Final Words (Seventh and Last Blog!)

The week following the second angioplasty was both better and worse than previously. Better in the sense that, although I was not exactly glowing with health, the improvement was clear. I no longer experienced the breathlessness I had before and the light sensitivity seemed less intense. The downside was the injury to the groin, collateral damage from the procedure, as our transatlantic cousins might term it. The bruising was a sight to behold as it came out over the first few days. Gorgeous long lines of purple, seperated by about six inches, in between which the skin was a strangely exotic shade of muddy yellow.

Walking, even very short distances, was more than a tad difficult for a few days and, even now, some two weeks on, it still presents some difficulties. My cat, Cooking Fat, often seems to display a certain empathy at one level, oft times sleeping beside me when I have been low. On another level she shows an almost criminal disregard for the sensitivities of my much bruised groin by leaping unexpectedly onto my lap from all angles and at any time. Not good….

I seem to be on the road to recovery at least. Having read those rather alarming statistics about mortality rates following angioplasty,  I am pleased to have gotten through the first month relatively unscathed. It’s strange how the way one defines a good day changes with time and circumstance. At certain stages of one’s life it takes an awful lot to make up a good day, at other times one is a lot less fussy. Maybe Wyatt Earp had it right when he said; “Any day spent above ground is a good day!”

Life is a precious thing. A very simple thing to say but very true at the same time. Many of us do not appreciate just how precious until there is a threat that it could be taken from us. The trick is to appreciate how fortunate you are to be alive at all, how lucky you are simply to be able to read these lines on this day, how blessed you are to be an aware, conscious being. An attitude of gratitude, a realisation of one’s good fortune, goes a long way towards having and maintaining a sense of well being in this life.

For my part I am grateful. Grateful to the people who have helped me on this occasion, grateful to those who helped me on previous occasions, grateful to simply have the chance to express these things. Several times in my life it could have turned out very differently. In particular, I am grateful to the NHS and the staff therein. They come in for a lot of criticism at times but I for one have good reason to be thankful to both the institution itself and the staff within.

It is an oft stated cliche that ‘you never know’ in life. As with many cliches there is more than a grain of truth in it. One moment your life is going on much as normal and out of a more or less clear blue sky comes a problem. As far as I was concerned, I seemed to tick all the right boxes to avoid heart problems; non smoker, scarcely a drinker, healthy diet containing mostly fresh, live fruit and veg. No matter, you can still have a heart attack and, if not that, then some other catastrophe can befall you.

One sometime hears people moaning about how unfair this sort of thing is. Well, from my point of view, it is neither fair nor unfair, it just is. Complaining about life’s fairness is not going to help you one bit on the road to recovery from, or even coping with, your problem. This is the hand you have been dealt, all you can do is play it to the best of your abilities. Wishing you had other cards is not going to help!

Apologies if that last paragraph sounded a tad preachy, I have tried to avoid that sort of thing during this blog but, as this is a summary of what I felt during these weeks, I thought I may as well express that part as well. The blog itself has proven to be an interesting exercise but  somehow grew into something much larger than originally  intended. It did allow me to get a few things off my chest and clarify the experience in my own mind.

Hope you enjoyed my scribblings and….most importantly….

Stay Well!

It’s deja-vu all over again (2nd angioplasty – sixth post)

I have to admit now, looking back from a distance of a couple of weeks, that part of me was tempted not to have the second procedure. By this time I had read about and was well aware of the relatively slight dangers of an angiogram and the much greater risk of having another angioplasty. I wanted to find some good, or even not so good, reason to say that a second operation was unnecessary, thus avoid the seeming inevitability of having to go through the same thing all over again.

There were some signs that part of my problems may have been down to the medication, I had been prescribed beta blockers which had the effect of making my already slow heart rate even slower. Indeed, on the first night in hospital, it had regularly been recorded at around 42 beats per minute. Such a rate is fine for a high level marathon runner or someone intending to take part in the Tour de France, it is not so good however for a middle aged gent leading a somewhat sedentary lifestyle.

Dr. Amersey, on seeing these charts, immediately changed my now long list of medications to exclude the beta blockers and also reduce the statins intake. My cholestrol reading had come back as 3.6, relatively low and not really in need of being controlled by medication. In view of these changes, I was tempted to ask for a reprieve, say two or three weeks, to see if the new regime changed the way I felt, thus  avoiding the need to undergo another procedure. Feeling I had dodged a bullet the first time, I felt no particular enthusiasm to put myself in the firing line once more.

The doctor, calm and logical as ever, explained the advisability of taking things a step further. Given the nature of my condition the risk of not undergoing the procedure was far greater than then risk involved if it was avoided.  There was still some reluctance on my part but I understood that, in real terms,  it was the most sensible course of action.

So it was that I found myself signing the consent form once more. There was a sense of surrender, a sense of ‘que sera sera,’ whatever will be will be. For me, there was a sense of peace in that inner surrender and I found myself surprisingly calm as I settled down to await the procedure. I had been told I was second in line so to just make myself comfortable for a while until it was my turn.

