John, the anaesthetist, told me when he came to see me on his Sunday round that I had just been “incredibly unlucky”.
His reasoning was that what had happened to me was extraordinarily unlikely, and not linked in any way to lifestyle, or diet. As he explained it to me, the walls of our arteries have something resembling a mesh which holds back gunk, and from the age of 25, that mesh cracks. Apparently, it happens to all of us, and is rarely a problem. But very occasionally and unusually, the mesh breaks. The blood isn’t happy to find stuff tipped into the bloodstream, and it reacts as it does when anything else goes wrong: it clots. In my case, it clotted at the entrance to the artery that carries 66% of oxygen to the heart. I had a heart attack.
‘Unlucky’ was John’s version: mine was the polar opposite. I’d take that bad luck, I told him, for the good luck of how and when it happened. I had 20 minutes from the time it started, and any of a whole host of things might have taken me minutes past that. By rights, I should be dead.
It happened on Saturday afternoon. I was walking downstairs, having been in my study and then briefly chatting to my eldest daughter, Emily, in her room, and as I reached the bottom I sensed a not-particularly-alarming pain in my chest and then suddenly felt very ill. I lay down on the bench alongside our kitchen table for a moment, but then, realising that I might be about to be sick, decided it would be wise to move towards the loo.
Only, I couldn’t really move. I crawled off the bench, and on all fours made minimal progress. I lay down on the floor in the foetal position, suddenly feeling terrible.
It was the Fours’ Head in London this weekend, and as a result we had three Cambridge oarsmen staying with us in the house. One of them, Piers, walked into the kitchen as I lay on the floor. I heard him say, “are you all right?” and I replied, “You know… I really don’t think I am…”
I sat up on the floor, as Piers called Riccardo, his fellow oarsman and a third year medic, and told him I didn’t look great. When Riccardo appeared, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with my chin to my chest and my eyes shut. I had started to sweat – a lot. I could hear him asking me if I was all right, but I couldn’t answer. I sat there, sweat dripping off me, eyes shut, head down. “Mark, are you all right?” he kept asking.
Then, just as suddenly, I was fine. I lifted my head, opening my eyes as I looked up. Riccardo was crouching in front of me, and Piers was behind me. “Wow,” I said. “That was seriously weird! What on earth just happened there?”
At just about that moment, my wife Miranda came in from picking up our third daughter Alice from ballet, walking in through the front door behind our second, Lexie, who had been dropped back by a friend after a hockey match. She took one look at me and exclaimed about the colour of me and the sweatiness of me. We all said how weird the whole thing was, but by now, I was on my feet, and apparently absolutely fine. But it was odd, and someone – I don’t remember who – suggested that we call 111 to ask them what it might have been. Something had clearly happened, but in truth it was as much for reasons of curiosity as anything that I thought it sensible to call and find out what.
I went off and got my phone, in no particular rush, and went to call from the sitting room. I sat on the sofa, got through fairly quickly, and started to tell them what had happened. I was totally fine: I felt perfectly well now, I was lucid, I was sitting on the sofa, and I was chatting to the woman on the other end about how strange the whole thing had been.
“Just to let you know,” she said as we talked, “I have dispatched an ambulance to your address. And I don’t want to worry you, but I have made it high priority. They should be with you within seven minutes. If you have aspirin in the house, take 300mg. When you get off the phone to me, don’t phone anyone else in case we need to call you back.”
I wasn’t particularly concerned. OK, I said. I would do that. I hung up. I took the aspirin. And then suddenly – very suddenly – I started to go downhill again. I called out for Miranda, who had gone upstairs. By the time she came down, I had slipped off the sofa, where I suddenly had felt very uncomfortable, and was lying on the floor, clearly – and rapidly – getting worse. The next thing I knew, I was aware of a flashing blue light coming through the window, and then paramedics rushing into the room.
I was lying between the sofa and an extremely heavy coffee table made of granite, so they couldn’t actually get to me. How Miranda moved it, I have no idea: we have tried to do it between us plenty of times in the past and we always need an army to get it off the ground. But somehow she and Piers picked it up to give the guys space.
I remember them putting me on a trolley and loading me into the ambulance. I remember them saying to Miranda as she got in that I wouldn’t be back tonight. I remember them then giving me a commentary about where we were all the time, and me telling them I didn’t need one because I knew exactly where we were from the bends of the roads. All I wanted, I said, was a blanket, because I was perishingly cold and shivering uncontrollably. (I later learned that my temperature had dropped to 30 degrees.) I also asked if they had a pillow, because my head was drooped lower than my shoulders. They didn’t, but one of the paramedics – apparently fresh to the job in the last fortnight – kindly manoeuvred herself so that I could rest my head on her knees.
