call a success. We started the walk after meeting the crew for a cut lunch in Harrietville and the driving up to Mount Hotham to park the cars.

From left to right, we have Hermann, Kaye, Ritz, Jamie, Ness and Myself. Note that, whilst I am in fact freakishly tall, and all bar Jamie are of average height (maybe less?), I also happen to be uphill of everyone else and quite a bit closer to the camera. This also accounts for the fact that my feet look enormous when, in fact, I have the equal smallest feet out of anyone in that photo. Ahh, perspective!

Hermann is Ritz's dad and Ness' father-in-law; Ness and Kaye are my partners in crime from highschool and I met Jamie in Peru (which makes it extra hilarious that he volunteered for this trip). There was a similar photo taken on this spot back in April 2002, but with our friend Al from highschool instead of Kaye and Jamie; that hike was probably the one that really kindled my love affair with the Great Outdoors, although a school hike up around the Snowy River three years previously probably nudged me in that direction. Still, nine years on and it's good to know that I haven't stopped loving to hike, even though there are more obstacles in my way now.

I would like to take this opportunity to quickly thank these people for accompanying me on this hike and helping me to achieve a pretty big dream - even if it wasn't the dream I originally set out to achieve (being Mount Bogong). I had intended to get all emo on their arses at the end of the hike and tell them how much it meant to me, only I was whisked away in a helicopter before the opportunity arose. So, guys, thank you. To the ends of the earth, thank you. I do appreciate what a big commitment it is to support a friend in an activity that may in fact kill them. I also understand what emotional strain you may have been under in doing so - I presume most of you worried, perhaps not every step of the way but certainly for some of them. I want you to know how much I appreciate that commitment, and hopefully it was still enjoyable for you.

Emo rant over.

Oh, and I'd also like to thank Ritz for bothering to carry a camera, and a DSLR at that! I was never going to carry one. I mean, come on, if you're debating carrying a second shirt, you're definitely not going to carry a large camera. So if anyone wants to nick any of the photos, they're not even mine, they're his, so best you email me so that I can get his permission.

The Razorback is a long ridgeline (8.5km from the road to the track junction that takes you to either Mount Feathertop or Federation Hut, with each of these being a total of about 10km from the road). Most guidebooks classify it as easy, and I guess it kind of is. I struggled a bit during the first half hour until I found my stride, and my brain stopped freaking out every three seconds. At times I was distracted by (vaguely) challenging terrain -

(the Big Dipper - the track down this is basically loose shale so it's a bit slippery and requires careful thought when placing one's feet, thus my retarded stance. I don't always walk with my arm out like that!)

- and by encountering windy, rocky outcrops and deciding to declare "I'M KING OF THE WORLD!"

(I nearly grabbed Kaye's boob when we posed for this photo, which would have been awkward... you know, unlike telling the entire blogosphere about it. PS - do you like my nailpolish? Fluorescent pink is so hiking-appropriate)

We got into camp at Federation Hut with enough time for a nice cup of tea (I'm the one in the blue jumper on the left and am every bit as surprised as you that I'm that flexible after a big day's walking!)

and dinner (and yes, that is posed - Ritz was taking candid photos of everyone and I decided to make it worth his while)

before we climbed to the summit of Mount Feathertop to view the breathtaking surrounds at sunset... through the fog... (and I will allow you to believe that I lead the entire way up the mountain, and will not include any photographic evidence to suggest the contrary!)

When we got to the top we walked a little past the summit before realising we were actually at the summit because - you guessed it - we couldn't see more than about 10-20m in front of us. This is the exact same view I got the last time I climbed Mount Feathertop. Which kind of makes me want to give it another crack on a nice day... guys? Any volunteers? No? Can't imagine why not...

Also, note the somewhat more realistically-proportioned photo. I'm a little bit of a giant, but I'm no uber-giant as the first photo suggested!

I didn't sleep well on Night One on account of it being so cold, and you know how when you're cold you need to pee, especially when you're in a tent? Well, it was worth it for the spectacular stars - Federation Hut basically sits in a saddle, and you could see what felt like (but probably wasn't) in excess of 180 degrees of bright, clear stars on the blackest black sky, not tainted by the light pollution of the city.

Day Two was all downhill, which is actually a lot harder than it sounds. There are pretty much no photos from that day, probably because it was quite mentally draining. Normally I'm good at downhills. My legs and my ticker held up quite well, but my feet... well, that's another story. I was in so much pain by the time we were about 2/3 the way down that I was taking painkillers and sobbing hysterically. And it wasn't the blisters that was the trouble. I can handle the sting of a blister being repeatedly rubbed and knocked - you just grit your teeth and keep going. No, this was the balls of my feet. My best guess is that, because I was using a walking pole, I had been throwing my weight forward on my feet as I relied more on the pole and my arm, and so bruised the soles of my feet. I have done this downhill before, and I remember it being difficult (it was post-bushfire, the track was unclear and it was mostly powdery-dry, knee-deep topsoil to slide through, which is fun at first but then becomes frightening as the terrain becomes steeper and random rocks rear their ugly heads out of the topsoil for added excitement), but not painful. No, this was painful, and I'm comparing that to a broken arm. Which I've had four of.

