After more than a year of my back pain progressively getting worse, I'd been wishing I could wake up with a new body. A week at Sarah Key's Back-in-a-Week program and my dream has almost come true. Four days and nights of eating cake, lying on the floor, laughing and gently exercising and I feel slim and beautiful and flexible as a cat. This is how it happened.
After a long journey into the wilds of the upper Hunter Valley, my mother and I prised ourselves out of the car stiffly. We had finally arrived, after 20 kms of gravel road and a couple of adventures with a large herd of cattle, to be met by Sarah Key herself who rushed round the back of the car and lifted out our suitcases.
This is the lady who has treated the Queen, Prince Charles, Lady Diana and the Queen Mother with her precious hands and feet and here she is carrying my suitcase! Along with her assistant Ruve, they made us immediately feel at home and comfortable in the most beautiful surroundings.
Fernleigh has been purpose built to treat people with back problems. But if you're imagining a few dormitories with a gym-like exercise room and a white clinical treatment room, think again. Paintings, flowers, fresh air, peace and quiet, birds tweeting and amazing scenery dotted with sheep and cows greeted us.
We had arrived to a retreat fit for royalty. The bedroom had the most comfortable mattresses, angora throws, the thickest white towels, the deepest pillows I've ever seen, a hot water bottle, and even fabulous art works on the walls. One whole wall was a fly screen so that you could sleep surrounded by the fragrances of Sarah's lovely roses and see the sheep on the hillside behind.
The verandahs at Fernleigh are quintessentially Australian
Wrap-around verandah with deep comfortable chairs, and ergonomically designed chaises was the scene for many a morning or afternoon tea with tasty cakes and lots of laughter. The chef Kim was a delight and made the best food I'd had in years. She even created special gluten free cakes just for me. The most heavenly dark chocolate coated biscuits, passion fruit rolls....bliss on a plate twice a day.
On the first afternoon, Sarah had already been treating a farmer who had arrived literally grey with pain after a long journey. He emerged smiling and with relief already evident on his face half an hour later. He admitted to taking up to 20 painkillers a day and had been in constant pain for the last 10 years.
I almost felt that I wasn't really bad enough to be here. Maybe I'm a bit of a fraud I thought taking up this special person's time when there were obviously people much more need than me. (When I confided this to Sarah, she told me to banish it from my mind, as most people have the same fear.)
The first activity of the week was a spinal decompression class. I had seen Sarah for two brief consultations back in 2005, and had been a sporadic visitor to the Bridge Street clinic over the years. So I thought I pretty much knew how to do the BackBlock. I had used it with quite a lot of success over the years, but recently had lost my way, got stiffer and stiffer until I couldn't bend to pick up my shoes, and my feet were getting painful.
Without even laying a hand on us, the first session was a revelation. I had been trying too hard! Instead of subtle, gentle, kind on yourself movements in an almost hypnotic state, I'd been pulling my knees up to my chest, thinking the more I stretched the better I'd be. No wonder it had stopped working and I'd got a bit disillusioned and lapsed.
The improvement by dinner on the first night was almost worth the journey by itself. 'Less is more', and 'the lazy ones do best' have become my new mantras. Of course that doesn't mean I don't have to do my exercise regime every day from now on, but I can do it gently and not push myself to extremes as I was prone to do.
Sarah didn't join us for dinner until the last night. She had far too much work to do for one thing, but also wisely wanted to allow the group to get to know one another. We were 3 patients, me, the farmer and a jolly chap from Sydney. My Mum had broken her back two years ago, but she wasn't really in pain and just came along for the ride. Later in the week we were joined by a couple more men, one of whom had driven 14 hours from Queensland just for three, half hour sessions with Sarah. He'd done the full Back-in-aWeek three years before and wanted a top up. If he was going to drive that far, I knew we were in good hands. They were all good fun, and Mum, who was the oldest, and probably the fittest, enjoyed making them all laugh.
Dinners that week included a whole poached ocean trout, a joint of lamb from one of Sarah's own special Armani sheep, the best fish cakes I've ever had, and a mouth watering Coq au Vin. And just so that I can get the whole irresistible food thing over with, the lunches included pumpkin and feta tortilla, organic chicken caesar salad and a superb tuna salad. And the desserts were just heaven on earth. Utterly spoilt we were.
