Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Quad Squad

Last November, when S&J visited, we decided to do something R&I had been saving up for some time.

Quad bike safaris up the banks of the Nile, up past Jinja around the Bujagali Falls adventure area.

All Terrain Adventures are a company that was set up by an Antipodean couple - the mad and lovely Shirray and PK. He knows his bikes and spanners, she does the hospitality side and runs the craft shop and cafe. They built their house out of the containers the quads got delivered in, and it's an amazing warren of rooms and open plan areas that works really well.

We were kitted out with overalls, helmets and goggles, signed our liability papers and were led out to our bikes. I used to ride motorbikes (small ones) in the UK, and picked up my full license just before we came out here, but I hadn't been on a quad since a friend of mine had a birthday 'do' at a quad track in South London when we were in our late 20s. On that cold October morning we raced round and round a sandy obstacle course with steep banks and long curves. We raced heats against eachother and somehow I managed to beat everyone else and win the bottle of asti spumante, thanks to a winning combination of a fiercely competitive streak and the fact I was one of only two people there that morning who had ever ridden a bike before.

Back in Jinja, I couldn't even get my bike started. It did turn out to have a flat battery (most bikes I ever ride do) so I didn't feel too bad. But it meant I had to remember not to turn it off when we were out!

After a warm up changing gears and getting a feel for the steering column, we lined up and set off. We turned down steep slopes towards the river and climbed up gnarly banks, studded with tree roots. We flew along dirt tracks adjoining banana palm plantations and weaved our way through cassava and maize plots. We passed village children who tried to high five us as we passed. We stopped for a swim in the Nile, where we bumped into a group of kayakers, one of whom R and I knew. Without drying off we got back into our overalls and let our wet t-shirts act as natural air con as we drove along the lanes and tracks, goggles down to keep the orange dust out of our eyes.

Later, we pulled into a trading post and bought sodas. Local kids crowded the bikes, clambering all over them and us. S and I got our cameras out and spent a happy hour part playing with, part photographing the children, who loved seeing themselves on the LCD screens on the back of our cameras.

Some of the photographs I took will actually probably end up as postcards, and it was while I was taking them that I first thought about finding a charity to donate a portion of the postcard sales too.

When you have the mixture of pride and pleasure at a perfect shot taken, combined with the squirming sort of uncomfortable voyeurism that you feel from photographing a child who quite clearly does not have all the benefits of sanitation, health, provision and care that we have in the West, it creates a certain kind of guilt only tourists and professional photographers know.

Back in Bujagali, it was time to get back on the bikes and head back for a shower to get the dust off. We were actually Tango coloured. Sweat and river water had stuck the dirt and dust to us - we had orange arm hairs, orange faces, orange necks and orange cleavages. After a hot shower and a banana pancake we all felt a lot better, and a little cleaner, the exhiliration and adrenalin slowly wearing off from the day's riding.

Going Commercial

With all the money that being a landlord in the midst of the credit crunch is costing me, it's time to up the ante on this downsized life.

Over the next month I will be enjoying the increased salary perks of entering into a second year contract with Red Chilli, which, while tiny by UK standards, enables us to enjoy a nice lifestyle in Uganda and still put some dollars away. And long may the current trend for a strong dollar continue, if only to help me use my dollars to subsidise my UK mortgage.

Then, I have a postcard plan. There are a couple of good postcard suppliers in the Uganda market, but only a couple. I have amassed a load of shots of wildlife etc over the last year and it seems like a big opportunity. I have found a really good printer, who, as it turns out, really wants to promote their own printing services so will help cover the costs in exchange for their details on the back, so it looks like when I return to Uganda we should be finalising the choice of designs and going to print. My plan is to also donate 10% of each card's sales to a charity called The Busoga Trust, who put boreholes in remote villages in North and East Uganda - areas of the country which are seriously affected by poverty compared to the bouyant South and West.

And finally (and why not) I have succumbed and signed up to Adsense to get ads placed on this blog. It may earn me only a few pence a year, but every little click helps in these cash-strapped times, so if you see an ad for something you fancy, feel free to take a look.

I feel dirty and used, but if it helps me avoid meltdown, then it will all be worth it in the end.

2 Years - Part 2

At the hospital two weeks ago I was advised to call last Wednesday for a fast track answer to my Mammogram.

Last Monday however I got an early call back from the doctor. Recognising her voice on the phone gave me a bit of a chill. In the world of follow up scans for cancer you don't want to be on a list of people the doctor would rather phone than write to. Generally, being phoned means being asked to come in for bad news.

But she put me out of my misery and, before I had time to panic, announced my mammogram was all clear and 'she just thought I might like to know as soon as possible'.

