December 16th 2004
There are some days you will simply never forget, each detail embedded in your memory like a permanent stain. Sometimes they're wonderful days, birthdays at Claridges or The Ritz, or your first 'Pride'. Sometimes days stay in your head for worse reasons. Two years ago was one of those. This is what happened;
I woke up fairly late that day, after 11am. I was the Assistant Manager at the PizzaPlace in Islington at the time, and was going to be working the evening shift that day. I had the usual morning smokers cough; I'd been smoking quite a lot lately, and not living too healthily. I'd recently split up with a guy who I'd really fallen for and taken things pretty badly (oh, how history repeats itself!).
The cough was more vicious than normal though that day, and the pain in my chest was really uncomfortable too. Too many poppers last night probably, and the walk back from the club at 3am in the cold can't have helped.
My chest was starting to hurt now. I tried to keep still and let it pass, lying down was uncomfortable though, and sitting up just seemed to put more pressure on the cramps that I was getting. The coughing was getting worse as well. I've had heartburn before so it was a familiar feeling and I knew what I needed. I managed to get myself up, spluttering, and made my way down the two flights of stairs to the lounge.
My landlord from the time was sitting in the dining room,
"You sound healthy!" he called out.
"You know if I didn't know any better, I'd think I was having a heart attack! Can you do me a favour and just nip to the chemist? I could really do with some Gaviscon."
Thankfully, there was a chemist directly opposite the old flat, so I knew relief wasn't far off. I poured myself a large glass of water. I was really getting hot now, a flush coming over me in hot sweats and breathing was starting to get difficult. The chest pain was starting to become overwhelming.
I made my way back up to my bedroom. He seemed to be taking ages. The pain was starting to move into my arms, and I could feel my thighs tingling. The sweats were making me gasp for breath, and I hung out of the window to try and get some air. Then the water starting coming back up, and I ran to the bathroom. Vomiting pure water into the sink, it was becoming hard to stand.
I lay back on my bed, writhing, trying to find a position I could get comfortable in. I picked up my mobile and dialled the restaurants number. I noticed it was now midday.
"I'm really sorry Vania, but I'm having terrible heartburn at the minute. I don't think I'll be in tonight." God knows what I must have sounded like.
"Don't worry darling," she replied, "you just have a good rest."
At last, my landlord was back, two Gaviscons in hand which I immediately started drinking straight out of the bottle. "Paul, I've really got to get to work soon, but do you want me to call an ambulance?"
"No thanks love. I'll just let this stuff get to work. I'm sure I'll be fine."
"Where's the pain?"
"Right through my arms now, and moving down my thighs too. If it's not getting better in half an hour, I'll call an ambulance myself. Don't worry, really."
"This isn't heartburn," he said. "I'm calling you an ambulance."
Within a matter of minutes the ambulance had arrived. My room was on the third floor, right at the top of the house, so it took a little while for the two medics to get themselves, the oxygen tank and various equipment all the way up. As soon as the oxygen mask was attached I started feeling a modicum of relief. That cold fresh air was like an elixir.
They asked if I had any conditions that I was taking medication for. That's the first time my landlord knew I was HIV+ and I spotted the shock on his face. I felt so ashamed him hearing it like this, like I'd kept it a secret from him.
The blood pressure balloon was strapped to my arm, and the stethoscope was checking out my pulse on various parts of my body. Oddly, even the steely coldness of that actually felt lovely against my clammy skin.
One of the medics said they would want to take me out to the ambulance to run an ECG (electrocardiogram). Getting a feeble me, the oxygen tank and the machine down three narrow flights of stairs was a tricky manoeuvre, but the two medics were obviously dab hands at this.
Out in the street, I was helped into the back of the ambulance. One of the guys took off my t-shirt while the other started getting the electrodes out and attaching them to my chest. I was crying with the intensity of the pain, so while one medic watched the ECG monitor, the other said "I'm going to give you an injection to help with the pain."
I don't know why, but I asked what he was injecting me with.
This really is serious then. I remember when someone in the family was very ill, and my Mum said to me "Well, he's on morphine now, so you know he's pretty near the end. They only use that when it's the end" My Mothers voice ran vividly, on loop, over and over in my head.
