On recovering from a suspected (minor) heart attack and having had a first close brush with death
On the evening of 22nd December 2017 I was getting into the bath and noticed my left arm bicep giving me a bit of pain. It was a pain that I had never felt before. I tried to shake it off & lay down in the very warm water. But the pain wouldn’t go away. The more horizontal my body, the worse the pain got. Rather than stick around, I got out of the bath and pondered an early night. But same again – only the pain seemed to be across my entire left arm and also on the underside of my jaw. I had not felt this before. My mum advised phoning 111, which I did. I was beginning to sweat at this time, but wasn’t too concerned. I had assumed they were going to say I had swollen glands and that the painkillers I had taken would sort it out. But because the pain – by now a ‘very deep ache’ was touching on my shoulder, they dispatched an ambulance.
It felt like forever as my family watched on. Yet they were there in five minutes. A picture of calm, Jack, a trainee paramedic out on a Friday night with his supervisor whose name I forget, were a pair of calm in the face of me feeling the pain becoming slightly more intense.
“Have this spray on the bottom of your tongue and chew this aspirin”
I did as was told, watching as they placed these stickers all over my chest, arms and legs before hooking me up to this futuristic-looking machine. It was an ECG scan they were doing. Everything seemed to be OK apart from one blip on the graph. They said that if I was having a full blown cardiac arrest “we wouldn’t be here, but on our way to A&E” the paramedics said. But because the pain was still there, and because of that blip, they made the call to take me into Addenbrooke’s. So they strapped me up to a chair and took me into the ambulance, arriving at midnight on the dot.
Addenbrooke’s – one of the oldest hospitals in the region, and one of the biggest
I’ve grown up with the hospital being this permanent presence in my childhood neighbourhood. From nursery school you could see the chimney from the back garden. And as every rail commuter from Cambridge to London knows, the sight of Addenbrooke’s chimney means you’re nearly home. So much so ***they made a t-shirt out of it***
I’d been into A&E on more than one occasion during childhood. It’s a sort of right of passage of growing up. This was the first time I had been in via the back of an ambulance. My younger brother rocked up probably wanting to be somewhere else given the time it was – now in the very early hours of 23rd December. By this time I thought it was an idea to send a quick Twitter update.
Tests, tests and more tests
My condition by that time had stabilised and the pain had gone down. After another hour they took me from the emergency room where, given the kit I assumed more than a few people had had their lives saved, or had breathed their last, into a quieter room. Here I had a whole series of further tests – ECG but with a big machine, blood tests, blood pressure and temperature tests and more.
The blood test showed raised levels of this substance called troponin – which the medics either referred to as ‘trips’ or ‘trops’. The consultant physician in A&E told me that it was possible that there was ‘a tiny amount of damage to your heart muscle’, and that whatever had happened, all of the test results were indicating that the pain was ‘something heart-y’. The medics also said that they were going to transfer me to the cardiac ward and keep me in overnight.
I assumed this meant staying in overnight, having more tests, being told that things were fine but to come back as an outpatient in the New Year. When I woke up in the morning, the news was slightly different.
At this stage, they still did not know what had caused the pain and what had potentially damaged the heart muscle.
Despite the news, the sense of what I had been through still hadn’t sunk in. It still hasn’t now. The reaction from others around me however, gave me more of a sense of the near brush with death I had just experienced.
…and from my music collective, We are Sound, who came bearing a hamper full of fruit and chocolate!
And only a hospital could post a tweet saying “Sorry you are with us” 🙂
I got transferred to Papworth on Boxing Day, where they did a small op exploring the insides of my heart – a coronary angioplasty. It was only under local anaesthetic, so for the hour or so while it lasted, I could hear (And if I wanted to, see) what was going on. I turned away because I’m squeamish about blood and medical things. But the injection of dye into my system to see where any blockages might be was…an experience.
Now I had assumed that my arteries were clogged up all over the place and would need major treatment, but to my complete and utter surprise I was told my arteries were relatively clear, especially given my age and other characteristics. Thus there wasn’t anything that seemed to indicate a blockage – but they couldn’t rule it out. Even though in my ‘thank yous‘ video I thank the medics and staff for looking after me, the idea that had things been left as they were I could have died, still hadn’t, and hasn’t sunk in.
Being aware of other patients in the ward
On a shared all-male ward where there were up to six of us at any one time, placed directly opposite another patient, it’s hard not to notice other patients and what they are struggling with. I was the baby of the bunch – all of the other patients with me either being middle aged or retired. There were moments that were pure comedy, as well as those that were spiritually crushing yet awe-inspiring.
