Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Fly Away, Butterfly

Our little science experiment to study the lifecycle of a butterfly has come to an end. I actually lost count but I think it was about thirteen butterflies that we released into our garden (to lay their eggs on what remains of my nasturtiums no doubt!)

I had a lovely image in my mind of opening up the net cage and watching a cloud of white winged miracles fluttering magically off into a perfect summer day. This did not happen. The butterflies emerged from their pupae in ones and twos over the course of a week and we set them free as soon as they were able to fly.

I also imagined that I would be there to witness the moment that the brand new butterfly breaks free from its prison and stretches its wings for the first time. No. They are sneaky little beggars - deliberately waiting until you are not looking and for all I know using teleportation to complete their transformation.

I missed one by what must have been minutes. It was a bedraggled specimen when I first noticed it, but before long the wings had opened up to their full glory.

We took lots of photographs and my daughter loved having a butterfly on her finger.

It has been quite a journey from the first caterpillar hunt, overcoming the revulsion, fearing that I had killed them, realising that I hadn't, watching them pupate and waiting, waiting, waiting for that final metamorphosis to be revealed.

Every butterfly we see now my little girl delightedly exclaims Look, mummy! It's one of our butterflies.

My favourite moment of the whole experience was when my grown up daughter, Ivy, decided to photo bomb my attempt to capture the fragile new creature hanging from its ghostly shell of a pupae. This was the result.

I will miss our strange houseguests... but not the smell of cabbage!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Malawi - an unforgettable experience

Last Friday, my 17 year old daughter Charis returned home from a 3 week stay in Malawi, Africa where she was doing some charitable work in the Village of St. Andrews. I knew that she would get a great deal out of the experience but I was still taken aback by the stories that she told and the passion with which she told them. I asked her if she would consider writing a guest post for my blog and she willingly obliged. 

This is her story:

Photograph by Huda Ali Al-Qabbat

With 3 insect bites, a wooden sculpture of Noah's ark and a week's worth of Malarone anti malaria tablets left to take, I arrived back in England after my first trip to Africa. A trip I hope I'll never forget.

I arrived, sleep deprived, in Johannesburg after a 10 hour flight super excited for the adventure I was about to embark on. There was only one more 2 hour flight between me and this adventure. Feeling a little worse for wear after arriving in Lilongwe, I was not going to let that get me down. Everything looked so different here. I always comment on how green England looks and how familiar and homely this is to me now. Malawi was yellow which was foreign to me before we had even arrived in St Andrews. We set off for our adventure into one of the seven poorest countries in the world.

When driving to our first destination,  I noticed how friendly everyone was. They all waved. Every single person stopped what they were doing to wave at the bus of Mazungus (white people) going past. I felt like a tourist attraction sometimes but I also waved back with a smile. The very first part of our trip was like a mini holiday staying in the Red Zebra Lodge and then Nkhota Khota Pottery Lodge near Lake Malawi. It looked like paradise.

Although I loved the first part of the trip, I won't dwell on it too long as it was not the reason I went to Malawi. I decided to go to Malawi because I really want to be a doctor. It just makes sense. I love science with a particular interest in anatomy, how the body functions mesmerises me on a daily basis. But I also care about people and want to make a difference and I feel medicine is the way I can do that. Malawi was a fantastic opportunity to get some work experience so when we got to St Andrews, the village Medic Malawi is supporting, I wanted to get as much work as possible to do with medicine. I felt it would give me a real insight to the differences between a developing world hospital and a UK hospital.

The village was a 20 minute walk from Kamuzu Academy, where we were staying. Everytime we walked down to the village the children would come bounding up to you shouting hello. They loved speaking in English and although the conversation was very basic, you could tell they were happy from the beaming smiles on their faces. The younger children would often hold your hand for the entire walk and one time, I had three children holding one of my hands at the same time! I liked how much happiness and energy all the children seemed to have and it was a great start and end to every day in the village.

