1. the time by which something must be finished, submitted, etc. 2. (formerly) a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards.

“She should be back by Thursday,”

was the management’s update to my colleagues on the status of my sick leave. I had told my project manager that I was in hospital having surgery and  not much good for work. In reality, I was staring at the smoke rising from a meteorite falling on the spot I had been standing five seconds earlier.

The pains that had developed in my back since the start of the year, had started to spread across to my sides, crawling to my abdomen, and intensified night by night. Over the two month period I self-experimented with pain management – from packs of paracetamol, ibuprofen, herbal baths (twice a night), cold gel, hot water bottles, sleeping upright, a sketch pad full of Frida Kahlo inspired doodles – but nothing ever allowed me more than a couple of hours sleep each night. It was something like going through labour pains, every night, but not once did it cross my mind to take time off from work. It’s just not the way we roll in our firm.

I finally got around taking a morning off work and get an appointment with a GP – having made it through a UK Border Agency style triage (“Is it an emergency?” “No, if it was an emergency I’d go to A&E, but I don’t want to wait for two weeks for an appointment.” or “Is it an emergency?” “Yes.” “What kind of an emergency? The doctor will call you in a week.”) – to be told that I should invest in a new mattress. Really, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time I call a GP, they will have all been outsourced to India and I’ll be told to switch myself off and back on again.

Waving my private medical cover, I got a referral to see a physiotherapist albeit not without one more reminder about the mattress. I was now secretly self-medicating with Modafinil, a cognitive boosting prescription drug, available through very trust-worthy UK based online drugstores delivering in non-branded brown packages from China, my ‘i-don’t-know-how-she-does-it’ answer to being a single mum and a management consultant with two hours sleep per night and a performance review coming up. Which wasn’t much below the standard recommended sleep allowance for management consultants anyway; where grace is to be found in statements like: “I intentionally planned this deadline for Monday. So we can use the weekend as a buffer.”

That particular time I wanted to scream: “We are not using the weekend as a buffer. We are using my 6-year-old as the buffer. She has been the incredible curly-haired soft-cheeked buffer for these stupid deadlines for the past five and a half years!” But I didn’t think I was using my health as a buffer too, and I didn’t talk to my mum for two weeks when she unjustifiably instigated I was doing nothing but.

But I started to find analogies everywhere. Was I the only one who didn’t notice Lupita Nyong’o’s performance but  watched ‘12 Years a Slave’ thinking about work? The other night woken by pain again I watched ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and, whether a slave plantation or a mental institute, I just can’t help finding comparisons with the destructiveness of the corporate world which all seemed to shrink to the original meaning of a ‘deadline’, the step too far taken that will see you shot.

My physiotherapist asked about my symptoms and said I should see an Orthopaedic Surgeon. By this time I had spent one week night at an A&E,  lectured by an NHS nurse about reckless use of emergency services in a non-emergency. So I waited again another week for my GP – her indignation told me writing referrals was beneath her opinion of her role and to restore professional pride as well as compensate for the lack of any true influence, she, like any true bureaucrat, fully exercised her gatekeeper powers until she could nothing but – to refer me on.

At this point I thought it would be best to tell work why I would not be 100% ‘client chargeable’ that week (i.e. why there was evidence of me going offline in the course of the day)

Within two days from seeing the Orthopaedic Surgeon, I was sitting in front of a Neurologist listening  him making phone calls  to change the theatre schedule for an urgent operation. An hour earlier – 5pm on Friday – I had received a text:  “This is Dr Nicholls. I have your test results. I need to speak to you urgently” and two similar texts after that (Imagine anyone in the NHS calling you back, let alone Friday pm.) My MRI scan had revealed fluid around my spinal cord,  and I was told I had ‘Spinal cord abscess’, which is rare (less than 100 cases reported in modern medical history) but a life threatening condition. An early diagnosis followed by surgery and possibly chemotherapy can prevent paralysis. Tuberculosis used to be one of the most common reasons, so I am being tested for that while microbiologists and pathologists are looking at the fluid and a sample cut off my spine to see if it could have been caused by other bacteria.  I’m treated with antibiotics but some of the fluid had to be left in, as apparently it is too far back and an intervention would have left me unable to do Gangnam Style ever again.


I thought this would be my last selfie.

The moral of the story is to always, always, always have a private medical insurance. You will have to do your own admin (faxing forms between hospitals and insurers etc), which is never fun but even less so when you think it’s taking the place of your bucket list as the last thing you’re doing, but I have nothing but praise for the London Bridge Hospital, where I’m treated alongside Saudi Royals. Amazing facilities, amazing staff. Amazing mattresses.

But if there’s anything else you would like to read to this story, is that no, sorry, for once in this fucking life  I’m not coming back to work on Thursday. There is no buffer this time.


She came last night and brought me a nice present which was chocolate, which she ate. 
Then she asked if she could take the rest home.

I am staring at the smoke rising from a meteorite falling on the spot I had been standing five seconds earlier.
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5 thoughts on “Deadline

  1. Wish I had seen this earlier. No wonder T is such a brave little girl. Love you both. Sara and O xxxx

  2. […] I don’t know where to start. But n the first instance, right now I’d like to go home from the hospital and hug her and tell her how beautiful she […]

  3. […] is a special place in hell for people who schedule meetings to start at or after 5pm. Before I got sick, I imagined my death would be recoded at 18:17:24, on Hornsey Lane when I was trying to undertake […]

  4. […] is a special place in hell for people who schedule meetings to start at or after 5pm. Before I got sick, I imagined my death would be recoded at 18:17:24, on Hornsey Lane when I was trying to undertake […]

  5. […] can experience. On my personal pain scale, I’d give birth without epidural anytime over having vertebral compression.  The nights before I’d convinced myself that it might be a good idea to pop in the clinic, I […]

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