I was talking to my friends and my husband, Dogan, laughing and watching the children play. One moment, everything was just as it should be, but within one breath, my whole life turned upside down, never to be the same again.
Suddenly I felt extremely poorly. I handed my nine-month-old baby girl to a friend, and ran to the toilet. I had a feeling of impending doom, as if a big black cloud was looming over me, making every breath more meaningful. I understood immediately that something very serious was happening to me and that it was beyond my control. I collapsed on the floor, feeling as if my chest was being crushed and struggling to breathe. I felt sick and hot and sweaty. The pain I was enduring was so much worse than giving birth to any of my three babies.
I managed to get back to my friends, and what followed was chaos. An ambulance was called, and while we waited my kind friends tried in vain to help me – bringing me ice, water and a bag to breathe into. All I wanted at that moment, though, was to stare into my husband’s eyes because I needed him to be with me and to understand what I was saying to him. I managed to give him some brief instructions on what to do with the children, but I guess I was telling him something much more than that too.
The ambulance arrived, and the crew checked me over. They managed to calm me down a little and took an ECG (a measurement of the heartbeat). They said there was a slight abnormality, but because of my young age (36) and the fact that I led a healthy lifestyle and there was no family history of heart problems, they were happy to rule out anything serious there and then. Even so, we decided that I should go to the hospital immediately to get properly checked out.
After a few hours spent being looked over, I was eventually let home with some indigestion medicine!
I spent the next couple of days recovering and feeling traumatised by the whole event. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt something had changed inside me. A couple of days later, the pain hit me again. It felt like a herd of elephants stamping on my chest. Each breath was tight and so painful. If at that moment someone had offered to cut off my right arm so that the pain would go away, I would readily have handed over the knife!
My husband called for an ambulance again, and events at the hospital this time started to unravel, like a really bad soap opera. It started with pure panic. I felt I was not being taken seriously and I was left alone in my cubicle, suffering in agony. I couldn’t call anyone to come and help me because the pain literally took my breath away. I thought I might die alone in that cubicle and not be found for hours. Eventually one student nurse looked at my ECG and her jaw dropped. Suddenly, I was no longer alone; the room was buzzing with people all around me. At one point I had three cardiologists looking at my heart trace chart, saying that it was telling them that I was having a heart attack but that they didn’t believe it – because of my age, lifestyle, etc.
The next morning, I was told by a cardiologist that my blood tests showed I had indeed suffered a very serious heart attack. I was relieved that I had survived, but felt numb with disbelief. Throughout the day, I started to suffer more chest pains. I needed to be monitored constantly and my heart rhythm was doing some amazing acrobatics. A nurse was sent to take a scan of my heart. I suppose it is down to my natural optimism that I still expected her to say, ‘Oh everything’s fine … probably eaten something dodgy!’ But her expression was grave. She has since told me that she was shocked – it was the most excessive damage she has ever seen in anyone so young.
I continued to deteriorate and was eventually wheeled into the Coronary Care High Dependency Unit. It had a very different feel about it – all white, very high ceilings, voices echoing. The beds in this unit had very wide spaces between them to accommodate the rescue teams of doctors and nurses. My team came to my rescue at about 5 pm. I had sunk so low, the pain in my chest was breaking through the drugs they had given me and I could no longer talk. The only thought in my head was to keep breathing.
Breathe in and breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
I figured if I could just keep breathing, I wouldn’t die. The doctors and nurses were quickly putting needles and lines into both of my arms and each hand. They were all moving very quickly around me and speaking in hushed voices. I managed to whisper to one of the nurses as she crouched at my bedside and held my hand with great pity in her eyes. She said they were calling my husband to come back – he’d gone home to be with the children for tea. I asked if I was going to die now, and she swallowed hard before saying, ‘Not now’ – but she gave her colleague a look. She was a lovely gentle nurse but no good at telling lies.
The team managed to stabilize me enough to move me to another hospital, where, they said, I would get fixed up. They had arranged for me to have an angiogram, expecting to find a blockage somewhere in my heart that was causing the problem.
At this point, I was passing in and out of consciousness. I was aware that I was just hanging on, and wasn’t at all sure how much longer I would manage. We arrived at the new hospital, and the surgeon, who had been dragged out of bed, told me all the risks associated with an angiogram and the mortality rate.
The Cath Lab, where they were going to perform the procedure, was very cold and I had to lie on an even colder table to have the angiogram. By this point I was relatively relaxed, partly due to the drugs I had been given but also partly because of what was happening to my body. I was starting to shut down. I felt myself let go a couple of times and it frightened me … but it wasn’t unpleasant. It would have been very easy just to drift off. I knew my situation was very bad but the thing that surprised me was how calm I was by then.
The surgeon started his procedure, putting a small incision in my groin. I felt the blood trickle over my leg. He then fed the line up into my heart to pump the dye in and x-ray the results. I felt very close to the edge, but I was still quietly determined just to keep breathing. Yet I almost gave up when I heard the surgeon start to swear under his breath. I looked at his face and saw an expression of shock and disbelief and then panic and then nothing. It was when he started to swear that I think I began to understand just how dire my situation was.
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. The surgeon took off his gloves, then left the room with his shoulders drooped. The nurses and assistants followed quietly as if embarrassed – I was all alone. Everyone really had gone and I was completely and utterly alone in this dreadful room on this cold table. I thought for a moment that I was dead and this was what it was like.
I stopped forcing my breath and let my natural breath take over. Each breath was so shallow and light but it was all I could hear in the room. I couldn’t fill my lungs. Was I still alive? I could drift off really easily and when I did the pain in my chest went away. I did it a couple of times to see what it was like. It was fine. Just fine. I would then pull myself back and the hurting returned, but it had turned into a ‘good’ pain because it proved that I was still alive. I really needed that confirmation. And I really needed to feel the pain.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, but which was probably only a couple of minutes, Dogan, my husband, walked into the room. He was sobbing. He said that he loved me. The doctors had told him that I had suffered another massive heart attack; that my heart had sustained a shocking amount of damage, which could not be repaired; and that I was going to die. So as he walked into the lab, he was coming to say goodbye.
I would love to be able to write that I told him how much I loved him and we held each other tight. That didn’t happen. Since I had just discovered that I was still alive, and I’d allowed myself to think for a second about my little ones at home, I was filled with an all-consuming need and desire and passion not to let myself die. I can’t put into words how strong this feeling was. It was this surge of emotion that literally saved my life. It must have been all about the people that I love. It was instinctive and I decided there and then that I would never, ever give up breathing.
I had so much to live for.