Which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Not only the all clear, but an NHS doctor stepping outside the system to put a (difficult) patient's mind at rest. If you remember, the original timing on hearing back on the scan was meant to be one month in writing, and here she was, phoning me in person, four working days later.

Maybe the NHS ain't so bad after all...

Now all I have left is an ultrasound and re-meet with the Professor tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to seeing him in a perverse sort of way.

I mean after all, he was a bit of a life-saver.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

2 Years - Part I

Two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three days ago I went for my two year scan.

It was a lesson in the benefits of private healthcare, which I was lucky enough to be on at the time of diagnosis, over the disadvantages of the unwieldy, creaking old behemoth that is our National Health Service.

The breast specialist who originally diagnosed me (and went on to operate on and treat me), Professor Kefah Mokbel, also happens to have an NHS clinic he runs at St Georges Hospital in Tooting. Which also happens to be just down the road from where my flat is in Earlsfield.

So when I discussed with him the prospect of how to retain some continuity in my follow up care (not essential but beneficial - as understanding the difference between the pre and post operative breast state is quite important) he said he'd be very happy to see me at his NHS clinic at this hospital. All I needed to do once I relinquised the private healtcare ticket through my job at DCH, was to get my GP to refer me to him at said clinic about two months before i wanted the appointment.

I had last year's 'one year' scan on March 19th, and passed with flying colours, getting all the scans (mammogram, ultrasound), blood tests, and clinical exams (a quick prod and a grope) done the same afternoon with the consultation and results delivered personally by the Professor moments after my ultrasound.

So my two year scan was a bit of a letdown.

Firstly, despite getting my doctor to refer me all the way back in January, having booked my March 16th flight home from Uganda about a year ago, the hospital made noises about 'not necessarily' being able to give me an appointment when I needed and wanted one.

My father then took on the phone campaign on my behalf to save me from bankruptcy caused by excessive phone calls between East Africa and SW19, speaking to a man named Igor (yes, really) and was given an appointment time of 3pm and told I would definitely get all my scans done the same day, but, just to note, the Professor would himself not be there.

Now, I don't begrudge the man a holiday, but it suddenly seemed rather silly that I had constructed this delicately balanced plan for the continuity in my own personal healthcare and yet events had conspired against me to make this effort entirely redundant.

Ah well, at least i'd get seen, scanned, and given an answer.

Or so I thought.

I got seen, got a clinical, got a broad thumbs up but was sent to radiology with a yellow form to get the mammogram appointment. When I was bold enough to suggest I may want to be seen the same day a lady who clearly spent more on cigarettes than she did on shampoo nasally intoned "We don't do afternoon appointments".

But lo, a radiologist took pity on me and an afternoon appointment was obtained there and then.

And as my left boob was squeezed between two perspex plates, I was advised by the radiologist that the doctor would write to me with the results of today's mammogram, but if I hadn't heard anything within a month, I should get in touch.

A month?

Apparently it takes a week to report the scan (I presume this means look at the films and enter the results into a computer), another week to dictate the letter to the patient, and another two weeks to allow the British Postal System time to find its arse from its elbow.

Thankfully my doctor knew I was flying back to Uganda on 1st April and advised me to call her next Wednesday between 1-2pm.

But then there's the Ultrasound. Not something they normally do in NHS follow ups apparently, but something I was very clear was instrumental in my original diagnosis and was used in follow up scans when i was private. Try as I might, I still can't see any sign of a 'mass' in my original mammogram from 29th March 2007, but I can't miss the reading of the ultrasound - it's a super-obvious massive black hole, which sounds more like a title for a Muse album.

But I have a bit of thickened tissue, 99.9% likely to be scar tissue from the radiotherapy, just under the original tumour bed area which I pointed out to the Doctor. Apparently it's nothing to worry about, but it does give me permission to badger them into giving me an Ultrasound. But this could have either have been next Wednesday, when I would be in the middle of a relaxed week at my parents about 150 miles west of the hospital, or on the Wednesday morning of the day we fly back to Uganda.

So I gamefully opted for the day we fly back. Which also means I get to see the Professor who will be back by then. Which will be nice. A friendly face.

So, this is follow up in stages. I have one set of thumbs up on the physical, am awaiting the mammogram results (due next week) and then will be going in for the final piece of the puzzle come the day I'm due to go home. Of course, going home will be a damn sight harder to do if the result is not a good one, but it's highly unlikely.

Either way, it makes me all extremely glad I had private healthcare when it actually mattered. Way back then, I was diagnosed within nine hours of visiting my GP with a suspicious lump, and operated on a mere 48 hours later. I was in chemo before most people would have got their written mammogram results.

And for that, I will always be thankful.

God bless Standard Life.