Near the end of March, on the last day of term before schools break up for the Easter holidays, I was woken at 2 or 3 in the morning by a tummy ache. Never mind, I’ll get back to my chapter on small publishers of Danish literature in English as planned later today, after I’ve had a bit more sleep. But… I couldn’t get back to sleep. Visiting the GP later that day resulted in no solution – no infection, no protrusion, not food poisoning – are you perhaps stressed? “It’s two months from your PhD submission date: you must be stressed?“. I could understand that interpretation, but – curiously – I didn’t FEEL stressed. After all, I had A Plan: finish writing/editing this chapter, then address the thesis as a whole including my Conclusion and Introduction, then at the start of May submit a full final draft for my supervisors to consider for feedback. That seemed realistic and achievable. Not particularly stressful. Plenty of time. So: home, bed, no more PhD until the pain went away, on doctor’s orders.
The pain didn’t go away. But I had plans. Such as the plan before Easter to visit London for another supervision meeting and a book launch. So, another visit to the doctor’s after the weekend in bed, just in case. Late Monday afternoon, and the practice nurse palpated my abdomen, went kinda quiet and said… I think it might be your appendix. After which, I was sent to hospital: “go via A+E, here’s a letter, they’ll be expecting you”.
The pain I was experiencing was across the front of my abdomen, through my belly button like a belt, reminiscent of labour contractions (those experienced with Baby Two, in any case). The surgical registrar in hospital listened to me describe my symptoms and said, doesn’t sound like appendicitis. Then prodded me a bit and pronounced “upon clinical examination, I think it IS appendicitis”. Later he briefed the consultant surgeon who looked puzzled and said, doesn’t sound like appendicitis. Then he prodded me a bit and pronounced “upon clinical examination, I think it IS appendicitis”. Both said “but women are complicated” and I signed a consent form for them to remove whatever was causing the pain when they investigated with a laparoscopy (keyhole surgery with a camera, under general anaesthetic), be it my appendix or an ovary (“complicated”). By all accounts, I was first into surgery the next morning. Then I stayed in hospital a few more days to recover (with IV antibiotics, and painkillers, and next to no sleep because I was running on adrenaline and ward staff kept checking my heart rate and prodding me with needles), and then discharged to a familiar bed where I slept and slept and came to terms with what on earth just happened.
What had happened was I’d had the Best Worst Appendix in the whole wide world – it had been hugely inflamed and gangrenous(!!!) and I even needed a colonoscopy seven weeks later to check it had done no lasting damage to my guts. Thankfully it hasn’t, but obviously the impact on my PhD and family life was HUGE, hence me writing it down here.
What do you do when you have to stop two months from your submission date?
- Communicate: I told my supervision duo what was happening straight away (well, we needed to cancel a supervision meeting because I was in hospital!). They were incredibly understanding and took it in their stride. I told the translators’ network committee I could not plan for our forthcoming meeting the next month quite as expected, and they also ensured everything got done without me.
- Ask for help: When I was sent straight to hospital on the Monday, my partner came too, and my parents dropped everything and gave our kids their tea, bath, and bedtime routine. Throughout the Easter school holidays, the assistance from my parents living just up the road was immeasurable – the kids’ routine and lives were disrupted very little by me being away for so long unplanned, and in the end my partner took very little time off work. We are incredibly lucky to have ended up in this circumstance, partly by design, but also by their brilliance. Many friends stepped up as well: that first weekend when I had no idea what was wrong, a friend came round to distract the toddler while my partner and the eldest child went out to a pre-arranged commitment; another helped me to and from playgroup with both kids for the first time post-surgery (tying their shoelaces and ensuring I didn’t fall over en route!); another carried my suitcase and fetched me coffee(s) for my first trip to London; and a few kept me company virtually when I needed cheering up and chat when I was recovering, which at the time felt so important as it kept me from feeling too low. (All wonderful, of course.)
- Apply for a deadline extension: Seems a fairly obvious step, but frankly admin and bureaucracy is the last thing I could have brought myself to do, except I knew I’d need more time. Thankfully the process at my university is led entirely by the supervisor, who kindly ensured everything went smoothly, and all I needed to do was provide medical evidence. (Though this was held up slightly by the hospital not writing up and sending my discharge notes until around 4 weeks after I’d left…). We applied for two months’ extension to give enough leeway for me to get back on my feet. Speaking of which…
- Deal with stumbling blocks: After enduring what I thought was sudden back pain for a few days, I was diagnosed with a kidney infection (likely introducing during surgery)! A week’s worth of antibiotics and drinking a lot of water cleared it up, but doubly exhausting to have to get over that, too.
- Stop. Stop. No, really, STOP: That first day of intense misdiagnosed pain, I stayed in bed, figuring I’d “lose” one day’s desk time and make it up over the weekend. It soon became apparent that I would be losing the full weekend to the pain. No bother – it’ll pass and I will work extra hard on my trip away for my meeting and the book launch, right? Well, no. That didn’t happen either. In hospital, and in recovery, I had to completely put the thesis away and realise I could not work. No trying to fit in reading. Not even thinking about any of it, if I could help it. I just had to stop and rest and get better.
- Prioritise: Days turned into weeks and soon it was time for an important meeting of the translators’ network, of which I am founder and chair. My <pun alert> gut instinct was to cancel my trip and send some kind of statement for someone to read in my place. Then I figured I might feel better enough to Skype in. Then I decided I really needed to be there, and, as most of the meeting was not being run by me anyway, why not give it a go? Mostly after the sudden stop to my routine and time being ill, I knew I would feel slightly happier and more like myself for getting back into Real Life. So, that week, with the PhD still on hold, I had a single task and a single focus – attend the meeting in London and cover what needs doing. And I did. Admittedly a bit wobbly and tired, but I made it. Having done so, I felt relieved and glad, and determined that I could indeed go back to my thesis before too long.
- Rework Writing Plans: Once I got back to my desk, I found:
- I had made much further progress on my chapter than I’d realised in the week leading up to my weekend-in-pain (a nice surprise!);
- working towards a new deadline for my full final draft motivated me to manage my time well again, especially to prioritise what needed doing urgently, and what was less important (the “nice to haves” versus the “must haves” of content) – it is unlikely I would have done this without being forced to STOP and take stock, as the pressure had been ramping up;
- a full week away from home in mid May (planned long ago) worked far, far better as a retreat to read my thesis in full for the first time, make edits, and assemble my final draft, rather than its original intended use as a week to digest and address supervisor feedback from that final draft (the latter plan was much more risky in any case, relying on timely receipt of feedback based around others’ plans, as opposed to managing my own workload).
As it turned out, my full final draft was well-received by my supervisors, and now I am working through minimal feedback/comments, FAR less stressed than I imagined I would be towards the end of this process, and aiming to submit the final thesis really soon this summer before a few weeks’ respite from the thesis in full health!