New Zealand part five: North island and concussion, Jan 11th – Feb 11th 2020

All of our time in New Zealand was taken up with Jay’s health to varying degrees, but during our last few weeks in the country we became intimately more involved with the local health services than we’d ever hoped to.

Back in India Jay had developed a sore throat on one side that hurt when he talked or swallowed. It waxed and waned and he hoped it would go away, but it didn’t. By the time we arrived in New Zealand we decided it was time to get it checked out. With the approval of our travel insurers, we accessed an urgent care centre, had a bunch of blood tests and two further GP appointments. All of which ended up with a diagnosis of thrush and some hideous throat drops. After finishing the course we returned to the GP and had the following ridiculous exchange:
“That’s it all gone, there’s no more thrush”
“OK, but I still have all the symptoms that I came with”
“But the thrush has gone, it’s fixed”
“But the sore throat is the problem and that’s still there”
“No, it’s all better”

It was pretty frustrating, but we did manage to get a referral for an ENT “if you still think there’s a problem later”. Which we did.

The medical system in NZ is remarkably similar to that in the UK in terms of what is available (which is why we waited until we arrived there), but not in how it is accessed given that there is no National Health Service. People pay to see a GP, and can then use insurance to pay for any referrals our additional treatment. But if you want to see a specialist, you can just phone up one of the hundreds of private clinics and book an appointment (we’re vaguely aware that this is also true in the UK, but given that public healthcare is free, you’d have to be either loaded or desperate to do it). With the added info from his referral and blood tests, we booked in with an ENT in Northland, who popped a camera up Jay’s nose and down his throat, immediately said “oh yes that’s it” and diagnosed a harmless granuloma on his vocal chords. Irritating and painful, but nothing that can’t wait til we get home to deal with.

Unfortunately, whilst we were getting the good news about Jay’s throat, he had a rather more serious health issue in the form of a second concussion in 4 weeks (the first being just before christmas and not worth mentioning at the time!). Jay had been on his now-daily 5km run (having missed out on this much loved hobby whilst we were in countries filled with wild dogs and bears), along a lovely cliff path. Running full pelt, paying attention to his feet on the difficult ground, he launched at top speed off a rock directly into a tree branch above his head, and gave himself an epic concussion. He walked the kilometre back to the beach where Maeve and our friends were, with blurry vision and a sore neck, but figured it would go away soon enough.

With Jay’s extensive experience of concussions, we thought a few days of taking it easy would sort the problem, but sadly that wasn’t the case. As the days drew on and he was still sleeping constantly, unable to concentrate, and finding it hard to follow what was going on, we realised it wasn’t going to go away any time soon. After 11 days of Jay getting tired doing very little (some jigsaw, a bit of gardening, swimming and the odd short walk), we accepted that we weren’t going to do any of the epic hikes we’d planned, or the long road trips, but we did think we’d be able to go on a more gentle driving tour to at least see the places we’d wanted to visit. As we were setting off to spend 2 weeks sleeping in the car kindly loaned to us, we were advised by a neuropsychologist friend to get a proper medical assessment given the ongoing issues Jay was having.

At urgent care Jay had multiple x-rays and was told he had secondary concussion and post-concussion syndrome, along with a neck injury from the spine being compacted in the impact. Luckily nothing was broken, but he was given a referral for a full head injury assessment. In the meanwhile, we were told it was definitely not a good idea to sleep in the car, and that Jay needed a comfortable and quiet environment to recover in.

We managed to get the assessment booked for 8 days later, and thankfully our exceptionally kind friends let us stay with them until we could make the appointment. It was a terribly tedious 8 days. Jay spent most of the time in a dim room because light and noise made his head hurt. Reading and looking at screens also brought on symptoms, as did socialisng a lot, or talking about anything difficult. He had problems with word-finding, following what was happening, and fatigue, and couldn’t walk for more than 5-10 minutes without feeling over-exerted. The days passed in a slow, frustrating blur of grey walls, shuttered windows, and slow movements. We downloaded tons of running podcasts to keep his motivation up, and during the week he started to be able to draw for short periods. This proper rest for his brain did help though, and we saw some other slow improvements.