I had just opened a copy of ‘Alex’s  Adventures in Numberland’ when the doctor suddenly reappeared.

“Sorry George, the previous operation has been cancelled, you’re next!”

And so it was that within a bare few minutes I found myself once more being wheeled into theatre. A lot of the nurses were, by now, familiar from a fortnight before.

“Back so soon?” one of them asked, smiling.

“Yes, I enjoyed it so much the first time that I just couldn’t wait to come back for more…” I explained.

Once more the nurses busied themselves with the usual attachments, once more I was positioned on the long, narrow bed, my hand tucked beneath my body, once more the brief explanation as to what was going to happen next.

Having punctured my oh so sensitive right groin the first time, it was now decided that they would go in from the left side. A young  doctor, trying hard to affect a level of nonchalance, injected the lignocaine into the top of my thigh and proceeded to attempt to feed the needle into the femoral artery. The process was not going so well however and, several times, I was told to ‘relax.’ Not the easiest or most natural thing to do when someone is trying to puncture a vital artery in a very sensitive part of your anatomy followed by pushing a rather large needle into the hole thus created..

Dr. Amersey took over at this point. I felt it as something of a relief to be back in his capable hands. Within just a couple of minutes the dye was dispersed once more into the arteries of my heart and then….silence. For a minute or two all I heard were a few faint mumbles as the team went into something of a huddle.

Eventually, Dr. Amersey appeared from behind the perspex screen, a look of some concern on his face. I had seen this expression before. In fact this was the third time. Deja vu all over again….

“We have had a look and although the first two stents look fine there does seem to be something of a blockage in a branching artery.”

He waited for a response but what could one say?

“Go on.”

“Well, from the previous images we looked at, the blockage would appear to have developed in the last couple of weeks.”

He let the implications of this sink in for a second or two. The obvious question was why would it have developed now when the flow of blood around the heart should have been improved by the previous stenting?

“I think the best course of action would be to insert a further stent into the branch artery….with your permission?”

Again, what can one say in such a situation? As the patient you are caught between a rock and a very hard place. Potentially damned if you do, almost certainly damned if you don’t. Not a real choice, you have to go for it. I nodded my assent.

“OK, thank you.  By now, you know what to expect,” he said,  with a certain underplayed irony in his voice, “It’s possible you may feel some build up of pressure in your chest. Let me know if it becomes too uncomfortable.”

With this he disappeared once more behind the perspex screen and made his preparations. Lengths of catheter tubing were requested along with a smaller size drug eluting stent than the previous two. In but a few short minutes all was ready.

I listened to the soft voices of the doctor and the team, calm yet focussed, reassuringly concentrated on the task in hand, rescuing my ailing heart. Within a minute or two the catheter was being inserted over the already in place sheath deep into my heart. The next stage involves guiding the stent itself up through the arterial system. In theory, one cannot feel any of this directly but you do notice small changes in pressure in your chest. After all, the flow of blood in the arteries is outward, away from the heart. The sheath, catheter and stent are all opposing that flow to various degrees.

Somehow, this time, although more aware of the dangers than previously, it felt easier. I was well aware that there are risks involved but I felt a high degree of confidence in the team of people performing the task. There was something very reassuring in the professional manner in which they worked. Requests would be made, curtly yet politely, responses would be made, quickly and accurately. If there was a problem it was quickly and efficiently dealt with.  The thought crossed my mind, this procedure may not end well but it would not be for lack of effort on the part of these people.

Soon I heard the now familiar count once more: “Going up, 2,4,6,8, 10 and 12…stopped at 12.” The count was spoken once and then echoed in confirmation. I felt the pressure climb in my chest. For a brief moment it was actually quite uncomfortable. I waited for a few seconds, still felt the pressure, and so pointed it out to the doctor.

My comment was acknowledged but, fortunately, almost immediately the feeling of pressure subsided. For a few more minutes there was the sound of muffled conversation from behind the screen, as hard as I strained to hear I could only pick out the odd word here and there.

The doctor pushed back the screen. He smiled briefly, reassuringly, before telling me that he considered that it had gone well. The only downside was that a blood blister had appeared beneath the site of the opening in the femoral artery and they would therefore not be able to plug the wound in the normal way. Pressure would need to be applied to the site for some time in order to get the wound to set.

I was relieved to have made it through once more and the prospect of some pain as the left groin area was pressed firmly immediately over the wound seemed,  relatively speaking, of  little consequence. I have to admit though…it really did  hurt!

The nurse apologised a couple of times for causing me such pain but there was no need. Pain inflicted when one is aware that the intention behind the process is your wellbeing is much easier to bear.

