Sunday, 11 June 2017

Singing On A Sofa With Your Dad While Morphing Into Daniel O'Donnell

I will get around to finishing the story of my latest health mishap but I just wanted to drop this in here to let you know that it hasn't all been bad recently. I have had some enjoyment amid the vile medicines, nebulisers and assaults on my limbs.

Having been released from the hospital on the Friday I was free to go to Manchester on the Saturday for the Robbie Williams gig at the Etihad Stadium. We stayed at The Brittannia which for those of you visiting these pages for access titbits is accessible only via the Wave Bar next door. The hotel concierge has to come outside and lead you through into the bar, which was as packed as you might expect a bar in Manchester city centre to be on a Saturday afternoon when Robbie Williams is in town, and use the lift to circumnavigate the steps which sit at the entrance to the hotel.

It's a spectacularly bad lift, too. Once you're inside the door doesn't open, almost as if they don't want you to use it without the concierge standing at the top waiting to open the door for you and let you out. Before you hit reception you are led through a very nice bar area. It was strangely quiet when we arrived there and the queue for checking in was beginning to stretch back towards Wave Bar. In this bar by reception four Budweisers sets you back £10. Anybody who drinks regularly in city centres knows you take that and tell checking in to your room that it can wait.

So a very pleasant couple of hours was passed storing up trouble for the days ahead via the medium of lager. Truth be told I knew there was a bit of risk involved in having a few beers after the shenanigans I'd been through earlier that week but how often are you going to a Robbie gig? How frequently do you expect to find yourself drinking reasonably priced Budweiser in a very nice if not totally accessible hotel? You have to live for today.

The plan was to get something to eat before getting on the tram over to the Etihad. Trams in Manchester are so much more accessible than trains. Despite the manic crowds at an event like this you are very unlikely to find yourself left on the platform swearing at a staff member who is not even trying to create the illusion that he gives a shit. For one thing the staff are helpful and therefore useful and for another the platforms are flat anyway. No ramps required, no phoning ahead to your destination to try to make sure you're not stranded. It's a system which, while not perfect, is very much aware that it is 2017 and not 1917.

We tried Wave Bar, Emma having had to take the stairs and play concierge to make sure I didn't spend the night in the lift, but like many other places it was too busy. One of the things about knocking about with biffs is that you have to find a seat for the able bodied person in a bar otherwise there's no point staying. You can't really have a conversation in a noisy bar if one of you has to stand up. You end up sitting in silence which is not particularly troubling if you're with someone you live with and have known for nearly 20 years but must look a bit odd to others. This is just one of the myriad things you able bodied types don't have to worry about. In that situation you can just stand together and have a drink and a chat. We had to go.

We found one American grill place but nothing on the menu that inspired, and Ask was offering a table only after a 45-minute wait. So we had a tuna sandwich in Pret-A-Manger, basically Ian Beale's cafe with an inflated sense of its own social standing. It served a purpose. An important gap was filled.

We did get chance to visit a couple of pubs before we got on the tram. There was a Wetherspoons in which I repeatedly tried to ask a woman if we could take the spare chair at her table only to discover when she eventually turned to face me that she was deaf. I was at the side of her but a level below at the bottom of a small set of steps. Until she turned her head she didn't even know I was there let alone that I was talking to her. I get that a lot with women so it came as some surprise when I realised that she was deaf. She gave us the chair. In the Piccadilly Tavern next door I spend a very pleasant 10 or 15 minutes watching Wigan get annhialated by Hull FC. No matter where I am in the world or what I'm doing there is always pleasure to be had in watching Wigan get battered.

I'll skip the tram journey and move swiftly on to moaning about the lack of WiFi or indeed any internet coverage at the Etihad Stadium. We had decent seats, closer than last time we saw Robbie there in 2013 but I had to go back out to the concourse to get on to the internet. It wasn't unlike A & E at Whiston in that regard although I still had high hopes of enjoying this experience rather more than I savoured a Shit Smoothie and a cannula or three.

Charged with helping me do that were Erasure. An almost forgotten relic of the late 80s and early 90s Erasure are as camp now as they were then. Singer Andy Bell has mercifully put away the shorts but still manages to somehow get away with strutting around in sparkly trousers. Now, as then, he is accompanied by several enthusiastic female dancers while bandmate Vince Clarke stands some distance away at the back of the stage strumming his guitar almost reluctantly, as if he isn't with any of these embarrassing exhibitionists at the front. He may not be all that visible but the whole shooting match would collapse without Vince.

