The plan was to spend a week with family and grandchildren on a site at La Trinité-sur-Mer on the Brittany coast, them staying in a cabin and us in our caravan. We would then move on for a second week with friends on the Morbihan before travelling on together to an island site in Saumur we had enjoyed a few years before. It all started predictably, with the usual traffic clogged creep through Salisbury to Portsmouth and the seemingly endless wait in sequential queues on the dockside.
After a reasonable meal in the restaurant, we got a good night’s sleep and were woken by the beguiling trill of Breton pipes at the usual unearthly hour. We had got lucky and had been allocated a forward facing cabin, which afforded a spectacular dawn view of the bows of the ferry with St Malo harbour peering out of the early morning mist. By nine o’clock we were breakfasted and headed south towards Vannes on those deliciously empty French roads. The contrast with driving in the UK never ceased to amaze. After a stop for a light lunch, my wife Sam took over the driving and we tootled happily on south until, within a few kilometres of La Trinité, our sat nav, for some inexplicable reason, ignored a perfectly good bypass and directed us through the centre of a small town called Crac’h. The first we knew of impending trouble was when we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with an impenetrable wall of brightly coloured market stalls. There were no Route Barre or Deviation signs, nothing. Luckily, Sam was quick thinking enough to negotiate a tight right turn and head off down a side street. Following our noses, we soon came to the far side of the market, ironically complete with the requisite signage but also with a large white van parked in just the right (or wrong) position to stop us being able to swing wide enough to make the turn. We backed and filled and tried again and again to get round that pesky, bollard ridden bend, all to no avail, much to the amusement of the locals but no fun at all for us. Eventually, just as we were about to give up and walk away, abandoning the rig and everything in it, a lady stallholder took pity on us and persuaded the van driver to move.
Back on our way again, we gradually calmed down and were feeling almost relaxed when we arrived at the entrance to our site – a narrow brick archway barely wider than the caravan, that could only be negotiated by making a wide turn right across both lanes of a busy road. To make matters worse, as soon as we were through the archway, we found ourselves in a narrow, child-infested alleyway with nowhere to stop. Sam just had to keep on driving until she could find somewhere while I leaped out and hurried into the acceuil (reception) to try and find out where our pitch was.
Soon we were being led by a young man on a bike down a series of horribly narrow roads to probably the smallest caravan pitch I have ever seen. Way too shallow to put the van at the usual ninety degrees, we were faced with a series of almost impossible manoeuvres (brute force, no caravan mover) to squeeze our 7.1 meter van into a space barely 9 meters from end to end. Eventually, with some help from a friendly neighbouring Dutchman, we got set up with the off side of the van paralleling the access road, the awning on the opposite side, and the car shoehorned into the tightest space imaginable at the back end of the caravan. We spent the next few days completely disoriented, forever turning right instead of left!
As an additional welcome, barely an hour after our arrival, a very pleasant German couple arrived on the pitch next to us together with a toddler and a very poorly, very vocal baby. That poor little mite cried its heart out from morning to night for five very long and arduous days until they eventually took it to a doctor. Also, being the last week of the school holidays, the site was liberally infested with gangs of feral children and equally loud adults.
By about day three, we began to notice a rather unpleasant smell in the vicinity of our caravan door, something akin to a really ripe French sewer. We searched high and low for something dead or gone off, but with no success. Gradually the smell developed into a full-grown stench but thankfully, and puzzlingly, remained confined to a compact area either side of the caravan door. At the same time, Sam was beginning to question whether we had a problem with our heating system because the clothes in her wardrobe and cupboard were much warmer than they should have been. We were also becoming aware of a faint sussuration coming from somewhere in the van. In retrospect I maybe should have put two and two together but, as we all know, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Having eventually decided that there must be a serious problem with the drains, I was just about to head up to the acceuil to complain when I leant briefly against the locker immediately to the right of the caravan door where the battery is stored. It was blisteringly hot.
With the locker open, the culprit became obvious, a massively overheating battery, bulging ominously, fizzing quietly and giving off a rich and disgusting odour. With the culprit unplugged and removed, we were faced with finding a new battery in a hurry. Luckily, we had visited a yacht chandlery in La Trinité a couple of days before to buy a child’s life jacket, and we got there ten minutes before they were due to close. After a little Anglo French technical discussion, we staggered out with a fully charged, outrageously expensive leisure battery that could probably have powered a small town.
