No Time To Die…

PortsoyBF

… I’ve got a book festival to attend. The Portsoy Book Festival, to be precise. It was something I was invited to do months ago, but I did think of cancelling when tongue surgery left me with a voice that sounded a bit like something from a Muppet version of The Elephant Man. Happily, week by week, my speech is improving and I’m looking at that Portsoy date – 8th March – as a personal challenge. Just in case, though, I’ve made some calls to a few radio chums and asked them if I can borrow their voices for five minutes. I’ve asked them to record some extracts from The Red Light Zone, so if I get a bit tongue-tied on the day, I can hit the play button on my laptop and give myself and the audience a break. It’s times like this when you appreciate the support of your friends. Frankly I’ve been blown away with the messages of love and congratulations I received when I posted the latest news about my condition on Facebook this weekend. Great news it was too. No spread of the cancer to my lymph nodes, so no need for radiation therapy. In fact, the consultant confirmed, I am now officially cancer free. Imagine that! I was diagnosed on the 12th of December and officially cured on the 15th of February. How’s that for a super National Health Service?

So, it’s back to the keyboard now and continuing work on my next book. I’ll be revealing a bit about that at Portsoy and, thinking ahead, I did manage to record an extract from that before I went into hospital. There might even be a musical interlude of sorts too because, as part of my speech therapy, I’ve been singing Sinatra songs every morning to get my newly reconditioned tongue moving. Unsurprisingly, I don’t sound anything like ol’ Blue Eyes . Not yet, anyway. Give me another few weeks.

Be great to see you in Portsoy. If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

Nine Nights in Ninewells

Jeff in Ninewells (2)

In case you were wondering, I didn’t die.  I woke up on my 57th birthday connected to various tubes, drips and drains. There were monitors beeping intermittent alerts about my blood pressure and oxygen levels.  A nurse was telling me that everything had gone to plan. She gave me a button to press if I needed more morphine then she sat on a chair at the foot of my bed and made frequent notes about my condition. If I coughed, she scribbled something on my chart. If I pressed the morphine button, another scribble. I wasn’t in any real pain, but give a man a button to press and he’s going to press it just for the hell of it. This was the intensive care unit at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.  There were other beds with other patients. Six in total, maybe more. My view was restricted. It was a busy place; each bed had a nurse stationed at its foot and there was a central desk where sat green-suited figures peering into computer monitors and occasionally disappearing into side rooms to attend to mysterious patients set apart from the rest of us.

I’d lost a day. The 21st January to be precise, or at least most of it.  At nine that morning a jolly anaesthetist had been joking about getting me to reveal the PIN number of my bank account as he injected me with the first of his sleeping potions. I remember telling him I could feel it taking effect and then nothing. Absolutely nothing. No dreams, no sojourns into the afterlife, no white lights. Nothing.  I had no sense of time passing. If you’d woke me and told me I’d had a five minute nap, I’d have believed you. But it wasn’t five minutes, It was 24 hours and nine hours of that I’d been in the operating theatre while a crack team cut out the tumour from my tongue, replaced it with a skin graft taken from my left forearm and then patched that with another graft taken from my abdomen.  For good measure they sliced into my neck to take a hefty sample of my lymph nodes. I’d felt nothing. And now I was awake and, despite everything, I could still speak. Or at least, I could make enough recognisable sounds to tell doctors and visitors that I was feeling ok. Anything more sophisticated than that required the use of a small white board and marker pen.

I couldn’t sleep though. Every time I nodded off an irritating cough would jump-start me awake again.  I discovered afterwards that I’d taken a bad reaction to a blood pressure medication during the op and the lingering cough was probably a continuing side effect.   I stayed awake through three changes of shift . By midnight I had shaken off most of my wooziness and was tuning into all the overnight gossip between the night nurses.  One was anxious about an exam she was taking the next day, another was wondering if the extra shifts she’d done over Christmas would be reflected in her January pay packet.  In the middle of the night, an immaculately tailored doctor, clad in a three piece suit with colourful waistcoat, appeared at my bedside and urged me to get some sleep.  I promised to try, but I was still awake when the morning shift took over.

A few hours later they wheeled me to a general ward and that felt like the first bit of progress. And each day thereafter they removed one of my tubes or drains and that, too, felt like I was getting somewhere. By the third day, a physiotherapist arrived and helped me out of bed and on to a chair. My knees protested but I ignored them. What do knees know?   I began to feel human again, despite the bandages on my arm and the swelling around my neck.  I was given a Zimmer frame and escorted around the ward.  It felt great to be up and about and even better when the physio decided I didn’t need the Zimmer.  A day or two later I was making my own way to the toilet, a day after that I was trusted to shower by myself. I even shaved. One week after my operation, I was free of all tubes and drains including the one I hated most; the nasal gastric tube which took 12 hours to deliver a half litre of nutritional gunk through my nose and into my stomach.

