I was talked into going to our local A&E by my wife, on the evening of 17th April 2019, and was subsequently admitted, potentially having had a mild heart attack. I’d been feeling rough for a few days, with a cold sensation in my chest when taking a deep breath. I had my own event management agency so had worked through it, feeling it was just a bug. I was on Lemsips, as I’d been managing an event we had organised. To say I was an extremely reluctant patient is an understatement.
I was on medication for Atrial Fibrillation (AF) prior to this, as I had an irregular heartbeat, but it had never stopped me cycling in the nearby Peak District or taking on long hill walk challenges. It was a condition I lived with, and I hadn’t had any problems to this point.
I had to have an Angiogram and needed to be transferred to a larger hospital to do this test. Unfortunately, I had to wait five days over Easter weekend in order to have the test. I was asymptomatic, in no pain and was allowed to wander around in shorts and t-shirts. To say I was fed up with missing the first BBQs of the year was an understatement. Even my consultant confided that if he was a betting man, he didn’t think I’d had a heart attack.
I was eventually transferred and the Angiogram concluded what the Consultant anticipated. However, quite by chance, they discovered one of the main arteries on my heart was 90% blocked. It was just a little too long for a stent (which could have been done there and then), so I was told they’d book me in for a heart bypass, probably the following week.
This was an uppercut that left me reeling. The week before I’d been on Lemsip and now I was suddenly slated for a heart bypass. I was devastated. I didn’t know much about having a heart bypass, but I had an idea it was a tad more serious than having an ingrowing toenail removed. The Consultant flipped my thinking. He told me I was a ‘lucky man.’ They had discovered ‘a ticking timebomb with very little time left on the fuse, and that it’s usually only a persons’ relatives that get to know that their loved one had a blockage.’ My wife had saved my life.
There was a further two weeks of debate between surgeons as to whether a stent was indeed still possible or whether a full bypass should be carried out. Again, immensely frustrating as I was still symptom-free and in no pain. I was fully dressed and wandering around the hospital running little errands for other patients and generally trying to fill my time. I was like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. Stuck in my own personal Hotel California.
They decided on a bypass but by this point, I’d been asymptomatic for 3 weeks, so I was no longer a priority. It would be another 3 weeks before the operation. I was discharged.
18 hours later, on 8th May 2019, I had a sudden cardiac arrest at home.
Fortunately, my wife was right next to me when my body shut down. She phoned 999 and started CPR. The Paramedics took 11 minutes to arrive, and it was only after the second shock that I was revived. My wife had saved my life for a second time. The Consultant who had discharged me was visibly distraught and had clearly not slept by the time I saw him the following day. I made a point of stating that I didn’t blame anyone and had no axe to grind. I just wanted him and his team to get me back to being active and enjoying the outdoors. Getting back to full health again was my only focus.
Based on movies and TV, I’d have guessed the survival rate from a cardiac arrest would be quite high, maybe 70%. It was only then that he told me the true statistics; that for an out of home cardiac arrest it was 8%. And even then, over half may have brain damage to some degree. For cardiac arrests in hospitals, with trained staff, all the O2, necessary equipment and medicine immediately on hand, the survival rate is barely double that. I’d been extremely lucky. I’ve never been that lucky. I can still barely believe it now.
The operation took place within a few days. The recovery was slow and challenging. Whilst the pain relief was powerful so were the side effects. At one point, I was convinced the nurses were human-sized, clicking grasshoppers, carrying out experiments on us patients. At that point, I asked for my pain relief to be reduced!
I constantly looked out for small wins, so I was able to see that I was moving in the right direction and would get back to full, active health. I shared my goal with my Consultant. I was determined to be back on my bike in the hills. Anything at all positive, no matter how small, was the universe telling me I was on the right path.
After five days I was transferred out of ICU into a room on a ward and whilst the young male nurse was settling me in, I said that it was a small win that I was in a room. His reply has become almost a mission statement for me:
‘Any win’s a win – and we take them all.’
To him, it was just a throw-away comment. Something to say as an unthought reply. To me, it went to my core. He was right. Any win and every win should be embraced. But if we should celebrate the small wins, what on earth should you do about the big wins?
A week before, I had been dead.
Now I was alive.
Was there a bigger win?
It was only then that I realised, that this was the start of my second life.
There were ups and downs with recovery. Not least developing Tachy-Brady Syndrome and having a pacemaker fitted 11 days after surgery as my heart rate was dropping to 30 bpm overnight. I hated the thought of this. They were for old people who couldn’t function. It would have been like being plugged into the mains. My dream of being annoyingly fit and outdoorsy again was fading away.
Or so I’d thought, in my ignorance.
The amount of data a PM captures provides so much reassurance at every annual check-up. It’s my safety net. I don’t think this angle of benefit is ‘sold’ enough to patients when discussing the possibility of a Pacemaker. I don’t even give it a second thought now.
