Chapter 1 : Fight Night

Here I am at twenty-nine, sat backstage about to do the craziest thing in my life to date; compete in a boxing match.

My heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my body, the pounding beat is deafening and the adrenaline surging through me is all I can feel. I realise I need to calm down and focus on what’s about to happen. I call my mate Ben who is on his way, or maybe already here, to see if he can come backstage and talk to me as a form of distraction.

He doesn’t pick up. 

I then start to go through my work phone and respond to emails or re-check them systematically in the hope that it might distract me, anything to calm down and soothe the jitters, and for a few moments I am partially distracted.

The atmosphere is tense; filled with aggression and anticipation, the crowd can be heard through the walls, shouting and cheering loudly like a baying mob thirsty for blood and action. The constant movement of people coming and going, fighters stretching, warming up with their trainers and gearing up for their matches can’t be ignored. It’s a hectic environment of blurred motion and colour constantly passing in front of me.

It’s an unusual feeling, there’s a sense of anxious uncertainty as if the words ‘here we go, let’s do this’ are hanging in the air, coupled with strange bodily sensations that I don’t want to get accustomed to, like there’s a disconnect between brain and body.  I’m telling myself I need to stay calm but my body is in fight mode, acting on its own.  Adrenaline is surging but my mind is trying to stay calm and the result is a jittery nervousness as the reality of the situation hits me in the face.

I start to shadow box; moving around to try and loosen up a little.  The most important thing for a boxer is to relax; you can’t move spontaneously if you’re tense. My body feels like it has taken on a new form of stiff, tense anticipation; I am far too rigid and tight. I carry on moving around the large room, jumping up and down and side to side in short precise steps for quick movement, simulating my intended moves. I roll my shoulders round with my arms in a boxing pose, ready for action I jab away in the air going through a sequence of punches. 

The room has been sectioned off into little open corners with false walls, similar to those big open plan offices with workstations that can be moved easily at any moment, the intention is to give the fighters their own private cordoned off space to get ready, it hasn’t worked. We all either bound around the room pacing up and down trying to loosen up or aggressively jeer ourselves on.  It takes space to do this and, for some, it is to intimidate the opponent by walking around with heads high, looking tough, or at least that is the idea.

I stride up and down and shake my arms in circular movements to keep them loose, going through all the motions I have done so many times before; quick movement, short sharp turns, bounce, bounce, but nothing loosens me up this time.

The previous match is over and two fighters come backstage; one with his head held high and the other with his head drooping. “How’d you do?” I ask the one I know having sparred with him at the gym. “Not good, got knocked down and lost in the end” he replies, the already bulging eye and hunched over appearance of defeat evident.  “Argh shit man” is all I can respond with.

I carry on moving, putting my mouthguard in and staring at the wall in front of me as if it’s a thousand miles away, or not there at all.  I breathe and focus on what’s happening.

“Right, you’re up!” comes the call. The phrase is hurled my way as if I should ‘hurry up and get a move on’. They have to keep a schedule after all and I am a mere pawn in the evening’s entertainment.

I walk to the entrance and wait to be lead out.  There’s a moment’s pause as I look at the promotor who is standing to the left of me holding my arm firmly.  The walk-on music starts (Rage Against the Machine Bulls On Parade) and I hear a cheer from my friends as they recognise the track. The crowd is cheering loudly, my heart is pounding and I have someone shouting words of encouragement next to me.

The headgear I am wearing blocks out a lot and the surrounding noise has turned to a muffled blur as if my head has been plunged under water, so I don’t recognise the music. I turn to the promoter and say “this isn’t my track?”

“Are you sure?” comes the response, “It should be, I gave them the music list and yours was definitely on there.” 

I hear a few more sounds and realise it was just the quieter part of the record that I didn’t recognise. As soon as the big guitars and lead shout from the vocalist comes, I know it and start walking.

I hear another round of screams as my friends see me enter onto the walkway. My focus is straight in front of me, looking ahead with tunnel vision; I see them and don’t at the same time.  I walk right of the ring, stepping up to the ropes, which are pulled apart, and duck in between them.  I’m in and hear my name bellow through the speakers by the MC.

The ring is well lit and the lights are beating down on my shoulders and back almost pushing like weights from above. They help to draw attention into the ring. It feels like I’m in a room with no-one around and anything beyond the ring is this black space of shadow and sound. My attention is drawn in, focused.

A quick jump up and then down to touch my toes followed by a clashing of fists and a motivational ‘ARGH!’ brings another loud cheer from the crowd in response.

I turn around to face my corner and just beyond the ring I see my best mate in the crowd right behind me. I wink to acknowledge that I’ve seen him; the look on his face was one of shock, awe and ‘bloody hell mate’. He looks more nervous than me.

It quietens down and my opponent walks on with his entourage. I already know he’s bigger than me as we met briefly in the gym for the usual ‘oh ok so you’re who I’m fighting’ meet-up, which involved a handshake, a look up and down and a grin.

It was at that point that weights had been discussed and I discovered he was ten kilograms heavier than me. In boxing that’s a lot and looking at him now he had put on more, with shoulders that appeared to ‘block out the lights’, as one friend put it. Meanwhile, I have lost more weight through intense training, only now realising the mistake I have made in not stepping up my eating habits as well.

We are called to the centre of the ring, touch gloves, and the ref says a few words that I can’t hear through my head gear, noise and general intensity of the moment. We go back to our corners and I breathe, inhaling sharply and exhaling deeply.

‘Ding’ the bell goes and we’re on.

There is an unusual anticipation walking out into the centre of the ring to ‘get it on’. I feel as stiff as a board. The fluid movement and relaxed nature that makes a good boxer isn’t in me. My adrenaline is surging and over keenness gets the better of me. I dodge, duck and move, jabbing away and generally doing well to control the first round.

