Waking up dazed, disorientated but still alive on what I decided to call Walrus Beach on a Saturday night three weeks before Christmas, I found myself wired up to an intravenous drip, oxygen and uncomfortably plugged into a catheter bag. Suitably trussed up like a turkey, the screens were removed and I was unveiled to my fellow walruses.
Opposite me a large man regarded me balefully, sitting on a suitably oversized chair next to his bed. I raised my right hand and wiggled my fingers pathetically.
‘You look like you’ve had a rough time, mate,’ he said.
‘Well, I feel almost human again. Even if I don’t look it.’
‘Harr, humour,’ he chuckled, his large frame wobbling in harmony to his laugh. ‘I’m Steve. Dangerous thing humour in a place like this. Isn’t that right Dave?’
Dave was in a bed on Steve’s right and was a diminished looking late middle-aged man with a worried, long suffering expression. He rolled his eyes and gave me a wave. I waved back. Then looked around. There were a total of six of us in the ward, all heart patients. The inmates of Walrus Beach all lounged as best they could, thankful to just be alive. No televisions were allowed to avoid any excitement, so it was a case of read, sleep or chat to your neighbour. The only ‘entertainment machine’ were our heart monitors. Steve’s machine was the most exciting, showing wild and irregular patterns.
‘I’m an enigma.' Steve announced. 'They don’t know what’s going on with me.’ He raised his arm and the electronic pattern bounced and changed on the screen. ‘See?’
Dave chipped in: ‘And look, my one says my heart rate is 120 – even though I count it at half that! Bloody stupid thing.’
Only later does Dave mention he has a pacemaker and he’s convinced the monitor is doubling the heart beat count. I like the black humour. If I’d been in a private room and on my own and with no one to compare war wounds, my time in hospital would have been much harder.
That first night sleep was difficult. But I officially became a fully paid-up member of the Walrus gang the very next night, contributing enthusiastically to the discordant symphony of human and robotic sounds. In a dream I was a despairing conductor, vainly trying to organise all the coughs, groans and snores punctuated by stacato bursts of flatulence and mechanical bing-bong alarms – into some form of weird symphony.
To make sure everyone enjoyed the concert, a despotic nurse would regularly, on the hour, wake and stick a needle in my and everyones else's arm. Somehow I managed to filter out these sounds and eventually sleep, but in truth it took me a long time to gain the confidence to close my eyes. Without the distraction of daylight and humour, my mind returned again to the event. The fact was I could no longer trust my heart to keep beating.
The attack itself came without warning while lifting carpets. There was no dramatic clutching of the heart as seen in movies. The exertion had simply made me feel dizzy and out of breath. And yes, my back ached. Nothing unusual. So I lay down on the floor to recover and that’s when the chest pains started. My wife realised I was in trouble and called an ambulance. I’d given up the pretence of trying to manfully shake off the discomfort, by this time I didn’t care what happened as the pain was crushing. I was very cold and shaking, so much so the paramedics thought I might be convulsing. Not entirely sure what was wrong with me, they decided to blue-light me to the local hospital.
As the ambulance arrived at the hospital the paramedic gave me a shot of GTN spray under my tongue to relieve the chest pain. It didn’t work. The ambulance doors opened and at that moment for me the lights went out.
It was as if someone had flicked off the light switch. But not quite final oblivion, not yet.
When I come around, face's float above me; two men, a woman and they’re all shouting. The woman has a blue nurse’s uniform and she’s telling me to try and be still. I’m squirming from the pain but I try and do as I'm told and not move. But I’m still squirming so they’re now holding my legs. She’s talking at me.
‘There’s a risk of stroke, but we need to do this procedure, do you agree? Do you agree?’
Stroke? I don’t want a stroke. I hear myself say the words. She reassures me it’s a small risk. Risk? Do I agree? Life and death. Damned right I agree.
Again that light switch is flicked off.
Now there's another man floating above me, shouting. I’m confused, why is he shouting?
‘No need to shout, I can hear you,’ I tell him and he chuckles.
