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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Lisa's advised me to stay in bed today for the good of my health. Well, what she actually said was "I don't want to see your face in here tomorrow", but I think that's what she meant. So I'm typing this on my laptop, propped up by a couple of pillows. To be honest, I'm a bit better today. Yesterday my head was so bad, I was on the verge of phoning NHS Direct for some Tamiflu. Or seeing if my old swipe card would get me into the hospital pharmacy. Today I've downgraded my status to an uncommon cold.

But anyhoo, germs weren't the only thing I brought back from Newcastle. I also have this in a presentation folder...

Propping up the BARS
I like the way they've used a retinal photograph as the background for the certificate. It's what you might call an eyecatching design.

To be honest, most of Thursday and Friday is a bit of a sleep-deprived blur. I'm not sure whose idea it was to travel more than seven hundred miles and attend a full day's worth of lectures, all in the space of thirty-six hours, but they want their head examined. Preferably with more than a retinal camera. By Thursday evening we were staggering around the hotel like cast members from The Night of the Living Dead.

Our journey up to Newcastle on Thursday morning was actually pretty good. If you ignore the fact that I had to get up at 4:30am. The train from Kings Cross was surprisingly empty, and we spent the time discussing important topics such as the bowel movements of a sick colleague, the Brighton branch of the Women's Institute, the joys of knitting, and the staff of the sewing machine shop in North Street, whilst flicking through copies of Vogue and The Lady magazine. Did I mention I was the only man on this trip?

Having spotted the Angel of the North from the train window and felt a slight sense of disappointment, we arrived in Newcastle shortly after midday and started looking for Ant and Dec. Or failing that, a taxi. Twenty minutes later, we were at the Falcons Nest. I have to say, it's not quite as it appears on the internet. It is a pub, but it has its own Bates Motel style accommodation block just across the car park. It was actually very nice. And it's next door to a drive-thru McDonalds, which is handy. So we checked in at the bar (two hours before we were meant to), dumped our bags in our rooms (which hadn't yet been cleaned), and headed straight over the roundabout to the Marriott Hotel.

Meals were included in our conference package, but unfortunately there's no such thing as a free lunch when you arrive half an hour late. The buffet looked like it had been hit by a plague of locusts, and we were reduced to scavenging the scraps from the rich man's table. Fortunately the deep fried crab cakes had proved particularly unpopular with the other diners, so we ate about six of those each. And followed them up with a buttered croissant and two cream slices. I kept expecting Gloria Hunniford to turn up with a free cholesterol test.

But having lined our stomachs with fat, it was eyes down for the British Asociation of Retinal Screeners' Annual Conference. I mean that quite literally. By the time the first speaker took to the stage, we'd been up for nine hours, had very little sleep, and were all ready for an afternoon nap. I could barely keep my eyes open. When we eventually broke for coffee, I loaded up on so much caffeine I was practically sweating Red Bull.

I think if I have one criticism of the conference, it's that they didn't provide signing for the deaf. Not that anyone was hard of hearing, but the microphones were turned down so low that we could barely catch a word some people were saying. I was reduced to lip-reading at one point. There was also a frustrating moment when one of the speakers cracked a joke, the front of the hall erupted in laughter, and the back half looked at each other blankly. Next time, I'm booking the front row.

But that aside, it was all very interesting. Kind of. I enjoyed the hour for survivors of External Quality Assurance visits (our version of Ofsted inspections), which was a bit like an AA meeting for rock-bottom retinal screeners, although some of the lectures were more dry than a case of AMD. I did learn an interesting way to impress your patients though. Apparently you wait until one of them comes in reeking of cigarette smoke, then you look at their photos thoughtfully and say "Hmmm... I can tell from your retinas that you're a smoker". Apparently it blows them away.

Unfortunately I learnt that technique from one of my colleagues over dinner. We didn't really interact with the expert speakers or other screeners, which was a bit of a shame. It's what happens when you're so exhausted you can barely speak. You don't feel like making conversation, never mind new friends.

Somehow we made it through dinner, failed to win the table quiz, refused to join in the dancing, and eventually retired to our beds at 11pm. Breakfast on Friday was another buffet affair, which turned out to be quite useful: we all took extra bagels to eat for lunch on the train home. And what a journey home that turned out to be.

Scrumpy Willow & the Singing KettleThe conference finished at 1:15pm, and having taken a taxi back to the city centre, passed a café called 'Scrumpy Willow & the Singing Kettle' (that's it on the right, photographed through the fog on the Tyne), looked in a couple of charity shops, and bought a pair of Gucci trousers for £2.75 (which I'm sure can't be fake), we caught the 14:34 train back to London.

Fortunately our seats were reserved. If they hadn't been, we'd have stood the whole way. The train was packed full of bad-tempered people fighting over seats, standing in corridors, and complaining to staff. I didn't dare go to the toilet in case I came back to find a tattooed Geordie refusing to vacate my seat. Back in London, things went from bad to worse. I know it was rush hour, but I have never been on such a crowded tube train. Frankly battery farm chickens have more breathing space. I thought I was going to pass out at one point. As did the person who got stuck in the doors, had a panic attack, and had to be rescued by the driver.

By the time I got home, I'd lost my voice and found a new meaning for the word headache. I'll be back in the hospital on Monday morning, but possibly as a patient, not a screener.