****Probably not a good idea to read this if you are squeamish,
but I promise that it’s not too graphic****
I have had nosebleeds since as long as I can remember. Admittedly, for a 17 year old that’s not very long. I think it probably started when I was in Junior School, aged 6. I was part of the school swim team (yes – I have some sporty genes in me!!), and in my school at the time, the school swim team was a very elitist group to be in. And I was very proud to be in it. We trained for an hour and a half before school on a Monday, and for 3 hours after school on a Tuesday. We had navy swimsuits, and what I called my tea-bag shirt, which kept me warm poolside.
I remember getting changed every practice on the benches – in those days when 30 girls could all get changed in the same space without feeling awkward. The coolest girls were those could do the knicker-trick and didn’t have to strip in front of the others (I have still never mastered this art!). And the year 6s were even cooler – they got dibs on the individual changing rooms. But for the rest of us there was no shame. We were proud to strut out from the girls changing rooms with our towels, and complete 60 lengths of IM. There was always a certain time when I wished I could stop, but as soon as I remembered that I would go home to dinner, it would be worth it. That’s what made Monday mornings so much harder – there was no guarantee of a snack afterwards, and I wasn’t one of the girls whose au pairs brought them in a limousine with a pre-packed snack of chopped carrots and hummus (all Waitrose organics – obviously darling). No – I had to cope until lunchtime.
But on the whole, I didn’t mind Swim Squad. And afterwards on Tuesday, wet from the pool, I would go to the Cathedral for evensong. I think that was the bit I enjoyed most – even if I did mostly fall asleep, exhausted, to Howells and Rose. I was doing well – I was the U10 A team front crawl 100m swimmer. Until one day when I finished my race, slammed my palms hard on the timing board at the end of the lane and watched my name appear – 2nd place (whoop) – on the board above me. And then I heard a high pitched scream. I mean nothing new there, I was at an all girls’ school. I heard high pitched screams every day, all day. Spiders, dirt, a boy. Everything was screamed at. I looked around, and couldn’t see anything. I didn’t feel so good – but at the end of the race one was bound to feel a little weary. Then my instructor reached down and pulled me out of the water. I was shaking, and fainted in her arms. I was having a severe nosebleed, from both nostrils. I was wrapped in my tea-bag shirt and towel and taken to the first aider. Every time I swum afterwards the same thing happened. I was moved from A to B. Then from C to Reserves. And then I wasn’t part of the team again.
Perhaps I was allergic to Chlorine, the doctor suggested. So I swam with a nose clip. That didn’t work either. My swimming career was over. Not that I was ever hoping to get very far. Just to be a year 6 and get to use the changing rooms. And now I was a little fragile girl who would bleed every time I jolted or got hit by a ball. And someone spread the rumour that a nosebleed was the mark of the Devil. So for a few months I didn’t really have a very good time of it.
But it got better. And I mostly forgot about it. I would have a nosebleed every now and then, but it wasn’t major, and it wasn’t incapacitating, just massively inconvenient. But I never really went back to swimming. Until last year. I began to swim recreationally again. And the bleeding came back. I stopped swimming, but the nosebleeds didn’t stop too. Most days I would have one. And once I had had one, then I was bound to have at least 5 more secondary bleeds. They were normally only 5 or 10 minutes, not long. But they were very frequent. When I had 18 in a week, we decided to go to the doctor.
Last December we were referred to a private doctor, Dr R. I wasn’t that nervous to see him, because it had got to a point where I couldn’t deal with the bleeds anymore, a point where they were truly incapacitating. When we got in to see him, he set out possible causes: hay fever (n0), allergies (no), high blood pressure (no), rugby (definitely no), large amounts of physical activity (no), genetic blood conditions (not so far as we knew). And then he came to the one that it could be – swimming. By this point I had long stopped swimming, but Dr R, like my GP over 7 years before, reckoned that the chlorine in the pool could be causing an erosion reaction with my skin making the capillaries to break. As I had had so many nosebleeds, my blood vessels were now extremely weak, and would be prone to breaking.