Every so often an alarm would go off and staff would drop everything and race to another bay. Cardiac arrest. A reminder that there were more than a few people on the ward in extremely serious conditions, and that for more than a few people entering the hospital, they would not live to see through into the New Year. You could see the impact the heart conditions had on a number of patients – the colour of their faces had just drained away. Yet their spouses refused to give up on them, seldom leaving their sides, hour-after-hour.
It reminded me first of my late grandparents who stayed together for over half a century of marriage – only the Second World War being the cause of an enforced separation between 1943-45 shortly after they got married. At the same time it made me sad knowing that if one of them didn’t make it, the other would be absolutely crushed – as my late grandmother was when my grandfather died in 2000. Furthermore, it made me wonder whether I would ever experience that sort of really intense and utterly devoted long-lasting love that they experienced.
Knowing that some of the other patients might be coming face-to-face with death very soon
This was something that hit me quite hard, and reminded me of this tale – the context of which I cannot recall when I first saw it.
(Turns out it was in a certain wizarding movie)
In a room where men were fighting for their lives, there was me, over the worst, there almost invisible to that dark shadow prowling the wards as those angels of mercy – the nurses, kept a vigilant watch and attended to every need of the patients.
Learning about human nature
We are all equal when it comes to our own individual passing. On that ward you had people from a huge range of social backgrounds. You had some medics who had that aura you only acquire if you go to an expensive private school and/or oxbridge. You had retired people from solid working class backgrounds. You had the professionals happy to engage in conversations about complicated things. You had some with mild learning difficulties and hearing problems.
Health Care Assistant (HCA) : “Do you want ice cream and jelly?”
Patient: “I don’t have ice cream and jelly”
HCA: “What would you like for pudding then?”
Patient: “I want jelly and ice cream!”
HCA: “Would you like a napkin?”
Patient: “No – I’d like a serviette”
The nurses, HCAs and support staff had the patience of saints. Whatever it is that enables them to do their jobs I simply do not have. Their hours are far too long, their shifts are far too long, and they get far too little respect for what they do. It was only after observing them at work close up for six solid days in a row when I was entirely dependent on them that I realised what their work involved. It also made me realise why so few get involved in politics and public policy: they are absolutely shattered by the end of their shifts and by life outside of work as well. This experience is forcing me to completely reappraise all things democracy-in-action. How do you involve people who are not only ‘time poor’ but who are also exhausted as a result of their work and day-to-day living generally? That challenge applies not just to political parties but local community and campaign groups too.
After the op – The importance of post-operative care
Before being transferred from Addenbrooke’s I made sure that all over my patient notes I had mental health issues flagged up. Because although it hasn’t hit me yet, it sure as hell will do. Hence making sure that post-operation counselling was one of the things I will be booked in for.
“Why does the counselling matter?”
I never recovered from my mental health crisis of spring 2012. It’s not one of those things that you can attribute to a cause, or blame or anything like that. I simply have not got to a stage where I am able to work full time hours anymore. Now, combine that with the prospect of very serious heart problems while still in my late 30s and all of those assumptions about what society decides university-educated men should be doing at this age (and have already achieved) go out of the window.
In one particularly dark moment following a sleepless night (not easy on a busy ward at the best of times) I went through a crushing moment wondering who would look after me, would anyone want to either employ or work with me given my health, or even fall in love and settle down with me given health & other things related to it – eg living back with family due to reduced independence resulting from disability.
“Does something like this change you as a person?”
In one sense it feels like one of life’s markers. I’m still trying to get my head around what happened, and even now emotionally I still cannot make sense of it. I can’t pretend to ‘keep up with the able-bodied and more-than-sound-of-mind’ for want of another term. I cannot pretend that the past few months in local and civic life has been anything other than stressful – as this sweary video shows.
Inevitably one or two activities will have to fall by the wayside. I hope, as with the Museum of Cambridge’s crisis we will see more new people stepping forward to take part, rather than, as all too often happens, we rely on the huge efforts of a small number of core activists. Learning to say ‘No’ is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when it involves something you care passionately about – home.
“What does 2018 hold in store?”
On FB at https://www.facebook.com/camvote100/
Part of my role is to unearth the evidence bases from which the creatives in and around Cambridge can then run with. Transcribed newspaper articles of 100 years ago that I’m publishing and publicising on Lost Cambridge here, is part of that. More music gigs await too, with We Are Sound – more tickets are due to be released soon here.