I come out fighting, which works as my opponent is defensive and cautious. We have a good few tussles with each other catching the occasional blow as we do, mainly examining the situation and not giving too much away.  The bell goes and I hear a big cheer from my supporters who happen to be on the other side of the ring behind my opponent. I’m up on the first round.

Breathing frantically I sit down on the stool and sip the water thrust in front of me. The corner man tells me to keep it up: “You have him on movement. Stay at it, you’re ahead!” he says. “Where is my trainer?” I think. It turns out that as my trainer is a professional fighter he isn’t allowed to be in my corner and someone else from the gym is, but I only find out now. This throws me slightly and I stare vacantly a few feet in front of me, not knowing what to make of it.

I feel let down, I know this person and had occasionally seen him in the gym but I didn’t train with him. It would have been better to know the person in my corner telling me to “chill out, calm down and focus on your breathing, you know what you’re doing”.

“Ten seconds corners” comes over the speakers from the announcer.

‘Ding’ I get up and pace forward, hearing my friends, and especially my sister, shouting my name. The atmosphere is intense and electric, its as if the air has an electric charge. My vision is fixed within a metre on the man in front of me. Through determination and fear I am focused.

This round is hands on, with a lot more up close, bullish behaviour from both of us. We are digging into each other having a hard tussle, close and tight in the corner. All of a sudden my opponent grabs me with both arms and throws me to the floor. I hear lots of ‘BOOO’s’ and a loud “What the…?” from the crowd.

The referee marches over and signals that we should go to our corners. I can see he is talking firmly with my opponent.  I have no idea what he is saying but it seems pretty apparent that he is telling him “it’s not a wrestling match!”

The referee comes over to me and asks “alright?” I smile and said “yeh” not knowing what to make of the situation and feeling quite bemused. “Did he really just do that?” I think.

We carry on for the rest of the round and it is clear he wants to make an impression. A few more intense moments of up close scrapping, hard knocks and the bell goes. This round is even.

I sit down, my heart rate has reached a new level of speed and my breathing is deep, rapid and intense. The corner man tells me to “keep at it, stay on him you’re just ahead”. It’s at this point I start to feel exhausted and worn out, as if a switch had been flipped and I am drained of all my energy, it is immediate and sudden.

Photo credit - Richard Smith
End of round two. Photo credit – Richard Smith

Before I know it, ’ding’ the bell goes and the third round is on.

There is always a huge amount of respect from each fighter towards their opponent, touching gloves at the start with an acknowledgement that it’s no joke and at the same time, don’t take this personally. We touch gloves to signify the last round.

The fight picks up a gear and he comes at me with intensity, wanting to take charge the assaults seem relentless. I move, dodge left, lean back out the way of a fast jab followed by a hook.  I pivot and keep moving. I am doing well to avoid his fast approaching advances. There is only so much I can do before the action gets up front and personal. I’m shattered and feel exhausted, I would quite happily hear the bell go now.

In one ‘embrace’ as we tussle with each other I feel that I’ve had enough and my strength has gone. I feel like a rag doll, a puppet on strings whose master has tossed it aside, leaving it to move on its own. My arms don’t work and my legs feel like they are barely holding me up.

The fight takes on an even greater intensity as he steps it up, taking charge of the round. I duck and move around, keeping him at bay, jabbing where I can, but my body is tense and tired. I hear a shout “Come on Guy, keep those hands up!” as the signs are clearly showing.  I gee myself on and muster the last bit of strength I have to go on the attack. It’s clear that he’s won the round and had a good finish.

The bell sounds and there is a huge raw of appreciation from the crowd. We touch gloves and go over to our corners. I feel deeply disheartened as I know I am better than I fought.

My movement was stiff and rigid, the flowing of punches simply wasn’t there. I sit wondering where my strength went.  All the training and it just suddenly disappears when I need it. I see the look in the corner man’s eyes and it’s one of defeat.  I sense that I lost and then tell myself otherwise. We are called to the centre of the ring with the referee standing between us as we face the judges. There is a moment’s pause and my opponent’s hand is held up high. I turn to congratulate him with a smile, touch of gloves and nod, then head out the ring.

My girlfriend and sister are there as I get out of the ring and start to walk towards backstage, both their hands in the air, screaming and smiling at me. I’m still in an exhausted and disappointed state, despite their best efforts I say: “That was shit, I was shit, I’m so much better than that” and continue backstage with my head low and my girlfriend to accompany me.

I sit down in my small corner and the environment is still intense, there’s no breathing space to relax yet and the next fight is moments away, boxers are gearing up, pacing back and forth and I am there with my opponent only a few feet away. I glance his way and our eyes catch each other.  We smile and nod almost in unison.

My girlfriend removes the tape around my gloves and unties them. I unwind the wraps from my hands and with each layer that comes off my fingers loosen. I roll my wrists with delight as they relax. The tension is going and I tentatively take the rest of my gear off. Folding my top and shorts in half I place them neatly next to my bag along with the gloves, wraps, mouth guard and boots. Like an old ornate military outfit preserved on display in a museum, here is my war outfit, complete and laid out before me.

I shower and change to go and greet my loyal supporters.

As I head out I catch a glimpse of a few people eagerly looking in my direction waiting for me. I am met with overwhelming joy from everybody. I then realise they were as much a part of it as I was.  There are pats on the back, broad smiles and congratulatory embraces. I feel united with everyone; it isn’t about me, it is a group of people being together, showing love and support.

It is good to feel the support from everybody there, people I know and don’t. It becomes apparent that it meant more to them than me and that they also took on board the seriousness of what has just happened.  The first thing they bring up is the ‘throw down’ incident and it becomes clear it was a tactic to ‘rough me up’ and use his strength and size against me. One friend explains how he saw and overheard the opponent’s corner after the first round say: “Bully him! Use your size to overpower, go at him and use it to your advantage, rough him up!”

