(a shorter version of this post appeared yesterday in the Irish Times.)
Breathe in 4 ... out 7 ... in 4 ... out 7 ... move that belly... now in 7... and out 11, come on man, I want to see that belly move like a bellows with each breath ... in 7... out 11...
Dammit. It’s not working. I’m still feeling tense, wobbly and shaky as I pace up and down my French hospital room.
Any minute now somebody’s going to come and take me off for a stress test on an exercise bike, and I’m nervous.
The day before the doctor had warned me.
“C’est assez dur, ce teste!”
Hard? Why thanks for letting me know.
I don’t feel up to it. Maybe I should cancel it. What’s the French for ‘cancel’?
Maybe they won’t come. Maybe it won’t happen. The cardiologist had said yesterday the test was at 09:30 today, but then I was told by the nurse last night that it was to be at 10:00, and now it’s already after 10:00 and who knows, maybe it’ll just be forgotten.
Oh bugger. There’s a knock on the door. Tall dark handsome young man in a white coat.
“Oui, c’est moi.”
Great holiday this is turning out to be.
Probably should’ve gone to the doctor before leaving Ireland, presenting symptoms of exhaustion, shortness of breath and hyper-anxiety, but I was sure that a week of total chilldom at a farmhouse in Bordeaux was going to be the best medicine in the world.
Over the preceding weeks I’d worked 14 hour days, 6 days a week, going through 17 years of my ‘Double Vision’ columns from the Connacht Tribune, trying to rush out a compilation book of ‘Best Bits’ in time for the Christmas market. When the column was cut in the summer, the pressure to earn was on.
We’d flown from Shannon to Carcassonne, where Sandra had explored every nook and cranny of the old city, while I lay for many hours in our air-conditioned hotel bedroom, worried about my health, unsure whether I was fit enough to drive on.
But the vision of that farmhouse; the quiet solitude; each other’s company while the world went away: it was enough of an incentive to press on.
Had we simply done just that, life might have been different, but instead we opted to drive deep into the stunning countryside north-east of Toulouse, to spend a night with a dear old friend, in whose house we drank and ate far too much and slept way too little.
Heading off early the next morning, we were hung over, cramming new-found tiredness on top of our well-established exhaustion. After only ten minutes on the motorway I felt dangerously dizzy and pulled over.
A few minutes of walking up and down and I felt a bit better, so we climbed back into the rental car and drove on, until 20 minutes later I felt terrible again.
And so went the day. Thankfully the French péage motorways have stop-off points every few miles, with telephones, toilets and the welcoming shade of trees, and little by little we made precarious progress to the farmhouse, stretching a 4 hour drive into a 7 hour marathon. We discussed taking a room for the night somewhere, but I just wanted the journey over. Finally we arrived and the hellish drive felt worthwhile; just to be there, miles from anywhere and everyone.
Bliss. Let the relaxation begin.
I fell into bed and awoke the next morning to a cooler damper day, with the distant rumble of thunder promising the parched plains some relief.
After breakfast I went outside to breathe in the clean air, but immediately started to feel dodgy. My heart started to speed into palpitations, and my guts were turning inside out.
Climbing the farmhouse’s spiral wooden staircase proved pretty difficult, my legs suddenly wobbling and weak. I went to lay down on the bed in the spare room.
At first I thought I was having what as a teenager I’d have called a ‘headrush’. I felt nauseous, dizzy and my heart was leaping in my chest. I tried 7-11 breathing for a while, and the palpitations slowed, but I felt profoundly dreadful, from head to toe.
Believing I was having a heart attack, armed only with an Englishman's understatement, I wobbled off to inform Sandra that:
“I'm having a bit of a funny turn, love.”
Sandra came to lie beside me as I tried to concentrate on my breathing, while not 2 feet above our heads huge raindrops started to pummel the big skylight window. Thunder now boomed constantly in one unending threatening grumble, and the writer in me considered the potential of pathetic fallacy in our circumstances.
How on earth I was going to get from this isolated spot to a hospital? Sandra was not insured on the rental car, and anyway that morning I didn’t much fancy sharing her first experience of driving on the wrong side of the road.