In no time at all I was back in the familiar environs of Elizabeth Ward. It felt like I had hardly left the place. Many of the same staff I had met the first time around were on duty once more and it actually felt good to be reacquainted with them. For the first few hours I was confined to the bed, most of the time spent completely horizontal to give the wound a chance to heal properly. After about three hours I was allowed to gradually increase the angle of my body until, finally, I could sit up in bed.

My younger brother, David, appeared at this point. It was good to see him once more. We chatted away for some time. David tends to be in one of two modes, the first is rather self contained and one struggles to eke even a few words out of him, the second is much more open, voluble and conversational. Fortunately, on this occasion, he was very much in the second mode and the conversation flowed easily and interestingly. The only downside for me was the ongoing effects of the diamorphine I had been given which rendered me a tad sleepy at times.

A couple of hours later it was time to knit the wound together. This involves more pressing on the groin. The pressure needs to be very firm for it to work so there is an amount of pain involved for the patient but it also tends to be hard work for the nurse. The sister who was to carry out the procedure was in charge of the ward that evening. She was of a somewhat slight build and the sheer physicality of having to try to hold the pressure on the groin for that length of time was clearly quite a strain. She stuck to the task however and, after the fifteen minutes and numerous apologies for causing me discomfort, the wound was sealed. I think we were both quite grateful!

The Phoney War (Fifth Blog)

Back on the ward, there was a feeling of relief, a feeling of simply not wanting to be in this same situation again in this lifetime if I could help it. The wound was uncomfortable but I knew this was just a temporary setback. It seemed that, for now at least, I had come through relatively unscathed. A few words from Churchill came to mind; “There is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at without result!”. Exhilaration may have been too strong a word in this case but there was a sense of having ‘dodged a bullet.’

After an angiogram/angioplasty procedure one is confined to bed for several hours in order to allow the wound in the groin time to heal. In this particular case, they had inserted a plug into the hole in the femoral artery, a relatively modern technique which avoids the need for a lengthier and more painful procedure whereby the site of the wound is pressed upon very firmly for some 15 minutes or so. For those of us who are a tad sensitive in the groin area, the very thought of it brings tears to the eyes!

For the next day or so, until the moment I escaped the confines of Whipps Cross Hospital, I was feeling strangely elated, almost slightly euphoric. Whilst in the limited spaces of Elizabeth Ward my increasing mobility and general well being were very reassuring. On the Tuesday morning I found busily engaged on the phone arranging all manner of things that needed to be done for those around me and myself. It felt good to be in charge of one’s life again, instead of just a passive victim of circumstance. As much as I appreciated the care and attention of the staff in the hospital there was still a strong desire to be released from their ministrations and, once more, to feel oneself a free and independent person.

Before leaving I was treated to a visit from Caroline of rehab who offered enlistment into a program of exercise for those who had suffered a heart attack. I let her know of my limitations in such areas but gladly accepted her offer. Next came the rather exotically dressed lass from the pharmacy, a sight for slightly sore eyes resplendent in figure hugging dress and knee high boots, dispensing drugs and advice on how to take them. The list of medicaments was long, seven in all if one doesn’t count the ’emergencies only’ GNT spray. There were statins, ACE inhibitors, anti platelets and even beta blockers. I was a tad concerned at the last as my heart rate is pretty slow at the best of times but I was assured that in this situation it would take a load off of the embattled organ.

Phil Johnson, a good and trusted friend of many years standing. picked me up at around half three in the afternoon. He carried my bag along a section of the seemingly endless corridors of Whipps Cross. He was not walking particularly fast but even so I had to ask him to slow down. The light outside seemed brighter than usual even though the day was overcast. I waited near the outpatients  department and enjoyed the sights and sounds of life going on around me once more.

Phil drove at a reasonable place back to his maisonette just off Hermon Hill. Although his driving was by no means unreasonable I still seemed to feel every bump along the way. On arrival, I got slowly and tentatively out of the car, feeling surprisingly vulnerable and frail. This was not at all what I had expected. I was well aware that I had had a heart attack but, at the same time, had felt like I was getting stronger and stronger, particularly during the previous 24 hours. That was in the hospital though. Now, exposed to the outside world, it was becoming obvious that all was not yet well.

I stayed with Phil and his wife,Simone,  for several hours, most of which was spent strewn across their huge red sofa, being supplied with all I needed for the evening. They both seemed somewhat concerned, I think I may have looked even frailer than I felt. Eventually, around ten or so, Phil drove me home.

The next week was spent very gently reading, writing a little, waiting for the expected recovery. Indeed, for a time, I did seem to get a little better but would still find myself breathless climbing stairs and would still experience moments of faintness. The bruising in my groin and upper thigh was impressive, gorgeous shades of purple, blue and yellow. As ever, I rationalised my lack of a faster recovery, if my groin and thigh were like that then it would seem only natural that something similar had occurred internally. Recovery would be a matter of patiently waiting for the bruising internal and external, to subside.