The best fighter on the night won.

I feel a deep sense of my own worth lacking though. My main goal was to go out there and represent myself well. Winning of course would have been great but ultimately it was about the achievement of competing after all those months of dedication spent training, getting up early, arriving home late.  Above all I wanted this to show that I was a good boxer and I couldn’t understand why I was so exhausted and drained, where had my strength gone?

It appears however that I did all of these things and everyone is very impressed saying it was the best boxing fight that evening; the most technical, no big swinging and no lack of skill.  It was boxing. None of my friends have any need to say that for the sake of it; it’s truly what they feel.

I’m pleased to say that I was the only fighter to come out that evening without a black eye and without getting knocked down or taking a serious beating. So perhaps I had done better than I felt.

We go to the bar and the order comes my way. I glance across behind the waiter looking carefully at the bottles. “I’ll have a double Remy Martin, neat please,” I say. It’s the first drink in months and goes down my throat like water to a marooned sailor.

Standing at the bar we chat and go over it all, hearing different parts of the fight in detail from the viewpoints they each have. We watch the last few fights, having a good time, laughing and joking, getting more drunk as it goes on.

At the end of the evening we leave and go to a hotel bar on the way home for a few more drinks.  Finally we close the night at a friend’s house nearby, inventing a new game in his living room called ‘dancing on a towel whilst drunk’, as you do, until early dawn.

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Chapter 2 : The Build Up

“I was on my way to a stranger’s house to have a fight.”

 

I had been training in various boxing gyms throughout London for approximately five years. I sparred here and there, enjoying the relaxing feeling I had after a good session.

Boxing is an art form, a technical dance with the highest stakes.

That’s what attracted me to the sport. I remember going into a boxing gym for the first time and seeing these small fighters who were very technical with precise movement around the ring, like chasing a shadow in the wind, you can’t get close. They could easily knock down a man twice their size and I admired this athleticism greatly.

Boxing was a release; a fun way to be in great shape, hammer out the stress of working long hours in London with the added benefit of feeling good. It was time away, an escape where I could focus on the intense action in the ring without any other thoughts. It was for this reason I had turned down so many opportunities to fight before, all the gyms I’d sparred in had put me forward but I always declined.

I enjoyed the freedom boxing brought.  The only pressure was the one I put on myself to turn up to the gym when I felt like going home.  One of the gyms was notorious for putting together fighters who were not well matched either in size or experience. I heard some terrible stories of fights that had devastating results for the less experienced boxer, who generally got beaten up.  It wasn’t a boxing match.

Some of the promoters didn’t care and wanted to ‘put on a good show’ as they saw it, they were never governed or overseen by a particular body, or at least not that I knew of, so it was free reign in that sense and you had to put a lot of faith in the promoter to match you evenly. It takes huge guts to put yourself forward and step out into the ring even without this added unknown risk.

I came to a point where I had been flirting with the idea of a fight for some time. It kept creeping into my mind: ‘I’d like to be part of a show, I feel good enough’.  This tied in with an internal drive I have always had to do something to the best of my abilities and not by halves. I would go all in, or not at all.

A few things in life also shifted to help with the decision. I had been producing music for some time and the studio I was using wasn’t available for a few months. I had also split up with my girlfriend so I now had more time and energy than usual.  There was an opening for this to happen, for me to invest in the training needed to compete at this level, not to just box anymore for the sake of it.  The timing felt right to allow it to happen.

I trained hard; six times a week for two hours each session. Once early on Monday mornings with a trainer, then each night and Saturday morning. I would ride my bike to the gym which added another forty minutes exercise each way, carrying a bag weighing six kgs of gear too added its own workout. Sunday was the day for relaxation.

IMG_5966
The Ride on Regents Canal.

Throughout this period I felt myself becoming a much better boxer. The trainer helped to bring me back to basics; footwork and movement. I was now more nimble around the ring, it is a dance after all.

One evening I went to another gym I had never been to before to get some practice with fighters I didn’t know and joined a sparring session. I wanted to test myself by intentionally being in uncomfortable situations to help prepare mentally for the ring and get used to that feeling of the unknown. All boxing gyms are intense environments for the outsider. There is always a certain amount of sussing you out that goes on by the fighters in the gym.  As insiders they don’t give too much away, it’s all part of the dance. I went through to the changing room and immediately felt the glare coming my way, like a heavy weight pushing on my back, almost making me trip over my feet as I walked.

The session was good training although I was out of my depth. We did a few minutes sparring between each fighter on continual rotation with no stops and it became immediately clear they wanted to make an impression. It was tough going and I took a few hard hits. They had proven their authority; this was their gym and I felt it!

Another scenario I found myself in was a suggestion put forward by a trainer I knew. He said I should meet with one of his clients who had fought before to spar with. This seemed like a good idea so I got in touch and arranged to go round to his place to have a sparring session one evening.

I remember walking up to the flat, which was on the sixth floor in a block of flats in central London near Farringdon, and it suddenly dawned on me this is a bit weird and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In a nutshell, I was on my way to a stranger’s house to have a fight.

I got to the entrance of the building and pressed the buzzer. A strong “hello” came through the small speaker and I said “hi, it’s Guy”.  “Ok, come up” he replied.  I went up in the lift and walked along the corridor, not sure what to expect. I was slightly nervous and keen at the same time. I got to the door and it was off the latch. I cautiously nudged it open and he came down to meet me. He was slightly taller than me with a stocky build and a few years older.  He welcomed me in and came across as a good bloke telling me he was a chef. As with all chefs I have met he had a scowl ingrained across his forehead from the tension of the job I presume.

