Monday, 1 September 2014

Fresh Water Swimming Risk

What lies beneath, the Lurgy, hidden dangers..whichever way you wish to describe it, a bout of illness as a result of swimming in the River Tees is not the most pleasant experience.

Aside from the odd swim in the North Sea and a couple of swims Ellerton Lake, the vast majority of my open water training this year took place in the River Tees, generally somewhere near or between Yarm and Thornaby. Its free ! and its very close to home (about 2 miles)

Thanks to the installation of the Tees Barrage there is rarely a strong flow other than after heavy rainfall. The water is always brown and murky making it impossible to see anything beyond arms length, it is home to lots of fish and the usual swans and ducks etc.Parts of the river are adjacent to farmers fields some for crops others for grazing animals. Due to the steepish, tree lined banks it is pretty sheltered, meaning you rarely experience anything other than mild chop at worst.  I have mostly swam with Amanda Bell, although sometimes alone or with the occasional visitor (Mark Preston / Gav Wild). 

I have been swimming in the river for years without major incident.

Being that Gav was visiting family in the area and in an effort to get Amanda back in the water after her successful English Channel Swim, I arranged to meet both at Preston Park for an hour before work on a Thursday in mid August at 6am.

Amanda was just going to swim to the first corner whilst the boys would swim to 'The Pipey' (bridge about a mile downstream).
The swim itself went smoothly enough. the water did appear rather cooler than recent times, however nothing too severe, an hours swim, Gav and I returned to the jetty, more or less racing each other the whole way, we all dressed and went our separate ways.

Thursday no issues.
Friday no issues.
Saturday began to experience some flu like symptoms, headache, achy, temperature and general fatigue.

Didn't really think anything of it, had a nice meal Saturday evening with a bottle of wine and went to bed. I had probably been in bed around 60 minutes when I began to feel extremely ill, dizzy and very nauseas, in no time at all I was vomiting uncontrollably. This continued every twenty minutes or so for about the next six hours. I was absolutely drained my whole body felt achey, especially in the joints, my legs had virtually seized up. My head was banging.

Only as I lay in my sickbed, did I remember another group who had swam in the same river around 10 days earlier, who described virtually identical symptoms. I was also aware that one of them (Michelle GG) had been prescribed antibiotics having contracted a waterborne disease.

Before too long I was in accident and emergency at the local hospital undergoing all manner of invasive tests. I received intravenous pain relief, another for intravenous relief from the nausea, underwent an ECG had several vials of blood taken etc.

I explained to the doctor looking after me my suspicions regarding Leptospirosis and included the details of Michelle's illness, all of the staff were oblivious to this or seriousness of the disease. To their credit, they went away and educated themselves with the details. Subsequent liaison with the microbiologists regarding my blood results and I was diagnosed and began treatment for the disease with antibiotics and released.

Fortunately I had already booked around 10 days off work on holiday where I could rest and recuperate in the sunshine, The whole time abroad I felt pretty much exhausted especially in the lower limbs (I still do). A couple of minutes swimming in warm water was all I could manage. I was thankful I didn't have to work.

Having made reference to the incident on social media, I was aware that Giovanna Richards had experienced a very similar scenario. These are Gs words..

"Here is my little tale.......

I caught Lepto in the Thames in 2010 during an open water swim. Funny thing is, when I was swimming I was thinking how clean the water looked! I didnt wear a wetsuit and had no open wounds, but its inevitable that you swallow a little water now and then, which I didnt think anything of at the time.

Four days later at work I suddenly developed a terrible headache and started feeling very unwell - like I was coming down with flu. This happened in the space of an hour or two. My joints started aching and I felt very nauseous. By the time I got home from work I could barely get off the sofa and I knew I had to speak to the doctor as I recognised the symptoms of Leptospirosis.

When I was a serving police officer in the Metropolitan Police, we had talks about Lepto and carried cards with the sysmptoms (because of working near the Thames), so I put 2 and 2 together and made an appointment to see the GP.

I managed to get in the next day after a night of very high tempreture, terrible pain and swelling in my stomach around the liver, joint pain and sickness. The doctor said it was probably a virus but I pushed for a blood test and explained my recent swim in the Thames - which had followed heavy rain. I also insisted on starting antibiotics that day as I knew time was crucial when treating this illness. The GP examined me and said my liver was very swollen, so precscribed antibiotics and tests.

Luckily I started the treatment straight away as the test results came back positive for Lepto. Just a few days after I was diagnosed, Olympic Rower Andy Holmes died at Kings College Hospital of the disease.

It took me about 3 months to recover fully and for my liver to recover. It was very unpleasent and made me feel terribly poorly and exhausted.

I will never swim in the Thames again and am always careful now to stay away from the banks of any open body of water that I swim in, where it is more likely to be infected by mammal urine.

I would advise any open water swimmer to be aware of the symptoms and to seek medical attention if they become unwell after an OW swim and not to be fobbed off by their doctor, but to insist on blood test and antibiotics. 

Thankfully this disease is rare, but it is potentially life threatening if left untreated."

So folks, familiarise yourself with the symptoms and know what to do, do not be afraid to explain your concerns hospital staff, better safe than sorry.

I will return to the river but will ensure I don't have any open wounds and always wear my ear plugs.

Almost forgot to include that Gav has been as bad as a dog too. !

Enough said !! 


Rick Smith said...

Wow, I can only imagine how bad that must have been to go through. Are there many other diseases when it comes to swimming in fresh water? I know I've always been scared to do so in areas that aren't super frequented.

Loraine verghese said...

Dear Mark ,
It's been a very very long time and reading about your horrendous experience with Leptpspirosis I can only imagine the strength you have had to have had to get back on your two feet !!! Well done and glad you are now okay !!!
I truly hope your dreams in the water world are being realised and can only imagine Charlie is a big boy now
Hope you can get in touch it would be lovely to maybe explore options to fundraise .. If not I wish you all the luck in the world as you are a persevering man and I hope you Acheive all your dreams
Loraine Verghese