There's no big screens in operation at this point. So it's just as well that I would much rather listen to Erasure than look at them. Bell's a very good live performer and his voice doesn't seem to lose anything live. It's surprising how many Erasure songs you know when you hear them again after 25 years or so. We all remember 'Sometimes' and 'Respect' but what about 'Victim Of Love', 'I Love To Hate You', 'Oh L'amour', 'Blue Savannah' and 'Chorus'? Bewilderingly, Erasure were able to play a 45-minute set of songs that I mostly knew without once having to resort to an Abba medley. When they left the stage I remember thinking that, far from dragging on, their set was a bit short.

But it was almost time. On each side of the stage were two massive screens, the shape of Robbie's head, chest and arms. With boxing gloves on. No, I don't know why either. His entrance, like a lot of his show, was somewhat self parodic. An alternative version of Land Of Hope & Glory, the words splashed across the Robbie-shaped screens. He's always had a bit of humour about him but he's full on playing this for laughs now. And then he appears, mercifully before it goes over into Russ Abbott territory, back to the crowd and dressed in a red boxers robe. It's all gloriously tacky. It's The Heavy Entertainment Show.

The first half an hour is rip-roaring. He follows the 'Heavy Entertainment Show' with a rousing and satisfyingly predictable rendition of 'Let Me Entertain You' and straight into one of my particular favourites 'Monsoon'. 'Party Like A Russian' is energetic enough to keep the place rocking even if it's not one I'd have chosen, and then it's the first of a couple of Take That numbers. There's not too much wrong with 'The Flood' and 'Never Forget' is almost universally loved whatever the state of Gary Barlow's tax bill. But if you're being churlish you might grumble about listening to Take That songs when you've paid to see Robbie Williams. I like both but not everybody does.

Robbie's first solo hit, before 'Angels' forced cynics like me to listen to Life Thru A Lens and take a different view, was a cover of George Michael's 'Freedom 90'. With Michael's relatively recent passing I suppose it's no surprise to see Williams belting out his own version at every live opportunity. It's quite a fitting tribute even if I just want him to play 'Karma Killer' and 'Me And My Monkey' instead. Before the soundtrack to my life that is 'Come Undone' he offers the anti-soundtrack to it, the altogether too cheery and positive 'I Love My Life'. It's a pleasant tune but I'm not feeling the sentiment, not even at a Robbie gig with a beer in my hand. I'm going back to the hospital in the morning.

Presumably to give himself a rest Robbie then opts for a bit of a chat to the audience, in between a medley of seemingly random songs performed a capella. Like The Flying Pickets. No? Ask your dad. These include 'Living On A Prayer' by Bon Jovi, 'Take On Me' by A-Ha, 'Rehab' by Amy Winehouse and others finished off with a bit of Take That's 'Everything Changes'. Well....he did sing the lead on that one at the time. Buried within are a couple of bona fide Robbie tunes such as 'She's The One' and 'Old Before I Die' but again it's a little off topic for the more hardline Robbie enthusiast.

Then things get really strange. There's a guest appearance from Rick Astley. Yes, it's really him bellowing out 'Never Gonna Give You Up' and he's doing so in a way that Robbie can't match. Astley owns that song so yeah, you can join in, but don't be offended if you get out-performed even if you are Robbie Williams. How much you enjoy it depends very much on your attitude towards nostalgia and to Stock, Aitken And Waterman classics. I enjoyed it but can we have 'No Regrets' now? 'Something Beautiful'?

No. After Rick we get the dreadful 'Rudebox', a perfect opportunity for more drinks from the bar. 'Kids' is more like it but it seems that Astley's old stable-mate Kylie couldn't be persuaded to appear. The stand in is an outstanding singer but well....she'll never be Kylie any more than I'll ever be Robbie or Rick Astley. As guest singers go though the next one sees the show reach an uncomfortable nadir. Things can only get better from here as Robbie introduces his dad Pete, a club singer more at home on Phoenix Nights than in a packed football stadium. As father and son sit together on a couch singing ' Sweet Caroline' I remember noting darkly how far removed this is from Knebworth. Robbie had a bit of attitude then, a bit of rock'n'roll. If he keeps this schmalzy sentiment up he'll be about as relevant as sir Cliff before he turns 45. Maybe he doesn't care any more but he's morphing into Daniel O'Donnell.