He had cleared a space in the lounge ready for a tussle. We did the usual  “how do you know such and such” whilst I got changed as he didn’t have much time. I think this helped to ease the nerves for both of us. We ended up using an egg timer he had nearby on the cooker to keep track of the rounds.

It was unusual sparring. You had to be aware of the sofa behind you, the kitchen in the corner (it was open plan), then the bookcase to the left and a glass table that had been moved out the way. We couldn’t shove each other too hard as you would fall into a picture on the wall or possibly out the window. This helped with spatial awareness and forced us to be up close with one another. We did six rounds of sparring and I left as quickly as I had arrived.

All the training and sparring was taking its toll though. I remembered approximately two weeks before the fight feeling good and ready; it appeared I had peaked too soon. This was my own character showing through, going all in with lack of experience and guidance taking on something of this nature. The words ‘pace yourself’ came to mind.

I found the hardest part with boxing was the emotional shift I forced myself to undertake every time I put on the gloves. I never, ever, intentionally wanted to hurt anyone. Getting into a ring you have to be mentally prepared and fully accepting of what is going on. To box you need to have this ‘I’m going in’ attitude. This was completely out of character and I found it emotionally draining. I would psych myself up to it, when within my true nature it’s the last thing I wanted to do. This is probably the main reason why I hadn’t fought in all the opportunities before.

As anyone will know who has competed or trained to a high level in a sport, the more training you do, the fitter you get and the better you feel. There is a high often spoken of which can be achieved after a short fast run for example.

I was used to this high having played rugby to county level throughout my teens and also doing cross country mountain bike racing amongst lots of other sports; I was very active growing up.  This high was not felt through my intense boxing training.

I can remember a specific conversation with my girlfriend (we got back together a month into training) when I said to her, “something seems wrong, I don’t feel fitter and stronger. I feel more exhausted and worn out, almost thin”. I left it at that and presumed it was just due to the amount of training, a stressful job and I wasn’t in my teens anymore. This did linger in mind as an area of concern. 

As the build up to the fight continued I felt a sense of improvement in my fitness, although something wasn’t right, I couldn’t quite identify it.  One day I was walking along the road to the shops and felt a very sharp sudden pain in my chest that brought me immediately to a stop. As quickly as it occurred it disappeared as if nothing had happened and so I carried on not giving it another moment’s thought.

This happened a few more times over the coming weeks up to the fight. With my general exhaustion as well I decided to book an appointment with the doctor just in case.

Within myself I knew something was up but I didn’t want anything to possibly get in the way of the fight. So with the usual delay at the surgery and my own self-willing I had an appointment the week after the fight.

Chapter 4 : The MOT

“there was an uneasy expression on her face as she said, “I am not at liberty to say right now”.

 

One day a letter arrived in the post saying I had an appointment at the cardiology department at Homerton Hospital and I had to allow up to two hours.

I arrived at the hospital and started to navigate my way through the endless corridors. A colour coded sign was used for each department and to my curious fascination the colour red was for cardiology. I found the receptionist and as I handed over the letter she gestured that I sit on the nearby chairs and wait to be called.

I made a point of being on time, in fact a few minutes early so I could get out of there as quickly as possible. I sat down and did my best to clear any thoughts. It was a hectic environment of impatient people rushing around, complaining they needed this or that person and asking why they hadn’t been seen yet. The first thing I noticed was that everyone was a lot older than me, double my age at least and I felt out of place.

Thankfully it wasn’t long before I was called forward.

“How are you today sir?” the nurse enquired.

“Very well thank you and how are you?”

“Oh yes I’m doing well thank you,” she said with a broad smile.

She took me through to sit on a chair behind a curtain where they weighed me, took my blood pressure and heart rate.

“Thank you, now please take a seat through there and wait for your name to be called,” she said and went on her way.

I moved to another waiting area and shortly after sitting down my name was called; it was a relief not having to wait long.

A different nurse then explained that I was going to have an Echo (Echocardiogram) and I needed to lie there and take off my top.

Next to me was a machine with lots of wires and I got the sense I was about to be plugged in. Lots of sticky plaster-like patches were positioned on various parts of my body, each with a connecting wire. I was then asked to lie on my side facing the wall so my back was to the nurse.

“There’s going to be a cold feeling from the gel,” she said as an instrument was placed on my chest which she started to move slowly around in small circular motions, pausing occasionally.

She has one hand on the instrument on my chest and the other on the machine moving a ball in the palm of her hand, which I presumed was similar to a mouse and used to focus on certain areas on the screen. 

Strange sounds were coming from the machine behind me, like rain drops in a bucket only more metallic and in a regular rhythm. Drop, drop. Various bleeps with a constant beat and a whooshing sound. I glanced over my shoulder to see the specialist staring hard at the screen, clicking away with the ‘mouse ball’. I couldn’t tell what any of it was although I gathered that on the screen was an image of my heart and the sounds were of it beating.

She took the instrument away and I then started to turn over when she said, “just a moment I need some more gel, we’re not finished yet”.

The small handheld instrument was being pivoted in all directions on or under my rib cage to get a clear shot of the heart. The process lasted for approximately 15-20 minutes when she then asked me to lie on my back to get an image of the top of the heart, for which she pointed the metal instrument down under my neck in between my collar bone.

The whole process felt very odd. My body was being prodded, I had patches connected to wires all over me and the remains of the gel on different parts of my chest and neck.

“All done,” she said and started to pull off the sticky plaster wire patches. Some were caught on the odd hair and I twitched as they were removed suddenly.

She handed me some blue tissue paper which was very rough on the skin, more like fine sandpaper then ‘tissue paper’, to clean up the gel which had now formed into a clear play doh like paste stuck to my body.

I put on my t-shirt and asked, “so… how did it all look?”.  She paused and before responding there was an uneasy expression on her face as she said, “I am not at liberty to say right now”.

