Back to my back..

It’s a cloudy, grey, drizzly day, I am full of cold, coughing and struggling to breathe through my nose, lacking both sleep and energy, unable to taste or smell; and yet today, I cannot feel anything, but gratitude. Today is my CES birthday, a two year anniversary since my life-changing emergency spinal surgery. CES stands for Cauda Equina Syndrome, induced by a spinal cord injury that can provoke paraplegia, or a range of mobility issues, affects bowel and bladder, and pretty much everything from the waist down. I’m often asked what caused my spinal cord injury, and the short answer is: ‘I’m not sure, but an accumulation of events led to a disc gradually slipping and impinging on the nerve root’, this is the long answer:

I didn’t get my CES from a dramatic, adrenalin fuelled accident such as skiing or sky-diving, I didn’t acquire it in the aftermath of some dreadful car crash or a freak disaster, or even in the noble act of pregnancy or giving birth, nope mine was a boring, gradual onset of increasingly worrying symptoms, as I stoically (but stupidly) persevered with a bad back, just living an independent life, persisting in thinking I was stronger than my reality.

Looking back, there were several signs that there was a problem, but it is only in hindsight that I have been able to connect the dots, and see the warnings too late for me. I suspect my journey from Greece to the UK in December 2014 started the problem. I had left Greece in my trusty, 18 year old, Ford Fiesta, ‘Rubini’; a lovely old lady with relatively low mileage for her age, but holes in the floor, a disconnected (faulty) heater, and inadequate windscreen wipers. She was perfect for the few miles drive from my island home to the beach, and a fortnightly trip across the mountains to the main town, for vet visits and provisions, yet I had taken my chances and pushed my luck taking her to Southern Italy, where I had intended to spend my first winter with Platonas, my stray dog puppy. However, the home (and associated car) in Italy didn’t work out, and I figured my best option was to stuff everything back in to the still sandy Rubini, with Platon curled up neatly on the passenger seat beside me, and drive as far as I could towards London; hoping that if I fell short, it would be close enough that someone would help me, without having to distress Platon with an experience as aircraft cargo.

We were driving through the most breathtaking scenery, but equally as terrifying, road out of Italy, which was loaded with heavy cargo lorries from the port of Genoa. The AutoFiori (Autostrada A10) passes through Liguria, across a steep and sprawling hillside, though a series of tunnels and viaducts, sometimes plunging you into echoing darkness for almost 2 km, before ejecting you onto vertiginous viaducts, precariously perched high above ravines in couloirs that stream to a sparkling sea; almost too beautiful to take your eyes off, except that the road is too narrow, too fast, too busy and wayyy too dangerous to take your eyes off either. As I carefully negotiated my way through the perilous barrage of trucks and juggernaut lorries, in my underpowered old lady of a car, I suddenly felt a stabbing in my heels, too intense to ignore. I suspected I had simply tied the laces of my trainers too tightly, but remember first struggling to untie them whilst driving, and having to pull over at a service station to loosen them. I must have stepped out of the car to stretch my legs, completely unaware that I was relieving the pressure on my spinal cord, caused by a seemingly innocuous seating position. Anyway, I carried on my journey, making it all the way back to London, having a fantastically, wonderful adventure on the way, and irritatingly tight shoe laces (or so I thought) completely unaware of the damage I was doing.

After a short winter period in London, I had resolved to sell my home of 20+ years there, looking for something more dog friendly to accommodate my darling, but decided to wait until after another summer in Greece, so I packed up the house to rent it for the interim. My back ached from carrying heavily laden boxes of books, clothes, kitchenware, everything, into the garage; but you know, it was just a bad back, so I kept going. It was a bitterly cold winter, as I walked Platon round the sprawling graveyard, with glittering frost and plumes of our warm breath in the biting cold air, and yet despite the sub-zero temperatures, I noticed one foot was always pleasantly warm as if I had a heating system in the sole of my right boot. It took me a while to address, as it didn’t hurt, in fact it was a lovely contrast to the blue, cold toes of my left foot. But, since I realised it was a neurological issue, I eventually presented it to my GP, who dismissed it with ‘well if it doesn’t hurt, why worry?’ and I foolishly left it at that.

My drive back to Greece in April 2015 was in a car I bought ‘for Platon’, a Toyota Rav 4, with a much higher seating position, and much more room for my height, Platon, luggage, everything. We had a good journey down, apart from a strange bout of nausea and breathlessness, as I headed through the now familiar but no less intimidating deep tunnels through Liguria. I wondered whether it was purely psychological, but there was a lack of rationale to the feeling, I wasn’t afraid in my mind, despite my symptoms, which I eventually put down to an upset tummy, but I am now not so sure, and wonder whether somehow the duration of the journey, or even the memory of my stabbing heels was another unheeded warning.

My back was often a bit sore, I had packed up 20 years of accumulated living, well ok, ‘stuff’, into boxes, traipsed them down at least one, mostly two flights of stairs to the garage, then spent a week driving, and lived with a loving but stubborn dog of around 30+ Kg, whom I was often impatient enough to pick up, when his mood and mine differed, such as when he didn’t want to get in the car, and I did, for example. Then I found Leo (timid, terrified, and bearing the broken bones, bullets and many wounds of his abuse), and had two darling dogs to manage. They were absolutely fine most of the time, but Platon became reactive on the lead when I walked them together, I suspect in a protective manner of his much adored and fearful, little ‘brother’. I was probably a comical sight, walking along the curvaceous mountain roads, with Platon lunging and barking at anyone or any vehicle that approached us, as Leo hid nervously behind my legs, and leads tangled the three of us together. Fortunately they are quiet roads, but still, it wasn’t an easy walk for a bad back.

Then the storm came, we have some wonderfully dramatic electrical storms on the island, the thunder crashes (Zeus moving the furniture, as my dear friend Hilda quips), and lightening forks through pink and purple night skies. The rain relentlessly hammers on the glass balcony doors, and seeps through the cracks if we don’t secure the shutters, drumming on the roof and drenching absolutely everything! The electricity often fails, and we have to unplug the internet for fear of blowing the modem, so there’s little chance of anything other than watching the storm by candlelight, or sleeping. The dogs were excitable (Platon) and panicked (Leo), and as I was trying to keep them calm and hunker down for the night, I heard a faint scratching at the door, then mewing that grew with intensity. Dressed in my pyjamas, I manage to keep the dogs inside as I ventured out onto the step, finding a stray cat and her kitten, crying for mercy. My neighbours, the Russian ladies in the apartment below ours, were great cat lovers, and I remembered seeing a cat box on the wall of their patio. Thankfully, it was still there when I got soaked to the skin to fetch it, and after wrestling to keep the dogs inside and retrieve a dry towel for them to lie on, the cat and her kitten were keen to get in it. I struggled once more with the door, trying to keep the two dogs in as I brought in the cats; I lifted the not particularly heavy cat box, and felt a sharp stab in my lower back. It brought me to my knees, and as I knelt hunched over the crying kitten, with my wet hair plastered to my face, and rivulets running down my neck, on my knees, in the storm, on my doorstep, I did wonder how comical this painful story would be in the telling! I eventually managed to prize the door open, and slide the cat box inside, before crawling to bed, with Platon and Leo whimpering, seemingly sympathetic, as they settled beside me.

I spent about 3 weeks hardly moving from my bed, my Italian neighbours kindly took the dogs out for toilet walks every morning, my landlord gave them a quick walk some afternoons, and plentiful parcels of food arrived from friends and neighbours; such is the Greek virtue of philotomy, my back hurt like hell, but I was never hungry! The lovely local physiotherapist made house calls, and was reassured that the pain was only in my back and hadn’t radiated down my leg, and the doctor handed out pain-killers like sweeties.

Eventually I started to feel more able, and regained mobility, enough to take the car for a service in preparation for my now delayed journey, back to London. I set out early, to avoid driving in the heat of the day, leaving the dogs at home with the balcony doors open so the air could circulate, and they could lie watching the sail boats bob along across the still blue sea below. It seemed strange to be completely alone without their constant endearing company, and I breathed in deeply the solitude of my journey, across dusty mountain roads, strewn with lazy goats that dawdled precariously along the cliff edges. Whenever I approach the place where I first found Platon, a remote road, far from any villages or habitation, my chest starts to tighten, and I experience an emotional reaction; sometimes tearful (that poor, sweet, soul, left to starve and suffer), sometimes angry (those bastard monsters that could perpetrate such an act of brutal cruelty) and that day was no different, except that it was cut short, by amazement, and another Puppy! Poppy (short for Penelope) as she became, was a few months old, skinny and cowering in the road when I saw her, I stopped the car, and cursing that for once I didn’t have any leads or even treats on me, approached her very slowly. I squatted a few metres from her, and let her draw near, which she did tentatively at first, before planting herself submissively between my knees. I gently stroked her dusty fur, feeling her skinny ribcage and spine too easily, noticing the wounds on her hind quarters, wondering what I was going to do; but knowing I couldn’t leave her abandoned here in this wilderness to starve to death. I stood and sighed, before talking gently to her as I slowly walked over to the car with her following, opened the boot, into which she jumped without waiting for me to ask or change my mind. So suddenly I had three dogs to take back to the UK, well 4 actually, as I had already agreed to take Dexter, another dog to a home I had found for him in Switzerland en route. And so I must add a car journey, mostly alone with 4 dogs, my luggage and a bad back, for a week across Europe to another thing I inflicted on my poor back, when it was already struggling.

