Travels with Paddles

a sea kayaking journal

Axel Schoevers (Photo: A. de Krook) Name:
Axel Schoevers
Rijswijk, Zuid-Holland, Netherlands

Monday, January 14, 2019

Spellbound at Penrhyn Mawr

Finding myself (realizing a day later) to be the lead actor in a twisted version of Hitchcock's oscar winning epic film. The award for best actors go to JF and Justine. For me it can be described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that I do not remember...

We planned to go paddling to Penrhyn Mawr from Porth Dafarch. I remember, not vividly though, that I had to set my footrests before pushing off the beach. The whole process of changing into paddling clothes could have been 'automatic'. The same goes for joining and adjusting my paddle. My spare paddle on the deck, must have been a routine action? As for the paddling towards PM I can only remember taking some gullies to paddle through; my favourite thing to do. In PM I remember taking some pictures and paddling back into the big eddy. That's about it.

I am getting some awareness back sitting in a hospital bed. I see JF and Justine enter the ward and I instantly greet them with their names. A doctor does some checks on me and asks me questions. I am moved to a CT scanner, at least I remember a snippet of it. Back on the ward, JF asks me to remember a word. Minutes later he asks me what word I needed to remember. I reply: "Moose!". He asks me to remember "blue shoes". Seeing my yellow Crocs on the foot-end of my bed, I surely will remember that, albeit that it could have been "red shoes" for I imprint "non-yellow shoes". At that moment I did not know yet that JF had asked me many times before to remember "Moose" and only now I had any recollection of him asking.

I try to determine the date/time from the medical equipment on the ward. Thursday, January 10th 2019. I remember 4, 6 and 8 o-clock times. I notice I have infusion terminals dangling from my left arm. Also quite a few heart monitor stickers all over by chest and even on my ankles. I realize that something has happened to me and that I am in a safe place.

I walk to the toilet. I am still in my paddling fLeeces. I have a snippet of memory of being in an ambulance and explaining that it was my first time in an ambulance. Despite hearing some 'strange' language spoken on the ward, I know I am in Wales, for Welch, although I cannot understand it, sounds quite familiar after all those years visiting. That could have been terrifying 'waking-up' in an unfamiliar place and hearing an 'alien' language.

I start digging and cross-checking my long-term memory to randomly recall old memories, names, dates, events. NOTHING of that is missing, I think. What is missing is any recollection of what actually happened ever since I paddled into the big eddy at Penrhyn Mawr. I am in Bangor Hospital on the A&E ward. I am aware that my friends have taken some very important actions for me to be safe (again).

What the heck has happened to me? The scan results are totally clean. No stroke, no TIA (my first guess). No paralysis of any kind during the whole event. An almost complete memory loss for the duration of the event.

JF is the first to tell me that it might be a very rare condition called 'Transient Global Amnesia' (TGA). A (temporary) condition where short-term memory is not consolidated into the long(er)-term memory. Living in the moment, physicaly functioning, but not remember anything longer than a minute or so.

The condition is very rare to occur, even much rarer that it will happen a second (or third) time. Hence (knock on wood) a once-in-my-lifetime experience. Causes not very well known, but the trigger for me could be the 'acute emotional distress, as might be provoked by bad news, conflict or overwork' and/or a combination with one of the other factors like 'intense physical activity'.

My mother died in November after caring for her in her last years together with my brother. Her last year, month, week, day was a very intense time for us. At a subconcious level for sure I have not come to terms with that yet. The memory loss symptoms of TGA are highly directing towards a stroke; especially because TGA is such an extremely rare condition.

So how did Justine and JF find out that something was not quite right with me? I was slow leaving the beach. I was not as chatty as usual. In Penrhyn Mawr I was not catching waves and in Justine's words my skils of catching waves were 'shit'. We played for a bit and the waves got better but I was not really into it. They reckoned it was due to the feeling of loss of my mother. When I was waiting in the eddy and Justine asked me how I was feeling she did not get a clear response. When she asked if we should return I did not give a decisive answer, but Justine and JF decided to return. Just at the time Penrhyn Mawr race was at it's best she was keen to tell me later LOL. Justine told me she had never seen me like this and I looked surprised and replied that "I feel a bit zoned-out today".

I was not able to paddle against the middle race so they decided to paddle throught the 'Chicken Run'. I was shit at that easy task today. While I was physically functioning, Justine and JF realized that something was definitively out of the ordinary with me. When I paddled directly towards rocks JF watched expecting me to take action to avoid them. I hit the rocks, holing my kayak in the cockpit area. I NEVER CAPSIZED.

Justine noticed I was paddling slowly with a lot of bracing. By now my cockpit is probably full of water until we hit the beach again at Porth Dafarch. Once we landed JF did some tests on me for 'CNS' (Central Nervous System). Everything was 'working' except I could not remember the magic word he told me to remember. "What are you talking about? What word?" he told me later. He was mildly irritated that I was constantly repeating myself. I was extremely slow in changing. Everytime my eyes saw my kayak on the car roof I said: "Is that my kayak? Did I do that? I do not remember putting a hole in my kayak"; over and over again...