“Oh, ok,” I said and I gathered up the rest of my things and exited the room.

Over the next few months a familiar pattern evolved. I had a test and then received a letter in the post from a specialist saying I need to go and see another specialist for more tests.

It started to become clear that I was getting escalated from one department to another, whilst not being made aware what was going on.

Some of these appointments were in the evening and there came a point when my girlfriend asked why was I leaving home at that time:  “where are you going?” came the question, and I didn’t know what to say to her. I wasn’t sure how to say it but I also didn’t know what was going on, I hadn’t really been told yet, just more tests.  I did my best to play down the symptoms and said that I was getting ‘an MOT’ as the doctor put it.

“It’s ok, they are just running some tests and we’ll see,” I said as I got my coat and left the flat.

I had a similar unexpected run in with my sister one afternoon. I was home early from work after an appointment and we met at the front door. Feeling flustered, I couldn’t think quick enough on my feet and so told her where I had been and what was going on.

Chapter 9 : My Parents

“The shock on their faces was evident and I knew it would take time to digest.”

So far only my girlfriend and sister knew what had been going on. I had six weeks to decide on the operation, tell everyone and to prepare for an unknown outcome. What would life be like after the operation? Did I know what life I wanted after the operation? Would I even make it to the operation? Where did I begin with all this?

I knew the choice I would make would ultimately determine the life I would then go on to live and I wondered greatly what that would be.

Each procedure had a different set of answers and many other questions which is why it was such a hard decision to contemplate. It was also impossible for me to know the answers as, quite simply, I hadn’t had the operation yet. Everything was based on (assuming I survived) how life would be after the operation.

The first conundrum I faced was how to tell my parents.

I was on the train heading home to Devon from London and feeling lonesome, almost spacial. I kept thinking that people get older and you accept that things happen. They go into hospital and your parents come to you with life events ‘such and such isn’t well and will need an operation’ or ‘ such and such is struggling to walk so now needs constant care’. This was the other way round. How was I going to say to them that my heart was in really bad shape, that I had to make a decision on what operation I had, I may not survive and ultimately may not even make it to the operation date?

I didn’t go home much so my parents were inquisitive about the surprise visit when I got there. We started talking about the normal how things are and then my mother wanting to get to the real reason I was home said “so what’s going on?”

I broke down in tears as the emotion hit me. I curled up, leaning forward in the armchair and tried to speak but through the tears I spluttered a few words with short sharp breaths. The realisation of telling them had now taken over. They rushed to my side hugging me and offering comfort as loving parents. With a few steady breaths and a moment’s silence I composed myself and started to explain.

The shock on their faces was evident and I knew it would take time to digest.

It was an emotional day full of silence, contemplation and utter despondency. My parents were doing their best to remain strong and keep that brave parent face on when it was clear they were more fragile than I was. I could sense there were questions they wanted to ask but didn’t know how. I managed to get a bit out of Dad when Mum wasn’t there, although as soon as she was back in the room his Yorkshire front and closed Britishness came back over him.

We spent the weekend going over it all as I explained both procedures and the decision I had to make over the valve. I felt relieved to have told them and could now move onto the next thing. I was one stage further along in the preparation I thought.

Chapter 11 : The Collapse

“…..I felt a bolt of lightening in my chest, as if my heart had twisted itself into a knot with two halves turning in opposite directions…..”

Over the course of the next month I had many appointments and lots of preparation to do for the operation and whatever may come afterwards. Ultimately, I had to make a choice and needed to accept what the outcome may be.  My head was a whirlwind of information but I had a simultaneous sense of feeling separated from reality.

I felt increasingly distant from everyone and everything, as if I was on the sideline looking in.  I felt as though I was observing them all, a hidden presence watching the world go by at a distance. It was as though I was apart from the conversations.  I was physically there but not at the same time. I had a need to retreat within myself to come to begin to be at peace with the choices I made. I felt like a melancholy shadow, my world seemed to only exist within a metre around me. Unless something was immediately relevant and I needed to do something then and there, it didn’t exist to me.

By now my health was rapidly deteriorating, which I think had something to do with the release of emotions, letting go as best I could, but of course the physical decline was inevitable anyway.

The reality of it all dawned after lunch on what turned out to be my last day at work.  I started to feel very hazy; struggling to keep my eyes open as the world span before me and I felt increasingly weak.

To some degree this feeling had become the norm in the afternoon, they had started as small signs early on and had gradually increased in intensity and frequency. By the early afternoon my energy levels were depleted and I needed to rest. Some of this was due to the catalogue of medication I was now taking; the beta blockers in particular had drowsy and unpleasant side effects.  This time it was different though.

I got up and tried to walk it off, which occasionally worked. Gentling strolling up and down the corridor doing my best to ignore the swaying walls and the river-like curved shape of the floor. I put my hand out to prop me up when I needed it for extra balance.  I went into a vacant room and leant on the wall; I felt exhausted and thin, as if I was fading away. My energy had been switched off, unplugged, there was nothing left. I could feel everything draining away from my body, retreating backwards from my limbs towards my chest like water returning to its source; I was shutting down.

I had pins and needles in my left arm and I was losing balance. Part of me wanted to collapse and give up and another, stronger part prompted me to get my phone out of my pocket. With a sense of denial, I called 111, the NHS help line, explaining how I felt and my condition.  Immediately the operator told me to put the phone down and call 999.

All of a sudden I felt a bolt of lightening in my chest, as if my heart had twisted itself into a knot with two halves turning in opposite directions. Then two very hard powerful thumps hit me and my heart pounded with a huge shock, as if it was going to burst out of my body.  The second jolt was so strong that my legs gave way and I collapsed against the wall.  I managed to get my boss’s attention through a window in the door and he called 999 whilst holding me up.  With tears streaming down my face because of the shock, all I could think was ‘please, I don’t want to die at work’.

