It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bloke in possession of what he thinks are a perfectly good pair of legs, will NOT be allowed to walk up to a cardiology ward from his A&E bed, no matter what reason he gives or how ‘ok’ he feels. And so it was that I found myself clinging to an overnight bag while a porter wheeled me through the eerily quiet hospital corridors up to my new temporary home.
Having spent around 7 hours working my way through the various stages of A&E, I’d almost got sent home. Almost. Then, minutes after the cardiologist doing my ‘final’ echo scan had mentioned discharging me, he found a problem and performed a rather neat about turn, admitting me to a ward.
So, having had my sleep disrupted on several occasions during the night, either by a nurse checking a monitor or taking my blood pressure or by a fellow patient making loads of noise in their sleep, I woke next day to the wonderful hospital sensation of a nurse turning on all the lights, yanking the curtains open and asking if I fancied tea or coffee! This would be the first of several occasions that I’d be woken from a slumber, hospital wards being both great places to nap and probably even better places to get woken up.
Now this was most unexpected when I started my working week. I thought I’d just be clinging on for Friday to arrive, as usual, and now here I was clinging on to the hope that I might still go home with just some tablets to take.
However, as the day went on things just seemed to get gradually worse, culminating with the visit of the head cardiology honcho, who broke the news that I’d be having a pacemaker fitted. Despite my relative youth for such a procedure, my condition just meant that it was the common-sense decision. Staggering. A pacemaker wasn’t on the menu as far as I was concerned; not for at least another 20 years. Yet, when everything was explained, it made perfect sense. I could either carry on not knowing when I might black out again – and have my driving license taken away – or I could have a pacemaker.
I was told that I’d have the operation that day, meaning that I could even be home that night. But in the end I never even got my next echo scan and so was told that there’d be another night in hospital.
To be fair, this didn’t much bother me. I think I was still quite stunned by what was going to happen to me and so the thought of having a bit more time to think was quite welcome, really. So, the rest of my day was spent mulling things over, reading, napping and snacking until it was time to go to sleep.
I got to sleep that night without a problem. Truth be told, I was shattered. The latest episode with my heart had worn me out and the news that accompanied it had been mentally draining. However, it wasn’t to be a quiet night and I was woken up by a new patient being admitted to the ward. Clearly drunk, my new Slovakian friend veered between laughing or crying hysterically, insulting the staff and praising them and telling anyone who’d listen that he’d been homeless for the last 6 nights as well as having been wrongfully imprisoned at the same time. Welcome to the ward my friend! I felt sure that I’d never get back to sleep, yet I did.
The next day was a whirlwind of activity that will stay with me until the day I die. And for a short time, it felt like it would be just that; the day I died.
Having had some breakfast, I was taken down by the now familiar wheelchair to another part of cardiology where I would have my pre-op echo scan. On my return to the ward I imagined that I’d have a bit of a wait for my operation, so I called my wife just to explain what was going on. However, within about a minute a nurse appeared with a gown for me. It was pacemaker time!
Thankfully, for this operation I managed to avoid the paper underwear that the NHS usually insist on, but even wearing my own pants, the gown and NHS slipper socks didn’t really do a great deal for my dignity.
The operation itself was successful – or at least it seemed so from my experience – so I won’t bore anyone with a blow-by-blow account. Rather, let me tell you a few interesting things that either struck me while I was there or have done since.
- It always surprises me how many people are involved. Mine was quite a routine operation, but I swear there were at least 8 people present. In fact, at one stage a random man appeared in an adjacent room and began talking to my team via some kind of intercom. It was a bit like he’d just wandered in to have a look, like a competition winner. Perhaps someone on the team had told him, ‘Hey, we’ve got that bloke from the Middle Age Fanclub blog in again’ but I highly doubt it.
- The sheer talent of these people is awesome. At one point they were chatting about the songs on the radio while one of them had my chest open and was concentrating on turning me into a robot. Meanwhile, I still stick my tongue out of the side of my mouth while concentrating…on anything.
- My gown made me look like something from the hot counter at Greggs, such was its colour and design. I’d like to think that the operating team also had me down as something from the hot counter. Again, I very much doubt it.
- Knowing that the area around my scar was numbed, the surgeon just kept dropping his instruments on to my chest. It wasn’t that numb and I felt every pair of scissors as they hit my collarbone!
- They have to make a kind of pocket in your flesh to put a pacemaker in. To do so, they drag your skin and flesh around like you’re a particularly heavy and stubborn bit of furniture and although it’s not painful, you are fully aware of what’s happening! So, you’re kind of lying there thinking, ‘Ooh, he’s ripping my flesh!’
- While pulling stuff around in my chest, I could feel the sensation in my throat. My voice has changed slightly since my op. No, really, it has! I take it this is not a coincidence.
- They cover you up completely in a kind of big sleeping bag and have you face the right, leaving a gap you can see out of. It’s to protect the wound from your own germy mouth!
