The day the Earth stood still

When I was a kid I used to watch the old science fiction movies that were repeated on the television. Some were classic B movies with huge rubber monsters and spaceships dangling from string and others became classics in their own right. The day the Earth  Stood Still was one of those classics… but it isn’t the subject of this post, that was another day the Earth stood still, the 21st June 2017.

In recent months I have dealt with a range of physical symptoms along with the anxiety that follows them. The one particular concern was episodes of palpitations and rapid heart rate. Between December 2016 and March 2017 I had a whole bunch of testing completed to look for a potential heart issue. Multiple ECG, 24 hour ECG, blood test after blood test and an echocardiogram. The conclusion was that all my tests were normal, my heart was fine, the palpitations were stress which they may well have been.

A couple of months ago I experienced a new symptom, chest pain and discomfort. Starting with an episodes of stress enduced pain due to an idiot car driver, followed by some minor chest pain caused by exertion walking and swimming to another exertion triggered episode walking up a couple of long flights of stairs. I kept track of these, started monitoring my heart rate and blood pressure and produced a report to give to the cardiologist which detailed the episodes and my observations. Based on those observations cardiologist decided to book in a CT Coronary Angiogram to rule out a heart conditions from the picture. I ended up paying for the scan to get it more quickly but the result wasn’t what anyone expected as it showed a potential narrowing in my left major artery. The cardiologist then decided a full Invasive Coronary Angiogram would be required to look in fine detail at the heart arteries.

On the 21st June 2017 I arrived at Peterborough City Hospital with my partner Caroline for that Angiogram procedure. Somewhat nervous the hope was that the result would allow us to still take our planned holiday a few weeks later to Florida. We arrived at the Angiogram Suite early and I left Caroline behind as they whisked me off to the preparation room. My obs were taken (heart rate, blood pressure, SpO2 and temperature) then I waited. After a while a smiling happy looking guy came through some double doors and walked over. He checked my name and date of birth then led me back through the same doors he’d arrived through and on into an operating theatre. The anxiety I felt was pretty intense, a lot was riding on this going smoothly and the result being what we hoped.

In the middle of the room there was a bed or more appropriately named, an operating table. Above it hung an X-ray camera and to the left 3 large computer screens hung from the ceiling. To the righ of the bed was a metal table and a chair. I was led to the operating table where I climbed up and lay on my back. Almost instantly the room filled with 4 people, 3 nurses and the radiologist. They swung into preparation mode, placing a blood pressure cuff on my left arm and an SpO2 monitor on the index finger. The nurse on the right proceeded to prep my right arm which was to be where the catheter would inserted. She shaved under my wrist and wiped it clean ready for the cardiologist to arrive which she instantly did. 

She asked me to explain my recent experiences and then went on to explain what she was going to do. Simply put, she would insert a small catheter into an artery in my wrist and guide it to my heart where some contrast dye would be injected into the arteries of the heart directly and a bunch of X-rays would be taken from various angles. Of course I was thinking I’d rather be anywhere but on that table but I also knew I needed to know if my heart was healthy. She proceeded to inject some local anaesthetic into my wrist and swiftly inserted some sort of canular through which she would be able to insert the catheter. It wasn’t too unpleasant but it certainly gave a nasty sting as it went in. However the pain started as she pushed the catheter into the artery. After a few moments I had a terrible feeling of nausea and my head suddenly felt heavy and like it wanted to explode. The nurse called across that my blood pressure had dropped and the cardiologist stopped and ordered a canular to be inserted into the left arm and a fluid drip to increase the pressure again. A few minutes passed as they flew into action and once again my obs returned to a low but stable level. 

The cardiologist returned to the right arm and tried to push the catheter further but it had become constricted by the artery which appeared to have tightened after the previous incident. She had only managed about half the required images and decided swiftly that the remaining half would need to be completed by inserting another catheter through my groin instead. This would go up the femoral artery, one of the large main arteries and should be much easier to do. So she removed the catheter from the arm which by now was in quite some pain. A swarm of people hovered over my groin with shavers, wipes and needles, not the sight you want to see at any point in time! They shaved an area ready for the canular to be inserted, injected a local anaesthetic once again started over. Although there was some initial pain getting the canular inserted I didn’t really feel the catheter at all and in a few minutest X-ray machine had spun around and finished taking its images. Once again the nurses began the reverese of the preparation and bit by bit the devices were removed from my body and I was wheeled out to the recovery room, it was done.

