In April 2017 I was probably in the best physical condition of my life. I had just turned 29 and was working on a long-standing ambition to run a marathon before my 30th birthday. Well, I turned 30 last week. I have run no marathons, and I almost certainly never will.
On 30 April, I ran most of the Hackney Half. I remember up until about mile 11 – I was actually doing pretty well – but I collapsed from heatstroke on the final bend before the finish.
Noone I know saw me go down, so I don’t know exactly what happened. But, I didn’t have any cuts or bruises, so I can only assume that I either sat down of my own accord before I passed out, or that someone caught me (thank you, stranger).
I came to in the St John’s Ambulance tent, with ice down my pants and a thermometer in my bum – which is about as dignified as it gets. My core temperature had reached 40 degrees and for a while I couldn’t remember where I lived, but eventually, with a lot of help from my gang of supporters, I got into an Uber and went home – not without a few vomiting stops.
Heatstroke sucks, but I was just getting started.
The next day (Monday) my legs were more achy than anything I’d ever experienced – the pain was so bad that I couldn’t bend my legs to step into the bath. I stayed in bed all day, feeling sorry for myself and struggling to eat anything. I obviously hadn’t done any cool-down stretches, and my body temperature had been dropped very quickly, so I put the muscle pain down to that and took ibuprofen to manage it (big mistake, it turns out).
By the Wednesday, nothing had improved and I still couldn’t keep any food down, so on Thursday morning I took myself to the walk-in at St Georges hospital, believing that I had a severe case of dehydration.
At the hospital, the nurses took blood and urine samples, and in a matter of minutes I was called through, put on a drip and sent to the resus ward – that’s the place where they send car crash victims. I was pretty confused as to why I was there.
They linked me up to a heart monitor, and I waited. My fiancé arrived and we waited. Finally, a doctor from the renal ward arrived and told me they were concerned about my kidneys.
To cut a long story short, it turned out that I had rhabdomyalosis, meaning my muscles were breaking down and releasing toxins into my blood stream. This was blocking up my kidneys’ filtration system, and leading to the nausea, tiredness and general crappiness I was feeling. Ibuprofen is also bad for kidneys, so that had just made matters worse. The disintegrating muscle also explained the extreme leg pain.
I was eventually wheeled off to the High Dependency Unit, part of Intensive Care, feeling pretty baffled about what was going on.
The enzyme that was escaping from my muscles was creatine kinase (CK). A healthy person’s CK level is minimal, and the upper end of normal is around 200 units per litre. One doctor told me the highest he had ever seen was around 100,000, another had seen 3 million. At my worst, mine was 6.7 million units per litre, a fact I’m weirdly proud of.
I spent three days in the ICU on a 24/7 blood filtration machine (to give my kidneys a ‘little holiday’), before I was transferred to the renal ward, where we waited to see if my kidneys were recovering. When I vommed Rice Krispies all over myself, it was decided that they were not, and I had a bout of dialysis.
After that, I didn’t get any better, but I didn’t get any worse. I just sat in hospital, having blood tests every day, and being told I hadn’t improved enough to go home yet, for about a week and a half. I couldn’t eat much – the odd nut or biscuit – and I drank a bit of tea. I was introduced to Fortijuice, which has a lot of calories in a very small bottle but tastes like nothing I can even attempt to describe (it’s really, really bad).
I finally went home two weeks after I took myself in. I had lost a lot of weight and my marathon-running leg muscles were reduced to almost nothing. I felt crushed, weak and vulnerable, and I sat on my sofa and cried and cried – I guess the shock of it all finally hit me.
I was an outpatient for another month before I was given the all clear and discharged, and follow-up tests six months later showed that my kidneys were functioning normally. I got married in August, and in December my husband and I left London for two months in New Zealand, followed by our official honeymoon in Fiji. Now, we’re living and working in Australia for at least six months.
As it happened, my rhabdo experience was just a crappy section of what turned out to be one big emotional roller coaster of a year. But it could have been a lot worse. I count myself so lucky to have recovered in the way I did, and to have the support of my incredible family and friends, who visited me in hospital, sent cards and gifts, and never stopped trying to feed me.
Now, I’m back on track, working towards getting fit again and getting my mojo back.
Wish me luck!