• charlottemheald

This is my story.....(Part 1)

I’ve known for some time now that there would be value in sharing my story. Value for myself in the reflection process and value for others by way of hope, inspiration and motivation to heal.

When you think about writing your story, whether it be about a part of your life or your whole life it’s challenging to decide where to start. For me, I have decided that my story started 3 years ago in August 2016.

In August 2016 I was a 32-year-old woman happily married with three young children then aged 6, 4 and 2. We were in our 3rd year on our Family owned Dairy Farm in Norsewood. It was a time of development and learning on the farm with the challenges of the busy spring routine and the low milk payout adding financial pressure.

A few years earlier after the birth of my 3rd child I left my nursing career to focus on farm and family, although I still had a keen interest in health and well being. I was keenly interested in food and nutrition and had become aware of the positive and negative impacts food could have on our health. We had learnt about eating whole-foods and the benefits of eating real food as opposed to processed foods and had made some changes to our diet to fit with this better way of eating.

While I felt my way of eating was ‘healthier’ and more balanced than before the rest of my life was far from ‘balanced’. I was always busy and talking about being busy, busy, busy, busy - but why? Why was I so busy? Being a mother of 3 young children makes for a ‘busy’ life. Then there were my farm responsibilities, admin, HR and this particular season I would be rearing 290 calves - dairy heifer replacements and beefies. I also had a couple of volunteer roles in my community that demanded my time. Despite these roles making me even ‘busier’ I enjoyed the excuse to get out of the house and loved connecting with others in my community. To add to the mix I had a delightful chocolate Labrador pup join our family around the same time - fun and games (and chewed up gumboots!).

I had set about planning for this seasonally busier time on the farm. I had diligently put some meals away in the freezer and made plans for crockpot dinners to keep life easy. I had spent some time trying to make suitable childcare plans; Au Pair, nanny, babysitter….. It hadn’t eventuated so I juggled an after school babysitter and was grateful for the two sets of Grandparents who were able to help out at times as well.

My enthusiastic team of helpers spring 2016

Calving arrived and before I knew it (like so many dairying women I knew) I was in the thick of it, multiple new calves arriving daily, teaching them to feed, carting colostrum and milk around, changing cow fences, spreading magnesium and anything else that I could do to support my husband and our staff to get through this busy time - and that was before I dealt with the responsibilities of mum life: pick-ups, drop offs, washing, cleaning, groceries and meal preparation. All the time I remembered thinking ‘this is what dairying women do, there are plenty more women in the same boat right now, keep going its not forever’. I also recall feeling like this craziness and epic juggle was ‘expected of me’ as a dairy farmers wife.

Two weeks in and I started getting some pain in my hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. It was obvious to me that it was due to the physical nature of the work I was doing that I hadn’t prepared for. “It’ll ease with time” I told myself - all the while the pain got worse. Then: “Not long to go, keep going, we will be finished calving soon” I reassured myself although I wasn’t entirely convinced. In-fact my body was screaming at me to slow down, to stop even, and I chose not to listen, I kept going and going……

Putting on a brave face for a selfie with one of our wagyu calves

I cried in pain every day when I was lifting 20 litre buckets and calf feeders. I lay awake in pain most nights - I became exhausted and the pain just didn’t ease. I remember resenting my husband for not seeing that I was having such a tough time, hoping that he would ‘excuse me’ from my responsibilities. But at the same time I felt I owed it to him to do my part and in reality there wasn’t anyone else to do my job so that reaffirmed what I had already believed that I just needed to keep going.

I had shared my painful situation with family and a few friends but managed to ‘play it down’ not wanting to make a fuss, after-all calving was nearly done and surely it would ease as the physical load eased. At this point it was too painful to ride the quad bike and I could get a grip and hold to be able to open a bungee gate (elasticated wire gates for keeping cows in their paddock). There were times at night that I could no longer get through brushing my teeth without dropping my tooth brush!

Calving was finally over and the pain and limitations remained. I saw my osteopath and at this point thought that I had a RSI (repetitive strain injury). I had some stretches and exercises to do for this, however heading into November things were still not improving. My GP diagnosed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome later that year, while I wasn’t thrilled about this I was pleased to have a diagnosis to work with - information is power. I visited my osteopath and chiropractor regularly but didn’t feel I was making the progress I had expected. I found some yoga to assist with CT and practices this daily. All the while I was still waking with pain at night and sleeping was so uncomfortable. I also got to the point where I couldn’t use a can opener or sit typing at the computer with significant pain and discomfort.

I was referred to a Hand Therapist. I clearly recall my first visit to her, I couldn’t even answer her first question before the sobbing began, I was beside myself with frustration and despair. I left the consult with her with some renewed hope, she gave me some splints to wear on both my wrists every night to give me some relief from the discomfort - I clearly recall my hands would curl up at my sides and I would wake in so much pain - but with the new splints I had a more comfortable sleep.

Following several visits to the Hand therapist and months of hand exercises and splints my symptoms weren’t improving so she referred me to an orthopaedic surgeon with surgical CT release in mind. I had been initially opposed to this surgery having witnessed the procedure earlier in my nursing career. By this point however I was willing to do anything to restore the ‘normal’ function of my hands and wrists and improve my quality of life.

By now home life was very challenging. We had made the call to transition to a once a day milking system. We made this decision for ‘family’ and work/life ‘balance’, and ultimately this meant that Russ could be around more to support me with the kids, as physically there were so many things I wasn’t coping with at home.

Around this time ACC who had been supporting my various appointments wanted confirmation that I had CT syndrome before they would decide whether or not to fund further treatment. They also had reservations about the nature of my work injury and whether it actually caused the CT - I was later told the issue was that they have very little data on the incidence of CT in dairy farmers. ACC insisted I needed to have nerve conduction testing done to confirm the diagnosis. I finally got an appointment, some distance from home in Hamilton. I was lucky to have a kind nurse friend take me to my appointment and hold my hand through this rather ‘unnerving’ (excuse the pun) experience!

The long and short of it was that I did have a CT, and it wasn’t caused by the work I did on the dairy farm (I don’t need to engage in this debate again…!) therefore ACC gave me the flick and I was fortunate to have private health insurance to pick up the pieces. Having seen the orthopaedic surgeon it was clear that CT release was going to be the best option for me to regain normal function in my hands and arms and move on from this whole crazy debacle.

We scheduled the surgery over winter so that Russ would be able to have the time off the farm to support me while I healed.

Post-op bilateral Carpal tunnel release - two hands both out of action for a bit!

The day came and went, the surgery went well and I came home with two hands bundled up in bandages! Initially I was dealing with post-op pain so it was hard to tell how effective the surgery had been. It is fair to say that having your husband care for you and all your ‘needs’ for a few weeks is certainly trying. Russ managed like a trooper and to this day I will always remember how loving and kind he was and how he picked up all my roles at home while I healed. The day that my eldest son saw Dad doing the vacuuming positively changed any ideas of gender roles in our family!

I was grateful to not only my husband but my family and some lovely neighbours who were so supportive at this time, bringing around meals, hanging out washing and cleaning. It is times like these that you realise the stuff that truly matters.

This is just the beginning of my story. Part two to follow next week!

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