On the Sick List
By Paul Peacock
So many people dream of a life of self-sufficiency — a country life populated with hens and sheep, bees and goats. But what happens when illness gets in the way? Are your dreams replaced with pills and medical procedures, do you soldier on or does life take you in a new direction? Paul Peacock finds out
Paul and Tess Wright were a fairly conventional couple who loved food. Paul was a selfemployed builder who worked all hours. They had their garden, their hens and vegetables, they liked to forage and Paul loved to fish.
Then one day Paul found that he couldn’t hear in one ear. Tests revealed that he had an acoustic neuroma — a brain tumour to you and me. Suddenly life was uncertain and complex. Major surgery could leave him paralysed, blind, worse.
The day of the surgery came around; the longest in Tess’s life. Paul was keen to keep the drill bit they used to gain entry to his tumour. A six-hour operation left him in intensive care, but with no paralysis, good vision and he could speak, although he did lose the hearing in his affected ear.
The three months’ recovery time when he couldn’t drive was the worst part. No driving meant no working and no working meant boredom. Tess bought him a sausage-making kit and Paul threw himself into it. Courses followed, including at the Italian Culinary Institute in Tuscany, although Paul was pretty much up to speed anyway and he was soon producing smoked food, charcuterie and sausages par excellence.
Becoming heavily involved in their local farmers’ market, which they ran for some years, brought their products to a wider audience and an award at the Time & Leisure Food Awards quickly followed.
It became clear to Paul and Tess that they needed to become primary producers. The neighbours had already named them ‘Tom and Barbara’, but up to then they were buying in meat. They needed their own and they needed a bigger smokery. They had to move. The result was a couple of acres of Devonshire called Muddipuddle Farm, complete with a wetland area that Paul coaxed back into a pond for trout as only a builder could do.
It would have been easy for Paul and Tess to simply retreat, to scale down their activities, wrap themselves in cotton wool and disregarded their unfolding story into smallholding. Now they have pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and
turkeys, with the odd wild deer thrown in on occasions. But then, as Paul says, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
It takes a different kind of determination to overcome pain that gnaws at you day after day. Wowie Dunnings found help from a source she wasn’t expecting. “Back problems can be so horrible,” Wowie was quite clear on the phone. “It leaves you in agony and then depressed.” Wowie’s pain was long term. A slipped disc led to nine operations and hundreds of procedures. The time when she found the most relief was visiting her sister’s farm and simply getting involved with the sheep. “It was fascinating and I just got stuck in. When I was with the sheep I had least pain.” Wowie decided that life had to be for her. She bought nine Southdown sheep and later some Oxford Downs, with their cute black faces, and got stuck in. Later still came Oxford Sandy and Black pigs — that’s a whole gang of ‘getting stuck in’. How does she cope with the pain? She just copes. With a little help from friends now and then and her husband, Paul, she gets by. “They get me out of bed in the morning.” Smallholders everywhere have that inward presence. Cut them open and you would see the words ‘animal welfare’ running right through them. But for people who have an illness or health problem this is often magnified. How will the animals cope if I am ill? Wowie entered one of her Southdowns in a local show. Two days earlier she was lying in bed, in horrid pain, finding solace in tears. The reward for climbing out of bed, dressing her sheep and driving it to the show was the show champion’s sash. “From that time on I was bitten by the show bug.” Now, during show season she can be found donning a white coat and heading for the ring. Life has been made much easier since she had a spinal chord stimulator fitted,
a device which interrupts pain messages from the source before they get to the brain. They aim for 50% to 70% pain reduction and Wowie still has good days and bad days.
“If it wasn’t for my sheep, I’d be in deep depression.” Thank goodness for the sheep.
Hysterectomies are not hysterical
Sascha De Lisle-Butler took on a smallholding in West Wales; windy, uphill, almost bleak. Her husband, Alex, was a chef at a local hotel and Sascha worked full time away from the smallholding. Leaving in the morning, after letting the hens out, they didn’t see the holding until returning at night to lock them up. Hardly seeing the holding at all in daylight, they were not enjoying it as they would have liked. So they decided: what’s the point? They needed to run the smallholding as a smallholding and so a flock of Jacob sheep soon joined their feathered family.
Sascha was the smallholder in the family; Alex, spending much of every day at the hotel, had less time available. Circumstances, however, plotted a different path. Sascha was having problems. She was getting tired and having abdominal pain which came in increasingly violent bouts. Numerous tests and examinations fuelled the conclusion that a full hysterectomy was the only way forward.
Sascha described the diagnosis as a setback. Going into smallholding with rose-tinted glasses was never going to give an accurate picture of the future, but who could have foreseen this?
Two hours before admission to hospital, Sascha was injecting AB into a lamb that needed it.
“I was tempted to give myself a shot, just in case.”
The recovery from such a devastating op is bad enough for anyone. For the first two weeks, Alex saw to the sheep, the poultry and drove daily to the hospital. Then it was home time. No lifting for three months. “You have to work up to doing stuff, walking, standing even.”
Lambing was a real nag for her. Sascha found herself missing her sheep so much, that one day Alex arranged for her to be carried bodily in a chair to a paddock, and the lambs were brought to her.
“It was the sheep that helped me get through,” says Sascha. “I needed them as much as they needed me.”
Neighbours came and helped where necessary and visiting family had to work their passage. Slowly, sometimes painfully, life started to reorganise itself into a more normal routine. Vegetable plots were retended and became productive.
“It was a bit of a setback,” confesses Sascha. “And not what we expected.”
Sascha De Lisle-Butler and her husband, Alex, with a few of their ‘gang’
‘I caught the bug!’ Since taking the Show Champion accolade at her first show, Wowie Dunnings has not looked back