Once back in the UK, I tried not to drive too much for a while, I was tired, my back was still sore, but the easiest way to walk three untrained dogs, is to take them to a secure paddock (20 minutes drive away), and let them chase each other around for an hour. It wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable. I started studying canine behaviour, and found it impossible to sit through the lectures, standing at the back of class trying to stretch out the odd feeling in my leg, and then grimacing as the sharp stabs returned, just before a trip to Athens for a wedding. I remember at the airport, wondering why I had even contemplated anything with a heel, as my grey suede knee high boots weren’t exactly towering, but they definitely had a heel.. so I purchased some foldable pumps in duty free, a little leopard print pair of salvation, worth every single penny!

I arrived in Athens to be greeted by an old friend, a gorgeous English girl from our modelling days, decades ago. She warned me she was struggling with a dodgy knee as she whisked me through the streets to her home, where we collapsed on the sofa, and I suddenly couldn’t get up again. Every time I moved the shooting pains attacked, but you know, I didn’t think it was anything serious (?!?). So the two of us managed, we hobbled around together, laughing at our predicament, and gritting our teeth as we stoically soldiered on. I attended the wedding, even managing to dance a little in my newly purchased pumps, but after the frivolity faced another 4 hours seated on an aeroplane back to London, which really added insult to injury, as far as my back was concerned, literally.

The next day, having missed my dogs desperately, I drove them to the paddock for a run, except that I started to feel light headed and nauseas as I joined the motorway, and as fought to keep panic at bay, suddenly realised I couldn’t feel or move my right leg. This is not a pleasing revelation, whilst driving in excess of the speed limit on the M1, and I quickly searched for a safe solution. Fortunately there was very little traffic about, so I headed over to the hard shoulder (emergency lane) and braked shakily with the handbrake. I struggled to get out of the car and stumbled to the barrier, where I leant over breathing deeply, focusing on the toes of my boots, trying to stop myself from fainting. Again the change of position must have removed the impingement from the nerve, as I realised as I got my breath back, that I had regained mobility, if not all of the feeling in my right leg again. I made it to safety, but the pain when seated was excruciating, as if the muscle in my right thigh was tensing involuntarily, and I had to stop every 5 minutes to stand and relieve the pain.

I went back to my GP insisting on an MRI as quickly as possible, and endured the most painful car journey, lying agonizingly across the back seat, to get to the appointments. On receiving my results, the GP informed me that he would refer me to physiotherapy, despite having informed him of what I now know to be red flag symptoms, and I struggled through Christmas and New Year, with an irritatingly persistent urge to urinate, without passing much (neurogenic bladder), and what I thought was an upset tummy (impaired bowel control). Eventually, impatient with the GP’s tardy referral, I booked myself to see an osteopath locally, who took one look at my MRI, and recognised my symptoms, before sending me immediately to A&E (ER room), where I was operated on ASAP. (You can read that episode in my previous post: When I woke from surgery, my heels felt as if they were being stabbed with hot, sharp knives, which led me to discover that they are the site of the insertion for the affected nerves, suddenly the early warning signs made sense.

My outcome is incredibly lucky; I have almost full mobility, although two years later I am still working on building my core strength, and still can’t lift anything heavy, or even push a full supermarket trolley. Despite my initial fears, and necessity of a second emergency surgery, I am able to use the toilet normally, and don’t have to rely on the catheters, as I feared so dreadfully. Most of the saddle-numbness has disappeared, apart from a small area on my right thigh. The PTSD I suffered post-surgery, seems to have abated, I haven’t had a panic attack for at least 6 months, but I am still careful about driving on motorways, especially in the dark.

I know from the CES support forums that I am definitely one of the fortunate ones; many of my fellow sufferers have had to adjust to life in wheelchairs, or with walking frames and AFOs (Ankle Foot Orthosis – plastic supports). Many people with CES suffer with incontinence (both types), and rely on catheters and unpleasant evacuation techniques as part of their daily routines. Many people’s relationships fall apart, they lose their ability to work, and suffer with debilitating depression, and isolation, as a result of their CES. Whilst my surgery wasn’t life-changing in those ways, it has given me perspective, I no-longer strive to be fitter, faster, stronger in the gym; I am content to be able to walk the dogs and carry smaller hand bags. I’ve found a true appreciation for simple pleasures, and take time to reflect on my abilities, rather than dwell on my inabilities or failings. I am also acutely aware of an increased empathy for anyone that struggles with mobility issues, and hope that my increased awareness is reflected in increased kindness towards others.

So, a little back ache at the end of the day, is not something I can complain about, I might not be able to ski or ride horses again, but I can walk my dogs; and trust me, the little things really are the big things, sometimes we just need a little perspective! Please take care of yourselves, especially your backs, and if you have any suspicious symptoms, please insist on a thorough investigation, and don’t let doctors fob you off with their lack of concern or failure to take you seriously. Love & blessings, Hxx

{Photo: Rubini, with Platon and I on board, Greece 2014. Words, by me, Hayley Darby © 2018}

If you want to know more about CES here is a useful little video:

Farewell 2017

Dear 2017,

You have been a quiet, gentle, steady, kind of year; less about adventure and achievement, more about finding an even keel and solid ground again. 2016 had slammed me hard, swept me into high and heavy waves, then dragged me deep into dark, murky depths; before it violently whisked me up and then mercilessly dragged me down again. When the tempestuous storm of torment finally relented, and ceased inflicting it’s rage on my defencelessness, my shipwrecked soul was left listless, floating aimlessly under cloudy skies. And there, dear 2017 you found me, and carried me quietly in your open palms, until I was ready to open my eyes, listen, and feel the world again.

We floated aimlessly for a while, as you quietly nursed me, allowing me to gradually regain some strength, until I was eventually ready to try slowly swimming again. I had lost all sense of direction, but you gently guided me, and as the seasons changed, the tide turned, and I felt the wind in my face as I became aware I was smiling again. As always my faithful dogs remained beside me, encouraging my progress, as they acutely observed my emotions, and offered their silent, unwavering, unconditional love and support.

You helped me find my feet, took me by the hand, and led me to quiet tranquil gardens, where I found beauty in the details, felt inspired by Mother Nature, and noticed my heart felt less heavy. I wandered quiet pathways through masses of delicate cow parsley, and looked up to find huge leafy canopies protectively covering me. I wandered by the waters’ edge listening to its gentle ripples, and along shady woodland paths, inhaling the rich aromatic fragrances of earth and life blossoming.

You brought me to a house that felt like home before I had even decided to buy it, and gave me a gift of creativity, to lead me forward as ideas took shape and plans formed. The house became my home, and I became part of a village, as life seemed to start flowing smoothly again. I discovered beautiful walks with the dogs, was charmed by now reassuringly familiar views, found treasures in the wildlife, delighted in the changing seasons, and even started to contemplate gardening.

A whole year passed without my Dad, but we discovered we had somehow got through it, and celebrated his life in the September sunshine. There is still a ‘Terry Darby’ shaped hole in my world, as I find myself wishing he was here to witness this new chapter of my story, but the love didn’t die, and that carries me onward. Sometimes the tears still catch me unexpectedly, as if the love fills up in my heart, but has no where to go, so overflows in grief, quietly lamenting his absence, or wishing we could share a memory. I hear him in my heart, encouraging and advising, I see him in my attempts at handiwork (fixing the fence, painting the summerhouse), as if he’s helping with skills he taught me. And as I watch the red kites that gracefully play, gliding on the thermals, circling above me, I hope that he’s having fun in whatever realm he inhabits, because an energy as strong as his, cannot simply cease, and must be somewhere; vibrant, forceful, loving, funny, direct, challenging, determined, persistent, caring, amusing, and always laughing.

Autumn faded into winter, as the winds swept the leaves from the trees, but you kept me cosy in favourite cashmere sweaters, and snuggled with the dogs by open fires. You dropped a thick blanket of snow, that sparkled under clear blue skies, a wonderland of white that stopped the traffic and made cheeks rosy. Our home stood peacefully and regally, as the dogs chased around the garden, pure joy in the crisp, white, icing on our cake, and I knew we were happy. Christmas appeared, the decorations once more felt like fun after many years, and the house was full of festive cheer.