When finally Kaye and I arrived at the bottom - where, I might add, the rest of the party had been waiting for a couple of hours - I sat with my feet in the icy-cold creek for half an hour before trying to stand and go eat lunch. It was apparent my feet were pretty screwed when my legs almost collapsed from under me the second I put any weight on them. But they came good (they must have known there was food ahead! Alternate explanation: the nerve endings got used to bearing weight again) and I hobbled over for my lunch then hobbled back to the creek for a bit. It was decided that those who had been sitting around would take most of the weight out of my pack, and press on to camp.

As luck would have it, the advance party bumped into local gold miner Ken Harris (mining lease holder of Red Robin Mine) and organised a lift a little way up the valley for me. Ken stopped by the rest of us when I was just taking my feet out of the water for the second time, and it was agreed that Kaye and I would hobble on slowly, Jamie would power ahead, and Ken would pick us up on his way back in to the mine (he was leaving the park to meet his caretakers at the locked gate - there is a road up the valley but it is essentially a private road, to be used by Ken, Parks Vic and TXU maintenance crews). Kaye and I made quite good progress (me, now wearing the highly fashionable combination of socks and sandals, with very little in my pack), and Ken eventually picked us up and drove us up the hardest part of the walk, including some very nifty chainsaw work. I'd be lying if I said I didn't chuckle when I realised the advance party would have had quite a scramble to get over one particular log - I know, I'm going to hell...

I had actually met Ken before, back when I did my Honours work on weed invasion at high country huts, and he remembered me for a particular turn of phrase I had used on that day back in early 2005. He's quite a character, loves a chat (unsurprising, given he lives alone in a national park) and, judging by a couple of stories he told me last time we met, he loves the ladies even more. I suspect he rather enjoyed escorting two fair maidens in distress! If you're ever in the Alpine National Park in the vicinity of the Red Robin Battery, I suggest knocking on Ken's door and saying hello - he's got some interesting stories and he's a nice bloke.

Anyway, there's not much else to say about Day Two, except that Kaye and I hobbled into camp, I soaked my feet some more, we pitched the tent, made dinner

marvelled at how quickly the temperature plummeted as the sun left the valley, and went to bed for an excellent night's sleep.

Again, it was a freezing cold night, but I scheduled my trip to the loo for quite early in the night, marvelled at the stars that were even more spectacular and went to bed.

And that's about where my fun ended.

At around 5am on the last day of the hike, I woke up quite suddenly, feeling a bit "funny". I woke up my tent buddy Kaye and a few seconds later I received a shock from Zappy, my implantable defibrillator. I was totally conscious when that happened, which was awesome, so of course I yelled out "OW!!!" and woke up the whole camp site.

Note: When Zappy delivers a shock, it is because my heart has gone into Ventricular Tachycardia and my heart rate hits around the 200 mark. It is assumed that if I go into VT, that Ventricular Fibrillation (VF) may follow close behind, and that can cause death if it doesn't correct itself (which means that the 25 years I went untreated, I was pretty lucky not to die). Also, because of the beta blockers I am on, my heart rate rarely rises above 120-130bpm so it's not like I'll get a zap if I go for a run.
Ness took charge as Crisis Manager and we thought about our options - chill out for a bit and then walk out slowly; call Ken (cos, you know, I had his phone number now!) and get him to drive as far as he could and pick me up (but that would have required quite a bit of walking); or contact the emergency services.

Luckily I had brought my work sat phone (yay! It finally got used!) so Ness was able to actually speak to the 000 operator, rather than having to either run up the mountain to get mobile phone coverage, or set off an EPIRB without knowing if or when anyone would come to get me, and in what form the rescue would occur.

After a while I decided to crawl out of bed, mainly because I really had to pee and had no intention of having a full bladder when I got into a chopper, destined for an ER where I **knew** I wouldn't be allowed out of bed!

So here I am, braving the cold in the pre-dawn. I think the look on my face is a combination of fear, disappointment and resignation - kind of an "oh, well". Boo. It could also be that I was unimpressed that there is now a photo of me wearing socks and sandals...

An hour and a bit later, a chopper came to pick me up, much to the excitement of the other hikers camped in the area.

Unfortunately these photos don't really capture it, but the night had been so cold that everything was covered in ice, and as the chopper landed it blew up this beautiful rainbow of ice crystals.

Here I am, walking to the ambulance. I think the medic was pissed that he was pulled out of bed so early, but also glad that I was somewhat more alive than most of the people he picks up - these guys normally deal with road trauma. Not having to glue me back together or stop me from bleeding probably made a nice change of pace for him!

I probably should have made an effort to look sicker and a little less like I was enjoying myself, hey...

So they flew me off to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where I had a couple more near-misses with the ol' ticker shortly after they had decided I could probably go home that afternoon (they then kept me in for five nights!). Meanwhile, see that valley down there? Well that's the valley I DIDN'T have to climb out of. Heh heh heh. Although, in all seriousness, I've done it twice before and it didn't kill me, but I do concede that this time I may not have been quite so lucky!