At the assessment, the specialist felt that Jay would probably be better in a few weeks, but that it could take a few months to be completely back to normal. He gave us some exercises for Jay to do to strengthen the specific cognitive areas which had been most impacted by the concussion.

We had been worried we would be told that our onward travel to South America would have to be curtailed or even stopped, but he was actually surprisingly positive about our trip. He said that flying wouldn’t be a problem, although changes in air pressure may bring on symptoms (ditto with altitude), but we should aim to limit stimulation as much as possible, take regular rest, allow more time and do things slowly. We were both so relieved after our enforced lassitude that the adventure wasn’t over. We did have to cancel our plans to take an intensive Spanish course when we arrived in Argentina though, as Jay couldn’t tolerate even a minute of trying to learn Spanish without a terrible headache, but at least we could still get there to enjoy the country! At the time of writing (18 Feb), he is managing a few Duolingo lessons each day so we’re hopeful that we can do an intensive course soon.

An unexpected benefit of going for the head injury assessment was its location. Surprisingly it turned out that Richard O’Brien had lived in Hamilton for a while, and there was an incredible square featuring his statue as Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show!

Whilst Jay was resting, Maeve had a few adventures out on her own, including taking up some surfing lessons which we found a great deal on locally. Her main lesson after three days was that all her strength seems to have disappeared whilst we’ve been travelling! Pushing up into a standing position requires both bicep and core strength, both of which were nowhere to be found. But despite this she had a good time and definitely saw improvement over the course of a few lessons.

On another day she headed off to Te Tapui Reserve for a walk. The drive was unbearably hot, and she was starting to wonder if climbing a hill was a good idea! But after a fairly long drive down a gravel road, the reserve car park appeared and the whole hill was covered in native bush, to provide shade for the whole walk. The path was very rough underfoot, just the sort of terrain that had caused Jay to be looking at his feet whilst running and not see the branch in front of him. But at walking pace it was ok!

There wasn’t a single other person on the reserve, but there were loads of noisy birds and insects. At the top of the hill a platform provided views over the trees and out across the fields – currently all pale browns and yellows due to the lack of rain.

It was very strange going for a walk alone in a different country. Even just spending an afternoon not with Jay was a novel experience. We’d been saying for a while that it would probably do us some good to have some time apart, but having Jay stuck indoors staring at the walls wasn’t quite what we had in mind!

A few days later Maeve packed a picnic and a body board to go to Raglan beach, a surfer’s paradise and the nearest bit of coast to where we were staying at the time. The beach is famous for having black sand, and even with sandals on the heat of the sand was jarring. As it was still the summer holidays the beach was packed with families crowded around the swimming flags, with the rest of the long beach taken up with surfers and groups having lessons.

After the beach the Happy Cow app suggested a place nearby for a vegan milkshake, and Maeve ended up at the café of a yoga/surf resort with the most incredible views:

Apart from these few excursions, we both spent most of our time indoors, resting and (gently!) thinking about what we would like to do next.

Two days after our appointment with the specialist, we thanked our extremely kind and tolerant friends and headed off to a caravan in the Coromandel peninsula. We booked a place high in the hills, surrounded by the NZ bush where Jay could do very little, but still enjoy sitting amid the wildlife and greenery.

It turned out to be a lovely place, with a day bed, which due to the heat soon became our night bed too! The sky was pitch dark at night and we could see the Milky Way. We were also lucky enough to hear kiwi calling each other in the valley. We swam in the river nearby and Maeve took some time to explore Coromandel Town by herself.

On our last day there we got up very early to go to “Hot Water Beach”, where a geothermal spring seeps up through the sand on the beach. For an hour or so either side of low tide, it is possible to dig a hole in the sand and create a natural hot tub on the beach. As low tide was very early, we set off with the sunrise and had an incredible drive across the mountains of the peninsula from one side to the other, spotting kingfishers and wekas on the way.