And now it’s time to let you go, the year that held my hand and steadied me when life felt so empty and uncertain. I’m not sure what the future holds, and I’m still not sure of my direction, but I do know, that because of you, I have hope again, and I’m happy to see where that leads me, in 2018. Thank you 2017, you have been kind to me x

{Photo: sadly uncredited, via Pinterest; words by me, Hayley Darby © 2017}

A September memory (something I wrote, but forgot to post)

It was a slow gentle start to the day, I woke to find Leo (my scruffy dog), curled up under my chin, his chest gently rising and falling with each breath, and his heart beating steadily in the palm of my hand that held him. The weight pressing against the back of my legs, I knew was my beautiful, big dog Platonas, who customarily curls neatly behind my knees; well as neatly as a 30 Kg , majestic, athletic dog can be! I must have stirred slightly, belying my wakefulness, as I soon heard Poppy’s tail thumping hard, as she wagged it enthusiastically from her bed on the floor next to me. Poppy is a Diva, and sometimes prefers her own space to sleep in, unlike the boys who prefer to remain in contact with me, even if it’s just a paw touching my leg on hot summer nights.

This morning however, there was a freshness in the air, on a sweet September day as summer starts to fade, signaling the approach of autumn. As Leo sighed and snuggled a bit closer, Poppy took her cue and jumped over both of us, then wriggled herself between my shoulder blades, her head reaching towards Platonas, her tail thrashing happily on the pillow next to me. This is how my mornings greet me, with love, warmth, happiness, affection and enthusiasm; it’s hard not to feel full to the brim with gratitude, even when it’s frequently way earlier than I would choose it to be!

The boys would probably let me lie in, content to cuddle in peaceful slumber, but not so Poppy! She’s too much of a minx, whom, after a minute of snuggles, fidgets and grumbles before leaping off the bed to position herself on the floor with her face close to mine, where she proceeds to tell me (in something not quite a growl, softer than a bark, but quite insistently), that it’s time to get up and embrace the day that is waiting.

I usually buy myself a little extra snuggle time, by drawing the blinds, and returning under the duvet to let the dogs climb all over me, before settling down when the treat jar appears, for some impulse control training (placing treats on their paws, waiting for eye contact from all three together, before giving permission to eat them).

Today the weather was cool and grey, but my view across the hills of rolling countryside is still inspiring, so it wasn’t long before I grabbed a warm sweater and a thick pair of socks, before chasing the dogs downstairs, and out in to the garden. The dew lay thick on the grass, and a dampness in the air prompted donning my winter jacket as I waited in the doorway, one eye on the dogs, one ear listening for the coffee in the mocha pot to gurgle in readiness.

I have a wooden table and bench tucked around the corner of the house, facing the sunrise in an eastward direction, where I am hidden from view in my interesting ensemble of pyjamas, hiking boots, and quilted jacket; my hot coffee cradled in my hands, and the dogs waiting, not terribly patiently, for breakfast. They tear round the garden, dig a little around the flower beds, and eventually ‘sniff n scoff’ the kibble I spread over the lawn, it’s one giant, natural snuffle mat to increase the duration of the meal and prevent indigestion. A gentle breeze sent a cascade of leaves down from the apple tree; the boughs are bowed, laden with fruit. The crispy brown leaves litter the lawn, amongst the fallen fruit, and there’s a faint damp smell of autumn in the air.

After breakfast, then some tidying up and un-packing, (one seems to negate the other, but its all still going in the right direction, albeit slowly), I did some laundry and changed the bed. My white fluffy cloud of a bed, with its feather topper and plethora of pillows (8 plus 2 cushions – yes I’m a princess!), doesn’t stay white for long, now that I share it with the dogs. I’d just finished smoothing the duvet cover when Platonas came looking for me, so I lay on the bed and waited for him to come up for a cuddle, he’s been ever so affectionate recently, probably because of the recent move to our new home, but I think because he’s happy. It wasn’t long before both Leo and Poppy sought us out, and jumped on the bed with us, playfully nuzzling and mouthing, until I was covered in a squirming pile of dogs that suddenly flopped exhausted and panting, and I realised as we lay there how happy I am, that this furry family found me. Then I thought about how lucky I am that they all adore each other, and how blessed we are with our new home (a 16th century thatched cottage), and how much the dogs enjoy our sizeable garden, how friendly the village is, and how very grateful I am for all of it.. then it hit me, how much I wished my Dad was still alive to witness all of this happiness, and the tears fell down my face, pressed into the furry necks conveniently placed in close proximity.

Grief is a strange creature, I have been acquainted with this particular emotion for almost a year since my dad’s passing. I no longer cry every day, perhaps not even usually once a week. When the waves come they no longer drown me, just knock me over, so that I stumble in my tears for only a few moments, before finding my balance, (and hopefully a tissue), take a deep breath and glance to the heavens to tell Dad how much I love and miss him. Probably because it’s a year since we knew he was ill, when a much smaller version of the Dad I was familiar with, sat in his hospital bed; that I am feeling the waves of grief more frequently (at least 3 times this week). But I also think that I miss him more because I am so happy with my life, and want to share it with him, much more so than when I’m sad or struggling. There is a bitter sweetness, finding the grief is more potent in times of happiness, but there is also a strange comfort in the emotions that refuse to submit to a world without him. So the tears are welcome, my Dad isn’t here to see how happy I am, but he is still infused in my life, especially the best bits!

Photo & words by me, Hayley Darby © 2017

The writing in between..

country morning

I used to write in the mornings, after waking slowly, languishing in my hypnopompic state, and savouring my emergence into wakefulness. I liked to recount my thoughts and realisations over a latte, reclining on the awesome white sofa, before they got lost in the misty memories of my mind. My days started with the exploration of self-reflective studies, before dashing off to work, where I found time to ponder and write in the moments between. The moments between A and B whilst travelling, often on tube trains that shuttled swiftly underground, from one side of London to the other. The moments between patients, a temporary escape from writing up notes and checking emails. The moments between the things I should be doing, a break in responsibilities and ticking off the endless lists of chores to be done. Now those gaps in my day don’t seem to present themselves, not because I’m busier, but by contrast, because those gaps in between have stretched to accommodate long walks, informal studies, designing, and being blissfully happy.

Now I wake in the mornings with my three dogs pressed into my body, waiting for signs of consciousness to present me with wet noses for kissing, and soft bellies for tickling. Platon usually stretches his full length (he’s not a small dog), whilst Leo jumps up to stand and peer into my face, and Poppy leaps off the bed to sit bolt upright beside me and chatter away (not barking, but that gentle noise dogs make, as if they are trying to verbally communicate). After I’ve paid them all sufficient attention, and acknowledged and returned their affection, I get up to raise the blinds, and creep back into bed to admire the view of rolling countryside, that stretches greenly across the valley, to the church tower a top the distant hill of the horizon. The dogs tend to take turns on the window seat, pushing their noses up again the glass, before settling back on the bed for our morning ritual of treats and cuddles. They are less enamoured by the view than the idea of chasing round the garden to determine its nocturnal visitors, so I buy myself a few moments of snuggles as my mind and body wake up, with some biscuits kept by the bed for this purpose. Then I grab a thick, shawl cardigan, and shove my toes into substantial slippers, as the dogs bound down the stairs ahead of me, to wait patiently for doors to be opened, so they can charge round the beach hedge at any wildlife that tarries unsuspectingly.

As I brew coffee in the bright farmhouse kitchen, I snatch a few moments to check on my social media accounts, and then if it’s not raining, swap slippers for wellington boots, and take my latte out into the garden to watch the dogs and inspect Mother Nature’s artwork. I am new to gardening, but enjoying it immensely, and my newly acquired garden is full of exciting plans and discoveries. Once coffee is done, the dogs are ready for breakfast, so I feed them and have mine in front of emails and admin. This is usually brief as I have three dogs waiting for walks, and I am keen to get out and on with my day. I walk each dog separately, they are all previously abused and abandoned, and each has their separate issues that we are working on. Our walks are opportunities for valuable one to one time, some training, and more importantly counter-conditioning and desensitisation for their individual fears and frustrations.

We recently moved to our new home in the country, a 16th century thatched cottage, on the edge of a delightfully friendly village, in quintessentially English countryside. We have a large garden for the dogs, and lots of wonderful walks, right on our doorstep; through tunnels of trees, or across fields of cows and horses, along pretty hawthorn hedged lanes, and over grassy meadows. I walk for approx 3 hours a day, which is great for my back, following spinal cord surgery (January 2016), and I walk in gratitude for my stunning surroundings, my darling dogs, our happy home, and this peaceful time in my life. I tend to take lots of photos of the changing season, as I notice details here and there that charm me, and of course lots of the dogs! (You can follow me on instagram under PureNourishment, a few people have copied the name, but you will recognise my account by the profile pic 🙂 ) I am also keenly aware of the desire to write again, I have so much to be thankful for, and really want to document this happiness, (which is pure contentment), of this chapter in my journey. I just have to figure out finding the best time to write, in-between those moments of magic, gratitude, abundance, joyfulness, and snuggles with the dogs 😉 Love and blessings to you all, Hxx