An emergency response biker arrived quickly, shortly followed by the ambulance. I was breathing heavily and quickly by this point and had now hyperventilated.  I was instructed to breathe slowly as they ran a quick test, calmed me down and then put me into the ambulance that hurtled towards A&E.  My girlfriend had arrived just in time to get into the ambulance with me and I turned to her with heavy weary eyes, dropping my head onto her shoulder and muttering: “that was terrifying.”

By the time we got to hospital I had calmed down and my heart had returned to normal.  I was put into a room and we waited for the tests to begin.  An Italian doctor greeted us both. He had small round glasses, a roughly shaved face and hair that needed a good brush; in a funny way he reminded me of a young Albert Einstein. I proceeded to inform him what just happened and the condition of my heart.

He got out his stethoscope and listened.  His eyes lit up like an inventor having a eureka moment and he got quite excited. The sound of my heart was abnormal, which to a doctor was most intriguing and quite rare. 

We went into the details of what was wrong and had a pleasant conversation about it all. It became apparent that my heart had started to fail but had, thankfully, kicked itself back into action so they had to do a few tests to check for tears and blood leakages from the heart.

A few minutes passed and the doctor asked if he could bring in one of his students to listen to my heart and see if she could form a diagnosis. I smiled and said; “sure”.  A young, female doctor with blonde hair and a white coat came in. Getting out her stethoscope she placed it on my chest. It was interesting to see the expression on her face change as she listened; a puzzled look came over her and I could see she was scrambling around in her brain for the correct medical term. Could she identify it?  Did she know what she was listening to?

Not being able to find the words the doctor asked me to tell her.  Nodding at me with recognition she offered a forced smile, wished me well and retreated out the room.  I chatted further with the doctor and asked if this meant the operation would be brought forward. He said it wouldn’t but if it happened again or had ‘gone the other way’ they would rush me straight into theatre and operate.

On reflection it made sense; there was only one thing that could happen and anyone who was in line for the operation would be in just as serious a condition so there was no reason I should be moved up the queue.  No one would be having this procedure unless it was absolutely necessary, I would have to wait my turn.

I didn’t remain in A&E long and made my way home feeling very shaken up.

Chapter 14 : The Answer

I have decided to include an extra commentary on this chapter as I feel its important to remind the reader that the decision I came to is based on personal experience and the surroundings I had at the time. There is no definitive answer to the question ‘which valve would you choose?’ as the choice will always be personal. My wish is not to influence someone else’s decision, only depict the struggles and questions I was facing at the time and how I came to a peaceful resolution. 

No one was willing to give me their answer. What would they do?  Which valve would they choose?

I guess they felt their opinion may influence my judgement and they couldn’t accept the responsibility of that.  The entire medical world was pushing me towards the mechanical valve on the basis that an operation of that severity would only ever be given as a last resort, so the possibility of two should be avoided at all costs, which I did agree with.

I had three options as I saw it; I could have the mechanical valve, the tissue valve or no valve at all and simply see how long I survived.  Even if I had the operation there was no guarantee of surviving.  So in fact the part I had to make peace with was that in any scenario I would either wake up or I wouldn’t, and that I could be happy with.

It was something I meditated on daily.  I allowed this sense of calm to come over me and carried it on through my activities as best I could.  I couldn’t get my head around the idea of Warfarin and the restrictions I felt it would put on life.  The mechanical valve seemed like a great idea but nothing else surrounding it did. It was as if I was fixing one problem and creating another one.

I thought ahead in life as best I could, hoping to be able to go snowboarding again as I missed the mountains. I wanted to ride my bike and live life not feeling burdened by monthly hospital appointments with daily medication and injections.  Having just turned thirty I still felt the need to embrace a life of living.

The people I communicated with online who had a mechanical valve said it was fine and something they quickly got used to, life changes all the time and you adapt.  I felt as though the mechanical valve was like resigning yourself to a certain fate; a definite circumstance that could be avoided.

Medical advances are being made all the time in huge leaps. In ten or twenty years who knew where we would be and what the possibilities could have become?  Perhaps by then they would be able to grow my own valve, I thought.

My sister has type one diabetes so she constantly injects herself regularly to balance the levels of insulin in her body. A daily log is kept of her levels and the dose is altered accordingly.  Every now and then she goes to hospital or the doctor for check-ups.  We lived together for four and a half years so I was very familiar with the disease and how she had to change things because of it. It wasn’t something she was born with; she was diagnosed in her early twenties. Living with a type one diabetic brought the decision I had to make home to me, about what it meant to be continuously beholden to medication, and I imagined how it might be for me in a similar situation.

I had a choice about the future I wanted to have, and she never did. I could have the mechanical valve and be like that or not.

I kept thinking that it wasn’t just about the heart. There was all this emphasis on the heart and the valve but the body is a whole organism, all connected, not one part is separate from the other. It’s about a healthy whole, not just the heart. 

It was about two weeks before the operation date and I came to the conclusion I would rather have quality of life over quantity, so I decided to have the tissue valve.

Chapter 16 : Twenty-Four Hours Before The Operation

“it’s a good thing you’re here, you wouldn’t have made it to Christmas.”

After the operation I would need someone to take care of me for at least a month, so we had worked out who was going to look after me on a week-by-week basis. I would need help with everything from showering, to cooking and getting dressed; any activity required supervision as I would be totally dependent on whoever was there that week.

My parents were going to do the first week to ten days, my girlfriend would be with me the following week and my sisters were each allocated a week thereafter. 

Things had been tense in the home for some time; my girlfriend and I were not communicating well and no doubt I was coming across as distant.

