To travel from Aboyne to Edinburgh and back in a day by public transport is a challenge at the best of times and for the fittest of people. If you are a stroke survivor with a weak left side and it’s one of the hottest days of summer it becomes a major challenge.
A couple of weeks ago, I undertook the challenge in order to attend a meeting at NHS Healthcare Improvement Scotland.
One of the delights of stroke is that it reminds you of its presence every day. I am lucky to be relatively mobile. I regularly meet other stroke survivors whose challenges are much, much greater than mine. Even so, for a lot of the time my left side protests and complains when put under pressure. There is almost constant pain in my left hand. When I was first released from hospital, I found that I had no confidence in crowds or unfamiliar settings. My left side would freeze and stiffen, nausea would rise in my throat and I would have a fear of falling over – it’s impossible to have a stroke and be confidently macho. It was only by regularly forcing myself into unwelcome, fearful situations that I gradually was able to handle them with a semblance of normality.
I still embark on this journey with some trepidation. First, there is the relatively straightforward drive to Stonehaven station – just over 30 miles. By parking at the west side of the station, I can be sure that the car is waiting beside the correct platform when I return. I lock my trusty Honda Jazz and head on to the platform. I then have to hobble down a flight of stairs, through an underpass and up some more stairs to gain the east platform for the train, collecting my pre-booked ticket on the way. In my old life, I used to manage professional staff, deal with budgets, engage with adolescents and their parents, argue our corner with a cash-strapped council, think strategically. Now I’m worried about getting on to a train.
The first time I undertook this trip, I spent much time waiting and worrying whether I would be physically able to get on to the train – which leg should I use first to step on board? What do you hold on to? What about that deep gap between the side of the train and the edge of the platform? Today, I am confident that this will be okay – even this large inter-city London-bound train with its slam doors and high step-up poses only a moderate challenge.
I find my coach, hoist myself aboard and spot my reserved seat – it’s the only empty one in the carriage. If you’re six-feet tall in a British train, you do not have much leg room. If you’re six feet tall and have post-stroke clumsinesss and stiffness, you have added challenges – but I squeeze into my place. I am surrounded by day travellers, people heading to the Olympics, tourists. There is a low murmur of voices, the tinny noise of earphones. The train moves off. I extract the meeting papers from my small rucksack, and start to read them as we glide south.
It’s an uneventful journey – tickets checked, coffee drunk, papers read and we’re clattering over the Forth Bridge. Waverley station is a nightmare of construction, scaffolding, crowds and dim lighting – it’s a long slow walk to the taxi rank. I’m overtaken by everyone, even a couple of old men with sticks. Boarding taxis used to pose the same problems as boarding trains, but in a more confined space. I once collapsed spectacularly on to the floor of a Glasgow taxi. Today, however, things go smoothly, if stiffly, and I’m soon in the secure surroundings of NHS Healthcare Improvement Scotland.
Meeting over, it’s time to return to Waverley. The station is just as crowded – it’s 4.30 p.m. and I’ve just missed the Aberdeen train so will have to wait half an hour for a train to Dundee where I can change for Stonehaven. I purchase a baguette and perch myself on a seat outside the shop. For ten minutes I watch the crowds milling around in the hot gloom, then set off to the appointed platform. The train consists of four packed coaches – I struggle slowly to the front coach and sit down with relief about half way up the coach. All of life is here: the fast food addict, the obese, the sweaty, the exhausted commuter, the screaming child: “LE-on, LEon. I won’t tell you again. LE-on” – and now me, the halt and lame My left arm throbs and feels as if it’s full of water. My left leg is tight and hot from hobbling the length of the platform. “LE-on.” The windows are all open. There’s a scream of diesel engines as the train leaves, and a welcome blast of air moderates the spicy fast food smell. LE-on wanders the central passage taking slugs from a plastic bottle of juice. “LE-on. Come back here. LE-on. I’m not telling you again.” But she does. And again, and again. No-one else speaks.
There’s a lightening of the atmosphere when LE-on and mum leave at Kirkcaldy. Cut grass smells blow in through the windows. We’re rattling along towards the Tay Bridge and its panorama of hills and cool water.
Dundee station means another long slow trek to the Aberdeen platform. I discover to my horror that my left leg has gone numb after sitting for an hour and struggle to hoist myself out of my seat and on to the platform. Two teenage girls are playing with a luggage trolley, laughing and screaming.
There is a twenty-minute wait for the train to Stonehaven – left leg now feels heavy and exhausted with standing. The train, when it arrives, is less busy than the previous one. The train has come from Glasgow; many passengers are sitting at tables darkened by beer cans and bottles. There is a sour, exhausted smell in the carriage as we speed north.
Stonehaven and the drive home can’t come too soon.