While enjoying the company of our son, his wife and their two children, we had also been closely monitoring the extremely volatile weather forecast and, as the day approached for our move to our next site, it looked as if we would be setting up on a truly terrible, windy and rainy day. Reckoning that it would make sense to move a day early so as to be watertight before the storm arrived, we did just that.
In typical September fashion, the day we moved was bright and clear, making the approaching storm seem more like some meteorologist’s fantasy than a reality. In stark contrast to our previous stop, the new site was wide open with spacious pitches shaded by giant umbrella pines. Having been given the choice of a couple of dozen empty pitches, we chose two adjacent ones, the second for our friends who would be joining us the next day. The only slight drawback to our chosen location was that it had a pronounced downhill slope from one end to the other. With plenty of space to manoeuvre this time, we drove straight in and stopped with the van in what we considered the perfect position. Because of a slightly less serious side-to-side slope, I placed one of our ramps under the offside front wheel of the caravan and reversed up onto it until we were level. The wheel ended up probably two inches from the top of the ramp. As a precaution, I placed a wheel chock under the downhill side of the other wheel and we prepared to unhitch.
Once uncoupled I noticed that, whereas we were nice and level, we weren’t quite square on the pitch. Easily remedied, I thought, shift the wheel chock back a bit, release the handbrake for a moment and let the van settle again. How was I to know that the van would promptly skip over the ramp, skew itself off the wheel chock and head off downhill straight for a horribly expensive looking mobile home? I found myself clinging on to the stabiliser handle, laid back like a tug-of-war backstop, gradually ploughing two parallel furrows in the grass with my heels, completely unable to take a hand off to reach the handbrake. I screamed, I know I did, and I deeply regret the language I used. After what seemed like a lifetime, Sam appeared around the side of the van, obviously wondering what on earth I was doing, lying flat on my back and screaming like a madman. Luckily she quickly got the message and hauled up the brake. We tried again.
With the awning up and everything battened down ready for the weather that was building in the west, we drove into town for a meal in a nice looking brazzerie. Having both settled on a main course, we struggled a bit to choose a starter, eventually settling on a salmon tartare for Sam and what at first glance looked like a steak tartare for me. I should have inspected the menu more closely because, on the line below the words steak tartare, were the words avec huitres, with oysters. They were all too obvious when the dish arrived but I thought, OK, there’s a first time for everything, so let’s give it a go. Caravan toilets are designed for occasional use, for middle-of-the-night emergencies. I am certain they were never intended for the kind of industrial hammering I put ours to that night. No more oysters for me thanks.
The predicted storm arrived overnight and, by the time the first hints of watery daylight were filtering through the clouds, it was in full swing, with a gusting wind driving curtains of torrential rain across the landscape. By the time our friends arrived after a hideous journey from Caen, our awning was leaking so much we all had to eat in our van. They decided to set up in the morning.
Over the next couple of days we all started to itch and scratch. We were being eaten alive by mosquitos. We quickly found the source, a stretch of stagnant pools running along the bottom edge of the site where the sea had overtopped the levee during high spring tides. Undeterred, we were soon kitted up with anti-mossie wristbands, sprays and those funny little plug in things that stink like burning socks. Two mornings later, after a disturbed night, I woke to find that someone had pumped up my left hand with a bicycle pump. And there, half way down one finger was an angry red blotch, an infected bite. Unusually, the local pharmacy wouldn’t give me anything, instead insisting I go to see the local Medecin, the doctor. After a gently surreal forty minutes sitting in the waiting room at the local surgery, trying to work out how the system worked (some people seemed to have appointments while others went through on a first-come-first-served basis), we were seen by a very pleasant young man who immediately prescribed penicillin and relieved us of twenty five Euros for the privilege. Back at the pharmacy, we were given two boxes of pills and relieved me of thirty eight Euros this time. Never ever complain about the NHS again. More on that later…
The infection cleared up in no time and we had a great time exploring the surrounding countryside despite the indifferent weather, settling in to one or other of our awnings in the evenings to sample the local wine and some excellent cooking while comfortably swathed in fleeces and blankets.