Mum and Dad were on their way up to stay in the flat with us and the lounge had been turned into an impromptu bedroom for them.  I was getting the room ready and went downstairs into the bedroom to grab some sheets where my girlfriend was watching a TV show, and as I grabbed the sheets I made a passing comment along the lines of “you’re not watching that crap are you?” and was very firmly told to: “shut up, I want to watch the program in peace before putting up with all the family.”

I stood there in stunned silence and we both paused for what felt like a long moment. I had overstepped the mark and cautiously apologised, realising there was something else going on. She sat and focused intensely on the screen and I could sense that she wanted to say something but perhaps was in shock at her own abrupt outburst, as if she didn’t know where it had come from.

With no acknowledgment from her I left the room and unfortunately that horrible air lingered without getting resolved. It made for a tense environment and once I had finished preparing the new bedroom I wanted to go and talk to her to clear the air. All of us were under pressure and the situation wasn’t easy. I desperately wanted to see what the real reason for the outburst was but felt I should give her space, it wasn’t long before my parents arrived and we hadn’t managed to speak.

The next day I had arranged for friends and family to have lunch near the hospital. I was told to have a big meal before going in as I wasn’t allowed to eat anything from then on.  I coined the phrase ‘the last lunch’ for the meal. We had a table booked in a gourmet burger diner nearby which seemed like a nice and easy option. I sat at one end with my dad opposite me and two mates either side. My girlfriend’s sister had come too as she worked close by.

My mates were chatting with Dad about what they do and sharing their stories while my mum, sister and friends giggled at the other end of the table. This was the first time my parents had met my girlfriend’s sister so there was added excitement to the meal.

There were no toasts and no announcements made, we carried on as if everything was normal. It was so lovely to hear general chatting and laughing and no mention of the operation at all.

When we were done and it was time to leave we all hugged and said good bye. My family, girlfriend and two friends walked over to the hospital with me. 

The Entrance
The Entrance

At the entrance to the doors of the lift, which would take me up to the ward, I said goodbye to my mum, sister, dad and mate Ben.

I turned to embrace them and tears were flooding as I hugged them individually.  My sister rushed over and gave me a desperate hug whispering: “it’s ok, this had to happen to you as you are the strong one of the family and only one who will survive”.

It was an incredible, loving embrace that paused the surrounding mayhem and gloom for a moment. As we hugged with heads planted firmly on each other’s shoulders with eyes closed, the blackness offered some peace and calm.

I could feel the tears building behind my eyelids which were doing there best to act as dams, although the pressure was mounting to release the floodgates. 

Ben came over and told me softly: “don’t cry, it’s OK” and gave me a kiss on the cheek as he hugged me.

My Mum couldn’t bring herself to come near me: “this isn’t goodbye’’ she forced through spluttering tears and a jittering jaw. Dad was quick, saying: “OK Guysee” before patting me on the arm smiling as he rushed back to Mum to offer some support.

There was no point dragging out the moment any further so I got into the lift with my girlfriend and my mate James, I was staring vacantly at the lift, eyes fixed on the space between me and the doors.  As we went up I laughed and joked with them both saying: “I’m glad I am not in the taxi with them. Poor Ben!”.

We got out of the lift with our tears dried and went into the ward. The nurses greeted us and showed me to where I would be staying for the night. It was a room with four beds and the other three were already occupied by older gentlemen. It was an old room which, like all the other rooms in this building, needed a good coat of paint and some life brought into what is otherwise a depressing and sombre environment.

I settled down and took in my new surroundings. My girlfriend, James and I joked and laughed about things for a while, filling the time with what conversation we could muster. Occasionally a nurse would come over and check on us to see if I was settled in. Then came the time when James felt he should leave so Tiana and I could be alone for the last hour or so. I was perched on the side of the bed and stood up to embrace him.  We hugged, patting each other twice on the back.  “See you later” was all I could muster as he left.

Tiana and I hadn’t really spoken at all since the night before. There was a lot going on with people coming and going and the impending circumstances hadn’t left any time to clear the air.  When we had spoken there was no substance to it, just simple offerings of help and discussing times of events to come.  Even without the incident the night before, what do you say in that situation?

The distance between was palpable. I was putting some of my things away when she turned to me and in a soft, anxious voice asked: “are we ok?”

Not knowing how to respond I looked at her and said: “yeh… we’re fine,” and smiled to offer some reassurance. I meant it, we were ‘fine’ although I felt confused and disappointed and I wasn’t really sure how I was supposed to respond. I was perplexed by the timing of the question and then quickly realised she needed to know and feel at ease with ‘us’ before leaving.

There were two times for the operation the following day, either 7am or early afternoon.

I was hoping for the 7am slot. I didn’t want to wake up and hang around waiting all morning. This in turn would have meant people coming back to the hospital to be with me.  The nurse came over and said I would be operated on first so they would wake me up at 5am to prepare. I felt a small bit of relief, it wasn’t much but seemed a great deal considering the situation. There would be no more waiting.

Then came the time for Tiana to leave so I could settle in for the evening with various physicians coming to see me. We kissed, hugged for a few moments taking a last breath close to each other and then she left saying she would call me at 6am to speak just before I went into surgery.

I brought my laptop, book, iPod and speaker with me but before I had the chance to open my laptop a nurse came over and asked some questions followed by another physician and then the anesthetist who discussed the drugs and went over everything again one last time.

They were all friendly and good to chat to. I always did my best to have a conversation with whoever I was with so it wasn’t just medical speak and scenarios. I wanted it to be personal and to relate to who I was talking with.  The physician went over the procedure one final time and in mid conversation he smoothly asked “which valve would you like?”

Here was the question I had been pondering on for so long, causing so much torment and making everything seem more complicated than it needed to be; the moment had finally arrived.

With ease and some relief, I answered: “the tissue valve please.”

A momentary silence fell inside of me; a pleasant void of stillness filled me and I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. I realised that I had said it and it was done.