He does lift his game with a sensational performance of 'Feel', but that's a song written when Robbie Williams was Robbie Williams. Troubled, hedonistic and prone to bouts of drug and alcohol-fuelled depression. He's found happiness now. Marriage, kids...which is great but it's all a bit happy-clappy for me. Before the encore there's just time for 'Rock DJ' which is a song I hate but is at least performed with the vigour and actual oomph that is classically Robbie.

The encore is spectacular. Eagle eyes will have noted that he hasn't done 'Angels' yet so there's that. Say what you like about Robbie but 'Angels' is one of the greatest songs ever written. People gnash their teeth and mutter about pop music, painting their walls black and burning their Kings Of Leon albums as soon as they get a hit record, but you will struggle to find a more brilliantly structured pop ballad than 'Angels'. It will be played 100 years from now much like the very best offered by Elvis or The Beatles. Hopefully 'Rudebox' will not.

Accompanying the mighty 'Angels' is a version of 'Strong' adapted in tribute to the victims of the recent Manchester Arena terror attack. You may have seen him perform it at Ariana Grande's benefit gig at Old Trafford the following night. I can confirm that he hit the high notes here much more easily than he did at Ariana's gig. He was demonstrably struggling by then. By the way Ariana... Again, pop music might not be your thing and I'd never heard any of her music before the bombing, but the way she has carried herself throughout the whole ordeal has been nothing short of heroic. She's an inspiration and they ought to give her the freedom of Manchester.

Back to Robbie, and the crowd pleasing 'My Way' to finish. This is in my own ropey karaoke repertoire which gives you an idea of how easy it is to sing. But it is no less enjoyable for all that, much like Robbie's performance as a whole. It's Heavy Entertainment, and the only thing I'd change about it is....well.....the set list....

Friday, 9 June 2017

Swigging On A Shit Smoothie As Your Arms Fall Off

It's been an eventful week.

This time last week I had got home from work and started to feel my heart beating a little too fast. It had actually started on the Tuesday but when it settled down throughout the day on Wednesday I thought it had passed. But by the time I'd got home and eaten it was quickening, my breath was shortening and I could feel a feint tingle in my arms. I woke up very early on Thursday morning, unable to sleep. The quickening was rapidly becoming a palpitation if not a pounding. I was going back to the hospital.

I'd been here before of course. In 2013 I spent two July nights in Whiston Hospital during which I had to endure a permanent catheter and spent several nervous hours awaiting the results of a kidney scan. At that point I hadn't had my kidney function measured since 2007. I didn't want to know, frankly. Buried my head in the sand. If my kidneys were going to fail they were going to do so as I fell from my chair in some dingy karaoke bar, not after years of life-altering dialysis. I still feel that way about it. The only difference is that now, having had that experience, I've learned that there are ways and means of keeping the worst at bay. But those ways and means involve engaging with a nephrologist three or four times a year and taking a boat load of drugs like a good boy. You do what you must.

So I had some idea what to expect with these symptoms when I arrived at A & E early on Thursday morning. The first thing they do is a blood test and an ECG. The first of many, countless blood tests as it turned out. The nurse couldn't find a vein. She jabbed me twice in my right arm and twice in my left, all after several minutes of tapping and general manipulation of my apparently bloodless limbs. No joy. She suggested that it might be because, this being early morning, I could be dehydrated. I hadn't thought to have a drink before I came out. I just wanted to get to the hospital, get on with the business in hand and get home.

The ECG had shown my heart rate at 108 bpm. This is above what is considered the normal range for anybody but for me it's outrageously high. Anyone who knows me well will testify that I am not exactly excitable. My heart rate would be unlikely to raise to that level unless I was being chased by a lion or I'd opened my wardrobe to find Jennifer Lawrence hiding in it. I haven't even got a wardrobe. Not one you can hide in and certainly not if you're an instantly recognisable Hollywood superstar.

With the nurse unable to locate my blood I was moved to a small treatment room within A & E. The doctor would have to try. Dr Bob. Bob wasn't his full name but that's what they called him. His full name was unpronouncable and for it to appear here would rely on my having seen it written somewhere online and the use of copy and paste. It seemed odd at the time to think that Dr Bob would have any greater blood testing skills than the nurse. Surely she does it more often while he's away looking at charts, making life-changing decisions and whispering? Doctors do an awful lot of whispering in my experience. It makes me nervous and adds to my dislike of them. Predictably, Dr Bob couldn't find a vein either. It must have taken him another half a dozen attempts during which he was not shy about moving the angle of the needle in my arm to try to persuade more blood to flow. The medical equivalent of twisting the knife. They do some heroic work medical professionals but it takes a certain type of someone to be able to wiggle a needle around in someone's vein so matter-of-factly.