- While looking to the right through my sleeping bag gap, I could watch my own heartbeat on a monitor. It goes unrecognisably mental when the pacemaker is switched on and looks nothing like a heartbeat anymore. I was also able to watch – in some horror – while my heart stopped a few times as the pacemaker started to get used to its new home! Coupled with the fact that, prior to the op, my cardiologist told me, “You’re heart stopped for 4.2 seconds this morning”, this was a development that I didn’t need to see. Indeed, it was at these points where I had the dubious pleasure – and not for the last time that day – of quietly telling myself, “Just breath and you can’t die”.
- My feet were freezing for the whole op.
- The whole thing took around 45 minutes, during which time the team involved chatted, danced (I think) and sang, while also telling me exactly what was going on and why. These people are incredible.
It was a relief when I got back on the ward and I was fairly sure that they’d send me home within a few hours. But not every story has a perfect ending, does it?
Having messaged a few people to tell them I was back on the ward, I sat back in my bedside armchair to relax. But, in what now feels like some kind of twisted tradition, my heart had other ideas.
Without warning, my heart began to race again and it didn’t feel like it would stop. I told myself that my pacemaker would kick in and take over, but that didn’t happen either. Suddenly the alarm on my heart monitor was going off and within seconds there were nurses and doctors at my bedside and the curtains were being frantically pulled round. If you’ve ever watched a film that has any kind of hospital-based emergency, it was just like that. Bodies everywhere!
No one was panicking, but clearly there was a problem. And I was it.
My heart wouldn’t slow down. In fact, it was getting quicker. A doctor told me that they were in touch with the people who’d fitted my pacemaker, whose customer service was thankfully as good as their operating skills, and that this would be sorted out and my heart would be slowed down. In the meantime, it seemed that lots of them would ask me how I was feeling, and I would reply as calmly as I could, that I was ok. I wasn’t ok, I was terrified and reduced to telling myself that I couldn’t die if I just kept breathing. So, I kept breathing.
Sadly though, my eyes were still fully functioning and the last time I saw a monitor my heart was hitting 209 bpm. They took the monitor away after that, but I’m led to believe that it went higher.
The ending of this particular episode still seems slightly surreal. After what seemed like a couple of hours, but was probably only 7 or 8 minutes, a man from the pacemaker team arrived at my bedside and ushered everyone else away. Then he uttered something incredible in both its calmness and ridiculousness.
“Hi Graham. I’m Dan from the pacemaker team and I’m just going to have a chat with your pacemaker.”
I think I laughed, which in the circumstances was great, given that I was fairly sure I was going to die, whether Dan was going to have a chat or not.
But then, he got to work. Dan pressed a few keys on what I swear looked like some kind of Fisher Price My First Laptop and then strolled around my bed doing I know not what. As he went back to his laptop, I noticed he’d placed some kind of device on my bed. It looked just like e Wi-Fi router. Then, he said,
“OK, we’re going to chat to it wirelessly now”.
After this he tapped a few keys on his Fisher Price toy and within seconds I could feel my heart slow down. So, I told him I thought it was working, to which he replied – cool as you like – that he knew it had worked. At this point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d made himself a martini.
The rest, as they say, is history. I think I had a major brush with death. Dan from the pacemaker department probably hasn’t thought about it since. However, for at least a few of those minutes I thought my time was definitely up. I didn’t panic, I didn’t see any light (people have asked!), I didn’t cry or shout. I just kept thinking that I should keep breathing.
My cardiologist decided that they’d keep me on the ward for the night, so that everything could be monitored, so again it meant that I wouldn’t be going home. For once, I was delighted. The ward was safe. The ward had Dan or a Dan alternative that could sort me out if anything happened again. So, I called my wife to let her know what had happened before having a bit of a nap. When your heart’s been beating at over 200bpm, you’re going to get tired out.
I’m now a few weeks down the line in my pacemaker journey. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, by the way. It’s not been easy. I’ve not spoken to many people about exactly what happened, because it’s quite a difficult thing to talk about. Easy enough to write about and crack the odd joke about though. I can’t do much and what I can do tires me out. I feel guilty for not working and I miss being around my ‘big sisters’ and my students. I can’t hug my wife and kids and I’m not allowed to kiss them as I can’t shave and have grown a very tickly beard! And I really feel for them, because none of this is easy for them. I hope none of them ever finds themselves wondering when the next episode will happen, but I think they will and that might just be the saddest thing to come out of all of this.
On the bright side, I’m alive. I have a future, even if I don’t really know what it looks like yet. There’s thinking to be done. I also have a couple more stories to tell and a lump in my chest where me pacemaker is, meaning that in years to come I can lie to anyone and everyone about what that is and how it came to get there. Live a day in my shoes and then tell me that’s not one of the best things ever!
Be thankful for what you’ve got, tell people you love and cherish them daily, listen to your body and try to enjoy life as best you can. Stay safe everyone.