In St Andrews, Medic Malawi has raised money to build a hospital, an orphanage, a nutrition centre, an eye clinic yet to be completed and a newly built girls hostel. While we were there, the Girls hostel needed to be painted and we needed to help out in the other establishments. I did my turn at painting but was much more interested in spending time in the hospital and the orphanage. Bath time was my favourite when you would have to strip, wash, dry, vaseline and dress about 10 bundles of joy. The cheeky ones would steal the vaseline and do it themselves! The job was difficult with all us helpers so I am impressed how Elizabeth, the 'mother' in the orphanage, manages to do it all by herself when we are not here to help. The older children help out as well which is nice. The babies were so happy and playful and I loved spending time with them. It reminded me of when my little brother and sister were younger. At one point I had a child asleep on my legs and another one jumping into my arms. It felt good to give these kids some attention because I know at some points, they wouldn't get any and would have to fend for themselves.

After spending a few days in the orphanage, I started working in the hospital. The first job was in the Path Lab and I was really looking forward to it. When I arrived, it was crowded full of people and it never got less crowded. I was handed gloves, apron and a face mask which warranted some very strange looks to the patients who were being tested. I was shown how to prepare slides ready to be viewed under the microscope. My other job was to fill in the records. The records were so confusing. There were about 5 different books and reading the handwriting on some of the health passports was almost impossible. Then at the same time, I had to make sure that the slides were being prepared while the doctor was taking the blood in the same, very small room. Meanwhile, the other doctor was doing urine samples while singing 'No Woman No Cry'. It was crazy and non stop for 3 hours! I loved every second of it. At lunch, the doctor apologised for not being able to talk to me much and answer many questions because it was so busy but he thanked me because I had really helped to make this hectic day not as crazy. I was starting to feel like I was making difference.

Next, I went to the government clinic, not helped by Medic Malawi. I was expecting them to have to turn people away and not have enough medicines to cure people. To my surprise, this didn't seem to be the case. I was shown a freezer full of vaccinations and every worker I asked seemed to believe they had enough to cure all the patients they had. Nobody was turned away. I was taken to where they test for Malaria. The room was very big but there were wooden planks everywhere so only a tiny portion of it could be used. They were doing the Rapid Diagnosis Test here and approximately tested 300 people a day. Thankfully, of these 300 people, usually less than 10% are positive. The test was simple, clean the finger with an alcohol wipe and dab dry with a cotton swab. Then prick the finger and squeeze to get a pool of blood. Then use a little plastic stick to get the blood onto the RDT. Then add PH buffer and wait. If negative, you get one red line at the bottom of the device. If positive you get the red line and a black line further up. Depending on the darkness of the black line depends on how severe the malaria is. So in this room which looked like a building site, I started testing people for malaria from little babies right up to full grown adults. It made me realise how we take clean sterile rooms for granted when we get injections or blood tests. That is not important here as they don't have enough money. They have to compromise. While I was testing, the tests kept coming back negative, negative and negative. I was starting to look up thinking malaria is not having as big of an effect as it used to do. Until my last test. A young girl was at the back of the queue on her mothers lap. She was laughing and smiling so I kept pulling silly faces at her which made her laugh more. It came to her turn so I started the test. She didn't even cry when I pricked her finger she was that good. I continued laughing with her thinking this girl with so much energy couldn't possibly have malaria. Then the test came back positive. I was so upset looking at her smiling face knowing she has a disease which could kill her. It was severe as well. She would get antimalarial drugs but it still affected me. How many more children are like her? What if they aren't so lucky and can't get treatment? I still can remember this little girl's face and I hope she is okay but I will never know.

After the testing, I went to the antenatal clinic. There were no ultrasound scanners and no pain relief for mothers in labour. The examination room looked like it could be the set for Saw VIII. But the mothers didn't seem to care. I was taught how to tell how old the baby was just by feeling as this clinic didn't even have a tape measure to tell the age. We also felt where the head was and listened to the heart beat using a tube device thing (I have no idea what it was, it kind of looked like a bugle). By the end of the session, I was pretty adept at guessing the age and finding the heart and head. I really enjoyed it but don't think midwifery is something I will end up specialising in.