Finally successful, he left me in that tratment room alone for fully 45 minutes except for the time it took to hobble back to the waiting area to phone my boss at work to let her know what was going on There was no mobile signal in the treatment room and while it's probably fair enough to assume that patients in need of urgent attention aren't going to prioritise updating their Facebook status it would have been nice to have been able to make a phone call from where I was. They offered me the use of their phone but that still would have involved a pathetic shuffle to another room. I was already feeling the effects of the multiple injections I'd been having in the search for my blood. It's hard to push a chair when your wrists and arms are bruising up.

I needed a cannula. The waiting - 45 minutes for Dr Bob to come back and check on me and easily another hour waiting for the result of the test - ended with the news that my potassium was at 7.4, over two points above what is considered safe. The short explanation for this is that mashed kidneys like mine can't get rid of potassium as a healthy kidney can. Something to do with a lowering of sodium bicarbonate, to give you what Jennifer Anniston used to call the science bit. So the cannula - in layman's terms a tube inserted into the body as a means of getting unpalatable but useful substances into the body - was specifically so that I could immediately be drip fed sodium bicarbonate, glucose and insulin.

I was familiar with those things from my 2013 visit. They're standard for dragging your potassium levels down from the stratosphere. Yet there were a couple of surprises in store. Firstly came the nebuliser, a breathing mask held to the nose and mouth which enables you to basically inhale mist with destructive properties. They use it to treat cystic fibrosis. I had a friend who had to use one every day at school. Probably still does. Not at school, obviously but you know what I mean. Yet here I am dramatising 15 minutes of it for your reading pleasure. I don't know I'm born. In truth it isn't particularly unpleasant. Just annoying and a bit disconcerting the first time you are asked to use it. It helped to relieve the shortness of breath almost immediately to be fair. Tsk...medical experts....Still, I wouldn't want to have to use it regularly. It's I would find as I was repeatedly presented with it by the nurses in the days that followed.

The second surprise was a notch up on the unpleasantness scale. The nurse distracted me with chit-chat about how she knew me from my job, before placing a small paper cup down on the trolley in front of me. She told me she'd need me to drink the contents, that it was something else that would help bring my potassium level down. I wasn't keen to begin with. I'm a tablets person more than a medicines person. Who isn't? I've never encountered any medicine that tasted like anything other than liquid animal waste, and this wasn't going to buck the trend by the looks of it. It was an orangey-brown shade, the colour of a cup of tea you made two weeks ago and forgot to either drink or pour down the sink. It tasted every bit as foul as it looked. That sour, putrid taste so common in medicines was accompanied by a vile chalkiness of the kind you might expect to encounter if you chewed on a handful of painkillers. It's called Calcium Resonium and I recommend that you avoid it at all costs. It's basically a Shit Smoothie.

It was going to take six whole hours to fully administer the amount of sodium bicarbonate I had been prescribed. I wasn't going home tonight. I was still in the A & E treatment room as a very distressed young girl in the room opposite was carted off to Aintree Hospital where, she was assured, they had what she needed in the ear, nose and throat department. That's another troubling facet of hospital stays. You come across people in all kinds of states of hysteria and most often you don't get to find out what happens to them when they or you are moved elsewhere. In 2013 there were a couple of similar cases and the even more disturbing memory of an almost completely yellow man being shouted at by nurses for complaining about the prospect of being sent back to the nursing home. He looked gravely ill, the colour of a Simpsons character. I never saw the girl opposite again.

Two and a half further hours passed sleepily on the sodium drip, the glucose and insulin having already run their course. I asked to be unhooked so that I could go to the toilet (which one young nurse mortifyingly took as a request to be physically taken to the toilet...who trains these fucking people?...oh..) and that's when things got complicated. When I came back I was informed that I was being moved to Ward 1B. It was 6.00pm, around 10 hours after I had reported to A & E. They would hook me back up to the sodium when I'd been transferred.