So I spent New Year's Eve with a pretty spectacular view of the fireworks in the city, and I got a pretty awesome chopper ride, so it wasn't all bad. Plus I'm a freak who likes to choose food using a tick-box and will eat anything, as long as it comes on a tray, so hospital and I get along quite amicably.

But I can't drive for six months, and I'm on one-and-a-half times the medication I was on before, plus electrolyte supplements, and there's a fair-to-better-than-average chance that I'm in line for surgery in February-March - the cardiology team was talking about implanting a new type of pacemaker/defibrillator that would hopefully mean that VT never happens and the new Zappy never has to get as far as shocking me... but we shall see.

So that's it in a nutshell. My confidence is shot to pieces, I'm scared of life again (although not quite so badly shaken as when I was first diagnosed, particularly as I climbed Mount Feathertop with zero trouble, and it all went wrong when I was minding my own business, sound asleep, not doing anything strenuous, not even having a racy dream!) and my family and friends are scared to let me do anything or go anywhere. But what the hell else am I supposed to do? As much as I want to curl up into a ball and cry, well I've only done that once and it was when this f**ktard of a nurse declared that he couldn't turn the low heart rate alarm off and that it would in fact beep every time my heart dropped below 46, thus jerking me awake, which is particularly bad for my condition, and an especially big problem when you consider my heartrate was sitting on about 39-42 overnight (and once made it down to 29... Olympic athletes, eat your hearts out!). Most of the nurses in the Coronary Care Unit at the Royal Melbourne Hospital were amazing, but he... well, I don't think he was really built to be a nurse.

So I'm trying to look after myself and take things a bit easier than before Christmas, but also trying to live a normal-ish life again. I intend to be back at work next week. I intend to walk places and do things on my own and buy a bike to make getting around a bit easier. But I'm so paranoid that every ectopic beat will turn into something horrible. It takes a long time to get those thoughts out of my head, but I know I'll get there.

Anyway, I've talked your ear off and the story wasn't quite as intersting as my Peru one (although both involved air evacuation, so I guess maybe I have a thing for pilots??), but it's better than if it had happened at home or, say, at a shopping centre. I do like a good story!

Meanwhile, I urge you to donate money to any charity that deals with arrhythmic heart condition research, such as SADS. They reckon that things like SIDS and quite a large proportion of unexplained drownings and seizures leading to "suffocation during sleep" may actually be due to electrical faults in the heart such as mine, because they don't show up in an autopsy. Hopefully, one day, some electrophysiology geek will cure my condition and I won't have to come up with a contingency plan for every frigging thing I do, and when that day comes quite a weight will have been lifted. 


  1. You really do need to make less of an effort to look happy when being med-evacced (spelling INCREDIBLY dubious). You had much the same thrilled expression on your face when they loaded you into the Peruvian Air Force Lear jet...

    Also, do you want a bike? It might be too small for you, but God knows I'm never going to use it and I'm sure Dad would be thrilled to get it out of the garage!

  2. Hahaha I like the photo of you in the air ambulance! I'm glad you're okay(ish) now, and that they are looking to make some changes via surgery (although surgery is not great).

    Rest up and get well!

  3. Hi - I found your blog via Kirsti and Melbourne on my Mind. I just want to say that I think you are kind of amazing to head off and do the things you want to do in spite of everything. And you've ended up with quite an interesting new years story (as opposed to mine, which mostly involves champagne and LOTS of sparklers).

    I hope you're feeling a bit better soon. :)

  4. WOW! I am super impressed that you decided to tackle this, I think that is awesome! It's too bad that you didn't get all the way to the peak, but you gave a tremendous effort. I know it can be scary when something sets you back like that. But you are right, you were only laying there, not doing anything strenuous, and it could have happened crossing the street, too. Keep on living your life to the fullest, because its the only one you have! :)

  5. Hi ness, good story. Glad you like our dad, we think he's a pretty good bloke too. We'll have to tell him you blogged about him. He's up the mt right now trying to prepare his place before the fire hits. And you are right, he likes the ladies ;)

    1. Hey! Awesome! Haha I figured it was only a matter of time before someone Ken knew Googled him. Hopefully he doesn't take offence to anything I wrote but I somehow doubt it ;)

      I was wondering how he was going with the fires and hoping that it wouldn't make it back down the other side of Feathertop. Fingers crossed the wind changes and it burns itself out, and I hope he's safe and sound.

  6. Here's another one of the offspring (7 of!). Hoping you continue to experience life to the full - your writing is entertaining. Dad seemed happy about it - had a laugh and was impressed that my sister found it googling. He enjoys it when he has company - very isolated - as you know. All the best!

    1. Hey! Thanks for dropping by :) 7!!! Man I bet Christmas would be interesting!

      Very glad he was happy about it - I recently had a bad experience with someone who did not approve of a mention, and it's a relief that this isn't a repeat of that :)


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