The last day in the village was spent in the hospital shadowing a doctor. For the doctor, it was a pretty slow day and not much happened, for me it was enlightening. The hospital was dark unlike British hospitals and dust got everywhere. Again, it just shows that they have to prioritise when money is limited. We started off with the ward rounds at Paediatrics. The mothers were sitting in the cots holding their ill children close to them. Nobody was laughing or joking anymore. One patient in particular affected me. The baby was barely moving and his eyes were rolling back. The mother kept on patting his cheek to keep him awake. I could see in her face how hurt she was. The boy had malaria. While watching the doctor do his examinations, I just had a song lyric from Les Mis going through my head. It was the part where Fantine is telling Valjean about her child. She sings:

 I never did no wrong
My daughter's close to dying
If there's a God above
He'd let me die instead

Every mother in this room gave me this impression. I was ready to burst into tears. Thankfully, the ward round had ended and we started going around elsewhere. The rest of the wards were pretty uneventful, which is good I suppose, but one girl did have to have an emergency lumbar puncture. From my medical knowledge from House MD, usually, lumbar punctures use massive needles and are very painful. This looked more like a tube and caused the fluid to go squirting across the room. As awesome as that was, I felt sorry for the young girl who was convulsing while the procedure was happening. The fluid went to be analysed so I will never know what was wrong with the girl and if she will recover. After viewing some outpatients, I left the hospital and was ready to say goodbye to St Andrews.

Everyday when I walked back to the village, a young girl called Chisomo would walk me back with her friend Faith. For some reason, Chisomo took a liking to me and would always come look for me and insist I hold both of her hands. My relationship with Chisomo showed how important us visiting is for these people and how much they take out of it. I bought Chisomo and Faith lollipops for being such good guides (yes I got lost) and for being such good company. They taught me lots of words in Chichewa (Sebato is shoe!) and I looked forward to seeing them every day. We had great game of volleyball at the orphanage which was the perfect way to say goodbye. I'm going to miss them and all the other lovely people I have met. Chifundu in the pharmacy, Boyson and Florence at the orphanage, Peter in the lab. I'll never forget them.

Faith and Chisomo
I felt  a bit teary heading out of Malawi. We headed to Zambia to a game park to have another little bit of holiday before heading back home. All in all, I loved Malawi and will keep this experience with me. As for the game park, it was great fun and seeing a Pride of Lions almost catch an impala 2 feet away from us was terrifying. I'll leave you now with a picture form the Safari. My camera on my phone has no zoom so yes, that Leopard was that close to me.

Our heartfelt gratitude to everyone that contributed to the fundraising for Medic Malawi last summer and to those who helped towards the cost of sending Charis out there for this life changing experience.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Attention! Attention! My wobbly tooth will come out today!

My six year old Addy has had a wobbly tooth for over a week. It was her first one and has generated much excitement between her and little brother Dylan who wishes he had a wobbly tooth too.

This morning, big sister Taylor was awoken by the sound of Addy outside her bedroom door enthusiastically announcing Attention! Attention! My wobbly tooth will come out today!

Addy was right. By lunch time, the thread of gum clinging to the wobbly tooth finally gave up and out it popped.

Addy looked stunned. Holding the tooth in her little fingers, blood pooling behind her bottom lip, she was literally speechless.

I got her to rinse her mouth out with water and the excited babble returned.

Dylan wanted to have a good look at the tooth and the hole where a tooth had once been. Addy willingly obliged.

Now they are both busy preparing for the arrival of the tooth fairy tonight.

I am very proud of my little gappy girl. She is growing up fast.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Dearnford Relays

Before I discovered the pleasures (and pains) of running, what might I have been doing at 7.30pm on a school night the week before the end of term? Putting the kids to bed, cooking a late dinner, getting ready to watch a bit of telly, feeling exhausted? Instead, I was at the starting line of a local relay race poised and ready to run the first leg of the six mile race at Dearnford Lake.

My team was originally comprised of myself, my regular running partner daughter Liberty and her boyfriend. We called ourselves Speedy and the Backmarkers (no prizes for guessing which one of us was Speedy and which two the Backmarkers). Unfortunately our 'Speedy' realised that he had to work that night so he roped in his mum to take his place. Now Speedy's mum was never going to run her leg as fast as her son would have but compared with us Backmarkers, she was still our secret weapon.

Team photo for Speedy and the Backmarkers
It was a lovely social occasion as our Running club had turned out in force to participate creating a vivid sea of orange in their club colours. My husband and daughter Taylor were in a team with a family friend and Taylor's boyfriend's family had entered as Team Murray.