JF and Justine rushed me to A&E in Holyhead. From there an ambulance took me to Bangor hospital. JF and Justine could only think of I had suffered a stroke. A terrifying thought that must have been. But the totally weird situation that I had paddled to, IN, and from a rough Penrhyn Mawr in a weird mental state... That cannot be a stroke? or can it?

Transient Global Amnesia. A temporary total block on forming long(er) term memory. Even my being aware of something being wrong at the time but not remembering it. "There's definitively a lapse", I kept saying, Justine said. A constant loop of only short-term impressions.

My yellow Crocs got displaced in Bangor Hospital. Remembering my cherished overisized Crocs forever, the good care from the hospital nurses and doctors, the incident and forever thankful to JF and Justine for taking all the important actions. I was discharged from Hospital on Friday morning and Mirco picked me up and brought me back to Holyhead.

But why do I write about this?

During my coaching development I learned a lot about how we learn. It also triggered what I once saw in a documentary about a person (Henry Molaison) that, after surgery was left with ONLY short term memory and the inability to form new (long-term) memories. The person lived an otherwise healthy long life in an institution and was the subject of many scientific researches about how the brain works. They found out that he could learn and retain new motor skills, but not remembering how or when he ever learned them. Motor skills find a seperate way into (long-term) motor memory. For coaching we could explain a thousand times how to do things, but the actual repetition and variations of successful physical performance has the best retention. All we need is a safe experiential learning environment with a lot of variation. Probably how babies learn to stand on their feet and start to walk. Coaching can be that easy.

Today, Monday 14th January, Justine, JF, Geth and me paddled at Rhoscolyn race. I felt a bit anxious in the first fifteen minutes. How would I do? In the very rough water I felt totally in my element. Feeling the movement of the water and using my skills automatically. Consious of my environment (seen, felt or heard) but not thinking much about how to apply my skills. Unconsious competence and remembering every minute of a beautiful day on the water with great paddling friends.


Ben Blackburn said...

Getting 'straight back on the horse' obviously the right thing for you. Great.
Bl**dy annoying when your body lets you down. All the best for the future. And "Bravo!" to JF and J. The best people to be with.
. . .. . Ben

kaat said...

Axel! How scary. If it's a once in a lifetime experience please keep it that way - for the sake of Kayakking Nederland. Thank you for JF and J for getting you safely to the hospital. Wierd things do happen.

I just finished a novel by Haruki Murakami "Kafka on the Shore". The main character has had memory loss resulting from a strange occurence as a child in the second world war. If you can cope with the surrealisme and Murakamis' imagination it's a great book and should resonate with you.
Great to read you are back paddling in your favorite place.

colin said...

I know words are easy to put on paper,but the same thing happind to me only last year rush to hospital witch I work in to make it worse and A&E just to rud salt into the wound,Bloods CT,X-ray,Ecg,more test,two on call consulting call in ,I was told after about 6HOURS I was over doing things , same as you I was looking after my mother in law ,then my hourse flooded and I was trying to work 39HOURS A WEEK ON NIGHTS,I was over doint it.but still went on a 3day kayaking and camping trip,as I was coming back to base I was not myself and got more and more out of it ,yes I have lost about 5hours of my live but I now know who my mates are the ones who went out of there way to look after me .

KP said...

Thank you Axel for having the courage to post this. I highly encourage you three to write up this incident in more detail for a post game analysis that we can all learn from. The physicians' input would also be interesting if available. It could even be submitted to one of the paddling magazines along with a separate article on managing incpacitated paddlers in the field.

Rick Stoehrer said...

Axel...well that's startling. And terrifying. Glad you were with folks who took care of you straight away.

All the best

John Kirk-Anderson said...

Axel, that's brutal!

So pleased it worked out as well as it did, and massive kudos to Justine and JF. First-class recognition, management and assessment of the incident. Full marks to JF for the neuro exam and ongoing monitoring.

Thanks also for the association with motor-skills learning, your experience can make us all better coaches.

I've just realised that it is nearly 15 years since we paddled Penrhyn Mawr together, along with Chris Lockyer, after Nigel's symposium.

All the best,


Hazel Yabsley said...

Wow. I thought the same as John when reading your account, just how much your paddling companions Justine and JF identified and put your needs first and prioritised that before any consideration of what their plan for the day had been. This reiterates the importance of team work and regularly checking in with your paddling buddies, having good first aid knowledge and using it. So glad it was a good outcome.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing.

Jo Mason said...

So glad it all ended well and great to share it with us. said...

That must have been a quite shocking experience, Axel. I am very happy to hear you felt completely recovered when you went back to the race on the 14th. You were lucky to be in good hands (Justine and JF). Thanks for sharing your story.