I began to make limited conversation with fellow patients. Until then I’d given them secret nick names.  Mr Freeze was a man from Arbroath who insisted on sleeping with the ward window open all night.  The bearded man in the bed opposite me bore a slight similarity to Jeremy Corbyn, so I thought of him as ‘Jeremy’ until I discovered his name was Douglas.  Larger than life characters were the two ward cleaners who would converse with each other at high volume as they wiped surfaces and mopped floors. They were oblivious to the patients around them and would discuss topics such as the corona virus and the value of funeral insurance plans. By Thursday I was moved to a bed nearest the door of the ward and this, I was told, was a sure sign that I would soon be heading home.  And on Friday morning I got my discharge papers, had some stitches removed from my neck, waited for my head to fall off (it didn’t)  and was given a free bottle of mouthwash and sent on my way back to Inverness.

And now?  I await pathology results to see if I need radiation treatment. I’m booked for four months of speech therapy to get my voice back to a rough approximation of how it used to be. I’ve been warned it will never be the same as it was, but hey, maybe it will be an improvement. I also need to learn how to swallow food more challenging than chicken noodle soup and soggy Weetabix.

But it‘s all good. I’m so thankful for the NHS and the teams at Ninewells who work like a well-oiled machine. There was expertise at every turn: radiographers, dieticians, pharmacists. I saw such compassion and professionalism from the nurses and surgeons and consultants right through to the girl who cheered everyone up each night as she wheeled her trolley full of tea, biscuits and a secret stash of drinking chocolate.

So yes, I woke up on my birthday a little scarred and a little scared,  but that was a lot better than the alternative I’d been fearing for the past month.

Not waking up at all.

See you on the other side

If I die on the operating table next week it will be a real nuisance, because I have so many exciting things planned for this year. For example, fresh on the back of terrific sales figures for The Red Light Zone over Christmas (thankyou), I was hoping to announce details of my next book. As yet, it doesn’t have a title but I’ve been describing it as a collection of humorous “memories and make-believe”.  It will include true tales about my childhood in Scotland, about learning the facts of life from a toy frog, about encounters with comedy Nazis and how I faced down Easterhouse gangs with a simple hula hoop.  In the fiction section there’s the tale of militant zoo animals resisting a downsizing project and one about the man who has a glitch in his subconscious which allows him to confront the lack-lustre repertory company responsible for his dull and repetitive dreams.  Alongside the book there’s going to be a kind of stage show and the possibility of a radio programme too.

All I need to complete the project is a bit more time and, well, not dying would help.

Not that I’m planning to. Die, I mean. But the doctors have warned me that this surgery on my tongue is a serious business and, when you are under general anaesthetic for nine hours, there’s always a chance that something will go wonky. Then there was the nurse who took a blood sample from me, dabbed my puncture mark with a cotton ball and waved me off with the words “See you on the other side.”

I mean, really!

“Don’t’ go towards the light,” my friend Richard warned me a few days ago when I brought up the subject of my operation, “Because in your case it will probably be a fridge with the door open and you really need to cut out all the snacking.”

As much as I’m grateful for the many comforting words that have come from friends and former colleagues, I find I react much better to this kind of dark humour.  I do appreciate people’s attempts at reassurance, but that does tend to make me feel more nervous…like there’s really something to worry about. That in turn prompted me to do some grown-up things like updating my will and booking my car in for a service.  I’ve also granted my close family Power of Attorney over my affairs so that they can withdraw my Premium Bonds and cash in that half-complete book of Tesco savings stamps. They also have the authority to switch off my life support machine should I slip into a coma, but I’ve insisted they check I’m actually in a coma and not enjoying my usual afternoon nap.

Yet I remain optimistic and am trying to ignore some ominous signs. Last week, for example, my watch stopped but the bloke at Timpson’s fitted a new battery with a two year guarantee. Do I read that incident as a warning about the finite nature of life or as the prospect of renewal?  More to the point, ten quid for a sodding battery? I almost died of shock.

As I say, I have no intention of popping my clogs, but that thought in the back of my mind has given life a bit more intensity in the past month.  I’ve loved every moment with my family and every phone call from my amazing children. I’ve savoured tasty meals and enjoyed every sip of a good Malbec.  And I’ve been listening to music and appreciating the skill of every musician involved. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example, is well worth seventeen minutes of your full attention. Here’s a link to a performance of it on YouTube.

Meanwhile, I hope to be back in action in a few weeks and getting on with all those plans. So, ahem, I’ll see you on the other side.

One way or another.

Hopefully, I’ve got this licked.

