That doctor saved your life last night…

Last Saturday I had a heart attack. Writing those words feels strange, but I do own that misfortune. Here, then, is the congealed mess of then and now.

That doctor saved your life last night…

The consultant at Leeds General Infirmary is not referring to the doctor who had repaired my hernia on the Friday afternoon. That operation had gone as planned. I went home, ropey with general anaesthetic, sore but glad the lumpy swell in my groin was gone.

No, he is talking about another doctor, another day.

After a restful post-op day, one walk down the garden, I watched television, read the newspaper. A normal Saturday, minus the alcohol. At 10pm I felt tight in the chest, not painful but uncomfortable. Like the angina I suffer during exercise occasionally, but now there all the time.

Oddly, I was also haunted by a strange dread, as if carrying something I didn’t want to unwrap.

This is how the night flowed…

A community first responder arrives, then two paramedics or ambulance practitioners or whatever they are called. Like everyone else in this story, they are lovely, brisk, busy. After being wired up, pressure-tested and so on, the ambulance takes me to York Hospital, my wife pale beside me. One of the paramedics sits next to her.

I lie on the stretcher, feet towards the door, trying to work out where we are. A backwards glance through the dirty small window shows familiar streets snatched the wrong way round.

Inside the hospital I sit on a chair and wait, as trolleys pull up. Those people all look in a worse state than me, I think. After a while we are shown into the emergency department. It’s a waiting room and here we wait.

After a longish time, two hours perhaps, a cheery nursing assistant calls me into a room with a bed. I lie down as he takes blood samples and links me to another ECG machine. You’ll hear in an hour or so, he says, heading for a break after seven hours. He never seems to get that break.

We wait a little longer. I am still carrying that unwrapped parcel. Other patients come and go or wait and wait. One man had tripped over his dog’s lead, bashed his head. Another man has a cut head, along with a partner who never stops talking, nerves perhaps. Police officers help a young woman/girl who seems to be out of her head.

The young nursing assistant calls us back, more quickly than he’d said. The tests have shown something, he says. You’re going out this way, he adds, whisking us out the other side of the room.

Another room, another bed. I am linked and tested, a canula is slotted into my arm. A screen behind me shows a ‘film’ I cannot see. There are bleeps with, I imagine, an accompanying display of zigzagging lines doing a coronary cancan.

A doctor comes in, tall and handsome, like something out of ER. You are having a serious heart attack, he tells me. He holds out his arms as if in a crucifixion pose. The seriousness of a heart attack runs from here to here, he says. Mine is near the highest score, almost all the way from his left to his right hand.

He relaxes his arms and goes off to phone Leeds General Infirmary. My wife goes paler still. She tells me I can’t be having a heart attack. Then she says you’re having a heart attack. None of this makes sense.

How is the pain on a scale of one to ten, a nurse asks. Oh, how do you ever answer that sensibly? Six, perhaps, I say. A score that earns some morphine.

The tall doctor returns, says everything is ready in Leeds. Two paramedics come in with a trolley and I shuffle across the gap. I am strapped in and wheeled off. After a shaky goodbye, a nurse arranges a taxi for my wife, who heads home sleepless and alone.

Up the ramp and into the ambulance we go. A trainee ambulance practitioner sits besides me as her colleague puts on the blue light and sets off for Leeds. It is raining heavily, pouring down. The ambulance shakes and rattles, surges large puddles, water splashing beneath us.

At the LGI, I am wheeled out. We pass through more doors, travel down dark corridors, then into a large bright operating room.

The coronary staff had finished and left, only to be called back to help this heart-sore man from York. I shuffle from trolley to bed. The doctor tells me what is going to happen. A coronary angiography, I think she said. Local anaesthetic is injected into my wrist, from where a long thin catheter is inserted into a blood vessel.

As the doctor begins, her actions appear on two large screens to my left. She is fishing down tiny rivers in search of a dangerous clotty worm. Above me hovers a massive X-ray camera of some sort. The doctor issues instructions, giving the coordinates to an assistant, and the camera moves in and out, goes side to side. The fishing wire sets off down an artery.

After half an hour, we are done. The obstruction has been removed from my heart. The long wire is pulled out of my wrist. I shuffle from bed to trolley amid teary thankyous, and then wheel off through darkened corridors to the recovery ward.

A nurse settles me in for what’s left of the night. She is calm and kind, has a busy twinkle, but is looking forward to her shift ending in two hours. Breakfast comes, I call my wife to say I am still here, lunch comes.

The hospital is waiting for a bed on the coronary ward in York. One comes free, two more paramedics arrive, wheel me out. One drives, the other sits in the back. We chat, turns out he was a printer in an earlier life, inky tales are swapped.

My wife visits comes into the ward, with two of our three (the middle one lives too far away for a quick visit). It is so good to see them, but I feel tired and old and battered, not my usual self.

They go home. Tests come and go; meals come and go. A night passes without much in the way of sleep. There are more tests, a consultant calls by, advice is given, and then I am released. Not even two days after my heart attack, I am home, shaken and bruised, puzzled, affronted at fate – but mostly relieved and grateful to be here.

That doctor saved your life last night…

Yes, I almost cried when I heard that. Sometimes half a life pours into one small jar. As for that unwrapped parcel, Bill Bryson addresses that feeling in his excellent book The Body, A Guide For Occupants. It even has a name, angor animi, from the Latin and refers to an ‘anguish of the soul’ people suffer when they experience a premonition of death.

Here I am, same as ever was, yet different. So grateful to loved ones and concerned friends. So grateful also to all those lovely hard-pushed kind people in the NHS. Without their help I might not be here.

It is Valentine’s Day. No card for my wife this year. I told her that her present was me. She seemed happy with that.

And then my daughter came round. As the granddaughter walked towards the house, she held before her a big red heart she’d helped to make.

Ah, life. Ah, a tear or two.


  1. So glad that you survived, Julian. Last year, both my aunt and my mother died and then both my children went into hospital – one with pancreatitis and the other with an infected tooth which could have spread to the brain. Despite the fact that A and E was seething with patients and the hospital staff were clearly over worked, over stretched and under paid, my two received nothing but the best care and attention and are now fully recovered. Get well mate and take care.

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