Photo sadly uncredited, via Pinterest. Words by me, Hayley Darby © 2017

Walking in gratitude

winter-walkIt’s a chilly, frosty morning, the lawn is white and spiky, the dogs’ water bowl is full of ice, but the sky is a multitude of peachy pink hues that bleed from behind the trees on the horizon, seeping towards the heavens, as the sun rises lazily. I woke this morning with Leo curled up into my chest, as Poppy came bounding on to the bed to lick my face awake, whilst Platon waited patiently from his protective post on the sofa. Poppy is always the most impatient for the day to start, and bounces about, ‘talking’, as she demands cuddles, and pleads with me to get up. She goads Leo into play, and once he has unsnuggled himself to respond to this whirling dervish, I give in and leave the warmth and comfort of the duvet. Having thrown on a big snuggly jumper and shoved my feet into cosy slippers, I let the dogs out and stand at the patio doors watching them and the sunrise, whilst waiting for my coffee to brew. Then twelve paws need wiping, and I fill their breakfast kongs with kibble, before settling down on the awesome sofa with my latte.
Today Platon lies on my legs, a mirror of a memory from this day a year ago (thanks Facebook for the reminder), when I was so grateful I could feel this lump of love on legs that I was at risk of losing all feeling of, (prior to my spinal surgery for Cauda Equina). And as I savour his warmth, and reassuring, loving presence, I am reminded that the little things really are the big things. As the sun breaks through the clouds, a pool of sunlight spills over the wooden floor, and Poppy stretches out to sunbathe. The dogs have taught me many valuable lessons; living in the moment is one of them. They keep me grounded in the now, with their joy at simple pleasures, and ability to love and trust so much, after the abuse each of them has previously suffered. The sun also highlights the dog hair that peppers the floorboards, and the smeary nose marks at dog height on the French windows. Our home is lived in and full of love, these are tokens that go with the territory, I am reminded of the poster saying ‘dull women have immaculate houses’, and smile at the notion.

Beyond the smeared glass, our view is typical English countryside, unmarred by a single building, as paddocks of horses are framed by the wintry silhouettes of the spidery branches adorning majestic trees in the distance. Behind the trees, hills of fields rise to meet the skyline, and it’s a view that I appreciate every morning. We only moved here about 6 weeks ago, so I am still discovering new things, and yesterday a new friend showed me a lovely walk for the dogs beyond the line of trees, up a muddy track to the gallops (we are on a large farm estate with both a professional yard, and amateur stables), where rabbits darted bravely across the wide open spaces before disappearing for shelter, into hedgerows of thick undergrowth. Much to Poppy’s delight as she danced around like Zebedee on the end of her lead. Platon was trusted off leash, but thankfully was too busy in his own game of bounding around, to notice the vulnerable wildlife, apart from stopping periodically to stick his nose in the ground or bushes, sniffing at trails. Leo pottered along patiently, sniffing all the new smells with excitement, and periodically leaving his own ‘eau de pee’ to enhance the fragrance.

I have moved here looking for a more dog friendly home, wanting a private paddock and plenty of safe country walks. This has taken me over an hour away from my friends and family, the familiar places I grew up in, and the proximity to my old home in London. It is a new adventure, and after a year of many changes, I have a lot to be grateful for, including reconnecting with friends who live in this direction, and grateful for dear friends who have come to visit me. The dogs are happy here too, and wait patiently for their morning walk and playtime, so I’m going to wish you a beautiful day, get dressed in lots of warm layers, and hope you notice those little things that really are the big things, and what you are grateful for too. Many blessings, Hxx

{Photo credit, via Pinterest (but so similar to my view it is uncanny), Words by me, Hayley Darby ©2017}

Looking back..


It’s a grey rainy day, and I’m snuggled on the sofa with the dogs, and a hot cup of tea (Chamomile with spiced apple), watching the raindrops racing each other down the long window panes of the patio doors. The garden is enjoying a drenching, and the lawn is getting ready to make paws muddy. It’s a relaxing afternoon, my back is sore, partly due to someone driving into the back of my stationary car recently, but partly because it often will be, so I am indulging in horizontal therapy (lying on the sofa). Platon is curled up under my knees, and Leo has dug himself a trench in the cushions by my shoulder, on the fabulously wide sofa. Meanwhile Princess Poppy has the other matching fabulous sofa completely to her Diva self, where she stretches out and sighs, nonchalantly. I am in a reflective mood, partly due to the weather but also because today is the first anniversary of my life-changing surgery.

A year ago today, I was enduring the most terrifying moments, as I was prepared for emergency spinal surgery. After spending a night on a trolley in A&E (Accident & Emergency, or ER for my US friends), where I had been instructed not to move for fear of serious permanent damage, an MRI had confirmed my predicament, and doctors were rushing to get me into theatre. I had unwittingly sneaked a cereal bar for breakfast, and this delayed my suitability for general anaesthesia, buying me time to absorb the dreadful news and risks involved. I lay in my hospital bed feeling nauseas, and unable to focus properly on my surroundings, as adrenalin coursed through my veins, and my pounding heart drowned all other sounds to merely background din. I did at some point feel as if I was observing myself, as if this experience was happening to my body, but that I was watching somehow detached; I’m guessing the mind’s way of coping with such trauma. A surreal point in time, that will forever differentiate the before and after, a gut wrenchingly fearful realisation that my life was about to change, and that I had travelled past the point of any control at all, and the raging terror of what I would wake up to.

I had developed ‘Cauda Equina’ where a prolapsed disc was impinging on the nerve root, for the whole lower body. Termed ‘Cauda Equina’ which is Latin for horse’s tail, because it describes the appearance of the nerves that after travelling neatly in the spinal cord emerge to fan out down each leg, and affect the bowel, bladder and reproductive organs. I now know that the symptoms of ‘saddle numbness’, and changes to my toilet function, (feeling I had a full bladder, but passing little urine, and very urgent bowel movements) are red flags that my GP had wrongly ignored. On the advice of an osteopath, whom I had sought treatment for my intensely painful back, with radiating pain in my right leg (incorrectly assumed as simply sciatica), I had been admitted to hospital the evening before. He had instantly recognised the red flags, along with being horrified at my prior MRI results, and admitted that attempting to treat me could be very dangerous for me, not to mention professional suicide for him. I am so very grateful that I had been recommended to such a competent practitioner, and that because of him, I didn’t wait any longer for the medical attention I needed.

My doctors explained that the impingement on my nerves could worsen, possibly hurling me into paraplegia, or less severe walking abnormalities (from drop-foot to requiring a walking frame), incontinence, and loss of sensory feeling in my lower body. They then asked me to sign consent for the surgery required to prevent this horror, that by it’s nature of shaving the bone away from the nerves, also presented the same risks, along with the added hazard of blindness due to being operated on face down. Don’t ask me how this risk is possible, I did ask the doctors, but was too petrified to digest their answer. I remember checking photos on my phone, of the things I really wanted to see again (my three darling dogs, the turquoise Greek sea, golden Californian sunsets), and feeling so utterly helpless. I’m sure the risk is a very small one, but the threat of blindness tipped me into a tailspin of panic, of an already terrifying spiral.

Then the time came for the sides of my bed to be raised and secured, so that they could wheel me to theatre. I had a lovely care assistant that accompanied me, a beautiful Somalian girl whose cheerful countenance and compassion had managed to break through my fearfulness. She told me how much she loved her job, which was blindingly obvious as she sang and joked around the ward, and that only 3 weeks earlier she had left her post as a check-out girl at Asda (a supermarket chain). My Dad had joined in with her jokes, suggesting I needed a pound coin to take my trolley (bed) to the top floor of the hospital, where the theatres are situated. I was simultaneously grateful for his humour, and exasperated that he wasn’t taking my fear seriously; on reflection I know that he steadfastly refused to believe in the possibility of an impending problem, he didn’t do stress, unless it was completely unavoidable. As far as my Dad was concerned, I was in the hands of experts, and worrying simply wouldn’t change a thing.

I remember the tears rolling into my ears, as I lay flat on my back in my gurney as we took the lift, looking up at the kind nurse, a gentleman in scrubs, and my mother, whom I had insisted accompany me; like a child of 4 or 5 yrs rather than a woman of 45 years, still in a state of disbelief that this was actually happening. As we approached the daunting swing doors to the anaesthesia suite, the Somalian girl declared she was unable to proceed from here, and asked if she could say a prayer over me, to which I agreed gratefully. She then asked if a Muslim prayer in her own language would be OK, and I was so touched by her hesitancy, assuring her I’d appreciate absolutely anything, seriously anything. And as I was wheeled away, her kind words followed me.. ‘Inshallah’ is all I remember.

When I woke in the recovery room, I experienced blind panic, still groggy from the GA, in extreme pain, and dosed up on morphine; I couldn’t see clearly just a blurry movement of shapes initially. I remember screaming, as much as my lungs could manage, and sobbing uncontrollably, gasping for breath, and pleading for nurses to hold my hand, feeling so desolate and lost in a world I didn’t understand. This was the first panic attack of many, which haunted my nights in the next weeks, and continued with less frequency, but debilitating and embarrassingly in the following year. Apparently PTSD is not uncommon following spinal surgery, and the forums for Cauda Equina Syndrome reflect this clearly. I was eventually calmed and returned to the ward, when my vision returned, and reassured that I hadn’t lost my sight. I said goodnight to my parents who had been waiting, and giving in to the residual GA and morphine, fell into a deliciously deeply drugged sleep.

