Monday, 2 a.m., I woke suddenly, covered in sweat and clutching at my chest, within which two enormous, invisible hands were apparently squeezing the life from my heart. Belinda was with Charlotte in Sydney visiting family, so with nobody to turn to for comfort I spent the next twenty minutes or so pacing the house, oscillating between two thoughts: 1) I am not having a heart attack. After all, I’m only twenty-eight; and 2) I’m having a heart attack! And I’m only twenty-eight! As my discomfort increased and the pain radiated up to my shoulder then down my left arm, the latter thought gained ascendency and the former started to feel like wishful thinking.
I decided to call Nurses on Call. The nurse-on-call was friendly and calm – until I described my symptoms. “We need to get you to a hospital immediately,” she said in a voice that I can only describe as grave, the connotation being that if I didn’t get to hospital immediately a grave is exactly where I’d end up. “Stay on the line,” she continued, “I’m going to call you an ambulance.”
When the ambulance arrived I was bundled into the back, given some kind of emergency heart attack medication as a precaution, then hooked up to a heart monitor. The paramedic and I watched the spastic rise and fall of my heart-rate on the read-out.
“You seem a little anxious,” he said.
“Just a little.” Gritting my teeth against sarcasm now in addition to pain.
“Well, there’s certainly something going on.” We watched the numbers dance. 97. 135. 62. 124. “We’d better get you to hospital and have it checked out.”
Want to see a doctor fast? Turn up in an ambulance complaining of chest pains. Within minutes of arriving I was transferred to a bed and given more medication. I was put on a heart monitor and had blood tests and a chest x-ray. I was given oxygen for my blood and a breathtaking shot of morphine for the pain. One nurse kept touching my shoulder and calling me “darl”. Another gave me funny little smiles of support every time she walked past. My parents sat on either side of the bed stifling yawns. The man next to me – a drunk, evidently, sleeping off a binge – moaned and sang and snored. His curtain remained closed but for some reason I imagined him looking like Unhygienix, the fishmonger from the Asterix comics. I hadn’t had a lot of sleep.
By six-thirty it was becoming clear that I hadn’t had a heart attack. But, quoth the doctor, “something is going on”. At about seven I was admitted to hospital for the first time in my life and placed in the Coronary Care Unit for observation.
I’ll keep the account of my time in CCU brief. It was boring enough at the time even with the threat of heart disease or whatever to ponder. Doctors and nurses came and went, running tests and performing examinations. The word "infarct" was used with abandon. I studied at length a framed print depicting a nondescript rural dwelling, generously if inexplicably donated to the hospital by a Mr and Mrs Napper in 1997, and found it overwhelmingly dull. Meanwhile my heart-rate had levelled out to a resting average of 100, thirty more than is normal for an adult male. Any movement – peeing in a bottle, sitting up, giggling at the word "infarct" – caused it to shoot right up. There was no evidence of damage to my heart, but, as my nurse kept reminding me, “Even so, this is not nothing. This is something.”
Not something life-threatening, though, so in the early evening I was shifted to a ward. I was still being monitored, but now I had a remote unit to carry around so I was able to sit in a chair or visit the toilet. At this point I felt pretty relaxed. I had a book to read, a tv to watch, food to eat. Oh, and apparently I wasn’t going to die just yet. That always lowers the tension somewhat.
Lunch time the following day I was discharged. Final diagnosis? Pericarditus, an inflammation of the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart. It’s generally a benign condition, although I’m going to have to take it easy for the next week or so and watch out for a recurrence. Four days later I seem to be recovering nicely, although I’m still easily tired and there is some residual soreness.
Emotionally I feel strangely brittle, which I guess is understandable. Staggering out my front door to meet the paramedics I did wonder if I would ever return. Melodramatic? Perhaps. But fear of imminent harm, of death, is still profound even when, with the benefit of hindsight, there was no objective reason for it. I also feel as if I have seen the last of my (blessed, extended) youth. Apart from the occasional illness I have been healthy all my life and thus in a certain sense disembodied. Ultimately though the body laughs at such dualist fantasies. "When I go," it says, "I’m taking you with me." I’m not keen on getting too introspective here, but I have to say that I find that thought immensely troubling.
Still, I don't want to overstate the existential angst: I'm not dead and I'm not dying, at least not more than I was before. It's hard to be upset with that outcome.