Hot face clammy against the bathroom floor, sweat running down my neck and arms, I’m having what I now concede is a silly argument with myself. Is this really a heart attack? If not, what? Stomach bug? Weird late-season mutant flu? Possibly. I felt like this two days ago for a couple of hours and put it down to post-gym body shock. But this is more intense; the pressure across my chest heavier, a dull ache reaching all down my left arm. Rising nausea. And now the cold sweat. I retch again emptily into the toilet and the urge to just stretch out on the cool tiles and close my eyes is hard to resist. Danger. I’m not dying wrapped around a dunny. I crawl to the door, reach up and open it wide enough to call down the hall. They’re watching Gogglebox, laughing, the air conditioner blowing. I call again, barely able to hold on to the door handle.
Her face suddenly appears above me, stunned.
“Better call an ambulance. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
* * *
How did it come to this, so hard, so fast? I’m 52, just. Lost five kilos in a month. Eat well, mostly. Gave up smoking, almost entirely,. Left job stress behind months ago with a redundancy payout. My future’s wide open. I’ve got a beautiful kid, lots of friends, a happy outlook. Me, a heart attack risk? Yeah, nah. Maybe. But not yet, surely.
Let’s just undertake a quick fact-check. Yes, 52, and until a few weeks ago exercise and I were the merest of acquaintances. I’d barely raised a jog in decades. Smoked since I was 16, apart from a couple of short breaks. Gave up last year but enjoyed a “social” roll-up with mates over beers. Which meant the leftover tobacco usually came home with me. And the beers? Too many, if the ballooning midriff’s an indication. High-stress desk job, as sedentary as working life gets. Living alone, single, recently out of a relationship. Don’t see the old mates much. Prone to anxiety. Recent diagnoses of rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure. And a family history of heart disease. My father, his father, a couple of uncles, all with dicky tickers, all dead.
Why me? I’ve asked myself plenty of hard questions since I lay on that bathroom floor but that’s not one of them. When me? That’s what I should have started asking years ago. In the many quiet hours since I collapsed I’ve burned with shame and embarrassment at my stupidity and selfishness, thinking of the child I almost left fatherless before she’d reached her teens.
* * *
The first paramedic through the bathroom door blurts an instant diagnosis, even before he’s laid a pulse-seeking finger on me: “Mate, you’re having a heart attack.”
Oh fuck, I think. Shock, but relief, too. Thank christ you’re here. I must look in really bad shape. It’s mere minutes since the triple 0 call.
Suddenly I’m the stricken, sweaty centre of a blur of action. Another ambulance crew arrives. Me and three paramedics in the bathroom. Bags and sticky pads and leads and monitors. An aspirin to chew. I loll grey and wet like a weird sea creature hoisted from the deep. They’re all calm intent, focused and reassuring. Not a wasted move or word. And so youthful and telegenic. First responders from central casting.
Cullen, the MICA paramedic who arrived first is talking to me and the others at the same time.
“Right, I’m gonna try and get these dots on you and see if we can get a decent ECG. Breathing OK? Any pain? Towel off some of that sweat so the dots stick. Might have to shave and towel. Got a razor? Just gonna listen to your chest, mate. Big breath in. And again. OK. Good.
“OK, there’s a cath team prepping for you at Monash. We’ll get the ECG results to them so they know what to expect. That dot needs to go round the back there. OK, let’s try that. Right, sharps coming out. OK? Just gonna get a line into your arm. Little sting. Sharps in. Sharps out. Just try to keep still, mate. Good. That’s great.
“OK, call Monash and let them know we’re one our way with a STEMI. So, mate, you’re having what looks like a fairly big heart attack. At least a couple of arteries in your heart are blocked and you need an angioplasty to open them up with stents inserted via your coronary artery. You know what all that means? Good. We’ll get you to Monash ED now and you’ll be prepped to go straight into that procedure. You’ll be awake the whole time.”
They wheel me outside, backwards, into near darkness and I shiver as an unexpected drizzle mists across my bare chest. Cool change. I’m calmer, soothed by the demeanour of these paramedics and their dots and IV leads and monitors, but I’m glad when, in the hard brightness of the ambulance, Cullen says: “We can give you some pain relief now. Bit of Fentanyl. Had that before?”
“No, but I hear it’s good stuff.”
Laughter. “Yep, that it is.”
I think of my daughter, quietly gathered up and guided away by an aunt, and hope she’s not too freaked out. Then we’re off, smooth and quiet until lights and siren split the twilight as we hit traffic. And everything starts to go a bit fuzzy.
* * *
Much happens in the next few hours to keep my dicky ticker beating and soon the poor old thing gives up more secrets that will have a major impact on my recovery – and the rest of my life.
I should say now that this is not going to be a “wellness” blog. Unwellness, that’s my expertise. I have no interest in self-improvement sermonising. I know you know cigarettes are bad and cholesterol will block your arteries. Nutrition, exercise, lifestyle blah and a balanced blah. What I can tell you is what a heart attack feels like and how I recover from it, or not. If you want to avoid one, you’ll work it out. I’m not quite sure how or when or in what shape these musings might emerge, but don’t expect any “come with me on a journey” evangelism. Read on. if you can be bothered, Don’t blame you if you can’t.