Now my recovery time would usually be pretty quick if only my wrist had been used but since the femoral artery is bigger, it also bleeds more. One of the nurses had to press down on the entry point hard for ten minutes to try to stop the blood flow. After which I had to lay flat for an hour fore attempting to sit. The hour slowly ticked by and in that time my Partner Caroline was allowed to pop in briefly to say hi. Clearly I looked a bit worse for wear as she was rather emotional for a moment but I was glad to see her smile once again. She left to sit in the waiting area and I stared at the ceiling for the next hour before being sat up. I was then allowed the magic cup of tea and a sandwich which oddly was amazing, I enjoyed every sip and every bite almost like it was the first time I’d ever had them. Moving my arms was still difficult, the canular was still in the crease of the left arm and there was an inflatable wrist band over the entry point of the catheter on the right wrist. 

The nurse looking after me, Gemma, then proceeded to deflate the wrist band a small amount every 15 minutes. Each time my hand felt more blood flow and there was increased pain. I even felt a bit dizzy and had to lay back down for a while. The clock ticked and after a couple of hours the wrist band was off and I was feeling some relief although the pain in the groin and arm was worsening as the anaesthesia had worn off.

Across the room the double doors swung open and the cardiologist walked in and headed over to my bed. She pulled the curtains around the bed and asked how I was before checking the groin would for any swelling. She proceeded to push down another 5 minutes on the entry point which was once again a little painful. She then pulled out a diagram of my heart and started to summarise her findings. “So Mr Harris, the angiogram does unfortunately validate the CT Coronary Angiogram report and you do have a serious issue with the left artery of your heart”. By the time she had said the last word I already felt numb as I lay looking up at the ceiling, my mind racing and emotions overflowing. She continued to show me the diagram, a tree of arteries branching out, a large artery going down the middle with two branches, one to the right and one to the left that also divided into additional branches. She pointed out three areas the clearly showed narrowing and then proceeded to explain. “This is the right artery, its smaller and as you can see looks perflectly normal. This is the left artery which you can see divides at these locations. These highlighted locations are where there is significant narrowing, here by this split and here and here”. By now I’m thinking this isn’t good but at least you can use stents these days to fix these things. I already knew the Florida holiday was a definite no now. She then continued to explain, “The problem is that the location of these narrowings is adjacent to these dividing branches and that means we can’t use stents, I’m sorry to say you are going to need a heart bypass operation, and it will be a triple bypass”.

That was the moment the Earth stood still…

I felt the emotions kick in as the realisation of what was just said hit me. I looked at her and she was upset herself, clearly not a nice experience having to break that news. I felt my mouth open and out of it came one word rather loudly… “SHIT!” To which she replied.. “Yes indeed…” It was at this point that she asked if I had a partner with me and I said yes she’s just outside. So they called in Caroline who had no idea what had just taken place. I saw her face as she walked around the corner, that smile I love, that voice I miss when I can’t hear it and those gorgeous eyes but I felt incredibly sad because I knew she would be facing this as much as me. The cardiologist again went through the explanation and Caroline gripped my hand, visibly upset as was I. The next steps were made clear, I would be referred to Papworth Hospital, one of the leading U.K. Cardiac hospitals and in few months I would be having the operation. I’d be in hospital a week followed by three months of rehabilitation and physio to get me back to health. In the mean time I’d be starting various medications and need to take it slow and steady.

Everyone left and I lay looking at Caroline, both of us feeling like the world had just been turned on its head. We had to try to take any positives we could from this and that included the fact that at least I had a diagnosis now and it had been found before it found me. Also Papworth is a really good cardiac hospital with a great reputation, if I had to go anywhere then that’s the place to go. We tried to put a brave face on things and the nurse finished taking out the final canular before preparing the discharge letter. We then left and started on this new journey into the unknown that I am now following.

A couple of days have passed and yes it’s a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions for all of us. I’m not relishing the idea of being operated on but I know have no choice. There has been an outpouring of support from friends and family including some who have had a bypass or know people who have and have since had a very happy and active life. That at least gives some feeling of comfort and hope.

One thing is for sure, facing moments like these makes you take stock of life. You realise what’s important in, not the possessions you have or the house you live in, none of those material things. It’s the people you love, the friends you’ve made, the memories you share together that really stick with you when all else is gone.