I was woken abruptly as frantic screaming pierced my consciousness; I thought the woman in the next bay was being murdered. I remember being perplexed at the nurses sitting quietly at their station, and then assumed she must be under-going some horrendously painful medical treatment. The screams shattered my fragile state, and carried on relentlessly till morning, when I noticed the woman in the bed next to me was whispering secrets to a teddy bear, and the woman opposite became aggressive, accusing a nurse of trying to kill her. I then discovered I had been placed in the only available spare bed, on a ‘dementia with trauma’ ward, full of mainly elderly patients with broken hips apparently, and one girl closer to my age with a bleached blonde pixie crop, also flat on her back in the corner.

Once properly awake, I was delighted to discover I could wiggle my toes, and notice the feeling of the sheets tucked around my feet, this induced a euphoria that overshadowed any pain I was most definitely suffering. I lay motionless, afraid to disturb my surgeon’s work, but flooded with relief; I had made it through surgery, could see, and the feeling in my feet didn’t make the possibility of walking too bleak. Actually, I am very, very, lucky; my outcomes are so much better than many of my fellow CES (Cauda Equina Syndrome) sufferers. The blonde girl was wheeled away to another location before I had a chance to talk to her; my heart sank as the only possibility of any sane conversation disappeared down a corridor. (We have since made contact, and found out we have a lot more in common than the same surgeon. She was my first lifeline of advice and support from a fellow sufferer when I eventually left hospital, and we remain in touch.) I lay there alone with my thoughts, still trying to piece together what had happened, how I had got through the fear prior to surgery, and what I might face in my recovery. My injury had occurred slowly, a number of small events that caused the disc to slip a bit further each time, over several months; and had been largely dismissed by everyone, including my GP. If this reaches one person who experiences something similar (your chances are slim, 2 in a million), I’d encourage them to demand the medical attention the red flags warrant, recovery is largely dependent on the severity and duration of nerve compression, ideally surgery is advised within 24 hours of onset, I had been struggling for several weeks.

The dementia element of my ward was extremely stressful to deal with, listening to women screaming at nurses trying to help them, repeatedly calling out the same questions, and whispering to their teddies. As I struggled with my own feelings of vulnerability, I could only imagine how frightening it must be for those with even less understanding, and a fainter grasp on reality. Then I realised that I needed the toilet, and couldn’t imagine how this would be possible, but my fears were unfounded when I was initially given a bedpan, and failing to christen it was allowed to be maneuvered by nurses onto a Kermode, which was irrelevant, because I still couldn’t pass anything. Meanwhile a kind health care assistant noticed my rising levels of anxiety, I must have been quite distressed, because I had a panic attack as they finally moved me to an orthopedic ward, minus the dementia element, where the most noticeable mental health problem was me. I gulped air as I struggled to breathe, my gown was soaked with sweat, my heart pounded in my ears, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I am fairly sure they gave me something to calm me, and do remember being hooked to a morphine pump, before falling again into another drugged deep sleep. When I woke again, it was to the smiling, caring faces of the women in beds opposite. Jean and Maureen welcomed me to Ridge ward, both kindly supportive and encouraging, and I was so grateful to have moved there.

The next day, having been unable to pass urine and fitted with a catheter, my surgeon sent me for another MRI. I was wheeled through the maze of hospital corridors, counting the lights on the ceiling, and watching the assortment of busy people walking around me. Being lifted from my bed onto the hard trolley for the MRI, post surgery, was one of the most physically painful moments in my memory. I felt sick, and couldn’t bear to be shoved inside the tube they slide you into, as panic welled in my chest and crept up my throat, until I was crying hysterically. The medical staff were amazingly patient and understanding, turning me around so I could enter the scan feet first, and talking to me soothingly through the headphones, reassuring me they were working as fast as possible, so they could return me to the comfort of my bed on the ward. Although they expertly rolled me onto sliding boards, and across the plinth back to the gurney, it was the feeling of fragility, as much as the physical pain that I found so distressing. I am tall, with a slim build, but have always felt strong and quite robust, suddenly I was afraid that any wrong move could break me, and hurl me back to the risks I faced pre-surgery. This feeling prevailed long after leaving the hospital, where I found myself nervous on car journeys (having been advised not to sit for long), and afraid of children playing (incase they knocked me), I flatly refused to go into a supermarket in case someone knocked me with their trolley, and I avoided heavily populated areas generally.

The results of my second MRI suggested my bladder nerves were still implicated in compression, and my surgeon decided that it would be prudent to take me back to theatre to ‘tidy them up’. He explained that he would cut the same incision through flesh and muscle; to clean up any debris ensuring nerves were clean and free. I didn’t have time to worry much about the second surgery, once it was decided they all moved very quickly, this time unhampered by food in my stomach, as I hadn’t been able to face eating. By this time I was resigned to the lack of control I had over my situation, and having survived the first surgery, had built trust in my surgeon and his team. As I was wheeled again to theatre, I noticed my face was dry this time, maybe it felt too surreal to get upset, or maybe I was emotionally exhausted, or perhaps I was even getting braver, though I’m not entirely convinced about that bit. I remember being disappointed that I had a different anaesthetist attending to me, but he was friendly and joked as he sent me to sleep. When I woke again, I was in unbelievable pain, my body was throbbing, and the only way I could cope was to shut down, mercifully I was drugged enough to sleep, and with the bonus of nobody screaming murder on my new ward, this time to wake me.

The week or so that followed was a mixture of highs and lows, my first few steps were victorious, but still an inability to go to the toilet gave me nightmares about life with catheters. I had fantastic ward mates, we were a group of six women of varying ages and backgrounds, who formed a supportive cushion against our individual traumas. We checked in on each other, alerted nurses for each other when we saw someone struggling, and talked about the things that motivated our recoveries; so they all knew about my dogs and the Greek island waiting for me. By coincidence, one lady was the mother of a girl I went to school with, who now also lives in Greece, so we shared stories of my school days, and I took photos to send her daughter, after getting in touch again via the power of Facebook and thanks to hospital wifi. Eventually my bladder started working (hoorayyy!!), and I could manage the stairs, albeit very slowly, so passed the test for discharge, and to clear a bed for someone in need and waiting.

It was quite daunting leaving the safety of the hospital that had become so familiar, that I found the rhythms of medicine rounds and nurses change over comforting. It was also the beginning of a long journey of recovery, but a year later, I can look back and remain incredibly grateful. I am so thankful for everyone who sent well wishes, for competent surgeons, gentle physiotherapists, and caring, compassionate nurses, for friendships made from our hospital beds, to the thoughtful, kind visitors, for the cheerful tea lady, for friends and my Mum for looking after my dogs, for everyone that was part of my hospital experience. My gratitude extends to everyone that cared, supported, loved, encouraged, and commiserated with me on my journey, it really is in adversity that we learn who our friends really are. And of course I am grateful to be one of the lucky CES patients, who can walk unaided, can go to the toilet, and has an invisible injury. I am still wary of doing further damage; suffer with soreness, and coming to terms with limitations due to reduced strength and ability to withstand impact. I am so grateful I can walk that it would be churlish to miss skiing or horse-riding, but I still find it hard sometimes that I can’t run, even a few paces, or hike steep pathways down to favourite Greek beaches, without struggling. However, the road to recovery is not over, and as I continue to build strength, hopefully these things will be within reach.

Meanwhile, I lie here on the sofa, feeling the weight and warmth of my dogs on my legs is such a blessing. Leo has moved and lies with his chin on my thigh, watching me type one handed with my laptop in the crook of my arm. Poppy has deserted her couch, and lays on the floor beside me, looking up adoringly at Platonas, my rock, whom remains steadfastly supporting my knees, and my heart always. It’s now dark outside, and the rain gently tapping on the roof of our converted barn, echoes in the rafters, a scented candle flickers on the dresser, and I wiggle my toes to a year ago, and all that has happened in between.

Please take care of your back, and if you ever recognise any red flag symptoms for Cauda Equina, please insist you are seen by a neurosurgeon immediately! For more information, this is a very useful video:

Blessings & love, Hxx

{Photo credit: Britlively, Dior Homme SS14 photographer: Filep Motwary, Flo …Nooo, I don’t have a tattoo, but I do have an awesome little scar, that’s testament to my journey! Words by me, Hayley Darby ©2017}

Dear 2016..


Dear 2016,

You have been brutal, by far the most difficult, painful, expensive, terrifying, sad and challenging year of my life. You commenced with life-changing, emergency spinal surgery (x2); and culminated with the heart-wrenching demise of my beloved father, cruelly snatched from life, so suddenly and unexpectedly. I have gritted my teeth determinedly, bitten my tongue patiently, and cried several oceans, unreservedly. My body aches daily, my mind worries anxiously, and my heart is repeatedly smashed to smithereens as the waves of grief crash over me. Yet, I am grateful, you have been a year of my life, I have learnt many painful lessons, and I am ready for 2017.