Our joint move to Saumur passed off without incident and we arrived and set up on two cramped but adjacent pitches on the picturesque Île Offard in the middle of the Loire, which turned out to be at its lowest level in living memory with notices everywhere warning everyone to avoid stagnant pools because of the risk of Weil’s disease. Saumur is a delightful little town, easily accessible via a gentle walk alongside the river and then across a beautiful multi-arched stone bridge straight into the centre which was packed as usual with roadside bars and restaurants, shaded by a pretty installation of multi-coloured umbrellas.
Having checked out the rather disappointing Fortress Chateau at Chinon, we spent the Tuesday of our final week exploring Saumur’s own imposing Chateau, a far more interesting and satisfying experience. That evening, with more wind and rain battering the site, we ate well and settled down to get a good night’s sleep ahead of a day’s walking to the west of the town. At two o’clock in the morning, I woke with a horrendous pain in my left arm and shoulder.
After shifting around for a bit trying to get rid of the pain, I became aware that my heart was pounding like a machine gun. Something definitely did not feel right. As quietly as I could, I climbed out of bed and headed to the front of the van to where my phone was on charge and where I had stashed my glyceryl trinitrate spray. I have to point out at this point that I had been having some angina symptoms immediately before coming on holiday. I had visited my GP straight away and he was happy for me to go as long as I took some tablets and the spray to keep things under control.
Luckily I have an app on my phone that measures pulse rate because mine was 140 bpm, dangerously high. I checked it three times with the same result. At that point Sam woke up and asked what was wrong. I told her I wasn’t sure but that something was definitely off. Then I gave myself two quick squirts of the spray under my tongue and, wonder of wonders; my pulse rate slowly began to reduce to a more reasonable 90 bpm. Deciding that we could do with some advice, we called our surgery’s number, knowing that it would divert to the UK 111 service. When I described my symptoms, I was told to ring the French emergency services straight away. My “Parlez vous Anglais?” was met with an immediate and unequivocal “Non”. Luckily, after a brief pause, a voice came on and asked me what symptoms did I have. In a bizarre three-way conversation through an interpreter, an ambulance was despatched to the campsite and we agreed to meet it at the entrance barrier, which was locked at night.
Bundled up in fleeces and waterproofs, we headed out into the storm. For some reason, Sam took the cross-country route to the entrance, which took in a path, which was almost certainly never intended for motor vehicles, an empty pitch or two and a pétanque court. Never get in the way of a woman on a mission! The ambulance was already there on the other side of the barrier when we arrived, its blue lights strobing in the rain, very dramatic.
I climbed out of the car and was helped into the back of the ambulance by three burly pompiers in their big black commando boots. Once inside out of the rain, I was laid out on the gurney and stripped of my waterproof, fleece and tee shirt before being wired up to an electro-cardiogram machine. All the while, Sam was describing my symptoms along with my age, address, inside leg measurement etc. in her very best French (which is a hell of a lot better than mine, I’m ashamed to say). After about ten minutes, a doctor and a nurse arrived with even more flashing lights and crammed themselves into the already crowded ambulance. Luckily the doctor had fairly good English and, after having a cannula inserted in my arm by the very shy nurse, an injection in my tummy, (I had one of those every day and never discovered what it was for, although I now know the French for injection, piqure) bloods extracted, a saline drip attached and a final check-over, I was off to Saumur Hospital A&E leaving Sam to follow on as soon as the barriers were unlocked at seven in the morning, four hours away.
Accident and Emergency departments are functional work places, I get that. But Saumur felt a little more functional than usual. In fact, I wondered if I’d been taken to the wrong place, it felt more like an industrial unit. After being wheeled into a cubicle, I was handed over by the doctor and the pompiers, wired up to the hospital’s machinery and checked over once again. This time I didn’t have my translator and so my schoolboy French got stretched to its limit. Luckily I have a translating app on my phone, which helped no end. It is all too easy to be lulled into thinking that everyone in Europe has English as his or her second language. This may be the case in certain countries, but not in France. The majority of nurses and medical staff I encountered during my little adventure had very little or no English at all.