Jeff in hospital gown (2)

Despite explicit instructions from my lovely publishers, I sometimes gift copies of The Red Light Zone to special people in my life. Last Christmas my wife and children found signed books in their stockings and their gratitude defies description. Generous to a fault, I’ve also given tax deductible copies to would-be business associates.  And then last week I presented one to the surgeon who had diagnosed that little blister on my tongue as full-on mouth cancer.  This, it has to be said, was my attempt to divert him momentarily from the conversation we were having about my impending surgery in Dundee. He had been describing how I would be under general anaesthetic for nine hours as a crack team of specialists removed the tumour and filled the gap using a skin graft from my forearm. Nine hours under the knife, two weeks in hospital, three weeks to recover and, oh, by the way, I’ll be talking with a bit of a lisp for a while.

“So what is it you do for a living?” he asked me.

“I’m a writer and I run a company called ‘Writes and Speaks’,” I told him, thinking it might be time to rename that as ‘Lites and Spleaksh’.

That’s when I told him about my book, fished a copy out of my rucksack and signed it for him. I wondered if this small act of kindness might persuade him to go easy on me when they wheel me into the operating theatre a few weeks from now.  My surgery is scheduled to take place on the first anniversary of The Red Light Zone’s publication, but I’ll have to postpone the celebration party I was planning.  Yep, I was going to invite everyone mentioned in the book, the staff and managers of every book shop in Scotland and all six thousand people who have visited this website in the past year.  Honestly, I was really.  But only if my lovely publishers paid for the booze. But enough of this fanciful thinking and back to reality.

“No one thinks they are going to get mouth cancer,” my surgeon was telling me, “but it’s actually the fourth most common type of cancer. Usually caused by smoking, or a virus or maybe in your case just simple genetics and bad luck, but we do this kind of operation almost on a routine basis and we in Dundee have a 95% rate of success. That’s an official Government statistic.”

I resisted the temptation to make some cynical comment about Government statistics.

“I’ve always liked Dundee,” I told him, “I used to go on holiday around that area as a child.”

I was rambling now.  Trying to find some way of keeping up my end of the conversation beyond out and out screaming.  The surgeon insisted on talking about medical stuff. Well, you know what they’re like.

“It’s good that we’ve caught this at such an early stage,” he was saying, “Three months later and things would be a lot more serious.”

I have my dentist, Jennifer, to thank for that. I asked her to look at my blister ahead of a routine appointment. She didn’t like what she saw and referred me to hospital for a biopsy.  That led to a CT and MRI scan. Lots of pictures of my tongue were taken along the way. I was asked to sign a release form so they could be used for teaching purposes or in academic papers. I did so happily. Anything for a bit of publicity.

“In the meantime,” said my surgeon, “Go and enjoy your Christmas. Your problem is now my problem. You’ve passed it to me and its not going to get any worse in the next few weeks. Spend time with your friends and family. Eat and drink. Have fun, have wine.”

Good advice, I thought…and not just for the next few weeks.

“Thankyou,” I said, easing myself off his examination chair, “And you have a good Christmas too. Hope you enjoy the book.”

And the same to all my readers.

Making front page news by accident

The National Front Page

Boris Johnson was making noises about the BBC licence fee and a reporter for the National contacted me via Twitter and asked me to comment.  We had arranged to speak by phone the next morning so I went to my keyboard and began noting some thoughts about the way the BBC is funded and how the licence fee money makes its way to Scotland.  That was when I realised I had quite a lot to say, although I’ve said most of it and more in The Red Light Zone. The phone call didn’t happen, but I sent the reporter – Andrew Learmonth – my notes.  He contacted me a few hours later and suggested we run my notes as a column.  Then this morning I woke up to find I was front page news and my phone started buzzing with tweets and retweets. Then my book started to sell out on amazon.co.uk.   A funny old day.

Here’s a link to my accidental column.

https://www.thenational.scot/news/18092737.jeff-zycinski-criticises-bbc-bosses-ignoring-scottish-culture/

And you can still get my book at Waterstones.

https://www.waterstones.com/books/search/term/zycinski

The astronaut who wouldn’t talk about the moon.

Radio interviews can be tricky, especially when the guest you have booked doesn’t talk about the one thing you want to discuss. In The Red Light Zone, I tell how we once booked astronaut John Young for a live appearance on BBC Radio Scotland. The producer had spent months negotiating with NASA to secure the interview. All sorts of security arrangements had to be put in place including a chauffer-driven car to bring him to the studio.  It all seemed worth it. This was one of the few men who had actually walked on the moon. He was still active in NASA and involved in the Space Shuttle missions.

What happened next is something I described to Pete Gavin for his excellent Final Word programme on North Highland Radio. That airs tonight (27th November) but here’s a sneak preview.

 

Sorry about last Christmas

Last Christmas I disappointed so many people (well four) by telling them that they couldnt get a copy of my book until its official launch inJanuary. Well, as it tends to do, Christmas has come round again and so you now have plenty of time to snap up a copy for th radio enthiusiast in your life. Besides, last year, I didnt have all these nice reviews to include in my promo video.  But I do now.