My heart attack and a warning to others!

On August 19 I began to experience a severe pain between my ribs as I sat in my chair. I hadn’t been exerting myself. That afternoon I’d eaten some very spicy food at a funeral wake so my initial idea, that it was indigestion, was plausible. Normally, on those rare occasions I suffered from indigestion, a glass of milk would do the trick, turning off the pain as though someone had turned an ‘off’ switch but this time nothing worked and I began to change colour slightly.

We called an ambulance and the crew hitched me up to an ECG machine which confirmed that I was having a heart attack. Within less than an hour of telephoning for assistance, I was in the laboratory at New Cross hospital, Wolverhampton, three miles away through heavy rush-hour traffic, having stents fitted as I watched the whole process on a monitor, which helpfully showed a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture.

I then spent around three days in hospital before being discharged with a warning that bypass surgery would also be needed to repair other diseased arteries that were not accessible to stents. This operation was carried out October 7 and I am now well on my way to a full recovery.

Where did I go wrong?

I have always believed that the worst lies are those we tell to ourselves and, looking back, I can see where I went wrong. Added to this, there’s the overarching problem that we all tend to believe that bad things only happen to the other guy. To be fair (to me) during my lifetime this has generally been the case. The objective of this post is to help others avoid the mistakes I made.

There are many reasons, apart from vanity, that caused me and all those who know me to react with surprise at the news of my attack. There is no family history of heart disease – my parents both lived to the age of 95 – and I had always eaten a healthy diet and taken plenty of exercise. I have never smoked cigarettes and although I puffed a pipe, without inhaling, the surgeon informed me that the pipe had not caused my condition.

(I have not smoked it since my attack because the presence of nicotine in the blood has an adverse effect on the health of arteries, whether inhaling or not.)

I had been telling everyone that I hadn’t displayed any symptoms, because I believed it to be true but, now that I am virtually fit again, I can really tell the difference. For example, after swimming two lengths I had found it necessary to take a short rest and put it down to my age, 75 years, and the fact that I did not swim every day. I had never been a strong swimmer and water is not my natural element. Shortly before writing this, I had been on a walk lasting around an hour which involved a very steep, half-mile-long uphill stretch, without any of the ill effects I had experienced previously. Again, I had always believed that old age was the culprit.

My cholesterol level had usually tested to 5.2 which is higher than the target level but my doctor said that they don’t just look at this figure but take family history into account. I grabbed onto this information, also reminding myself that other factors, such as hormones, proteins and enzymes in the blood also played a part.

I had also read of a man in a small Italian fishing village who found, during a routine medical examination, that his cholesterol level was so high he should have been dead. In fact he was as fit as a fiddle. They are now trying to synthesise a protein discovered in his blood to use as medicine. This was further evidence to me, as I sought to believe what it suited me to believe, that my cholesterol level was nothing to worry about!

In fact, around ten years ago, I had approached my doctor with the proposition that I should take statins. Bringing up my file on computer his verdict was that I didn’t need them. The criteria have changed since then so that, with the same profile, I would now be prescribed statins.

The verdict

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that years of stress and overwork cause my heart attack. I am informed that, under pressure, we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Our ancestors would rapidly assess a situation and decide whether standing and fighting or running away would be the better option for survival. Either way, the liver pumps cholesterol into our veins to prepare us for action. In our modern lives we are under different, sometimes invisible, pressures with the result that our stress is frequently bottled up. Where I live, just getting out of the end of the road into the traffic can be bad enough.

Creative people also experience stress during the agony of creation and I often tell people that writing music is every bit as difficult as it looks.

Added to all this, I lost everything in life not once but twice. Just one such experience can drive strong men to suicide.

The Heart and Lung facility

Wolverhampton’s new Heart and Lung facility has been described as the best in the world! I can believe it. A helicopter pad is under construction so that patients far and wide may ‘enjoy’ the benefits. All nurses and other staff enter data via hand-held devices resembling a cellphone which is sent by wireless to the databank whence it can be accessed instantly from anywhere. X-Ray and Ultrasound images are stored in a similar way. Every singe time I received attention I was asked to verify my date of birth, name and address. They also checked my hospital number against the one on my wrist-band.

(It is this same, rigorous attention to detail that causes Britain to be a much harder target for terrorists.)

When I regained consciousness after surgery I found myself in a large, open plan area, in semi-darkness. Shadowy figures silently went about their business. Every bed had its own set of colourful monitors. I began to think I’d been abducted by aliens.

Action Heart

But the fun doesn’t stop here. Allied to the amazing treatment and care I received is a program called Action Heart. I am attending a series of eight lectures on heart disease and related subjects such as diet, exercise and stress. Also, when I was signed off by the surgeon, I automatically received a phone call from my local hospital calling me in for a fitness assessment in preparation for joining the hospital gym. This involved a test on a treadmill, wired-up to an ECG machine. My blood pressure was also monitored and they looked for (and found) a rapid recovery of all signs when I was finally allowed to rest. When they showed me the well equipped gym my jaw dropped. It’s BIG.

And all this is free.

Much is said about the comparison between Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) and the insurance-based system in the USA. Of course, we pay for our system too. Money is deducted from our pay which goes into a National Insurance fund for state pensions etc. and part of the tax we pay goes to the NHS.

The economic arguments used to justify the insurance-based schemes are not as clear-cut as they are sometimes made out to be. Fit workers are more efficient and one of the biggest problems faced by industry is uncertain staffing levels, especially in SME’s that always suffer from ‘small team vulnerability’ (a useful American expression).

The NHS was created by the Attlee government that was voted into power at the end of WW2, which also conceived the Welfare State and began a massive program of social housing. This Labour government was arguably the greatest democratic government ever seen.

I am not a party-political animal and believe that the tendency to align oneself with closed-system ideologies – the ‘isms’ – is always a sign of mediocrity. The Universe just doesn’t work like that. Nevertheless, I am, in my ‘heart-of-hearts’ (now freshly mended), a Socialist and probably always will be so that it is totally abhorrent to me that people should be denied the care and treatment they need because of their financial circumstances.

One thing is certain; my treatment and care was so good that I cannot imagine how it could be improved upon. But it will be. You’ll see.

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