After being directed, mostly by sign language, to change into a hospital gown (complete with some old blood stains down one side), I was told I would have to wait three hours for a second blood test, which would confirm whether or not I had had a heart attack. I was then draped with probably the thinnest blanket in the world and left to my own devices. All the while I was texting my desperately worried Sam to tell her I was OK and still breathing. I can’t bear to think what those few hours would have been like without mobile phones. Despite having most of the lights turned off, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. The place was noisy, the gurney was uncomfortable, the blood pressure cuff on my arm kicked off every ten minutes or so and a loud and constant beep from behind my head was a constant reminder that my old ticker was still going. I was allowed nothing to eat or drink apart from a very small sip of water every now and then, in case I needed surgery.
After having another armful of blood extracted, by a very pleasant but frighteningly thin young man who told me that he was a student and that his parents live in Bristol, I lay back and waited while the shifts changed and the place gradually came to life. By eight o’clock, the area immediately outside my cubicle was like a battlefield casualty clearing station, with ambulances arriving by the minute and gurneys shuttling every which way. I was in one half of a bay that was divided in two by a movable screen. Although I couldn’t actually see what was going on next to me, I could hear everything. It was like a continuous loop of ER episodes. Loaded gurneys would come in with a greater or lesser degree of urgency along with ambulance crews who were augmented within seconds by swarms of medics, nurses and technicians. For one patient, there must have been at least a dozen people dealing with him before he was loaded onto another ambulance gurney and rushed away.
During this period, I was gradually becoming aware of pressure building down below. After being unable to catch anyone’s eye, and unwilling to interrupt the serious business going on next door, I pressed my buzzer. When someone eventually arrived, I told them I needed a pee. There are some things you have to be able to say in any language, ‘give me a beer’, and ‘where are the toilets?’. Moments later I was presented with a urine bottle that might well have dated from the eighteenth century in a wire cradle that looked even older, and rusty to boot. By that time, the wide double doors in front of me were wide open, leaving me exposed to the milling throng outside. By then I was desperate, so I draped the useless blanket over the side of the cot and just got on with it.
Sam arrived around mid-day and was told that I had indeed had a heart attack and that I needed further tests. And that was the moment that Sam said some words that I will never forget. She told me that she had been in touch with Red Pennant, our travel insurer, and that they had everything in hand. If necessary, they would arrange to collect the caravan or even the entire rig and take it back to England. Ferry tickets would be rescheduled, medical assistance would be provided if necessary and that I wasn’t to worry about a thing. Of course I had been worrying, racking my brains about how we were going to deal with the situation. What was strange was that I was a hundred times more worried about Sam than I was about myself. I was out of the picture, I couldn’t do anything. She was stuck on a campsite in France with a caravan and awning, a canoe and all our kit, with only four days to go until we were due to sail home. And, to cap it all, the toilet cassette needed emptying, which was usually my job because she has bad wrists. The fact that our friends were staying for another three days was the only thing that stopped me having another heart attack from sheer worry!
While Sam and I were having a quiet chat, a very serious looking lady doctor arrived with an ultrasound machine on a trolley. She introduced herself and, without any preamble at all, dragged up the front of my gown, stripped off a number of monitor pads and, using to my mind a rather excessive amount of gel, proceeded to perform a full ultrasound scan of my heart. While she slimed me thoroughly, I was forced to listen to a sequence of rather wheezy heart pumpy sounds without any idea whether they were acceptable or not. Eventually, the woman packed her stuff away and told me, in quite passable English, that I was to be transferred to another hospital in Angers where there was a specialist cardiac centre and a catheter lab. It seemed that I needed surgery. Then she left me, covered in a thick layer of gel from chin to stomach. In the absence of any alternative, I used the blanket. It wasn’t much use for anything else.
Two hours later, a team of burly but cheerful pompiers arrived with a gurney and a whole stack of monitoring equipment. I was transferred across, wrapped up, wired up and strapped in before being wheeled out through the mayhem into some very welcome sunshine. The ambulance, I was told, was not an emergency vehicle and was purely used for transfers. ‘More comfortably’, I was told by the doctor who was to accompany me, and who thankfully had some English. As we sped along the almost empty AutoRoute, I learned that Angers, a University teaching hospital, was the centre of excellence for cardiac issues in the whole of France. It was good I was going there, I was told, because I needed an urgent examination, an angiogram.
