Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
With hindsight, Helen Cowgill can remember attempting a simple task for an avid and fit gardener, to plant a punnet of petunias. This time though, her attempts came to nought and she was left sitting amidst a mess of petunias.
“I ended up with seedlings splattered all over the ground and no energy to put them in the garden.
“Before that I had a shovel, and I couldn’t dig the garden. I had been gardening for years, it was easy for me. But then I couldn’t lift the spade, or the mattock. This was over ten years ago,” Helen said.
Helen further recalls her constant companion, exhaustion.
“I would be out in the morning, do two hours work or whatever and I would be panting to get back to bed and go to sleep. My limbs and my arms and legs just ached and ached.
“I went to a doctor and they said I was run down and gave me a tonic.”
It was only thanks to the perceptiveness of a different doctor that Helen finally was on her way to a diagnosis.
“I went to a new doctor for a repeat of a prescription and she watched me walk into her room and she asked ‘have you ever been referred to a neurologist?’ I asked her ‘why’ and she said I was showing signs of Parkinson’s. She picked it up by watching me, from my stillness and rigidity type, rather than the tremor that you think most people have (with Parkinsons), and from my walk,” Helen said.
Exhaustion and lack of muscle control were just two of Helen’s most common symptoms.
Matters came to a dramatic and terrifying head when Helen found she just could not move at all.
“In my worse states I couldn’t move. I ended up in St Vincent’s in Sydney. I would wake up and it felt like I was encased in concrete. I felt heavy. I couldn’t move my limbs. I used to have the call button very close to my hand at night. Because I couldn’t move at all, they had to turn me like a baby. I didn’t comprehend that that was just the Parkinson’s doing that.
“I had no idea it was really as bad as it was.”
With medication, Helen reached an improved physical state but eventually medication was not enough.
In January (2012) her neurologist recommended deep brain stimulation surgery for a second and final time. Helen’s early trepidations about the surgery remained but this time, she said ‘yes’.
Listening to Helen recount her surgeries is up there with watching RPA.
The nature of her surgery required the first one to be done under light anaesthetic only so that she was conscious enough to respond to electrode stimulation in the operating theatre.
“The anaesthetist did a marvellous job to keep me alert. They had to give me local anaesthetics all around my head so they could fit a metal halo to keep my head completely still. I remember when it came time to take the halo off they were yanking my head around. There were two screws they couldn’t get out. They had dug into my head. They did get them out and I think they thought I was out to it, but I was aware of it,” Helen recalls.
Whilst Helen’s journey has not been easy, she is filled with her faith, supported by the love of her family, and now feels this is the path God has chosen for her.
“Since the surgery I’m just coping so much better. Suddenly I notice I’m physically coping. I can get out of bed easily, I can put my arm into the sleeve of my dressing gown for the first time in years.
“Mentally I feel I’ve always coped because of my faith and the support of my family and the community.
“I’m strong enough to know that I can handle anything in life after that surgery. I just think I’ve been privileged in a way to walk that path for what you learn from suffering. I know God has put me in this position, he has allowed this to happen.”
Helen is also thankful for the love and support of her family who she thinks struggle with her fierce independence.
“I think they are frustrated at times because I am this fiercely independent person, not an easy person to do things for. My children have just been the best in the world. They’ve just been so good,” Helen weeps.
“My daughter Rhonda and her husband John drove down from Brisbane overnight, a spur of the moment decision, to be with me all day while I had various specialist appointments as part of the assessment process for the surgery. I had to pass this assessment and all those were that day. It was that day that she presented me with a lovely album, photos of myself, all the children’s weddings, all the grandchildren. And it was absolutely beautiful and professionally done. So I wept over every page and somehow it was just the most encouraging and reassuring thing.”
“My sister Margaret has been extraordinarily supportive. There have been times when she has rung and found me in a state and has dropped everything to come the same day from Wollongong.”
“And Nev has been a tower of strength. He hates seeing me the way I am and just wants me to be so much better and things are looking up that way and I’m getting to the stage where we will be able to go for walks together.”
Helen is unfazed by what is to come.
“I’m no fool. I realise that down the track things will probably get quite a lot worse but there’s no point in being worried about something that hasn’t happened. Something else may kill me or take me out of this world but not today.
“I grabbed hold of this text before I went to hospital: ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow, God is already there.’
“I wasn’t really looking forward to this surgery but I got through it and it could have been worse.”
If you should come across Helen out and about, she asks that you be patient with her.
“When I’m struggling, just be very patient with me. I can have trouble getting money out of my bag. I’ve known myself to pick up the change they’ve given me and throw it in my bag – it’s too hard to open my purse.”
“It’s not easy for me to have someone else do things for me. People in the church have said to me ‘I don’t know whether to help you or not.’
“But now I’ve learnt you’re denying them an opportunity to show their care or concern and I need to just allow them to do their act of kindness.”
There are lessons for all of us in Helen’s brave approach to her lot in life.
“There are worse things. I’ve felt this is manageable, whatever the future is, God is there. He has plans for my future, the same as anybody.”