You have been a year of struggles and loss, but loving light has pierced the darkest depths of despair. Every day, as my world fell apart, the sun still rose, and the world kept on turning, even though I had wished it would stop and let me step off, momentarily. I noticed sunlight dancing gracefully in the leaves of a tunnel of trees, as I drove from the hospice, blinded by tears I couldn’t curtail. And once as I crested the brow of a hill, overwhelmed with sorrow, strong shafts of light poured through the clouds, reaching down from the heavens to steady me. When I felt hopeless, rainbows magically appeared to comfort and encourage me, and when I was tired and defeated, sunsets gently soothed and nourished me.

Amongst all the difficulties, angels have emerged to help, support and care for me, friends and family who held me when I fell apart, and picked up the pieces of my life as they lay scattered around me. I have been enveloped by kindness, as I learned to walk after surgery, and again as I learned to walk in a world without my Daddy. Dear friends have shared their understanding that the gaping hole in my life will never be healed, but that I will come to accept its presence, and learn to live by filling it with never-ending love and happy memories. I am eternally grateful for these loving souls that have shared my journey.

My mornings greet me unfailingly with the wet nosy kisses and joyful tail wags, of unconditional love. My dogs have been my best medicine, strongest motivators, and most comforting, loyal companions, through everything. Because of them, I have found the strength to get up and embrace the day, and found myself admiring beautiful dawns, when I thought I wanted to hide in sleep. They have licked away my salty tears, snuggled lovingly into my broken body, and found smiles in my face when I didn’t think there were any. They have silently acknowledged my pain and let me bury my face in their warm furry necks to weep, sought me out for snuggles and cuddles, and accepted the changes they couldn’t understand, patiently. Leo is such a loving boy, and continues to fight valiantly against the life threatening disease you bestowed upon him. Poppy is becoming affectionate and sweet, learning to trust and settle, despite the many moves and upheaval. And Platon remains my rock, protective and patient, unswervingly loyal and devoted, even when earthquakes unnerved him.

2016, you have been horrible, the world has lost some amazingly talented souls, you enabled Brexit, and voted in a disastrously dangerous choice of American president. Many desperate refugees have drowned fleeing war torn countries, terrorists have ripped apart the lives of many and their families, and atrocities continue to be inflicted on innocents as their homes are destroyed by militants. The world is full of hostility and cruelty, it is plagued by anger and swamped in sorrow, but light still shines through the darkness, beauty blooms amidst despair and misery, courage clings on through adversity, hope remains steadfastly, and love is still stronger than anything. Please tell your successor 2017, to bring it on, I am ready!!

Blessings & love, Hxx

{Photo credit: The talented, Maria Koutala, Kefalonia. Words by Hayley Darby ©2016}

Lovely Leo


This week marked a year since Leo walked into my life and took up permanent residence in my heart; I realised I had yet to put his story into words, and wanted to record it to preserve the memory of such a happy event. Here is his story:

It was a sweltering hot day in the middle of July, and I had driven to Argostoli, the main town, with Platon (my beloved roadside rescue dog) to visit the vet and do some shopping. We live for half the year on a Greek island, preferring the quieter area in the north, but inconveniently located almost 2 hours away from the useful amenities in the south (including the vet, the hospital, the telephone company, and the airport). It’s not an easy drive, particularly since the previously used main route has been destroyed in an earthquake, but it is a beautiful journey of winding roads that twist and turn through olive groves and tiny villages, precariously perched on cliffs overlooking the sea, which glimmers glamourously in the sunlight. Simple homes with a commonly reoccurring shape that are easily identifiable as post quake homes, quickly constructed after the big one in the 50’s, are ubiquitous; their only variation being the differently coloured, brightly painted doors and window shutters. These single story boxy buildings are interspersed among what’s left of the elegant, Venetian style, architecture that remained standing, though many are ruins, some house trees growing inside roofless dwellings, with branches escaping through doorways and tendrils of climbing honeysuckle creeping through windows. The road rises higher into the seamless blue skies, becoming littered with the steady, unflustered goats that inhabit the rocky outcrops, and shelter precariously on narrow ledges, high above the greener valley that rolls out below. Some of the goats amble along to the gentle sound of their bells, some chew at the flowers on the roadside, whilst others lie quite contentedly in the middle of the road, causing the traffic to swerve around them as they relax quite unperturbed. The road winds up and down over several mountains, too narrow in places to pass oncoming traffic, and with breathtakingly steep drops that IMO are worth the fantastic views of the neighbouring island and white cliffs of the peninsular of this one in the distance.

Trips to Argostoli always culminate in a supermarket shop, before we hit the road home; the mini markets where we live cater for tourism and are expensive, with limited selection; apart from the fresh fruit and vegetables that gleam appealingly outside them. It makes sense to stock up on dry goods, toilet rolls and laundry liquid in the cheaper supermarkets, and return trips are always heavy with a car full of shopping. On this trip I had been very mindful of not wanting to do this trip again soon, and had bought amongst other things, an extra flea treatment for Platon, and whilst purchasing a collar for a friend’s dog, decided to buy a spare for some unremembered possibility.

Arriving home, Platon watched from the cool tiled floor and shade of the kitchen, as I carried the heavy shopping bags up the external flight of stairs to our apartment. I had left all the balcony doors open, and a merciful breeze welcomed us back. Trips to Argostoli are tiring for several reasons, apart from the journey, and rushing around trying to do a months worth of town visit in one hit, it usually necessitates an early start, to drive in the cooler hours of the morning and to accomplish all of ones chores in the limited hours before everything closes for siesta at 2pm. I wearily sat at the kitchen table, amidst the bags of shopping, and checked my computer whist sipping an ice-cold frappe, for revival. There was a message from Nikki, the real estate agent, with a photo of a timid stray dog that had turned up at her offices, on the hill above the port. We rarely see stray dogs at this end of the island, although there is a regular pack in the main town in the south, which seem well fed by the tavernas and tourists. Here it is quieter, more rural, and stray dogs are a threat to the goats and sheep that graze in the woodlands between the beaches, and amongst the olive groves. I glanced at Platon, by now moved towards the balcony where he watched sailing boats traverse the channel of water between this island and the next, they look like toy boats from our high vantage point, and have a mesmerising tranquility about them. I took another sip of coffee, then deciding, picked up my keys, and knelt to kiss Platon on the head and ask him to refrain from ‘unpacking’ the shopping in my short absence. I got back in my hot car, armed with treats, and not really knowing why, headed over to Nikki’s office. I wasn’t looking for another dog, Platon was still a very lively 18 month old, large puppy (he’s a ridgeback cross, so not exactly hand bag sized), and we had already nursed a sick dog back to health, and a litter of orphaned kittens, so I figured he needed my full attention for a while. Nikki’s daughter Athena was sat in their cool comfortable office, but the stray was long gone; she said it was very nervous, and covered in ticks, a sorry state of a dog, probably quite young. I searched the surrounding area, but finding nothing, returned home to Platon, unpacked the groceries and rested.

I went to bed early, when your puppy gets you up at dawn, demanding love, games, a toilet break and breakfast; it makes sense to get to bed at a reasonable hour. This is very un-Greek; Greek people don’t eat till late 9-10pm, once the sun has set and it’s cooler, and they tend to stay out late with the help of their afternoon siesta. I’m afraid I never manage to sleep in the afternoon, although I have learned to rest in the shade with a book, and a dozing dog for company. We slept with the bedroom balcony doors open, listening to the crickets, and occasional car in the distance. My phone bleeped unexpectedly at almost midnight, with a message from Alexi, a friend in the port, to say there was a dumped dog, a terrified stray, could I help? So I threw on some clothes and drove through the cool darkness to the shimmering lights reflected in the water, and lively nightlife of tavernas and bars of this chic little hub of our end of the island. I met Alexi trying to coax a straggly blonde dog with handfuls of salami, purchased from the nearby deli in the quiet enclave behind the main square. The dog was timidly approaching, but not brave enough to take the food; he skittered about nervously, clearly terrified. He was panting rapidly; possibly anxious, possibly a bit of heat stroke, probably both.

I sat down a few metres away, and observed this timid creature, torn between food and fear. I had the spare collar I had purchased earlier, and a spare lead of Platon’s, and waited for the obvious hunger to win the daring game the dog was playing. I asked Alexi for some salami, and gently coaxed the hungry soul towards me, and when he was close enough, managed to secure the collar on him. He ate the meat greedily, deciding to take a chance me and didn’t seem at all bothered by his new accessory. In fact when I got up, he happily leant into my leg, resting his weight into me, which I took as a sign of trust. I now know it was also because of a painful broken knee, but he was still happy to follow me. He trotted along on the lead, happily glancing up at my face, I suppose hopeful for more salami, and we headed towards the car, stopping to greet some friends outside the bar en route. Once at the car, the nervous dog was surprisingly easy to tempt in to the boot, but he wasn’t happy for me to shut the door, and I was afraid that if I released the lead he would bolt. So I returned to the bar to ask Katia to help, and feeding the lead through the dog guard to back seat, she held him securely whilst I shut the boot door.