Over Hammersmith Bridge we went, heading towards the Hammersmith Hospital, where they told me a team was on standby awaiting my arrival. I remember the drive up Shepherd’s Bush Road, but then from Shepherd’s Bush I must have passed out because the next memory is arriving. Amazingly, even at this point I wasn’t actually sure what was happening and why: it was only as they wheeled me out of the ambulance and in through a door which had a sign over it which said, “Heart Attack Unit” that I knew for sure what was going on. It sounds so ridiculous to say it really, but no-one had mentioned the words. And I didn’t see myself as a heart attack candidate: I have never smoked; I exercise six times a week; I don’t eat much meat; and I live a pretty healthy life.
They wheeled me to the lift, where I remember one of them saying, “this is usually the slowest part of the journey”. Sure enough, we waited for ages as various full lifts came and went, until they decided that we had to take the lift down in order to be the incumbents as it came back up, or we would never get in. I recall a lift arriving and it emptying of people.
Apparently, they twice did CPR in the lift. Miranda was in there with me, as she had been in the ambulance, but I remember nothing about it. I regained consciousness, though, as they wheeled me into room I assumed to be the operating theatre where I was struck by the sheer number of people on hand. I remember them asking me if I minded them cutting my shirt – I had changed out of my sweaty t-shirt – and me telling them that I really didn’t mind what they did, providing they did it quickly. I remember them whipping my trousers down, but leaving them at my ankles, which I remember complaining about because it was very uncomfortable. A young lady called Charlotte introduced herself on my left and told me what she was there to do, but I don’t remember what it was. And then I heard a voice say something about the need to hit me now, and BANG! they unleashed the CPR machine on me. I subsequently learned that they did it five times in total, for four of which I wasn’t conscious. This time, I knew all about it – but as I was told later, my heart had stopped and every second was crucial, so there was no hanging around. Still, I can safely say I have never sworn so loudly in my life. It wasn’t the sort of word you want to be your last.
My next recollection after that is of lying calmly in a bed and wondering whether, if I opened my eyes, I was going to find myself in hospital or discover that everything was a dream. I opened them slowly, and I was clearly in a hospital. It had genuinely happened.
Now, three days on, I feel fine. The people who have helped me in the hospital have been extraordinarily kind. A lady just came to ask me lots of questions to check that I hadn’t lost any brain function – obviously, a major knock-on effect when you’ve lacked oxygen – and it looks like I passed. All things being well with a scan tomorrow, I should be leaving here in 24 hours, and, they say, even back on the football pitch in the New Year.
So when John the anaesthetist came to see me on Sunday evening and said that I had been incredibly unlucky, I had to demur. Had I not been fit (he told me), the chances that the part of my heart functioning on 33% could have kept me going for long enough to make it would have been incredibly small. Had I been by myself at home, I don’t think there is any chance I would have called 111 when I suddenly felt all right again, and by the time I didn’t, it would have been too late. Had the lady who answered the phone not immediately diagnosed what had happened; had there been more traffic; had I not been at home, but more or less anywhere else – on the street, in a plane, further from a hospital – it would have been curtains. And even if I had survived, without a lot of quick thinking from a lot of people, I might have done so with a fraction of the brain function that I had before it happened, instead of all of it. So, far from being unlucky, I was about as lucky as it was possible to get.
I think in many ways, it was all far worse for the people close to me than it was for me. I was drifting in an out of consciousness (and bizarrely, dreaming very heavily when I was out), so there somehow wasn’t the time to be scared – and as I said to Miranda on Sunday, despite everything, I never believed at any point that I was about to die. “I did,” she told me, particularly when things were going pear-shaped in the lift.
Meanwhile my son Theo, who is 9, took himself off upstairs when the paramedics arrived and Skyped my parents, who are abroad. They asked him how everything was, and he replied, “well, I’m very well… But I have come to Skype from upstairs because I am banished from downstairs because the ambulance people are here.” “The ambulance people?” “Yes. They’ve come because Daddy has collapsed. Oh – I can just see the blue lights of the ambulance now heading off down the road.” It was a few hours before they got any further news. That must have been fun.
From my perspective, the whole experience has been rather surreal. It has sunk in a bit more than it had a couple of days ago, but I am not sure that it has done fully yet. What I do know is that I count myself extraordinarily lucky to be here. Every day’s a bonus day after that.