When we arrived, I was quickly and efficiently installed in a light and airy high ceilinged room with a floor to ceiling window that looked out onto a small, weed infested garden and a stack of workmen’s orange barriers. At least I could see the sky. Over the next couple of hours, I was prodded and probed, checked and checked again; eventually being told that I would not be having my ‘examination’ until Thursday. After a while, Sam and our friends Andy and Juliet arrived, having driven the 70 kilometres from Saumur, together with a bag full of essentials ranging from a toothbrush and toothpaste to a charger for my phone.
Not long after my visitors left, I was told I could eat, and minutes later a tray was deposited on my table and swung round until I could reach it easily. Now France, as we all know, is a nation where food and eating are taken seriously. It is a nation of haute cuisine, cordon bleu chefs and all forms of gastronomic perfection and excess. Sadly no one seems to have passed any of this on to the hospital catering team at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire, Angers.
Facing me were three rather flaccid plastic trays. I peeled the film back on the first one to discover what might once have been a chicken leg before it had been microwaved to the texture of biltong. I ripped off a piece with my teeth. It certainly didn’t taste like any chicken I have ever had before, but it was, almost, edible. The second tray contained what I guess was intended to be mashed potato but which had the consistency of soggy semolina and a flavour to match. The final tray contained something that looked like mushroom blancmange. After a quick taste I troubled it no further. I also ignored, after tasting, both the apple yoghurt (eugh) and probably the driest bread roll I have ever encountered. Food from Scott’s Antarctic hut would probably have tasted better.
About an hour after the tray had been cleared away, at about eight in the evening, a nurse bustled in hefting what looked like a battery powered beard trimmer that had seen better days. After demonstrating that she had virtually no English, she proceeded to grab my left arm and shave all the hairs from mid forearm down to my fingers. After doing the same to my other arm, she indicated that I should lift my gown and remove my underwear. All I could do was shut my eyes and think of England.
There are two things anyone entering hospital needs to bear in mind. The first is to leave your dignity in a bag by the door; you will be able to pick it up later. The second thing is, hospitals never sleep, and neither will you. No matter how often I dozed off, I was woken up every two hours to have my blood pressure, pulse and temperature checked. Eventually, as soon as the blaze of light from the corridor hit me, I would just raise my right arm, smile and mutter ‘encore une fois’, one more time.
A series of naps probably added up to a half decent nights sleep and all too soon, a rather grey daylight began to fill my room. After another battery of checks including a full ECG, breakfast arrived in the form of a bowl of coffee. I was not allowed any food again prior to my procedure. Without going on about it, the coffee was barely warm and bitter, but at least it was wet. At about eleven, a nurse positioned a wheelchair beside my bed and told me my departure was imminent. Minutes later, she returned and stuck an adhesive disc on each of my wrists, right over my pulse point. I braced myself. Time went on. Midday came and went, then two o’clock, three o’clock. At four, Sam phoned to say she was just leaving Saumur and would be with me in an hour. Shortly after I had finished the call, a doctor arrived to tell me that there had been many emergencies that day and they hoped to fit me in later. Bearing in mind that it was Friday and I had no idea whether they worked over the weekend, I hoped he was right.
Sam left at seven and at half past, ignoring the wheelchair, I was wheeled out in my bed and through what felt like miles of deserted corridors to an equally empty ‘Salle d’attente’, waiting area. I was told, ‘Here you wait fifteen minutes’. I was on my own, far from home in a country whose language I spoke very little and I had no idea what was in store. Those were some of the most anxious fifteen minutes of my life.
At last I was wheeled into the cavernous catheter lab. The place was enormous, full of mysterious equipment, with nurses and technicians hurrying about doing goodness knows what. Although I have had an angioplasty before, I must confess to being bloody nervous at that point. Eventually, I was established on the ‘operating table’ with the cuboid scanner head, something about the size of an old fashioned TV set, positioned inches from my chest. The surgeon and his acolytes continued to busy themselves, one sweeping my gown out of the way to expose my naked and recently shaved groinal area. Please don’t go in that way, I prayed. I had been told they would use my radial artery. A nurse then painted both my lower arms with a bright orange antiseptic solution before moving on down and doing the same to my nether regions.