I drove back up the hill, reassuring the quiet crying behind me, I promised him I was here to help, not hurt him, and wondered what Platon would think.. “Another one Mum? Seriously!!? When I got home, the scruffy stray jumped out of the car quite cheerfully, and looked expectantly at me for the next thing; which was sadly tying him to the banister at the bottom of the external stairs, whilst Platon who was watching intently from the balcony, could be secured in the bedroom. The little dog cried as I left him, following me up the few steps, as far as the lead would allow, and once I was inside, Platon was not going anywhere except to see the newcomer, without a struggle! He’s 30 Kg of stubborn muscle, but eventually I got him into the bedroom and shut the door so I could show our guest through to the balcony. I will admit, a door did get scratched in this process, but I was more than prepared to pay the landlord handsomely for the repairs.

With Platon safely out the way, I returned to the pitiful puppy on the doorstep, he was adamant I wasn’t leaving him, and shot into our home excitedly, sniffing around after Platon and dancing on the spot. I took him to my quarantine area on the balcony, where I fed him, covered him in cool wet towels for the heat exhaustion and carefully removed the ticks, before taking him inside again for a cool shower, where he was amazingly well behaved, then back on to the balcony for a flea treatment. I made a bed in the baby bath I had once hoped Platon would cool off in (no chance!), and placed a large cardboard box around it to shield him from the morning sun. I kissed him gently, assured him he was safe, and returned inside to try and calm Platon. We eventually got some sleep, until the sun rose steadily over the neighbouring island, to spill her rays into the sea, when Platon was insistent about checking up on our new guest. I kept the two dogs separated, to avoid any transference of fleas and other nasties, but it wasn’t easy. Platon lay at the closed French doors, whining with his wet nose pressed against the glass, whilst the newcomer sniffed timidly around the balcony, and peed against the terracotta pots of lavender. It was a tricky 24 hours, trying to keep both dogs happy, the new boy had attached to me quickly, and cried when I went out of his sight, thankfully my lovely neighbours, the Russian ladies downstairs, were super understanding.

Eventually, the next day, I made a return trip to the vet in Argostoli; this time leaving Platon at home, and placing the little guy into a box in the boot. A few weeks earlier I had taken another dog that had crapped all over the car, and I wasn’t taking any chances with this one. I made him a cosy bed with old towels, and tucked him in. It must have been comfortable, because he quickly settled down and was quiet for the entire journey. On arrival he’d been a bit sick, but luckily our vet has a hose outside, so we rinsed him off and cleaned the car with dettox, a déjà vue of the previous messy trip, and then Amanda took a look at him. She rolled her eyes and her r’s as she gesticulated in her Italian/Greek accent “Another one?? Panagia mou!! What are you doing to do with him Hayley mou? You can’t save them all!! Crazy English dog lady!” She checked Leo over, gave him his injections, pronounced him less than a year old, probably approx 10 months, and figured he’d been on the streets his whole life. She showed me the difference between the old and new scars, and guessed the bruising in his flank was due to multiple kicks of the human variety. She agreed his knee on his rear right leg was broken, and badly set; something we would confirm with x-rays at a later date, and gave me medicine to bathe his wounds. I had already decided to name the scruffy little dog after a warrior, due to his battle-scarred appearance, and initially chose ‘Hector’, after the honourable older brother of Paris, in ‘The Iliad’. But the name seemed harsh, and sounded too hard for the gentle creature I was already in love with, and I think it was on the way home from the vet, that I re-named him Leonidas, after the king of the Spartan army of 300. Like Leonidas, this little guy appeared to have lost in battle and carried the scars, but his face also had a lion like quality, with his coarse, blonde, curly fur and his little beard, so Leonidas which means ‘son of a lion’ suited him better, Leo for short. I did dither between the names for a few days, but Leo felt better than Hector, so that’s who he became.

When we arrived home, in the hot afternoon sun, I went through the rigmarole of putting Platon, complaining loudly, onto the bedroom, and brought Leo in, on his way back out on to the balcony; but Platon is smart as well as strong, and managed to open the door. He came bouncing into the kitchen, and on seeing Leo, presented a deep play bow; Leo hesitated, then jumped around nervously, and the two dogs were soon sniffing and gently wrestling together. Platon was very gentle, despite his size advantage, and Leo transformed into the playful puppy he should have been! I had been worried, Leo’s ‘dumplings’ were still in place, whereas Platon had been neutered, but there was never any suggestion of a struggle for status, Leo deferred to Platon immediately. Platon is loyal, but not jealous, he’s strong but gentle, and they played beautifully. When I tried to feed them, initially putting Leo in the spare room, and Platon in the kitchen, Leo just cried his mournful howling at being separated, and Platon put his chin on the floor and stared at his food, sulking. So I brought them together, and placed the bowls several metres apart; but Leo just headed straight for Platon’s bowl, and Platon waited till Leo had first finished his, then started on his own meal, before getting up to sniff his empty bowl. After that they ate out two bowls, but from the same bowl simultaneously, never a gripe or growl between them. It was only when Leo gained weight healthily, but Platon seemed a tad skinny, that I started insisting they ate from their own bowls.

We went to bed that evening, and I made the dog bed cosy for Leo in the lounge, taking Platon to bed with me, but leaving the door ajar. When I woke in the night to find my faithful companion missing from his usual position snuggled against my legs, I ventured into the lounge to find him asleep on the dog bed, with Leo lying curled up beside him, resting his chin on Platon’s neck. My heart swelled with happiness, and I knew that Platon’s cool, calming presence has helped convert the timid stray into a happy, relaxed, puppy; and that he was undoubtedly part of our family. The two dogs bonded resolutely and immediately, there was never any question of not keeping Leo, it was Platon’s steadfast decision. We had cared for several other dogs previously as house guests and none had elicited this unwavering response of mutual delight in the other. Platon is both joyously playful and fiercely protective of Leo, in fact he started to develop leash reactivity once we found him, as I initially walked them together. The two of them trotted along, side by side, Platon’s strong stance reminding me of John Wayne’s swagger when he got off his horse, and Leo’s knocked knee due to his injury causes him to wiggle a la Monroe, quite a comical pair, but both grinning at each other constantly, as if they are sharing a private joke.

It wasn’t until weeks later, when Leo was strong enough to be neutered that we realised the extent of his injuries. He had a lump on his neck, initially thought to be a tick bite, that didn’t disappear, so when he was neutered, I asked Amanda to remove it, as it was where the collar sits. (I have only ever used a collar for Leo’s ID, he has a harness to protect his neck, as do all my dogs now). I stroked his face as she administered the anaesthetic, kissing him and promising him I was doing my best for him. When Amanda called me later to say he was ready, she said she was shocked at what she had found, and after reassuring me it wasn’t cancer, I quickly drove to the surgery. When I got there, Leo was beside himself to see Platon and I had come to collect him, still weak from the anaesthetic, his tail thumped rapidly, and he ‘sang’ his characteristic little howl. After a hug, and whilst the two boys licked each others faces, Amanda showed me the x-rays of his broken knee, confirming multiple fractures, and badly set, but not warranting the trauma of surgery. Then she showed me a tray with his gonads, as proof of his sterilisation, not pretty!! And then finally, she held out her hand with the surprise, the bullet she had found in the lump in his neck, apparently millimetres away from his carotid artery. Tears filled my eyes, and ran down my cheeks as I realised the terror this poor animal had experienced, no wonder he was so timid when I found him. The sorrow soon morphed into acute anger at whoever could have contemplated such a violent act towards such a gentle, loving creature.

Leo is the most affectionate soul I have ever met, he actively seeks me out, as well as Platon, for cuddles, and likes to snuggle up near my face and kiss me. He never fights for food or toys, and will always concede, even if he cries for me to ensure he gets his share of the treats. He’s a warrior, but a lover, not a fighter. Leo bears the most visible signs of physical abuse, of all my dogs, yet he is the most loving, friendly, trusting, peace seeking of the pack. He’s so enthusiastic about meeting new people, or dogs, or cats, that his squeaky cries of delight can be quite disarming, in comparison Platon is a very cool customer, often aloof with other people, whilst maintaining focus on me. We used to have a stray cat that sunbathed at the bottom of the steps, and whenever we went out, Platon and the cat touched noses. Within a week, Leo was doing the same, once the cat was convinced his excitement was non-threatening. Meanwhile, I still harbour the desire to hold a gun at whoever shot Leo, and tell him to run for his life, and feel the terror he inflicted on my dear, sweet, brave, loving, little dog. In fact I subsequently discovered another bullet, lodged between Leo’s eyes, confirmed by x-ray. An air rifle had been trained on Leo’s face, and we suspect shot at his neck as he fled, probably some sick game of target practice, or culling the stray population. Yet Leo holds no such grudge, his happy little face greets me with such enthusiasm every morning, as he shoves his nose into mine for a kiss, as he play bows, and wags his tail furiously. Each day is a gift that Leo grabs excitedly, and he exudes his sunny delight unfailingly. I’m so grateful that this bundle of love walked into my heart, ands showed me what forgiveness, unwavering trust, and relentless love, really look like. He is more loved and loving than I can put into words, and I feel so very blessed that he chose us as his family.