‘Sorry,’ he says.
There seems to be lots of noise and bustle. It dawns on me that what is happening to me might be really serious. But I have no time to dwell on this thought, as …
Click. The lights go out.
Again, there appear new face's floating above me. There’s a huge jolt and I feel and watch as my chest jump into the air. I’m detached from what is happening. I hear myself groan at the shock. A voice.
More voices, more bustle.
My wife and daughters are at my side. They look worried. Now, for the first time, I start to be afraid. It's dawning on me I might not get out of this. I take the chance to say goodbye. Then I ask my eldest about her new carpets, has she chosen them? My youngest about the faulty car headlight bulb – has she fixed it? They get irritated but it pulls my mind away from the fear. Then the pain is back in my chest. I recognise the symptoms now. I have just enough time to say: ‘It’s happening again...’
Yet more strange faces above me, lifting me. I’m being manhandled onto a hospital trolley. They tell me I’m being transferred to Harefield, a specialist heart hospital. Ceiling lights flash above me and I’m in a Hollywood film. I’m in an ambulance. The ambulance ceiling is featurless white plastic. I study its contours, looking for anything to focus upon. There's nothing.
Minutes, seconds later, I'm not sure, time has become seriously warped, I arrest again en-route. The ambulance jolts to a stop, the doors open. Another corridor, a doctor pushes a form in front of my eyes. I must sign this consent. I feel like swearing but haven’t the strength. I scrawl my name and then I’m in theatre surrounded by pale blue walls, monitors and grey robotic machines. Much more interesting than the ambulance ceiling I decide.
Multiple LCD screens hover from the cieling as grey and silver machines robotically float over me. Two surgeons are working by my groin, feeding a wire through my arteries to my chest. I can see my heart on a monitor to my left, the wire tunnelling. I turn away and study the ceiling and listen, strangely calm. I arrest again apparently but I have no memory of the event. I’m back. Watching the surgeons. Watching the machines. Watching my heart pulse onscreen. I over-hear the surgeon commenting on his progress.
‘There it is, an hour-glass restriction. That's it, just suck these blood clots out and there! Good! Push the stent further, go on, further, far enough do you think?’
These words came from a young, confident surgeon and he’s teaching. I hope he’s a good teacher. The student looks rather nervous.
‘Got it? Happy with that? You happy? I’m happy with that. Good. Close up.’
The surgeon teacher strides away to go behind a long glass partition where the techs are controlling the X-ray imaging device that is floating over my body.
‘Good. Good,’ he shouts from behind the glass.
I whisper to the student, a registrar, who is diligently closing me up. ‘Hot-shot surgeon?’
He rolls his eyes and nods, his hands still working. ‘Yeah, but a damned good teacher.’
I'm wheeled out, pushed down the corridor to the recovery ward. En-route I'm introduced to the sister in charge. She has flame coloured hair and I compliment her on it. She raises her eyebrows slightly but smiles.
‘Feeling better, are you?’
And I realise I am.
‘You’ve got colour back in your cheeks, that's always a good sign.’
That night, I have a passing ‘event’ that brings the crash team running. For the briefest of seconds, my heart fluttered and stopped.
‘You alright?’ One of the team asks, checking the monitors that sounded the alarm.
All right? Nothing feels all right or very normal anymore.
The next day brings the consultant to my bed for a chat.
‘Well, you’ve had a lucky escape. Five hours since your first attack to surgery is far longer than we’d like. You had a blockage in the left anterior descending artery, an L.A.D, which we sometimes call the widow maker of attacks. But, you’re still here. And you should be home in three or four days.’
I’m astounded. I’m still alive. I’ve beaten the odds. The primary angioplasty procedure combined with the quick actions of the surgeons and their skill, saved my life.
Only fifty-eight, never smoked, not terribly over-weight and I hardly drink. If I can have a heart attack then anyone can. And frankly, it’s a matter of luck where you happen to be when you have an attack for the odds on your survival. All of us need to be more heart aware. If you feel any of the symptoms I've described, call an ambulance. It may save your life.