After another few minutes, the surgeon strapped my right arm down firmly with something across the palm to keep my wrist flexed. A number of unwanted images of people being strapped to gurneys flicked across my mind and I kicked them out smartish. Next came the local anaesthetic in my wrist, which wasn’t too uncomfortable. The next thing I felt was something cool moving up inside my arm. And that’s when things really started to ache, from my elbow to my shoulder, presumably from the catheter. I was told later that the artery in the arm is far narrower than the femoral artery and it is consequently a much more uncomfortable procedure. Still, it was bearable, just. Up to my left hung a bank of three monitors and I could just about see the images on the one nearest to me, images which were familiar from when I had my first stent. They were black and white of course, and I could see the fuzzy shape of my heart and surrounding vessels pumping away reassuringly. Occasionally an impossibly thin black line would snake its way in from the side, winding and curling, moving to the rhythm of my heartbeat before a gust of what looked like squid ink (contrast medium) would gush from its end, highlighting all the vessels. There was much toing and froing, like a video referee trying to spot an infringement.
After a while and much passing of catheters across the inside of my chest, a most unsettling sensation, the surgeon informed me that I needed stents and that he would do them straight away. That’s when things suddenly got a bit more tense and focused, as if the concentration levels had been ratcheted up a notch or two. The first surgeon was joined by a colleague and a technician who both then leaned across my legs to peer intently at the three screens. Instructions were issued, the screens flickered and then, to my horror, they both started to behave worryingly like garage mechanics or plumbers, rubbing their chins, sucking their teeth and muttering to each other. This went on for long enough to get me really nervous before more arcane instructions were issued, more technicians scurried about and a series of loud clicks made me jump. At one point my gums suddenly felt cold, I’ve no idea what that was about. Just as I was about to think the nightmare would never end, it did. The surgeon told me I had two new stents and the nurses started clearing up, one strapping something very tightly around my wrist before helping me back across onto my bed.
Back in my room, I was reconnected to all the machinery and told I was to lie absolutely still and flat for the next four hours without moving my right arm at all. I texted Sam using my left thumb and for once in my life was grateful for predictive text. I had been a long ninety minutes in surgery, and it was by then 21:30. Luckily, Sam had left me some goodies to eat when she’d visited earlier and so I didn’t have to resort to whatever the hospital kitchens might rustle up. After a couple of hours, as the local anaesthetic began to wear off, my wrist began to ache big time and I was given some paracetamol. Once the four hours were up, my nurse began to release the pressure on my wristband a little bit at a time, every thirty minutes. It was a long night. At some time in the early hours, she took the thing off altogether and popped a dressing on the smallest wound I have ever seen, it looked like it had been made with a very sharp pencil.
Saturday morning’s inedible breakfast was accompanied by a cheery looking doctor who told me that everything was good but that I might need some more surgery in the future. When I asked whether they would be doing anything more in Angers, he shrugged and said maybe, maybe not, which was not the answer I wanted. Sam, Andy and Juliet turned up later, A & J to say goodbye because they were off back to the UK on Sunday morning. They left me with a cool bag of filled baguettes to keep me going. No one seemed bothered when I said I didn’t want any food, maybe they were used to people smuggling edible food in.
After a quiet Sunday, I was told on Monday morning that I could leave, just like that. I couldn’t go until two o’clock, but Sam could come and collect me and we could ‘carry on enjoying our holiday’. Firstly they took out my cannula, then they disconnected me from the mains, and then, finally, they gave me a large envelope full of indecipherable medical information, a drugs prescription and a CD of images to take back to a cardiologist in the UK. When Sam arrived, I was already dressed and packed and then, with handshakes all round, we made our way along to the acceuil to check out. Luckily we didn’t have to queue for long to sign a whole lot of forms and were soon on our way out into the sunshine and glorious freedom. After a short and only slightly wobbly walk to the car, we headed out of Angers to the nearest services for some much-needed food. And that was where Sam told me her news. It seemed that the medical section of our insurance company were insisting that we should be medevaced home, by air, with a doctor in attendance every inch of the way. The car and caravan would be picked up and driven home by a Caravan Club driver shortly afterwards. Because the medics at Angers had taken so long to make up their minds about whether or not I would need further surgery, the earliest they could get us home was Friday, which suited us rather well, giving us ample time to draw our collective breath and pack up the caravan.