As I write, Leo is curled up next to me, his chin rests on my lap, and his breathing is calming and rhythmic. He’s been such an enduring loving presence, a great support through a recent difficult period of challenging spinal surgeries, and he has kept me smiling. He is probably the easiest of my dogs in many ways, despite some issues of separation anxiety and a cheeky little streak that can emerge as impatience. He is a gentle soul, a peace-loving little warrior, a funny little character, a cuddle bug, a playful puppy, a brave little soldier, and the loveliest ray of sunshine you could hope to meet! Happy found day Leo xx

Words and photo ~Hayley Darby ©2016

Summer mornings

yellow hammock

I seemed to arrive in my body from somewhere else, as if sleep had released my soul to explore another realm, and on waking, gently deposited me back into a physical form. I first became aware of the loving weight of Leo, (my terrier cross), his chin resting on my ankles; and the reassuring pressure of Platon (my big dog), leaning into my side. I lay perfectly still, not to disturb them, but they can sense changes in my breathing. Leo must have been coiled like a spring, waiting for his signal to jump up and tickle my face with his whiskers, touching noses, and then stretching in a deep play bow, before settling into a down position as he balances on my supine body for a cuddle. He really is the most affectionate little ray of sunshine, and greets each morning with enthusiastic delight; it’s impossible not to start the day with a smile with his happy presence. Platon is a much cooler customer; he slowly stretches out, pushing against me as he extends to his full length, exposing his tummy for a tickle. He is my rock, reassuring and comforting, protective and vigilant, willful, independent, and stubborn, but loving, calming and fiercely loyal.

I lay for a few heavenly moments, enjoying my morning ‘love in’, watching Leo playfully nuzzle Platon, for a few brief seconds before Poppy (GSD/lurcher cross) bounded in, and bounced enthusiastically but haphazardly, onto the bed, landing on top of all of us! She is the chaos to Platon’s calm, the minx to Leo’s amenable nature, the diva of the pack, and she whips the bed up into a frenzy of playful wrestling and lands exhaustedly beside me on the pillow, panting heavily and eyeing me expectantly. By now I am completely awake, there is no chance of drifting back to dreamland, or floating in the ‘hypnopompic’ lucid dream state, I used to search my mind for clues of subconscious understanding. There is no room for wakeful dreaming, my dogs keep me firmly grounded in the present moment, it’s one of their charms, that we are engaged in the simplest pleasures of the here and now. As I lie with these three dogs that have changed my life, I am so grateful every morning, for my pack, and that they found me. Each dog has their own sad story of abuse and neglect, and yet are so loving and trusting, Poppy still struggles trusting new people, but within our family, she is confident and happy, and a little monkey!.

Eventually, I roll over onto my side, feeling the familiar ache in my back which I am now accustomed to, and I snuggle the dogs, tell them how much I love them. I then raise myself carefully into sitting position as they jump up and off the bed excitedly. Platon or Poppy will ring the goat bell that hangs from the door, if Poppy gets there first, the bell often ends up crashing to the floor as she impatiently demonstrates her desire to get into the garden. She leaps around like a slippery salmon swimming upstream, excited, insistent, and ‘singing’ a high pitched tune of frustration, as if demanding I hurry. I make them all wait, and sit in a row as I slowly open the door, reminding them to “perimenete” (Greek for wait), until I am satisfied, and release them like rockets as they charge out, into the morning sun.

We are currently in Greece, our summer home on a pretty Ionian island, where my days start with coffee on the terrace in my pyjamas and sunglasses, as the dogs sniff around the garden for evidence of our nighttime visitors. I sit noticing how many apricots have fallen from the laden tree, as I nurse a cappuccino and the dogs linger around the table in anticipation of their share of biscuits. It’s our morning ritual, as I dip cantuccini in my coffee, and feed them the Greek version of plain ‘Rich Tea’ in exchange for kisses (nose touches) and other good behaviour (sitting, lying, chins on my knee). As the morning warms up, I check my online media, and the dogs stretch out in the sun, playfully wrestling, gently until Poppy goads the boys into a pack tornado, that whirls around the garden, twisting and bouncing, occasionally yelping, when Leo bounds back to me for protection (he has an injured leg that can’t cope as well with his boisterous siblings), and finally Platon and Poppy will flop into the cool, fragrant earth under the fig tree. These are our summer mornings, and I savour every single moment, listening to the crickets (yet to fall asleep), birds chattering in the trees, and the occasional goat bells tinkling over the hill.

This is my happy place, and I commit these precious, golden moments to memory, stored up for rainy days or difficult times ahead. I feel even more blessed to be here this year, following emergency spinal surgery in January. It was my motivating goal; to be well and fit enough to drive the dogs back again, which I managed with the help of a friend (my surgeon has insisted I no longer undertake the journey alone). I am still recovering, but as I reflect on my progress, I’m proud of my journey, and so grateful to have made it to this place; where I can sit in my hammock swing, watching pairs of butterflies dance around the garden, smell the potted herbs (basil, mint, coriander) that scent the terrace, and watch the dogs lie contentedly under the dappled shadows of the fig, peach, apricot, orange, lemon and apple trees. I hope that wherever you are, you notice the little things too, because trust me, the little things really are the big things! Love & blessings, Hxx

{Photo, sadly uncredited, via Pinterest; words ~Hayley Darby © 2016}

Joy on a grey day

nurse teaIt’s a cold grey day here, and I’m lying on my day bed with Platon lying against my legs, his chin resting gently on my ankles, as he snoozes between watching the world outside the long French windows. Leo has trampled all over me, and the bed, searching for a comfy spot, but dissatisfied with all his options, has moved to the sofa where he’s curled up alone and uncharacteristically grumbling. He’s usually my sunshine, a super happy chap, full of joyful enthusiasm, and the friendliest, most affectionate dog I could think of; but today he’s having an ‘off’ moment, and comically grumbles in little half barks and almost growls at noises outside. I suspect he’s over tired, sulking and like a toddler fighting sleep, he will soon give in to that sweet dark oblivion, and float to another realm of consciousness. I wonder if he dreams of our favourite little beach in Greece, and swimming out in the clear turquoise waters, which he does so, much further than I dare to. He has a leg injury that gives him a disadvantage on land, but in the sea he’s unstoppable. Finally, his little chest has started to rise and fall rhythmically, and we are a peaceful little trio in our cosy abode. I stifle a yawn as I type, and Platon sighs loudly, as I pull the blankets up a little higher, and he snuggles back into me. I too could fall asleep, I tire easily since my surgeries; especially since I have started my physiotherapy exercises and increased my activity daily.

Yesterday I had a hospital appointment; it was the first time I had been back since my surgery. I still feel somewhat fragile; an awareness of my vulnerability, previously not even glimpsed, as I felt fit and strong, and lead an active lifestyle. Walking in public places makes me anxious, my injury (spinal) is invisible to most, as I can walk unaided and have no casts or bandages. It’s a ridiculous fear of being knocked, although I’m assured my spine is now stable, it still feels odd, and I am acutely aware of the risks associated with my condition, however small they are in reality. I saw the urology nurse, since after my first operation there was a complication with my bladder function requiring a further surgery, and yesterday I got a clean bill of health, a huge relief. My Cauda Equina experience has certainly helped me appreciate how much the little things, really are the big things!

As I waited in the hospital lobby for my lift home, I met Joy, a health care worker that truly lives up to her name. She took a moment to recognise me, (I clearly look very different with freshly washed hair, dressed and standing, to my hospital bed state), but her face soon lit up, as she recited my bed and bay number on the ward. Every morning of my hospital stay, Joy greeted the ward with her sunny smile and sing song voice, serving us breakfast, lunch and supper, remembering how we all take our tea, and our individual food preferences. She was always cheerful, thoughtful and considerate, and she brightened the room with her smile. When she made her rounds, she served us all as if we were her favourite customers in a smart restaurant. Maybe it’s maybe not the tea, but the person serving it thats the best medicine. This small part of our day made me feel more human, it was a time when as we picked our meals from the menu, however basic, that we regained some independence, choosing gave a small sense of control; when the rest of our day was determined by our medical team and hospital routines. Again, I am reminded of the little things that make a difference; and wonder how often we have missed opportunities to give a little that will mean so much to someone else, without us ever realising how much importance it is to them.

Meeting Joy yesterday reminds me how grateful I was for the compassion and kindness of the nurses and health care workers that cared for me during my hospital stay. I cannot imagine what a tough job it is, and have huge respect for all of them. If everyone worked with the same selfless enthusiasm that Joy does, we would all reflect more sunny smiles in our environments. Talking of which, it might be a cold grey day in February here, but it’s not a bad day, we have blossom on the window sill and daffodils on the table, and Leo has woken up, back to his happy smiley self, enthusiastically stretching into a play-bow and wagging his tail, ready for another adventure. I hope that you are seeing a glimmer of the joys of spring, wherever you are too.. unless of course you’re in the Southern hemisphere, in which case, enjoy your Summer, and send it back to us in the Northern hemispheres soon, please!

Blessings & love, Hxx


{Photo via Pinterest, sadly uncredited; words by me, Hayley Darby © 2016}