I had been encouraged to take some exercise when I could so I went for a short stroll beside a lake in Wanstead Park. It was a sunny day and pretty soon I found that I was reacting badly to the light. After just a few minutes I had to sit down beside the water just  to allow myself the chance to recover. This wasn’t the recuperation that I had foreseen.

Over the next few days I struggled on and, after a couple of weeks or so, I was actually feeling a tad more comfortable, although the photo phobia seemed to grow more and more bothersome with every sunny day. Two friends, John and Erica, had invited me to share a trip to the British Museum to see an exhibition on early European Christianity’s addiction to the notion of relics. It sounded interesting so I decided to take a chance and embark on my first trip to London for a month.

I had only just started driving again which felt like something of a liberation.  I left the car in a side street close to Woodford Station and tried to walk the short distance to the ticket office. It was a sunny day and immediately the photophobic effect was obvious once more. Every white, or even light, coloured wall  or surface seemed to glare unbearably. It felt a little like the snow blindness I had experienced in Austria many years previously, this time though it was accompanied by feelings of lightheadedness and even nausea. When I reached the barriers I was feeling quite ill and had to make a decision whether to go or stay, once through, I was more or less committed to the journey.

With some reluctance I decided to go. Taking the seat on the train I immediately felt better and was relatively fine until reaching my destination, Holborn. Once there though, I had to walk a short distance to a coffee shop where we had decided to rendezvous. Reaching the meeting point, although but a short distance, became a struggle, so much so that I could feel the sweat running down my back at the effort involved. Every light coloured surface seemed to be breaking up into darker blotches. Finally, and much to my relief, I reached the basement of the coffee shop. John and Erica were already there and looked concerned at my discomfort. After taking a seat in a deep and cosy chair  and chatting with some expectation about the exhibition I soon became much more comfortable.

The exhibition itself turned out to be a beautiful presentation of all manner of relics from the early Christian era. Across Europe in the middle ages, all manner of relics recovered from the crusades were revered for having been involved in the story of Christ. There were splinters from the cross, a piece of bread from the last supper, even a towel said to have been wrapped around the head of Christ as he took the cross upon his back. All incredibly implausible of course but bread and butter to the early Christian church. People would make pilgrimages in order to have a chance to even simply be in the proximity of such relics. Added to those connected to the Bible story there was also many artifacts connected with various saints. Many of these were body parts taken from the corpses  (allegedly!) of martyred saints immediately following there martyrdom. Quite gruesome and, in many cases, equally implausible.

Coming out of the exhibition I still found myself weak and a little breathless but I did seem to be managing the demands of the situation quite well. Strange, looking back at it now, that same process of  rationalisation that I mentioned in a previous blog, that same willingness to believe the more mundane explanations for one’s symptoms, served to prevent me from the realisation that I will still in trouble. This process seems to be a defence mechanism that many of us share, a way of shielding us from the harsh realities that confront us at times in life.

All this was to change just two days later. I had been invited to undergo an exercise test at Whipps Cross to see if I was ready for the rehab program. It consisted of walking on a running machine whilst the operator, a sympathetic Irish fellow by the name of Brian in this case, gradually increased the inclination of the apparatus.

For the first half a minute or so I was OK. My body was festooned with connections so my heart could be monitored during the process and, at first, nothing unusual was apparent. Then the slope was increased. Within seconds the chest pain returned. I soldiered on. The inclination was increased and, almost immediately, so was the discomfort in my chest. I started to feel quite faint. Brian, monitoring the ECG and enquiring as to how I felt, decided quite suddenly to stop the test. He looked somewhat perturbed.

“George, I think you should come back into hospital” he said.

“Hmm, bit inconvenient right now Brian” I responded, “When do you think it could be arranged?”

“I think now would be the right moment!”

I had made all manner of arrangements for the coming days but I could see from the look on his face that he was quite concerned. I enquired if it was at least OK to return my car home and get a friend to bring me back but even this was, according to Brian, inadvisable.  When he said now he really had meant it and so it was that within a few minutes I found myself sitting in a wheelchair being wheeled along the interminable corridors of Whipps Cross back to Accident and Emergency to undergo further tests with a view to readmitting me.

Back to square one it seemed. There was some concern amongst the staff in A&E that I was having a second heart attack there and then. More electrodes were attached to my chest, ECGs were taken and samples of my blood were extracted from my much punctured arm.

My basic nature is, fortunately, an inclination towards the optimistic, but, siting there in A&E with little idea as to how serious this latest event might be, I have to admit to getting just a tad fed up with the vagaries of my heart.

Don’t stint on the stents….

At the centre of the theatre was a long, narrow bench above which were an array of screens. At the head end of the bench was a heavy scanner on a semi-circular tracker. I was laid upon the bench which, for a change, was actually comfortably long enough to support my elongated frame. Four or five nurses buzzed around me, fixing a drip to the cannula in my left arm, attaching numerous electrodes for an ongoing ECG, placing my right hand beneath my buttock and then, all needed preparations completed, sliding a long, lime green, paper sheet over me.