We made the most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the weather having at last decided to play ball after two weeks of grey skies and frequent showers. It was sunny and pleasantly warm almost for the first time since we had arrived in Brittany what seemed like a lifetime ago. After filling my prescription (I only in fact needed one of the drugs listed, I already had all the rest), we spent a little time strolling through Saumur in the sunshine, taking our time and trying to let the stresses and strains of the past few days wash away.
Wednesday and Thursday were taken up with carefully packing the car and the caravan ready for their journey home, all the while liaising with the insurance folk about what would be happening when. Late on Thursday we received a visit from the English doctor who would be travelling back with us, to give me a thorough check up and talk about Friday’s arrangements. We were to be picked up by taxi at 07:25 (precisely) and driven to the airport at Nantes from where we would fly to Gatwick before being chauffeured back home to Somerset. It seemed a bit of a long way round rather that flying to Bristol, but that’s the way the flights fell and, to be honest, we were well ready to go home by then, by whatever route.
We had arranged to meet the Caravan Club driver, who had just flown out from the UK, back at the site immediately after a final meal out in Saumur and we effected a straightforward handover with him driving our car away ready to pick the caravan up the next day. And so we slept one last night in Saumur to be woken by the alarm horribly early the next morning in time to pack away the last few bits and bobs and close up the van. The taxi arrived bang on time with Simon, our friendly doctor on board, and we settled back for an uneventful two-hour drive to Nantes. Because I was strictly under doctor’s orders, even though I felt better that I had for weeks, I had to resign myself to a wheelchair all the way from the car park right onto the aircraft. Actually, once I relaxed into it, it was brilliant, we shot straight to the front of every single queue, were whisked through security in the blink of an eye and, before we even knew it, we were at the gate, unfortunately having missed duty free and any sort of breakfast.
After being hoisted up and wheeled into the cabin long before anyone else, we found ourselves settled across four sets; Simon by the window, his kit on the seat next to him and me in the aisle seat. Sammy was sat next to me across the gangway. One of the things the medics were concerned about was my oxygen saturation levels during the flight, especially considering that O2 levels are reduced in the aircraft cabin. Luckily mine stayed nailed at 98% for the duration of the journey so I didn’t need any intervention. We also got a passable breakfast on the plane which was very welcome. During the flight, Simon and I talked about some of the medevac trips he had made from places as far flung as America, Peru and Australia, fascinating. At Gatwick, all three of us were picked up by a buggy and whisked like VIPs right through to the car park where we were met by our driver. Now that’s the way to travel!
We made steady progress from the M25 car park to the M3 car park and eventually the A303 car park, especially the section past Stonehenge, until, at 16:30 we at last arrived home. Simon gave me a final once over and handed me, officially, into Sam’s tender care and then they were off, leaving us exhausted but relieved to be home at last. It had been a long day. Our caravan was delivered back to its storage barn on Sunday morning and our car arrived back with us half an hour later, complete with our canoe on the roof rack. Our driver, Martin’s wife had followed him over from Ringwood and, after a quick pit stop, took him home again.
I went to my GP on the Monday morning after our return and was given a clean bill of health. I will eventually see a cardiologist just to finalise the process and make sure everything is working like it should. Of course, we then had an awful lot of insurance paperwork to wade through, along with a mountain of washing! One of the first things Sam said to me was, “You know what we need now, a bloody good holiday!”.
There are a number of people who deserve our unbounded gratitude; the French emergency services; the staff at Flower Camping, Ile Offard, notably Julie, who couldn’t do enough for us; the emergency staff at the Caravan and Motorhome Club (Red Pennant) who were unfailingly calm, efficient and helpful; the medical and nursing staff at Centre Hospitalier Universaire Angers for fixing my plumbing; the staff at CEGA, notably Simon, our repatriation doctor; Suzannah, James and all the friends who offered to fly over to France and sort everything; our friends, Andy and Juliet for being the bricks they are and, finally and most profoundly, my wife, Sam, for holding it together when many others in her situation would have fallen apart, and for giving me the strength to endure a really scary event.
© David Hermelin 2017