At the beach, we took a shovel we’d borrowed from our Airbnb and followed the other people to the small area where the spring is found. By wedging your feet into the sand you can work out where it is hot under the surface and dig for the spring. Unfortunately the only spot we could find was right on the tide line, and so every time a big wave came in (every couple of minutes) it filled our meagre hole up with sand and we had to start again!

Eventually another group of people took pity and kindly donated us their hole as they were leaving. Even with a pre-dug hole it was a tricky thing to use, as the water bubbling up through the sand was 65oC, far too hot to tolerate. A family nearby had also dug a hole, which had cool water in it, so we made a channel and shared. It was a lovely communal thing to enjoy. But as the sun continued to rise, the combination of heat from the water and the hot sun started to get too much, so we headed off.

In a further strange twist to the day, we ran into Maeve’s ex-teammate Angie from Preston Roller Girls who is currently travelling in NZ, and just happened to be visiting hot water beach for the same tide! We had a quick hello in the car park, but shortly after Jay had a big crash. The combination of the early start, a little bit of digging, and the heat of the morning, had all taken its toll. We had planned to visit a couple more sights on the peninsula, but thankfully we recognised the severity of Jay’s symptoms, and we headed back to rest for the remainder of the day.

Over time we have become much better at considering the amount of energy required to engage in various activities, though it is still very difficult for Jay to accept his limitations! We have also realised that it is really hard for other people to grasp how unwell he is, since he does appear normal in his interactions, especially just in short bursts. But the gift of hindsight has helped us both to realise in retrospect just how poorly he has been, and to recognise the onset of symptoms earlier so that we can rein back our activity (and it really does take both of us to notice it sometimes, since Jay – like many of us – is used to just pushing through the occasional headache or lethargic day).

We spent the rest of our short time in Coromandel doing virtually nothing, going back to our original plan of rest and relaxation.

Over the course of two days, we covered the drive back up to Northland, starting off along the long white sand and shell bay.

On our last night we stayed in a freedom camping spot next to Waipu Caves; famous for their glowworms. Jay is a huge fan of these creatures, so we took the slightly ill-advised decision to brave the slippery dark clay caves to see them. Like glittering green LEDs, they formed the shaped of constellations, mapping the caves’ inner contours. So bright that they reflected the icy water that ran through the heart of the caves, in the utter darkness we realised we could just about see each other in the light of the glowworms, and for a brief moment we considered sleeping in there so we could continue to gaze up at the twinkling iridescence. But the multitude of mosquitoes put us off!

We had a few days back with Graz and Wol, where we had the daunting task of getting ourselves and our kit back into ‘backpacker mode’. We put together a box of all the things we had collected during our stay in NZ and sent them home.

On our last full day we took a coach down to Auckland, to meet up with yet another couple of friends from back home. NZ has been unlike anywhere else we’ve travelled for many reasons, but possibly the biggest one for us has been seeing so many familiar faces. With our backpacks on and heading to South America, we’d be going back to not knowing anyone except each other.

We were very fortunate to be able to share our friend Dave’s birthday with him for our final dinner in NZ, at a lovely Japanese restaurant. One of the waitresses made a point of coming to chat to us at the end to point out that she (also with a shaved head) and her partner (also bald with a goatee) were both vegan; apparently it’s the uniform here! We also squeezed in a final gelato from the place at the pier we’d visited last time we were in Auckland.

Overall, our trip to NZ was not at all what we planned or anticipated. We were hampered early on by the weather, and then later by Jay’s injury. But it has been a good lesson in appreciating what we are still able to do, and in being able to adapt and let go of plans. Although we were limited in how much activity we could engage in, we still managed a few good hikes: in total we walked 227 km and Jay ran 79 km before hitting his head. Before his injury we averaged 12,500 steps a day, afterwards it was closer to 5,000.

Ultimately, we are still incredibly fortunate to even be on this trip. And we are super grateful that we were in a country with good healthcare and supportive friends. We’d like to extend an enormous thank you to our friends Graz and Wol, and Sonja and Michelle. They went above and beyond what we could have hoped for in terms of hospitality and generosity. We cannot imagine dealing with this injury if we’d had to stay in hostels!

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