I looked up at the ceiling where someone had thoughtfully provided an impressionistic scene of Epping Forest, canada geese wondering around a muddy pond. The nurses chatted reassuringly as they busied themselves with a multitude of tasks. Finally, Dr. Amersey came in and briefly explained once more the likely sequence of events. Normally, he explained, they would consider using an artery in my arm to gain access to the arteries around the heart but, in my case, the tubing that was normally utilized may prove too short for the task so they were proposing going in through the femoral artery in the groin.

All I could remember of the femoral artery was what I knew from reading Hemingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ as a teenager. The femoral artery was the one place that the bullfighters in the book feared being gored as, once severed, the flow of blood tends to be both immediate and intense.

I was injected with a couple of shots of lignocaine to numb the site. To some extent it was successful but, even so, as the needle was slipped beneath the skin in the proximity of the inguinal lymph nodes I began to experience some degree of discomfort. I tried to grin and bear it, focussing my attention on the meandering geese on the ceiling, but my efforts were doomed to failure as I winced from the pain.

“Would you like some sedative?” asked the concerned Dr. Amersey. A pretty definite “Yes” was my reply. As a guy the general expectation seems to be that one should put up with a degree of discomfort without moaning and, in general, I am pretty good with such things but…..one also needs to know one’s limitations! A nurse was instructed to feed some anti-emetic into the cannula, mercifully followed by a dose of diamorphine. The familiar, slightly woozy, feeling flooded through my body quickly followed by the relaxing effect of the drug.

Every now and then I would receive the instruction to ‘relax.’ In practice, much easier said than done. The procedure is not the most relaxing process in the first place but having someone slide a needle up through your groin and into your femoral artery would not be my choice as a way to relax. Still, I did as much as I could and tried to focus my mind on the pastoral scene above my head.

After a while the needle was in place and a wire was passed up through the arterial system destined for the vicinity of my heart. I could scarcely make out anything that the doctor was doing as he worked behind a thick perspex screen designed to give him some level of protection from the radiation emitted by the fluoroscope. The surgeon also wears a leaded jacket designed to offer a further level of protection. As a patient you have no such defenses but, hopefully at least, one is only exposed to the xrays for the relatively short amount of time involved in the procedure.

The time came to inject the dye, I was warned that I might feel a little pressure at this point. I looked across to the screens above and to my left. Strange to see the motion of the blood and dye around one’s own arterial system. The images were very clear though as was the problem that Dr. Amersey pointed out. One artery barely seemed able to allow blood to flow through it at all. He explained that now we were in this position, probably the best thing to do would be to immediately go ahead with an angioplasty. This involves place a stent, a small metal tube, inside the affected artery in order to hold back the atheroma (area where the artery has narrowed) and allow blood to pass through freely once more. He explained that although the procedure had a certain level of risk he believed that in this case it was the only sensible alternative.

I nodded my assent. I will admit I was not overly keen to undergo such a procedure but the alternative seemed even worse. It was explained to me that I would feel some pressure as the stent was put in place. The doctor asked for a length of what appeared to be plastic tubing and a stent of a certain size. Within a couple of minutes the process had started and he delicately and very skillfully pushed the stent into the affected artery.

Once again, I was told I may feel some pressure in the chest and, sure enough, within a few seconds I did. It felt somewhat like having the heart attack all over again, maybe not quite so intense but really quite similar. The doctor and one of the nurses began to count in unison: “Going up, 2,4,6,8,10,” each confirming the other. This count is performed as air is pushed into the balloon that is inside the stent. Inflating the balloon causes the cage-like structure of the stent to expand. Whilst this is occurring though, there is a considerable build up of pressure in the chest. I could feel my temperature going up and was aware of a certain faintness. I was given the chance to rest for a second and then the count started once more: “Going up, 2,4,6,8,10,12…hold at 12.” The pressure was quite high at this point but, finally, it was done. The stent was in place.

There was some discussion taking place between the doctor and a couple of nurses but I could not quite make out what was troubling them. A minute or two later, Dr. Amersey appeared from behind the perspex screen, his expression an odd mixture of satisfaction at a job well done and yet clearly a little concerned at one and the same time. It was one of those “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” moments.

“Well” he announced, “that went very well. The stent is in place and it looks to have settled in well but, unfortunately….”

I had some idea what was coming but let him continue.

“…as we carried out the procedure, one of the nurses noted a second arterial blockage. With your permission, I would like to go ahead and attempt to put a second stent in place.”

It was an odd moment for me. On the one hand I had thought that the procedure had finished and I had survived relatively intact, there was some sense of relief in this thought and to be told that this was not yet the case was not exactly what I wanted to hear. On the other hand, if there was a second blockage, I should be grateful to the nurse for being so attentive. There was no other sensible choice really, I gave my permission and even thanked the nurse who had noticed the problem.

