The day that death came knocking on Liesl Johnstone’s door, she didn’t answer. Far too busy and she was, after all, young and healthy. She shares her story.
This day, death hovered. I’d been gardening a week earlier, picking up barbed branches; gnarly old thorns more lethal than fork prongs. I was wearing gloves. This was not preventive medicine, I would later realise. The prick was a sudden assault, and very sore. I quickly forgot about it. The week following I was hot and cold, slightly queasy and very tired. Mundane tasks represented huge effort. By Wednesday I had an inflamed knuckle. When I prodded, the pain shot through its surrounds. I drove to work on Thursday, an immense effort of the will, and managed just two hours.
Pins and needles were going from the tips of every finger to my elbow. My man took me to after-hours where the doctor thought I was getting flu. Friday night was ghastly. There was no escape from my painful right arm. Red tracks were appearing. I was on fire from the inside; in bodily hell. By 5:30 am we were on our way to Christchurch Hospital. Intravenous antibiotics, x-rays and doctors drifting in and out; I lay there shivering, barely aware of the yellow light and green uniforms, drifting away.
Finally, sometime in the evening doctors were wheeling my bed into theatre. They hadn’t been planning to take me there till Sunday morning, but one young doctor, Charlotte, had a sixth sense that I needed theatre, and now. Once cut open, the surgical team watched my flesh turning black before their eyes. Rampant and aggressive, my hand was being eaten away by Necrotizing Fasciitis. Once it’s gone, there’s no regeneration. The flesh-eating disease is a fast killer; thankfully rare. Almost winning-a-lottery-rare. But for every rarity, someone’s got to be the one left with just bones and compromised tendons.
When I awoke, I was in intensive care, being congratulated by the surgeon on making it to hospital on time. I had been diminutive hours from death, or amputation. There were eight surgeries, most of them scraping away more tissue that had died, including the bits needed to hold skin on top. The final surgery was to take a muscle from my back and skin from my thigh, and reconstruct my hand from these. I was so weak that even the clock-hands were interesting diversions. From this window, by whose basin I went to clean my teeth at night, the words on the Art Gallery glinted reassurance and hope. ‘Everything is going to be alright’.
I know that it shouldn’t take an encounter with hell to get heaven on earth but I live differently now. So let that driver into the queue. Smile at the angry guy. Feed the scrawny stray cat. Make the most of beautiful days and leave the desk for something awe-inspiring, far more often.
Share kindnesses and know that our medics have the most difficult, yet fulfilling lives, making a difference by administering timely help. Our doctors and nurses also probably understand something the rest of the population repeatedly wants buried; that horrible injuries and diseases can happen to any one of us. That we’re mortal, but that we’re also loved.