Team "No one Else Wanted Us"

Team Murray

I love the photograph I took of Team Murray. The big smiles and evening sunshine really sums up what this event was all about for me. Obviously, as well as big smiles and evening sunshine, there was the actual running part!

The race was a three lap relay race. The course was 2 miles of off road track which snaked all around the picturesque Dearnford Lake with loops through woods and meadows to make up the distance. Just before the final loop and the finish, the course passes the cafe and play area where my two little ones were happily settled under the watchful eye of anyone who was available (mostly Liberty's best friend Carole).

There were some serious runners taking part. The starting line was an impressive display of determination, lean muscle and testosterone. Things were much more sedate at the back of the pack where I positioned myself. I watched with awe as those front runners raced away and tried to find my pace over the uneven surface.

Dearnford Relays - On Your Marks...
It was hot. It was much harder going than running on the road. I inhaled more little bugs than I cared to think about. But I loved it. As I passed the play area, my two little ones were ready with a wave and a cheer that gave me a much needed boost. 

Photograph by Carole (Carole Finds Her Wings))
I had wanted to complete my 2 miles in 20 minutes. My first mile was just under 10 minutes. Support at the finish line from other running club members gave me the push I needed for a little burst of speed but not enough to compensate for dragging my feet at other moments. I finished in 20 minutes 36 seconds. Honestly, I was pretty happy with that. I caught my breathe and watched my daughter setting off on the journey I'd just completed.

Liberty's running form is very hit and miss but she looked great at the finish and achieved a time of 21 minutes 41 seconds. It was all in the hands of our secret weapon now and she was amazing, finishing in 18 minutes 21 seconds giving our team an overall time of just over an hour. 

It might seem laughable to be celebrating a time of 1 hour 38 seconds when the winning team were able to finish in a mind blowing 31 minutes 48 seconds. It might seem an embarrassment to have finished in position 103 out of 111 but that is what I love about running at my level. I can be inspired by the elite runners but I never need to worry about trying to compete with them. My goals and targets are my own.   My sense of achievement is not measured against anyone else's. I am doing it and I can't even begin to describe how good that feels.

It was a late night for my little ones but they had lots of fun and there's always a daddy to carry his sleepy boy to bed.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A little boy's birthday

My beautiful little boy was four on the 28th June.

Dylan in a Fire Engine

My daughter Charis' first Speech Day and end of term Prize Giving at her private boarding school was also on the 28th June.

That is one of the problems with big families - days get double booked far too often. One of the advantages of big families is that there is usually another sibling to step in and help out.

My boy started the day surrounded with presents to open on the Birthday Chair we had prepared the day before (putting to good use the flag that seemed somewhat redundant after England were knocked out of the World Cup).

Addy and Dylan help decorate the 'Birthday Chair'

Big sister Taylor then took responsibility for keeping the birthday fun going whilst my husband and I headed off to Chapel where I became predictably teary eyed listening to my Charis singing her angelic best with the school chapel choir.

Next was the Speeches and Prize Giving and eyes welled once again as Charis went up to collect her prize for the best Extended Project Qualification. She has achieved so much already, taking full advantage of the privileged position she finds herself in.

There was a whole day of events and exhibitions to showcase a year of achievements at the school but I felt guilty about not being with my son on his birthday. We gave Charis a picnic lunch which she happily went off to eat with someone else's parents and we drove home. Of course I felt guilty about not giving Charis more time and attention too. All in all I was feeling like a rubbish mum.

I tried not to let my feelings of inadequacy get the better of me and forced myself back in a 'party' mood.

We had cake. That always helps with the party mood.

My sister had told me about this idea for a cake. It sounded fantastically simple - and it was - especially as my husband completely took over the decorating part, feeling that construction sites were his area of expertise. I made the chocolate cake and chocolate fudge topping and he did the rest with the addition of some Maltesers, chocolate raisins, flakes and a pack of mini JCB vehicles.

I did begin to relax and unwind a little seeing my boy so happy playing outside with new toys. I even had the chance to complete a review jigsaw I was sent some time ago and had been saving for when Taylor was back from Uni.


When Charis was finished with all that was on offer at the end of term celebrations, my husband went to collect her (and all her dirty washing!)

