Skip to main content

You are here

I try to see the value in every day

At 41, Ben's perspective on life was shaken. He tells his story.

Ben Kemp on boat.jpg

I was always a fitness fanatic. I've run 7 marathons and a similar number of ultra marathons. More recently, I had rekindled a love of sailing and regularly sailed off the east coast of Scotland with my wife, Alison and kids Reuben and Donald.

I worked hard as a lawyer, with a good job working for a professional body. I was always travelling regularly between Edinburgh and London and occasionally overseas.

Home is by the sea in North Berwick, East Lothian, where we've been since moving back from the southeast about 6 years ago.

But in February 2015, I got what felt like a severe cold. I remember feeling it coming on quite suddenly. I was teaching at Edinburgh law school. I finished the class, went home to see the family and put the kids to bed, then took the sleeper train to London. I didn't sleep a wink that night: I was in a feverish sweat.

I wasn't used to being ill, or very good at it

Somehow, I got through a tribunal hearing the next day, before one of my colleagues sent me home. I spent the next week at home, back in Scotland, as my health deteriorated. I wasn't used to being ill, or very good at it. I tried to work. I went to the doctor and my GP thought, quite reasonably, that it was the flu. Half the town had it.

A few days later, I was feeling worse. The fever continued and I was developing pains in my back. I thought they were muscular but understand now that it was pain from the infection attacking my lungs.

My wife noticed I was wheezing a bit. I didn't get ill, not like this. My wife was worried, so she spoke to our friend, who is a GP.

She came straight around to see me, listened to my chest and said I needed to go back to the doctor immediately. My GP kindly agreed to see me straight away, during her lunch break. She listened to my chest and referred me directly to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, with suspected acute pneumonia.

It was difficult to stand up

I remember being in pain when I got to A&E. It was difficult to stand up. From that point on, my memory is hazy. An X-ray suggested a severe chest infection around my right lung. I was given antibiotics and oxygen and monitored overnight.

By the following day, test results showed that I had severe bacterial pneumonia caused by an organism called Group A Streptococcus ('Strep A'). They told me that if this nasty bug gets into your bloodstream, it can cause severe infections, including pneumonia.

By the following day, I was struggling to breathe and was admitted to intensive care. 2 days later the doctors decided they needed to sedate me and put me on the ventilator, to try to stabilise my condition. I remember being told this and feeling scared. I was unconscious on the ventilator for about 10 days.

Preparing for the worst

During those 10 days, I had surgery to drain the fluid that had developed around my right lung because of the infection. My lungs were barely functioning. Alison, ever by my side, was told she should prepare for the worst.

And then, following the surgery, and thanks to the magnificent efforts of the medical team, I began to improve. I woke up. I had had a tracheostomy – an operation to help me breathe - so couldn't speak initially.

I burst into tears.

I’d lost virtually all of my muscle and couldn’t stand up, but I was awake and on the mend. I continued to improve and, after 3 weeks in ICU, I was discharged to the general respiratory ward. A couple of days later and I was discharged entirely and heading home. Alison drove me to the sea before going to the house.

I stared out to sea and for the first time, it hit me. How lucky I was. And I burst into tears.

The doctors, the nurses, the physiotherapists, the whole NHS medical team, they were incredible. I will always owe them all a huge debt of gratitude for the care they gave me, and to my family, for those intense few weeks.

I know I was unlucky to get such a severe infection, particularly at my age (I was only 41!), but I also know that I was lucky to come home again.

You see yourself as superhuman

That is a tough pill to swallow, particularly when, naively, you don't believe you can get sick. Subconsciously, you see yourself as superhuman.

I think you can't help but be affected by any brush with mortality. And this was quite a sharp one. A bit of a slap in the face, really. A wake-up call, maybe.

Even more than before, I try to see the value in every day. I’m driven by goals, but I try hard now to appreciate the present, particularly when I’m with Alison and the kids. And I try to see the sea, at least most days.

The BLF is there for everybody

The BLF does tremendous work for a cause which, but for my experience, I possibly wouldn't have thought of. When I was recovering, I had the opportunity to meet and compare stories with people from all walks of life, with a variety of different lung conditions.

I learnt that mortality is a great leveller and what is so great about charities like BLF is that, like the NHS, they’re there for everybody.

The decision to do a marathon was a natural step. In some ways, it was about closure. I was partly seeing if I could still do it, and partly trying to give a little something back. I decided to run the Chicago marathon.

I am very fortunate to have incredibly supportive and generous colleagues, friends and family. The cause, and its personal relevance for me, really resonated. The support from them and the BLF got me through Chicago, particularly when it was really hurting around mile 18!

Don't ignore your symptoms

My message to people who might be worried about their lung health is to seek medical help and advice at an early stage. And don't ignore or underestimate chest infections!

Fundraising can be tremendously uplifting. Make sure you choose something that you enjoy but will find challenging, a little bit daunting even, and use the support to help stay focused and motivated when it gets tough. The achievement in finishing is all the greater knowing that you have made a contribution to such a worthwhile cause.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
30 January 2018