The second one seemed more intricate than the first. Once more I was warned of the change of pressure, once more I felt this in my chest. The balloon is holding back the arterial flow so it is scarcely surprising that pressure would result. For my part, I was just about exhausted at this point. The heart attack had generally left me somewhat breathless and this kind of continuous stress is quite difficult to bear under such conditions.

As the pressure built up in my chest I found that I could not bare to look at the screens anymore and instead focussed my attention on the red headed nurse standing at the back of the theatre, looking on attentively. In a normal sense, staring in such a way may have been perceived as quite rude but from my point of view distracting my attention in those moments really helped.

I heard the now familiar counting in the background, felt the pressure building, was aware that my head was swimming a little and aware of the desire that this should all be over soon. For now, I had had enough.

A few brief minutes later, Dr. Amersey once more appeared from behind the perspex screen. He looked hot, a little flustered even, but elated. He confirmed that the stent was in place and, as far as he could tell, it had all gone as well as could be hoped. I looked across to the clock, nearly two hours had passed, and back to Dr. Amersey. He appeared tired and a little drawn now.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Back is aching a little,” he explained, ” these leather jackets weigh you down over time.”

I felt and expressed my gratitude to him. A wave of emotion, relief for the most part, rose up within me. I could scarcely speak. A nurse had to hold a plug in place in the femoral artery for some minutes. This was painful  but the pain was of a type that was easier to bear.

I knew the worst was over, for now.

Looking into my heart…

I was up bright and early on the Monday morning, actually feeling relatively well. The nursing care in Whipps Cross had been excellent, both attentive and professional. The place had something of a reputation a few years back and I remember many a joke from those days to the effect that, if you were going into Whipps as a patient, you only needed to buy a one way ticket to the place as it was somewhat unlikely that you would be making the return journey … Happily, those days are long gone and, speaking personally, I could not testify highly enough  to the standards of nursing that I experienced.

During the morning I was visited by an array of doctors. principally though, the chat with Dr. Hogan, the head of cardiology was quite enlightening. I had some expectation that he may be conducting the angiogram itself but it transpired that Dr. Rajiv Amersey was chosen for the part. The hours ticked slowly by until around three in the afternoon when I was told to change into the surgical gown and ready myself to be wheeled through to the ante room.

One of my problems in life is that I stand at something slightly in excess of two metres tall. The surgical gowns provided in hospital seem to be designed with Mr. Average, or maybe even Ms. Average, in mind. Whichever it is they are singularly unsuitable for the likes of myself. I may as well ware a T shirt and be done with it for all the coverage it provides. It seems bad enough that one has to go through the indignity of being prodded and poked, pricked and swabbed, but to add the frankly ridiculous (at least on me) surgical gown feels like adding insult to injury.

I was nervous, I have to admit, bordering on a little frightened even. I had had a previous angiogram a couple of years earlier at the London Chest Hospital so I had some idea what to expect. The main problem from the patients point of view is that one is entirely conscious throughout the procedure. I have had several operations in the past, mostly related to a back injury sustained climbing many years ago. For each and every one of them I had received a general anesthetic. usually involving fluid induced through a cannula previously placed in the arm but sometimes inhaled. The blissful thing about this is that you can happily wave goodbye to consciousness whilst all the worrying stuff takes place. This is not so with an angiogram.  You are wide awake throughout the whole process.

Before the procedure was to take place, Dr. Amersey sat down beside the bed I was on and explained what it was that he was intending to do. I could not help but immediately like him. He has an intensity and an obvious commitment to what he is doing, he gives off an aura of both competence and focus. These qualities are very reassuring when one is about to allow somebody access to such vital organs as one’s heart. He explained the risk factors to me. For an angiogram, approximately 1 in 1000 are victims of a heart attack, stroke or ‘sudden death.’ A nice catch all phrase that last one.

Now, 1 in 1000 might sound quite reasonable as you read this from the comfort of your home unexposed to the potential dangers of the procedure. To me, somehow it didn’t sound quite so good! He went on to explain that if, during the angiogram, they found narrowing of the cardiac arteries, he intended to perform an angioplasty. If this were to be the case, the risk ratios go up considerably. In the UK, something like 2% of patients die immediately or within a short period after an angioplasty. Although that sounds quite high, in many other countries it is even worse. I read of one hospital in New York where they managed to record a rate of 12.5 % in one year, 1 out of 8. These figures were not, as you can imagine, overly reassuring.

Within but a few brief minutes I was being wheeled into the theatre….

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…..

It was a time of good news, a time of bad news, a time of hope, a time of despair, a period of….hmm, getting a little close to plagirism here, don’t want to risk being sued by the Charles Dickens foundation. Over the next few days following the heart attack, or myocardial infarction to use the technical term, there were many ebbs and flows in my perception of what had happened to me. On one level there was the thought: “Why me?” On another, one could frame these events in such a way that one perceived oneself as being essentially very fortunate. Fortunate to be alive in the first place, fortunate to have suffered no worse damage, fortunate that the problem was now apparent and could be addressed.

