Being an easy wanderer, or rather, someone who naturally gets lost on their way somewhere, I have found that often, I find the best, most pleasantly surprising things in the quietest, most unsuspecting of neighbourhoods. It took me 2 hours to find 163 steps worth of beautifully tiled brickwork on 16th Avenue, San Francisco, but the neighbourhood itself was no more than a dead cul-de-sac of nothingness – well, a nothingness of interest other than it housed a dozen of San Francisco’s residents. And when I was struggling to chase down the Flower Stairs, a dazzling staircase of flamboyant yellow sunflowers, off a side street in Yau Me Tei, Hong Kong, not even the locals had ever heard of this supposed place…which, made it all the more worthwhile, as it was only I and the steps – plenty of time to gaze and get the perfectly angled photograph.
It was all well and good getting to these places, but when you’re stood at the bottom of those staircases, you are gawping, not just at the sheer creativity of such artistic murals, but also the sheer distance and effort it will most likely take to get to point B, in other words, the top. Standing at the bottom of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep stairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was one of these ‘gawping’ moments, and despite being reasonably fit with my sporting background, my brittle lungs were having none of it. But I had no other way of knowing what beauty lay before me, the rolling green hills and gold-tipped temples, until I reached the top. So I climbed. And it’s in exactly the same manner that we use to approach our goals and dreams, both daily and more long-term. I, for instance, have found that some of my most meaningful opportunities and achievements have come about at the most unexpected of times, often just happening to stumble upon them, just how I did with 16th Avenue and the alleyway in Yau Me Tei.
Without sounding too cliché, I thus love and embrace the metaphorical meaning to the staircase, and all their steps. With height and altitude we also grow and develop and, with each step you take you make more progress towards that end goal, that top – your top, although, in this case, you decide where the top is – not quite the 309 it took to see a dozen shrines, that’s for sure. So, in Medicine, my career ladder, in straightforward terms, I’m on the 3rd step of a staircase of 5, ever so gradually pacing the years I complete until I become a qualified doctor. But, in between these steps, those years, there are so many more uneven grounds to cover – grassy slopes, bumpy roads and steeply inclining ramps – be it the exams, the long days of placement, the discrimination faced due to disability, or even just the lack of caffeine to help me fuel myself through the journeyed process.
But, there’s another type of staircase now currently a big part in my life – ICU Steps. ICU Steps is a nationwide charity made up of many local support groups within different hospital trusts, whereby ex-patients of the Intensive Care Unit, along with ICU doctors, nurses and psychologists, congregate together to support one another in their recovery post-critical illness. I finally got round to attending my first support group meeting in Newport a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t feel more reassured and happy that I went along. My previous 9 ICU admissions in the past few years were brushed off easily like cake crumbs, but my 10th admission this summer was an entirely different ball court. A brush with death – a respiratory arrest, sepsis and pneumonia, all leading to 13 days intubated and on a ventilator, it was highly doubtful I’d be coming back to where I am now. The hallucinations I endured through all of this are the biggest and most vivid scarring out of it all – they sent me hanging off the edge of buildings for days, being blown up in plane crashes, packed up in tiny boxes, and even at my own funeral. Without going into too much of the detail here, it still very much punching me bluntly in the gut at the thought, I perhaps hadn’t realised how much it had affected me until I returned home and found that night-times were scolded in an endless string of flashbacks, nightmares and a confuzzling terror of my bearings. 2 months on and I had genuinely convinced myself I was going mad, and that nobody would take any of this nonsense of saying either seriously or lightly. Speaking to some lovely, humbling members of Newport’s ICU steps reaffirmed then that actually, it was all entirely normal, and that these hallucinations were in fact an overwhelmingly common feature in the long-term ventilated ICU patient, as described by a fellow patient next to me, or rather, a victim of an in-hospital MI6 investigation, as according to his string of hallucination encounters.
For many of those patients, it has been anything from 2 to 5 years since their traumatic admission, and yet quite a few of those are still very much feeling their way through the recovery process. I have no idea how long it will take me to get to the end, or at least the comfortable baseline, of this emotive process – the number of steps to climb could be a staircase of months, or even a staircase of years – a spiralling one where I plummet through a series of high and low phases, or a steep and exhausting one, that puts all matter of endurance, both physical and mental, to the test. But the thing to remember is, is that you choose how many steps you need to take and how long you are going to take to get there. Some patients are on step 4, others are on step 12, and for my career goals I am on step 3, but for these bunch of stairs, I’m starting on the very first, and it feels like a huge achievement just to heave up onto the very start of it. Try it – next time you’re faced with a goal, an aspiration or even a deadline, apply it to this metaphorical staircase and I promise you it will bless you with a sense of accomplished journey and firm-grounded appreciation for the meaning of worthwhile patience.
I saw this staircase in San Francisco and indeed gawped at the heavenly swarm of astronomical murals all blending into each other, destined to reach the top by the moon and stars. And those moons and stars are in just the right place for our wishes and dreams to come true too, for when we get there…