My new nurse on 1B asked me a series of boring, scarcely relevant questions before suffering from her own dose of the local nursing disease of being unable to treat me. I had two cannulas in by now and she couldn't get my sodium drip to resume via any of them. She just complained that the machine was beeping and giving her an error message as if I would have some wise advice on what to do about it. Then she left and returned several times, fiddling and twiddling around with it until she was satisfied that it was up and running. She left me alone for a couple of hours during which I answered a few messages I had received, called my mum and messed around on social media until hopefully I felt sleepy. Except in hospital I don't really get sleepy at night. It's too light, too much conversation going on outside the room in the corridor and in other rooms on the ward. All of which you can hear every word of. So what I was really doing was waiting for my exhausted, emotional state to knock me out. It never really did.

That is due in no small part to the fact that I had to spend most of the night still hooked up to the sodium drip. At around 9.00 the nurse came back in and told me that the sodium had not been feeding into me properly. At all. Not for the two and a half hours that I thought I'd been on it in A & E and not for the three hours since I'd arrived on 1B! I'd been prescribed six hours of this stuff remember. That meant that, toilet breaks aside (and I don't go in the night no matter how many young nurses offer to assist me, what kind of people do that?), I'd have to be hooked up till 3.00 the next morning! It was going to be a long, long night....And it was. If I managed two hours sleep I did well. It didn't help that a nurse came into my room at 11.40pm with another Shit Smoothie and some sodium tablets. They had other priorities. I can understand that. It's the NHS. But if I'm low priority then you can understand why they find it such a hard sell when they tell me that high potassium can stop my heart. Which is it? Is my condition dangerous or not? If it is then why isn't my treatment high priority?

Now the real floater in the pint here was that I had an important appointment on Saturday night. We'd bought tickets to see Robbie Williams at Manchester's Etihad Stadium. So I had to get out of there before then. I have previous for discharging myself from hospital without permission and would have done it again had it come to it. This is Robbie Williams we're talking about and anyway have you seen the price of a Manchester city centre hotel? It's not something you want to be cancelling, much less contemplating that cancellation over a Shit Smoothie and soggy toast on a Saturday night in June. But I didn't really want to have to discharge myself any more than I wanted to cancel the hotel and miss the gig. It would have only resulted in a worsening of my condition and a return visit. That was on the cards anyway as it turned out, but at least if I didn't force the issue I could say that it wasn't totally my doing.

At around 10.40am on Friday, following another round of all the treatments, a doctor came to see me. As they took yet more blood (I was starting to bruise in places you don't bruise by now) the doctor told me that if the latest test showed a big enough reduction in my potassium levels I'd be sent on my way home. If that sounded encouraging I was remembering that I'd had three blood tests in the previous 12 hours and not been advised of a single result. As positive as the doctor had sounded I couldn't help feeling that they were keeping something back from me which couldn't be good. Why withold good news? The more I thought about it the more I started to believe my potassium had sky-rocketed and that I'd be here for as long as Alan Partridge was in that hotel. Surrounded by blonde bastards.

Then the waiting resumed. The bed was at least more comfortable than an A & E treatment room but no less stressful for that. One of the few good things about being in hospital is that you get a bed that you can incline and recline remotely at the touch of a button. Hours of fun. makes it easier than lifting yourself up and back down again as required when your arms are falling off. I had my blood pressure checked around lunchtime and then again around 3.00pm. On that latter occasion the nurse told me that rather than start packing up to go home I should get ready to be taken for another ECG. The lunchtime test had shown my heart rate was up just above 100 bpm again. I was tacchycardic, she said. You hear this a lot on Holby, usually reserved for the most horrifically injured single appearance characters whose survival is far from assured. The kind that fall off buildings or get mown down by Masdas. Just as I was explaining this latest setback to Emma as she got back from the coffee shop the nurse came back in and said that my 3.00 reading was much lower. I was no longer tacchycardic and so there'd be no second ECG. No one-off appearance on Holby.

At around 3.40pm, five hours after they had taken the latest blood test the doctor confirmed my potassium had shrunk to 5.7. This is what they call the upper end of normal but the important thing, the only bit I really listened to actually, was that I was being released. I was going to Manchester. To The Etihad. To Robbie. On one condition. Since my potassium was still fairly high albeit in the safe range I was told I would have to come back on Sunday for yet another blood test. I'd have to come in, have the test and then wait around for an hour and a half to two hours in case the result meant more treatment. It seemed like there were better ways to spend a Sunday. What's more I had no veins left. Barely any limbs left. But I agreed immediately just to get out of there, with just the nagging feeling at the back of my mind that a few beers at the gig could land me a quick return to the ward.

But what are you going to do? It's Robbie.