My biggest concern upon being discharged was whether I would be safe. I didn’t want to have to go through anything like a CA or bypass again. My Cardiologist reassured me that he knew my heart better than his own, that everything was flowing well, and the pacemaker was merely a precaution. He did say that sometimes the body would be ahead during recovery and other times the mind. He wasn’t wrong.
There were several key dates following my return home:
…my eldest son’s birthday,
…getting his first car,
…A level results,
…my younger son’s birthday.
I couldn’t help pondering what it would be like for them if I wasn’t there. How awful it would be. For a few months, this led me to consider the possibility that there was a parallel universe where I didn’t exist, and my family were having an awful time. And that maybe, that was the real, core, universe and I was living in a Plan B universe.
And if so, was I real?
It was tantamount to considering whether I was a ghost, and if so, did anything really matter?
This expanded to there being multiple, even an infinite number of parallel universes where I did exist, but in various states of brain damage.
But which was the real universe?
In hindsight, I should have seen a counsellor. My wife did as she needed help to overcome the experience. I eventually counselled myself with the understanding that this was the only universe I had any influence in, so I might as well put all my emotional eggs in that basket!
Paul McGee is someone I admire and has been a speaker at our events on several occasions. He has a way of assessing situations by applying a scale of 1-10, whereby 1 is not much at all and 10 is life-threatening. I adapted it whereby 10 became ‘I am dead’. I rebranded this scale as my Shitometer. I developed the perspective that the worst thing that could ever happen to me, had already happened. Therefore, anything else could only ever be a 9 or below. A friend described this as a superpower when making decisions because, ‘what could be the worse that would happen?’ I was determined to take this approach and my new mission statement into my second life and make some changes, primarily work-related. Part of which was a determination to work three days a week in my business leaving me two to work on other, as yet undecided, projects.
I returned to work in September, but by Christmas, I felt I’d gone backwards. My work-life balance was worse than ever. I was back up to five days a week and putting a few hours in at weekends. My Shitometer wasn’t cutting through and I just wanted out of the company I’d been building for 15 years. I’d been in talks with a senior employee for 18 months about her buying it, but I could see it wasn’t going anywhere. Staff and clients were sapping me. As the owner, you don’t have a contract. You can’t resign. I felt I was in a trap of my own making, suffocating and feeling resentful that my second life was being taken away from me. My 87-year-old Mum visited us over Christmas for 10 days and we unexpectedly became full-time carers, which whilst not relevant to my physical condition, exasperated my mental frailty as I felt there was no air pocket. No reprieve. Which is an awful way to feel about your Mum. Especially since, after a short decline, she died in January 2020.
By 17th March 2020, I’d sent all staff home and lockdown was announced soon after. All our events had to be cancelled and I knew my business was over. I employed 12 people and had been in the process of taking four more on. After wrapping up the refunds on the events, the last staff left at the end of July 2020.
I felt I was four events behind. I hadn’t come to terms with my own, albeit temporary, death, the bypass, let alone started grieving for my Mum or getting my head around my business closure. I tried to focus on Any Win’s a Win… and thankfully my Shitometer did begin to kick in again. Many people expressed their sadness and shock at my business closure – and believe me, telling the staff it was over, was the worst working day of my life. But it didn’t match being dead, so experiencing Covid and closing my business wasn’t the worst thing to happen to me over the previous 12 months.
Coast to Coast
I cycled coast to coast with my Brother-in-law in September 2020 and we raised over £5000 for the hospital ward that looked after me. Sadly, and ironically, my Cardiologist died of a sudden cardiac arrest a few weeks before. He hadn’t been wrong when he’d said that he knew my heart better than his own. I was beyond gutted and it served as yet another reminder of the frailty of life
It took me a while to realise it but in some twisted, brutal way, the universe had shown me a way out of the company. Not in the way I’d wanted or would’ve ever wished for, but I was out.
I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
This was now my third life.
Towards the end of 2020, I started writing everything down just to get it out of my head. I thought it might help with the healing process, to try and make sense of all the events and feelings that had happened, as I was still playing catch up. I captured over 110K words and it wasn’t until I was two thirds through the process that I felt things were falling into place.
I doubt that I would have been as sensitive to the pressures of work during the run-up to Christmas 2019, had I not had a cardiac arrest. It was promising me a more rewarding second life, but the sense of having it robbed, that had hurt so much. Likewise, if I hadn’t had the cardiac arrest, I doubt I would have handled the impact of Covid on my business with such perspective.
I sometimes reflect on what happened to me on 8th May 2019 with bewilderment.
I still can’t believe I’m a member of the 8% Club; the window for a successful outcome is so narrow.
Occasionally I also feel a sadness for the loss of my company, not to mention my Mum, during that crazy mixed-up period. But then I remind myself; at least I’m around to feel those occasional pockets of sadness, so that has to be a small win.
And as a wise young man once told me: Any win’s a win – and we take them all…