December 17, 2019

I experienced a cardiac event – here’s what it was like

I have spent over 20 years working in clinical negligence. I thought I’d developed a good grasp of most clinical issues and was empathetic. Then, quite unexpectedly, I gained a very real insight into how it feels to be a patient.

In July, following an unseasonal bout of flu, I started getting what I thought was bad indigestion. I had a band of severe pain across my chest which got progressively worse. I was at work at the time; I remember taking a telephone call and being unable to say anything much more than “yes” and “no”.

By the time I’d finished the call, I was sweating. A colleague told me I’d gone grey. Other than the excruciating pain I vividly remember a sense of impending doom. I’d heard people talk about it, but it had always sounded a bit melodramatic. Suddenly it took on a very real significance, though, and it wasn’t remotely melodramatic.

My colleagues called an ambulance and I was taken to hospital. The staff did blood tests, and performed an electrocardiogram (ECG). The blood tests showed my troponin levels were raised, which I knew could be a sign of a heart attack, and my ECG also showed I had an abnormal heart rhythm. I kept telling myself that I don’t smoke, there’s no family history of heart disease, I’m healthy and I take regular exercise. That all said, it was obvious that I was ticking an awful lot of boxes for a heart attack.

After a while a consultant came to see me and asked what I did for a living. I said I was a lawyer. He frowned, and said, “Not one of those medical lawyers, are you?” On being told that I was, he said, “Well, never mind”, and confirmed I was to have further tests.

I was admitted to hospital where I had an echocardiogram (a form of ultrasound), more ECGs, a CT scan and an angiogram. This last procedure involves threading a needle up an artery in the groin or arm (the arm in my case), which is then threaded into the coronary arteries. A dye is injected and then any blockage or disease in the coronary vessels can be seen on a TV monitoring screen.

Although I had a Valium before the angiography (which was quite fun), I was conscious throughout and was able to see close-up views of my own coronary arteries. Thankfully, no blockages were found. The doctors concluded that my symptoms were due to pericarditis, an  inflammation in the tissues surrounding the heart, caused in my case by flu. The symptoms of pericarditis can be similar to those of a heart attack.

I was given some painkillers, discharged home and told to rest.

I have nothing but praise for the hospital that treated me. I was lucky to be treated in what appeared to be a meticulously organised, exceptionally efficient unit with warm, caring and courteous staff. I witnessed surgical cases were being prioritised methodically and every effort was made to treat patients as individuals. Most of all I gained an insight into what it feels like to be a patient experiencing a cardiac event, vulnerable and concerned about what my prognosis would be.

Fortunately I was lucky: lucky not to have had a heart attack, lucky to have had favourable genetics and a reasonably healthy lifestyle, and extremely lucky to have received such excellent care from the NHS. And the experience, I think, has made me more determined to help those who have not had the fantastic medical treatment I had.

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