It started when I was twelve.
I was at a friend’s house about to enjoy dinner when my nose started blocking up and my head began to throb. My eyes became really itchy too. His Mum said it was an allergy and offered some aspirin to ease the pain.
I took the pills, but within minutes my face exploded. It swelled up so much that it looked like I’d been hit in the face with a cricket bat. My nose exuded so much runny stuff that there weren’t enough tissues in the whole Kleenex factory to soak it all up. My teeth hurt, my lungs wheezed and so many hives erupted on my skin I looked like I’d been pelted with ball bearings from a thousand slingshots.
I never got to eat that dinner – it’s not easy to eat when you’re dying.
I was diagnosed with chronic allergic rhinitis, and it became a condition that would almost define my very existence.
Often I’d have a nose so thoroughly blocked that I would spend my whole day open-mouthed gasping for air. I’d suffer headaches so intense my skull would throb like a pile driver on overdrive, and I’d have a permanent toothache so bad I wanted to smash my face against the wall just to ease the pain.
The condition worsened through my teenage years as I discovered I was allergic to more and more naturally occurring things, like pollens, dust and moulds. I’d already discovered the hard way that I was hyper-allergic to salicylate, the active ingredient of aspirin, but I then discovered this chemical is also found in grapes, apples and many other foods. It’s also found in tea, my favourite drink.
The condition became so bad that if I’d owned shares in a certain pharmaceutical company I would now be a very rich man. I think I spent the equivalent of a pacific island nation’s Gross Domestic Product on antihistamine pills, nasal sprays and painkillers.
In 1990 my condition deteriorated to the point where I was in a vicious downward spiral – chronic nasal blockage temporarily cleared with sprays which then caused chronic nasal blockage – a condition called “rebound congestion.”
It made my life hell.
The only possible solution to this awful mess was surgery, and so it was that I found myself in hospital having my head drilled out by one of Australia’s top ENT specialists.
He chiselled away bits of bone, he ripped out hunks of flesh and he reamed the passages with great rotating knives. When he’d finished vacuuming up the minced flesh he then packed both nostrils with long strips of gauze. Metres and metres of narrow bandages went in to stop the bleeding.
As the anaesthetic wore off and the nerves came alive the feeling was, to say the least, incredible. It felt like I’d had my scalp torn off, my skull pried open and twelve teppanyaki chefs let loose inside my head. Intense, burning pains shot across my scalp as jagged razors scraped inside my face and searing bolts of agony tore at my very being.
The next day the surgeon visited me to remove the packing from my nose, unfortunately though it had somehow become stuck to whatever’s inside my face. He tried pulling gently; he tried tugging a bit. In the end he had his boots hard up against my shoulders and was leaning backwards with three burly nurses pulling furiously on his belt, trying desperately to free the bloodstained gauze from its sticky attachment point.
It released with a “snap!” and then the blood flowed. Buckets of the stuff. A crimson waterfall cascading down my face to form expanding puddles in my lap.
It was horrible.
The pain continued once I was allowed home, a pain so bad that I needed my GP to make a house call and inject me with pethidine to give me relief. Boxes of heavy-duty narcotics followed, happily consumed by the handful.
That was twenty-two years ago. For twenty of those years I’ve been relatively well in the sinus department, but I knew it couldn’t last.
All good things must come to an end, and that’s exactly what’s happened to me. Over the last few years it seems my immune system has decided to ramp up again, and that awful chronic condition has returned.
The pills don’t work; the sprays don’t work. My nose has been sandpapered away from the constant wiping, and my days are filled with the sound of trumpeting elephants and bursting eardrums as I fill tissue after tissue.
The CAT scan paints the bleakest of pictures.
I’m booked into hospital again – another appointment with the Sadistic Surgeons of Sinus City. I’ll be having Functional Endoscopic Sinus Surgery, commonly known as “FESS”, where sharp, pointy things are rammed up your nose to suck out the bits that shouldn’t be there and provide nice, open cavities.
She operates next week.
I’m hoping beyond hope that perhaps this time, with a woman’s touch, I’ll fare much better. I’m hoping the years might have seen surgical techniques improve and that this time there’ll be far less post-operative excitement.
And if that isn’t the case I’m hoping they’ve got better drugs.
I’ll keep you posted…