The first visit on that Friday morning was from a Dr. Fen Lie, looking very inscrutable and somewhat like a villainous character from a Bond film, who came accompanied by his many courtiers. Whipps Cross has, in recent times, become a teaching hospital so such visits tend to involve multiples of keen young medical practitioners anxiously trying to ask the right questions. They were also accompanied by a young echo-cardiologist who ran a hand held scanner over my chest and prognosticated on the results to all and sundry. Most of her prognostications were positive though, which, at that time, was felt by me to be very reassuring.

I spoke for a time to Dr. Lie and expressed a little of my surprise at having a heart attack. I had previously thought that I was at relatively low risk compared with the general population. After all, I didn’t smoke, at least not for fifteen years and then barely the odd puff in the garden with Natalie. I didn’t drink, maybe a pint of beer or a glass of wine a month, I had been vegetarian for the best part of thirty years and, despite having long terms back problems, I still managed to swim three times a week and thereby keep myself fit. All those, I had thought, would mitigate most of the adverse affects that the course of time would take on my body, or at least slow such things down. Not so apparently. The flemingesque Dr. Lie’s response was an enigmatic shrug of the shoulders and the suggestion that whilst I awaited the proposed intervention, an angiogram followed by the possibility of angioplasty, I should listen to music.

Sound advice, if a little odd…….Afterwards I wondered what he had in mind and pondered my choice from the classical baroque of Mozart to the more strident opus of Black Sabbath. By now it was Friday morning and I discovered that I had timed my heart attack to take place at almost the perfectly wrong moment. There would be no place for the procedure that day and, as the weekend was to follow, I would have to await my fate until Monday morning.

War has been described as 95% boredom and 5% terror. Life as a patient awaiting a procedure, the anticipation of which does not fill one with particularly positive expectations, could be spoken of in similar terms. In an odd way though, having 72 hours during which I was compelled to wait whilst at the same time being discouraged from any overly physical activity actually began to feel like an indulgence. I found myself reading, and really enjoying reading, in ways that I had not had the time to do for what seemed like ages. My fayre was a mixture of articles in The Times, a novel from Anne Rice and some very technical books on hypnosis, all of which I found quite absorbing in their own way.

It’s strange but, in such situations, one is obviously very much aware of one’s own mortality and yet I found I had no particular regrets, no need to find any more peace than I already had, nor even any particular need to solve any great existential questions. I have, over the course of my fifty odd years in this form on the planet, come to my own conclusions and oddly, despite the seeming urgency of my situation, I felt no need to change any particular attitude. I did not want to die, in fact I rather liked the idea of a long and healthy existence after this episode. I felt no great fear of death either though. Again, when I think of the anxiety such thoughts gave me as a teenager, the peaceful acceptance of my own mortality, and mortality in general, allowed me to easily stay in a surprisingly peaceful state of mind.

I spent some time, particularly after lights out, pondering what else was important to me but could only reiterate what I had thought previously plus some thoughts about friends. The one thought that did come to mind was how important it is in life to develop friendships and friends. To help, in whatever way one could, one’s friends and those close to you to develop in ways that are right for them, respecting, at the same time, their individual uniqueness.

Friends were, in this situation, an absolute boon. At times, I am not always the most social of characters and often enjoy long spells of my own company, but in this situation the love and friendship of those close to me was more appreciated than ever. I was surprised by how many made the effort to visit me. Each and every visit was much enjoyed. I count myself fortunate indeed to have so many intelligent, interesting and considerate friends. Out of respect for their privacy I do not want to name individuals here but each and every visit, each and every text, each and every call was appreciated. Some would make me smile, some gave pause for thought, each helped in their own way so a hearty (!) “Thank You” to all.

Now it was just a matter of waiting for Monday morning and the proposed angiogram. Having experienced the procedure once before during an erroneous misdiagnosis a few years earlier I had some idea what to expect, so it was with some trepidation that I fell into a fitful and dream filled sleep late on Sunday evening.

Back again….if only just!

Back in circulation again, well, at least to some extent anyway. I suppose that to make some sense of this blog it would be better to go back to the start once again and revisit the incident that lead me here.

It started on a Saturday around about a month ago. I was laying in bed and trying hard to swallow but somehow finding it very difficult. Swallowing, hmm, not normally the greatest of achievements but in this case it was proving something of a match for me. After an hour or so my somewhat fuzzy brain gave up the struggle and fell to sleep despite the difficulties.

Sunday morning I awoke. Twas a bright and clear day, or at least at the start. I busied myself with the normal comings and goings of existence until around about half twelve. I had arranged to chat to a close friend on the internet. Only problem was, when I finally did so, my voice had changed. Not substantially, not hugely, but definitely changed.