We called Guy the caretaker who in turn called the doctor. He arrived a few hours later, took my blood pressure and informed me that I had to go immediately to hospital. He gave me a TNT pill to put under my tongue, which simultaneously compounded my fears of a heart attack whilst making me feel like an 80 year-old, 30 years prematurely.
Guy drove us to the ultramodern hospital in Saintes, where I stumbled out of the car towards the Emergency Room. Outside a group of nurses and doctors saw me trying to walk, and one came over and taking my finger gently in his hand, led me straight through the waiting room, out the back and into the treatment area, where he laid me on a bed.
I was feeling so terrible I didn’t even remember to say goodbye to Sandra, who was left to fill out forms on my behalf.
After what seemed like several hundred tests, ECGs, chest X-rays and questions, performed by uniformly smiling caring professionals, I was told that I had not had a heart attack (yippee!) and that my lungs were clear (yowza!). However, my blood pressure was dangerously high, and as they could not ascertain the cause of my shortness of breath or the pain in my chest, they were going to admit me to the cardiac unit for observation.
Two short hours after my arrival at the hospital I was installed in a room of my own, for which I was truly grateful. Never the best at sharing sleeping space, I knew my blood pressure would be unlikely to fall if I had to share a ward with scores of wheezy ancient heart patients.
And so I lay there, feeling truly awful, wondering whether I had angina.
Was this the beginning of the end of my freedom?
Was this the start of old age already? If so, I wasn’t ready for it and feared the lengthy decline that I had seen in my father.
But he was 70 when he became ill, and I did far more exercise than he ever had.
How would I ever get home? Galway felt a million miles away. The thought of the stress incumbent in a Ryanair flight was enough to send me under the bedcovers.
Throughout my stay, I learned to understand technical medical French. All the nurses, orderlies, doctors and specialists were kind, efficient and pleased to find an Englishman who could speak their language.
I was ‘The English Patient’, grateful to have fallen on my feet into French medical care, which proved as excellent as we are led to believe. What chance of lunch in an Irish hospital offering ‘Tajine boeuf citron confit olives’ followed by a dinner consisting of ‘Ouefs mollets florentines’?
Sandra had by now moved into an hotel on a nearby industrial estate, and thankfully a good friend of hers drove up from Biarritz to offer her solace, company and language support.
Unfortunately, this friend chatted with the nurses, and confirmed my worst fears: ‘angine de poitrine’ was apparently what they suspected.
Angina. Bugger. That meant an angiogram, possibly surgery, and and and ... breathe ... breathe...
The cardiologist was waiting for me inside the testing room, and as the nurse wired me up to all the machines, she explained that I had to sit on the bike and keep pedalling, whatever happened. Every 2 minutes they’d make the pedals more resistant, but even if I felt pain I must not stop, and had to keep my speed consistent between 50 and 70 on the digital doodaah.
“Okay!” I said, “Let it roll!”
Armed only with Sandra’s advice (‘Imagine you’re cycling to Bearna, baby!’) and 20 years of walking the beaches of the West of Ireland, I peddled on peddled on peddled on for miles, Luka Bloom style, until the sweat was pouring off me and the test was over.
The cardiologist had seen enough.
“You can go home now!” she said abruptly. “There is nothing wrong with your heart or lungs. For someone of your age, weight and height, you have just achieved 91% of a potential maximum. Take these pills for blood pressure, go to your doctor in Galway and make an appointment to see a cardiologist for a routine check-up. But go home. Stop smoking and drinking so much, and live a long and happy life.”
“Can I ask you some questions?”
“No, I am busy. I have patients who need me., You do not.”
In an instant all those fears, breathing problems, wobbles and trembles were dispatched to hell. I felt great.
My heart was fine!
I was free to go!
Now, back home, I understand that what I had was a panic attack. I had been juggling too many things at once; working too hard and holding too many strands of pressure in my head.
No more juggling for me. Just watch me drop those mental balls. The compilation book can wait a wee while. I’ll find another column in another paper soon enough.
My bicycle has been dusted down, lubed up and a few days ago I cycled to Bearna.
But hear me now: don’t ever say ‘Just a panic attack!’.
There is no ‘just’ about it!