To round off the day perfectly, we were all invited to a barbecue at Taylor's boyfriend George's house. Only one of my daughters couldn't make it. Having five out of six of my children all together for the first time in ages was wonderful and I always enjoy spending time with George's family. I let myself relax completely... with the help of a bottle of red wine! The birthday boy was presented with another cake and had a wonderful time running around the garden until he and sister Addy fell fast asleep on the sofa ready to be carried home to bed.

Pokemon birthday cake made by Danielle

I did feel slightly worse for wear the following day but had time to reflect on a mostly successful navigation through a hectic day before starting on the next one!

Monday, 7 July 2014

All is quiet on the cabbage leaf

You may recall that recently I was sent a butterfly rearing kit to review. Since we introduced our caterpillar specimens to study it has been the cause of horror, revulsion, fascination, disbelief, curiosity and even a small dose of love and tenderness. I have tried to retain a scientific detachment but it has not been easy. There is something deeply distasteful about the crawling creatures that spend every moment with the simple objective to devour and excrete, yet my sense of responsibility to them, having taken them from nature for our own purpose, has been great. Almost, dare I say it, maternal.

I overcame my reluctance to open the net cage and put my hand  in. Their food needed replacing with frightening frequency - these little fellas could really eat. When the source of the nasturtium leaves I had been feeding them became completely depleted, I bought a cabbage. I was unsure if they would accept the new diet but other than going on night raids into neighbours' gardens in search of more nasturtiums, it was my best option.

In my haste to provide food for the hungry caterpillars, I neglected to wash the cabbage leaves. I soon regretted this oversight. The caterpillars quickly found their way onto the new vegetation but instead of voracious devouring, at best there was half hearted nibbling. I thought maybe they just needed a little time to adjust to the new taste and texture of the cabbage. I gave them time. They seemed to grow more sluggish and lethargic. I began obsessively checking on them every few minutes. The thought occurred that unlike my organically grown nasturtiums, this cabbage that I had bought for 50p at my local supermarket may well have been sprayed with all sorts of harmful chemicals designed to kill exactly the species that I was now trying to nourish with it. I felt like a murderer. In a 'shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted' type reaction, I placed a new, thoroughly rinsed cabbage leaf inside the net cage.

Nothing happened.

My husband came home from work one day. He broke the news. You do know those caterpillars are dead, right?

I refused to believe it but my frequent checks revealed no change. It was almost like insect taxidermy - a perfectly preserved scene frozen in death for all eternity (or until the cabbage rotted!)

I promised that I would chuck the whole sorry lot in the dustbin the next day and never speak of it again.

My amateur naturalist friend who had helped me identify the species suggested that it was possibly just a normal part of the life cycle. I wanted to hold onto that glimmer of hope but it seemed too much of a coincidence that they had all gone into a 'death-like' state as soon as I had introduced potentially poisonous brassica leaves. And the few bodies curled up on the floor of the cage seemed to be the indisputable evidence that this was NOT normal.

Then something miraculous happened. One of my daughters noticed a caterpillar moving! They're alive. I had all but given up on then but there was a caterpillar lifting its head and waving it gently. Definitely moving. Definitely alive.

The caterpillars resumed eating and even the 'corpses' that littered the bottom of the cage uncurled and started exhibiting caterpillar-like behaviour.

It was our very own miracle. A caterpillar resurrection. Could they have simply been in a cabbage coma?

As delighted as I was not to have killed my caterpillars, I was less delighted by the fact that my porch was beginning to smell unpleasantly cabbagey. I relocated them to the garage.

It wasn't long after the relocation that the first of the caterpillars left the cabbage leaf and began to climb the sides of the net cage. We watched with interest as it settled on the lid of the cage and began to pupate. Despite close observation, I have no idea how this happens. Silky threads just seem to appear around the body. Within the mass of silk are well defined anchor points to hold it securely in its chosen location. The body then  hardens and changes shape into something that looks to me almost prehistoric. What you see with your eye is fascinating enough but what must be going on inside to transform the caterpillar into a butterfly is beyond my comprehension.

Several more caterpillars began the climb to find a suitable spot to pupate... and then more.

So now I wait... and wait... and wait some more until the day our first butterfly begins to emerge.

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