Day 2, and after a healthy breakfast of mangos and custard apples, cereals, breads, homemade jams, (oops, talking about the food again!) we were comfortably propped up on cushions with pillows under our knees in the large main room. Sarah gave us a fascinating lecture on what goes wrong with our backs, and answered questions for so long that the whole thing took double the time on the schedule. This was to be the theme for the whole week, and Ruve's beautifully prepared timetable was ruthlessly ignored as Sarah worked long and hard into the night, giving us such care and attention as if she had all the time in the world.
As much as possible, Fernleigh's chef, Kim Taylor, uses home grown and local produce. You won't go hungry!
The lectures Sarah gave were all backed up with scientific explanations from the published medical literature. Recently, she herself co-authored a scientific paper with academics from Bristol University to get better cross-over between science and therapy, and is also starting a charitable foundation in the UK to get her message out about back care to the medical and physiotherapy professions.
The first day also included a full hour's consultation where Sarah assessed us and treated us. Absolute bliss. Finally I understood what is going on. I have one leg longer than the other and a scoliosis. The day ended with another exercise class, this time out on the grass. We had been blessed with perfect weather while the rest of NSW was getting flooded.
Dinner was a barrel of laughs as we were all so happy and relieved to be feeling so much better. We had excellent company, and were lucky to have such a cheerful group. I believe that it's not always quite so easy and I can understand from my own experience how back pain can get people down.
Day 3 and I was presented with a powerpoint presentation for half an hour all about my own personal back problem. Everyone sat in on each other's presentations so we could all learn from each other. I was amazed at how bad my posture still was, but so relieved that there were easy things I could do to improve. Sarah even took pictures of me doing the exact exercises which my particular problem needs.
After the morning's lecture, Sarah decided as we were such a relaxed and laid back group, and she'd never had such fantastic weather for a Back-in-a-Week before, she'd take us for a 4 wheel drive tour of her property. For two hours we drove incredible tracks, got out and enjoyed the most spectacular views, and completely forgot about our backs. We felt so privileged to be able to share Sarah's home acres in this way. It was excellent therapy, and I almost felt it would have done us all a power of good even if we hadn't had the treatment too. It was a trip I shall remember all my life.
Sarah worked late into the day to catch up, giving us all our treatment sessions and even fitting in a lady from the village. Our exercise class took place after dinner that night at 10pm, and we all slept like logs afterwards.
Everybody looks forward to the early evening class!
Day 4 and we were all starting to feel like we had been re-born. The farmer was looking positively radiant and admitted he had stopped taking any painkillers. After my treatment and the exercise class I did an hour's meditation lying on the grass looking up at the sky and found I could do a shoulder stand afterwards. (I don't recommend this quite so early on!). I felt so flexible and strong, I could tackle anything.
Sarah joined us for dinner on the last night and we all laughed and joked and chatted, but the atmosphere was tinged with sadness as we all had to go our separate ways the next day.
My Mum, who'd watched how everyone had improved, had finally decided she'd like an assessment from Sarah, who kindly fitted her in on the last day after everyone had had their one final treatment session (and been fed an amazing brunch of smoked salmon, cheese souffles and croissants) and hit the road.
Mum was so moved by the fact that, after 50 years of nursing, someone was finally taking care of her, and letting her know that something could, in fact, be done about her swollen neck and her stiffness. Sarah even found an old healed fracture the doctors hadn't discovered in Mum's spine. Mum and I were in tears when we left, and Sarah herself was welling up when we said goodbye.
The long car journey home was so easy and pain free compared to the drive there.
Sarah had warned us this would be a strange experience, like emerging from a chrysalis, and that we might feel like sleeping for a week when we got home - and I did feel shattered. After such a euphoric week, I did come back down to earth with a crash. Let's face it, it is not a miracle cure, and Sarah warns that you will have bad days. Sarah gives you the tools to take care of your own back, and when it comes to the crunch, you just have to get on and do it yourself. The key is not to panic, to take care of yourself and look after your back the way we have been fortunate enough to learn from Sarah herself. After two weeks back at home, my life is so much easier, and I have great hopes for my fitness into the future.
Sarah shared her home and her healing touch with generosity, enthusiasm and real caring. It was a privilege to be her guest, and it was one of my life's most special experiences.
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