20 July 2022
Mike Bell is Patient and Public Involvement Facilitator at NIHR ARC West and the Bristol BRC. He took a sabbatical in May and June and here he shares what he learned from the experience.
In early 2021, vaccine roll outs were just beginning and we still weren’t sure what the Covid future held. I decided to apply for two months unpaid leave in May and June of 2022 to spend some time with my daughter who was living in Vancouver, hoping that travel restrictions would have been relaxed or we would have got used to them at least. I got the all-clear from my manager, put it in my diary, planned my tour of Vancouver and British Columbia. Then, in October, my daughter decided to move home. She now lives about 200 yards from me.
After much deliberation (about five minutes) and much discussion (another five minutes) with work colleagues and others I decided to go ahead and take the time off anyway. So in May I went to Scotland and cycled home to Somerset and in June I rode my motorcycle to Italy and Slovenia. Much as I’d love to bore you with tales of my travels, the main aim of this blog is to talk about the value of time away from work and the space to think about myself, what I wanted and could still offer. Probably fair to warn you that I’m 65 so not talking about a ten-year work plan here. I was very lucky in that I was able to leave my work in the very capable hands of Lucy Condon and Carmel McGrath.
My plan was to go by train to Glasgow and head over to the western isles, a place I knew well and had cycled before. However, two days of rain between Glasgow and Tyndrum and a forecast of more to come led to a re-think. The east coast looked a better bet so I headed over to Dunfermline to spend the night with someone I’d played football with as a younger man and hadn’t seen since I left South Africa in 1985. The 75-mile ride over was breath-taking in places. Long (for me anyway, a pre-breakfast warm up for Jon Banks) but sunny and almost all traffic free and I arrived at my friend’s home, knackered but content, in the early evening.
First lesson: If it rains, feel free to head to where the sun is still shining. If there’s too much uphill, feel free to turn around and go back down. If your plans aren’t working, don’t be afraid to change them.
It was great to see Paul and meet his family. He is a year younger than me, though he smoked and drank heavily and had recently suffered a mild stroke. We talked about the old times and he reminded me that we had once drunkenly broken into a bank on the way home from the pub. Not to steal money but to play table tennis in the staffroom.
Second lesson: Be grateful for your health and the choices you’ve made in life and if you occasionally make a wrong ‘un, learn from it.
With no fixed itinerary, I meandered through Edinburgh, the Northumberland coast and on to York where I spent a few days with one of my oldest friends. If I’m honest, we have little in common these days but we’d crossed deserts and climbed mountains together when we were young and it was always good to be reminded of that.
Next on to Liverpool (by train as I didn’t fancy the ride through all those industrial towns – see first lesson) and a chance to catch up with another old friend. I had a rather bad motorcycle accident just before my 18th birthday and Sue was the first person to visit me in hospital. She told me how she’d heard my screams of pain from along the corridor and had almost turned around. I didn’t know that. Next day she came again and brought another friend’s parents who were devout Christians to pray for my recovery at my bedside.
Third lesson: Make time for old friends and former colleagues. They are invaluable. Make friends with religious people, you never know when you’ll need them.
While I was away, Lucy called me a couple of times to ask my advice about the Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG). I’d been running it for seven years and she’d been assisting me for somewhere between six months and a year. Mostly, she already knew the answers to the questions but just wanted reassurance. Fact is, she was already doing things I’d never considered and working in ways that I’d never have thought about. I fear it was also partly to make me feel needed.
Fourth lesson: I’m not indispensable, none of us are. It’s the natural order of things that as we get older, there’s usually a younger, smarter person with more energy and enthusiasm ready to take the reins. Yes, I have experience and the “wisdom” that comes with age (haven’t I already demonstrated it with this blog?) but I have been around since the black and white days and I’m ready to welcome the advent of colour.
At the end of May I swapped bicycle for motorbike and headed off to the Dolomites and Slovenia to do a little climbing and walking. On the way to Portsmouth to catch the overnight ferry to Caen I was suddenly overcome with anxiety to such a degree that if I tried to think of my route through France or which climbs I might attempt in Italy, I was almost physically sick. I’d travelled loads in the past, alone and with others but for some reason this felt different (and scary). It took a whole day of riding on French motorways and the kindness of two strangers before this passed.
Fifth lesson: Even at 65, we can still feel vulnerable. Sometimes even more so. Don’t be afraid to be afraid and don’t be afraid to ask for help. What I’d forgotten about travelling alone was how much easier it is to talk to strangers and for them to talk to you.
The next three weeks were a selfish, blissful combination of gloriously winding roads, mountain walks, waterfalls and lakes – and cake, always cake. No emails, no TV, no news. Even had the pleasure of the company of recent retiree Jan Connett in Slovenia for a few days.
Sixth lesson: Sometimes it’s good to just please yourself for a while. Wake when you want, walk when you want, eat whatever you want, whenever you feel like it. Live according to your own rhythm.
On the way back, I called in on my one and only cousin. I hadn’t seen him since my family moved to Africa in 1970. I knew my sister had been in contact via Facebook and knew he’d moved to France. I couldn’t really remember him and doubted we’d have much in common, so I’d never made the effort to get in touch. Turned out he lived just southwest of Caen so I arranged to spend the night. We talked for five hours non-stop before bed then got up and did the same again the next day before I left at lunch time to catch the ferry home. I can’t tell you how welcome he and his wife made me and how much I enjoyed catching up.
Seventh lesson: It’s never too late until it’s too late.
I passed though Bristol at the end of the first month and called in to say farewell to a couple of colleagues who were retiring. My wonderful line manager, Pippa Craggs, was there and asked me how I thought I would feel about coming back to work after so long off. I said I thought it might feel strange feeling like I was supporting Lucy and Carmel rather than the other way round. You know what? It doesn’t feel strange at all. It feels good to be back.
Eighth lesson: Get a job working with lovely, kind, considerate and supportive people (and never leave).