How a moment can change your life

I’ve seen a lot of ill health over the years, friends, family and my own, too much. The last 4 years have been particularly bad for my own health with around 2 years of reoccurring UTI later suspected to be a prostate issue. The following 2 years have been dealing with the aftermath of the adverse reaction caused by the Ciprofloxacin I was given to cure the prostate issue! It’s been a long, tiring and stressful period of life and one I had hoped would eventually pass leaving me with relatively decent health to live the rest of my days.

Yesterday things changed somewhat and once again I’m facing an uncertain future and life. I have for many years dealt with having a slightly fast pulse and slightly raised blood pressure. However it was always assumed that the cause was simply anxiety, the go to diagnosis when doctors don’t really know what’s causing a problem. Last year I started to develop slightly longer episodes of palpitations than I was used to and I was referred to a cardiologist. It took over 3 months to see the doctor and after an initial appointment I was referred to have an echocardiogram. I could see that the doctor wasn’t convinced anything was actually wrong but to appease me and my concerns he booked it. Another 3 months passed and the echocardiogram was done and showed no obvious issues.. hurray!

However I had some additional symptoms that started to develop in particular some discomfort on the left side under my ribs. I assumed this was digestive in origin and once again figured anxiety was the culprit. Then I had an episode of quite acute chest pain during a stressful encounter with a car driver who was driving right up my rear end. This was followed by a number of chest pain episodes caused by exertion and again stress. I notified the cardiologist and provided a detailed report of what had been going on and they decided to refer me to have a CT coronary angiogram but again it would take weeks or longer. The problem was that I am supposed to be flying to Florida from the UK in July and I wasn’t sure if I could fly.

So I ended up spending a lot of money to get the scan performed privately in order to speed things up. That was done on Monday in Wales, a very professional and nice hospital which has once of the most advanced scanners in the UK. It didn’t go exactly to plan as they struggled to get my heart rate down to the magic 60bpm event with heaps of beta blocker. I ended up having a longer scan than I had hoped and therefore more radiation but it was necessary. I got home Monday feeling pretty unwell and with a much increased shortness of breath. I stopped the beta blockers I had been taking in the hope those symptoms would reduce which then did, but the adrenaline type sensations have returned since. I’m currently waiting to get some alternative drugs to decrease the work the heart is doing.

So the results were sent to NHS cardiologist on Wednesday morning and I chased for an update. Although I was told the report had been passed on and I would get a response I heard nothing all day even after I chased multiple times. Then again yesterday I chased multiple times and had pretty much given up when I finally had a call at around 6.30pm.

It was one of those moments when reality seems to fade away for a moment and the voice in your ear becomes noise and meaningless. Expecting that he was going to tell me it was normal and again likely stress I was totally unprepared for the “we’ve found a narrowing in the left major artery that feeds your heart” that entered my ear. It took a moment for my mind to make sense of the words and then the realisation hit, I’ve got a problem with my heart, it’s not anxiety. He explained that he couldnt be certain of the extent of the narrowing without doing a full angiogram so he was going to book an emergency appointment (still 1 to 2 weeks on the NHS) and once that was done they would decide how to treat the condition. Basically the scale of narrowing will dictate whether I’m put on medication, have a stent or worse case need a bypass.

Now part of the reason this is all so unexpected is that I’m not high risk for heart disease. I have never smoked, I might have 1 or 2 beers a year! I have. Pretty healthy diet, my cholesterol is normal and my weight is only slightly higher than it should be. Yet somehow I have developed heart disease… as if the floxing wasn’t bad enough.

So now I have an unknown again whilst I wait and I know it’s highly unlikely I will be able to make the holiday to Florida in a few weeks time. The best I can hope for is relatively early stage build up and a successful stent placement which should in theory give me some years of better health. At 47 I have rather a lot to do in life yet, there’s too much that has been put on hold the last few years with my partner Caroline and my family and I need to amend that, get life on track, fix the broken things and make the most of the life ahead. When these things happen in life you realise that stress, jobs, things out of your control in the world, possessions, big salaries etc… all mean nothing in the end. Without your health you have nothing and all the material things and the stupid worries simply cause you anxiety and lost time you can’t ever get back.

Hoping for a better few weeks!