My initial reaction was that I was coming down with the symptoms of one of those annoyingly slowly developing colds that I seem to be a victim to every couple of years. Monday was fine though, even pleasant as I recall, no obvious symptoms but…..Tuesday….I got out of bed for an hour and promptly got back in again!

I seemed tired beyond belief and yet I could not think why that should be the case. I slept until early afternoon, got up for a couple of hours and promptly slept again! I had planned to go out for some coffee based chatting and general all round socialising but my lack of energy made the prospect much less inviting than would normally be the case.

Angela, the lass I live with, was due to go to London on the Wednesday and so, despite feeling a tad fragile, I found myself at the centre of our great metropolis enjoying a mug of Starbuck’s coffee in Great Russell Street. I seemed to feel relatively good although still aware that I had some kind of bug. We took the hydrofoil down to Greenwich and enjoyed a rather overly large but very tasty (and reasonably priced) Chinese curry at Tai Won Mein.

The next day, Thursday morning, I treated myself to a hearty bowl of oats only to find it disagreeing with me. It felt a little like indigestion but was more in the chest than the stomach. I had awoken earlier than Angela and was just checking e mails and such like when I became aware of just how uncomfortable I  was feeling. I tried shifting position, laying down across the couch, turning around the other way but….nothing I did seemed to stop this discomfort.

I returned to bed to try to sleep it off but throughout the day it was an ever present feeling. It seems strange now, looking back at it, that I did not understand what was happening to me. I think many of us share a common tendency in such a situation, namely to rationalise the obvious with more banal explanations.

That evening, at around seven, I was due to dine out with several friends at The Castle in Woodford Green but the feeling was now quite oppressive, so oppressive in fact that I thought it wise to forego the culinary pleasures of a Harvester and instead just take it easy at home.

At around eight that evening a friend of mine, Keith, rang and began what was planned to be a long and in depth conversation about life, the universe and everything. Keith is a modest guy but often has some very interesting and challenging views. They are usually couched in polite and non combative language but can be quite surprising all the same. Normally, I enjoy the pleasures of ruminating on various issues with him but, on this occasion, the more he spoke the more uncomfortable I felt. My chest was getting tighter and tighter and it was becoming progressively harder to breathe.

After a couple of minutes the cold sweats started. The beads were running down my face and off the end of my nose. I felt terrible. So terrible in fact that it was becoming obvious, even to me, what was happening.

“Keith, excuse me, sorry for interrupting but I am not feeling so great. Could you call again in half an hour and, if I don’t pick up, call an ambulance?”

Keith was a little shocked but agreed to comply. As I put the phone down I was feeling worse by the second. ‘This is mad,’ I thought to myself, ‘If you are feeling that unwell then you should be phoning for an ambulance yourself!’

The operator at the other end of the line was efficient, advising me to leave the front door open (very wise) but then not to do anything at all. I unlatched the door but thinking I may be detained sometime, dragged my body upstairs to collect a kindle and a mobile phone. Fourteen steps…..felt like the side of a mountain! By the time I returned to sit on the next to bottom step I could hardly breathe at all and the world was beginning to disappear into yellow and black blobs.

The ambulance was prompt thankfully and within a minute or two I was ensconced in the back with an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose. The crew were chatty, bright and optimistic, almost a little annoyingly so, but they did a good job.

“We don’t think you’re having a heart attack'” I was informed reassuringly. Funny, I was pretty sure I was. The taste of the oxygen was just a little unpleasant, almost unnatural. One feels like taking the mask off and gulping great lungfuls of good fresh air but….even in the somewhat confused state I found myself in I realised that this was not a good idea.

On reaching A & E I was rushed into the resus (resuscitation) unit. My skin was punctured in various ways, samples were taken and questions asked. Funny how, when one’s mortality is starkly revealed, everything becomes more precious. Looking around, I was aware of wanting to see every detail, to take it all in. If this was to be the last of my life I wanted, even in that situation, to live it well.

After a while, all such thoughts were put to one side as morphine was injected into my arm and I slipped softly into a kind of gentle oblivion, still conscious but, to a large extent, out of pain. Oddly, I remember finding the voluptuous curves of the young female doctor particularly attractive at this point. It seems that even at such moments in a man’s life some instincts remain fully intact.

I was assigned to the main cardiac ward , Elizabeth, at Whipps Cross Hospital.  My bed was close to the nurse’s station and, during the night, I would listen to snippets of their conversation, hanging onto normality, whilst also being aware of the rhythmic and high pitched beep of the apparatus that was constantly monitoring me. Every now and again it would emit a shriller tone and red lights would flash. My heart rate in particular seemed very inconsistent. At one moment, as I endeavoured to relax, it would be around 65 and the next, responding to the slightest of movements, it would shoot up to 130 or so. I remember feeling that this was of some concern at the time….

In the morning I was greeted with seemingly good news: “The test results came back and they were positive.” ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘Nice to know they were positive, I wonder what was happening to me then?’

“Yes,” the nurse went on to affirm, “they were positive. You have had a heart attack!”