So right there and then, at an appointment that I thought was merely a consultation, he gave me local anaesthetic, and performed the operation, chemical cauterisation – the burning of the inside of my nose where the blood vessels were weak to stop them bleeding. Boy did it hurt. I gripped my Mum’s hand with strength I don’t think she even believed I had. I could feel tears in my eyes, and it was at that point that Dr R said ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing great; this is the point at which the 18 year old massive rugby players usually pass out.’ OK great. So the operation that he said wouldn’t hurt usually causes the nations toughest to faint. And here I was aged 15 gripping my Mum’s hand. As soon as we left the hospital, I burst into tears. I’m not sure whether it was the shock, the anaesthetic or the pain, but I knew I did not want to go back to school. I cried my way home – literally. I remember that there were cinnamon sugar biscuits in the back of the car and I ate and ate them to try and get that taste of blood out of my mouth. We drove to two pharmacies to get my prescription before eventually I crawled into my bed, dosed up on Ibuprofen to get me through. But I couldn’t sleep.
The next few days were awful. I had to go back to school, and I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t sleep well, and my nose felt all stuffed up. But the bleeding stopped. I had a follow up appointment in January, where he checked everything was going well. I was fine – the bleeding should stop. And it did, for about a year.
However, over the Christmas 2016 period and January 2017 my bleeding has got worse and worse. On Monday I was in the shower when I looked down to see red shampoo in the plug. I sighed and brushed it off – showers are usually one of the triggers for a nose bleed. I got out and pinched my nose with my towel. I slipped into my dressing gown, and went down to my parents’ room, where I knew there would be tissues. And I sat and pinched my nose, cooled my it with ice, and waited. But it didn’t stop like it used to. Normally my nosebleeds were frequent, but only 20 minutes maximum. This one lasted for 50 minutes.
About an hour later I got changed into my school uniform, my hair knotted and damp, with the taste of iron at the back of my throat. I didn’t really feel like eating, and we were running really late. I arrived at school, with a bagel in a Tupperware, and didn’t think much more of it. Everyone probably thought that I was a typical teenager, running late because I hadn’t been bothered to get out of bed when the alarm went off. I went to assembly and my first three lessons. I had tissues in my pocket, and I was being very gentle not to bash myself against anything in case I knocked something and started bleeding again. Everything seemed fine. But at break time, sitting down to revise for my Latin test, I felt my nose running, and soon realised it was blood. I ran to the toilet and grabbed some tissues. My housemistress marched me straight to the San, and I was sent home. It was not safe to be in having lost so much blood. And with one of the worst headaches I’d ever had, and feeling considerably faint, I was quite glad to go home. Altogether, an hour and a half’s worth of bleeding, and another half hour in the evening.
We managed to get an emergency appointment with the Consultant on Tuesday morning. I felt calmer to see Dr R again, and prepared myself for the cauterisation I knew was coming. Except it didn’t. Examining my nose, Dr R recoiled when he saw where the bleed was coming from. And this time it couldn’t have been caused by swimming. And he said what I was fearing most, that my bleeding is too serious to be solved by chemical cauterisation. The skin around the main vein in my nose has disintegrated. The emergency operation would just not work. I was devastated, I just wanted it all to be over and to have some peace – and sleep through the night without a nose bleed. Was that so much to ask? I had a French Debating competition in the afternoon, and my housemistress would not let me go if I didn’t have the operation. I just wanted to be at school and be normal for once (don’t say it – you think I’ll never be able to normal!).
I am currently waiting, and I could be waiting a long time. I need to have a proper operation, electric cauterisation, under a longer-term anaesthetic, to fix my nose. In the meantime I am being given drugs for haemophilia. They seem to be working – my nose feels so bunged up with clots that I can’t breathe out of it. And with medication I was allowed to go to my competition… But I also know that it’s only a short-term solution.
I hate the smell, the taste of blood. I hate the sight of tissues red with my blood. I feel scared when the bleeding just won’t stop, no matter how hard I try. I feel tired either because of the medication or the blood loss. And I sometimes feel like the little girl who gave up sport and was bullied because everything she did caused her to bleed. But I know that I’ve come so far since those days of Swim Squad. I’m not that girl anymore. And one day this will stop. But for now, I’m just taking it one gentle step at a time.