The pain gradually started to ease off. The medic that had been watching the monitor got out at the back of the ambulance, and I could hear him getting into the cab at the front. I could see my Landlord shivering out in the road. The other one knelt down next to me and rested his elbows up on the side of the trolley I was lying on. He settled his chin on his crossed hands and very calmly said;
"We're not really meant to give a diagnosis, but it looks like you're having a heart attack. We should take you to Accident & Emergency, where they'll fill you with clot buster drugs, then wait for an appointment at the London Chest Hospital for an examination, but as we're just down the road from the Chest Hospital, my mate's on the radio to see if we can take you straight there. Just hold tight here for a minute." I nodded at him, tears on my face, and he tapped my arm for comfort.
He got the nod from the other driver, "We're off then!" he said as he started strapping me onto the trolley. My Landlord climbed into the ambulance with me. He said something, but I'm not clear what it was.
"The lights and the siren are going on, but there's nothing to be scared of."
We were there so quickly probably, but the journey felt like a long one and oddly I wasn't really scared at all. I wasn't sure if this was 'it', or what was going to happen to me. I felt numb, it was all totally surreal. Just staring at the ceiling and listening to the monitor beeping away, doing its job.
When we reached the hospital, the scene suddenly switched into total organised mayhem. I felt like an extra from ER as the trolley was whisked out of the ambulance and rushed through the swing doors. Doctors, nurses and medics crowded round me, things were being attached as clothes were being stripped. One with a clipboard started asking questions and filling out the paperwork; name? age? phone number? etc When it got to the 'next of kin?' question, he asked me if I wanted them to be contacted.
"Not unless it gets critical" I replied. After all, there was no point creating unnecessary worry. I could tell them afterwards what had happened I figured.
"Religion?" he asked.
"Why? What does that matter?"
"In case you need a priest."
The morphine was now being administered intravenously, a huge drip on a stand next to my trolley.
"They only use that when it's the end"
I was pushed through to theatre, with other nurses carrying the drip and the oxygen tank, and another pushing the trolley withe monitor on it. I could feel injections happening at the top of my right leg, but there had been more morphine injections down there so it was a very numb sensation. Apparently the doctor was doing an angiogram; a catheter exploration of the cardiac arteries. The Doctor then said he would have to put me forward to have an angioplasty. He explained this would involve injecting two platinum stents into the blocked arteries via a catheter, expanding them and then withdrawing the catheter to leave the stents in place, supporting my heart. I was drifting now, but could just feel more prodding going on around the same area at the top of my leg. He was plugging up the hole where the angiogram catheter had entered.
"That's it!" he said, "You're all done!"
"When I will have the angioplasty?"
"No that was it. We're all done!"
I looked up at the clock, it was a quarter past two; just 2 hours and fifteen minutes after phoning for the ambulance.
I was moved to a ward where I slept, I have no idea how long for. I was still wearing the oxygen mask when I woke up and the morphine drip was still in my arm. My body had around 16 electrodes attached with wires going to two monitors. Everything around me seemed to be beeping away quite happily. I was still here then!
I tried to raise my head to have a look around my room, but a voice bellowed out of the nurses office to lie flat. A large West Indian lady came over to my bed.
"You're a bit young to be in here aren't you?"
"I was just thinking the eaxct same thing."
"You have to lie flat for 24 hours, don't be sitting yourself up young man!"
That night was one of the worst I've ever had. I woke up in the middle of the night, hazy from the drugs but feeling almost paralysed where they had plugged the catheter hole in my groin. Blood had seeped and got trapped between the dermal layers and swollen to the size of a rugby ball, a haematoma I think it's called. I couldn't move and it was throbbing like hell! I pressed the button for a nurse. One came over, saw what was happening to my leg and disappeared. A few moments later, he was back with another nurse and a contraption that was strapped round my groin, then inflated. As he switched it on, it started whiring and applying pressure to the mound of blood. I didn't get back to sleep too well after that, despite the drugs.
The next morning, they removed the contraption to reveal a deep purple bruise that stretched from my inner thigh right round to my arse cheek, and about a foot high.
It was two days later that I asked for the phone, I figured I was through the worst enough now to fill the family in about what had happened. You can only begin to imagine the reaction! Two hours later they were all next to my bed, with much tears and hugging going on. My Mum & my Sis were shaking with nerves. I felt so guilty putting them through this. Six days later I was allowed home. My flatmates had moved my bed down to the lounge so I wouldn't have the stairs to deal with, and I spent Christmas in bed there, like the Nan in The Royle Family!
Two years later, and yesterday I had lunch with Sis & Dad as an early Christmas get-together, and Dad hadn't seen my Sis yet for her 40th. They hadn't noticed the relevance of the date, but that day is one of those that will stay with me forever.