Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


I started 2013 with a climb up Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that is wedged between China and India, at the end of a two-week tour with ten guests. True, I rode a horse up the first half of the climb as I told myself that I would not be much use to our group if I, the leader, suffered a heart attack – and my lung surgery had been performed only late in the prior November. And the climb is arduous: during the first part of the climb you must clamber over large boulders and stumble over very uneven ground. The horse ride up also takes quite a bit of effort as the horses, sure footed as they are, don’t provide an armchair ride. I climbed the last 900 steps, which was exhausting for everyone. It’s dangerous, too, with the cliff sides having no barriers, guards or railings: Health and Safety regulations were not too obvious in Bhutan.

Lunch had been arranged by our local guide, Tsehwang Rinchin, below right, and a team of helpers in a colourful tent at the end of the climb, once we had descended the mountain and trekked through the wonderfully scented pine forest. ‘Out of Africa’ in the Himalaya! I still had little appetite, however, and was not Holly at Tigers Nestenjoying Bhutanese food.

Then, in June, Ross came to Europe with me when I lectured on a very smart riverboat, as it toured the Rhine and the Danube Rivers. After that we led a delightful group of Australians on a week-long tour of the chateaux gardens of the Loire Valley. I felt terrific: strong, energetic and very positive. My appetite returned. And we were so very lucky with the weather; just two weeks after our return from Europe terrible floods put a temporary end to the river boats.

It was strange then, that after we returned home to Sydney in late June I became disorientated and dizzy. I had a constant sensation of jetlag: if I turned my head quickly I felt as if I had left my brain outside my skull. Crossing the road was treacherous, as I was very unsteady on my feet. Anyone walking behind me may have thought I was a little tipsy! I was very worried that I had developed a neurological disorder – or that I had suffered a small stroke. However the CT and MRI scans revealed that everything was fine. I was so relieved – as was ‘my’ medical team.

The next step was to find the cause of my dizziness: I had thought I was completely cured, and did not welcome this new challenge. A meeting with a neurologist, Professor James Colebatch, again at Prince of Wales Hospital, put my mind at rest. The day before my appointment I had to undergo a vestibular assessment, also known as a caloric reflex test. As the first stage of the test – with warm and cool water in the ears - was inconclusive the technician advanced it to a higher level. That was incredibly painful as it involved the injection of freezing water into my ears. That really was torture. At least it only went on for a minute or two, and I knew it was essential for a diagnosis.  

The test showed some damage to my inner ear, which explained the symptoms I had been having: my dizziness and the lack of balance. It is called Benign Positional Vertigo. It did not seem benign to me, however, but it was now just a matter of waiting for the unpleasant sensations to subside, while also doing simple exercises I had been given.

I happened to run into a young mother – the daughter of a close friend – whose baby had recovered from being terribly ill with cancer for almost two years. When I told her of my dizziness she immediately asked if my chemo drug cocktail had included cisplatin, as she said that drug destroyed the tiny hairs in the ears, detrimentally effecting balance. It seems that it will be a long road to complete recovery. A few more hills to climb. I just hope they are not too high.