Abruptly I was pulled out of this peace, as if by an angry alarm clock early in the morning, and back to reality by a document thrust towards me titled ‘Consent Form 1’. Together we read the document word by word going over everything it had to say. It detailed what was about to happen, who the physicians were, the associated risks and that I wouldn’t hold anyone responsible in the event of it going wrong.  I am providing my consent.

Right above where I had to sign my name in handwritten words it said ‘Death, Stroke, DVT, Bleeding, Wound Injection, Arnthynium, Pacemaker, Blood Transfusion and other procedure.’

Smiling at these words I chose not to dwell on them and signed my life away.

Consent Form 1
Consent Form 1

For a moment I contemplated the document and I realised the full consequences of what could happen. It was written right in front of me and I signed.  I never thought too much about all the other possible scenarios, just that I would either wake up or I wouldn’t. This scared me slightly, although I took reassurance from accepting whatever would come. The decision, the choice, had been made.

We carried on chatting for a few minutes and the physician made this casual off the cuff remark: “it’s a good thing you’re here, you wouldn’t have made it to Christmas”.  It was said in such a quick way, in the middle of flowing conversation, that I almost didn’t register what he had said. I then realised how lucky I was, to be here at the hospital and not dead already. It was the 11th November.

When things had quietened down for the night and the three gentleman and I were alone in the room, we started talking to each other but there wasn’t too much to say, I got the usual ‘you’re young’ tossed my way like so many times before.

We discussed our operations; they were in for various procedures. The gentleman to my right paid particular attention to me and came over to my bed to speak to me. He was Asian, younger than the other two and slightly overweight.  We had a good conversation, talking mostly about business, and he told me this was his fourth operation, having had kidney and liver operations already. He was now in for the last time to hopefully get rid of cancer which had continually spread. I admired his spirit, he came across as a seasoned pro of operations, what courage he had to be back again I felt.

I then thought of his family and remembered how sad they looked as they left. They too were going through this for the fourth time, would he be ok? Would he survive?  Would the cancer finally be gone?  I felt their pain for a moment as if I was a member of his family and saw it from the perspective of being on the other side of all this.  Watching a loved one go through pain and torment, wanting to help but not being able to and saying goodbye whilst wondering if it would be for the last time.

I lay on my bed and rolled over to one side staring out of the window next to me onto a brick wall, doing my best to clear any thoughts.

I mediated briefly and drifted off into a much needed sleep.

Chapter 21 : Stitches

‘‘I think what really happened is you’re an undercover spy and you got into a fight with someone very dangerous, and these wounds are the outcome.’’

 

Towards the end of the second week post op I had an appointment at the local doctor’s surgery to have my last remaining stitches removed. There were two large holes made between the bottom of my ribcage and the top of my stomach for tubes which allowed all the excess liquid from the operation to be drained out. 

I can remember seeing them in hospital as they were not taken out straight away, and the odd feeling of witnessing a couple of tubes sticking out from what seemed like the centre of my body. They resembled two clear hosepipes; images of The Matrix sprang to mind.

I also remember having the tubes taken out. As the nurse began to pull on them I felt the strangest sensation from under the skin, like an itch I could never quite reach moving along inside me. I then heard a ‘blop’ sound, like pulling a cork free from a bottle of wine, to signal they were clear of the body. The subsequent holes were large and needed a while to heal, hence the stitches.

I sat with my girlfriend in the waiting room and looked around, I thought about how you never know what people are going through. Here I am at thirty having just had open heart surgery two weeks ago and I am sure to everyone in the room I just look a bit dishevelled.  The thought lingered for a moment as I contemplated how impossible it is to know what people are going through; major surgery, cancer, divorce, financial ruin, any one of these could be the reason for someone’s behaviour and reactions towards you or another. They may do something that seems completely uncalled for, out of character and unjustified but there is normally a reason for it; they aren’t simply like that. 

I contemplated it for a while, and the thought had brought a deep sense of calm and respect towards everyone around me.

I was called through and left Tiana in the waiting room as she didn’t want to see the stitches being removed. A young nurse was sitting waiting for me in a bright and airy room. She had blonde hair, a welcoming smile and was wearing clothes unlike any nurse I had seen before. She looked quite civilian in that sense and if it wasn’t for the name tag around her neck I would have thought I had walked in on another patient.

Gesturing that I should sit down she started reading through my notes and we talked for a while.

By now I was used to feeling a little hazy and having a general sense of sleep deprivation; thanks to the painkillers I had grown accustomed to a generally spaced out vibe, but even in my warped state I could never have imagined what the nurse was about to say.  She turned to me and quite sincerely said: ‘‘well, I’ve read through the notes and understand what you have just said but I don’t believe you. Are you sure that’s what happened?’’

I paused for a moment thinking ‘’err…’’ and smiled at her uneasily.

She continued to say: ‘‘I think what really happened is you’re an undercover spy and you got into a fight with someone very dangerous, and these wounds are the outcome.’’

She nodded her head as she went through the notes again and said: “I imagine they came off worse. Let me see what I can do to help.’’

The cheeky smile on her face reassured me and I relaxed. It was nice to have someone play with the whole thing and not take it too seriously.

She came over and leant down, removing the stitches with a curved shape knife that looked like an extremely sharp fishing hook and I barely noticed her doing it. We continued to chat about the other appointments and how I was doing. As I got up to leave she said: “be careful on those streets!’’  and I left feeling a little bemused.

I walked back with Tiana and told her what the nurse had said and she seemed to be in as much disbelief as I was. Then I realised she was actually annoyed because the nurse had really been flirting with me.

Chapter 22 : Revisiting the Wards

“the last time I saw you, you were on your back and barely alive!” 

 

I was scheduled to have a check up with the surgeon six weeks after the operation but as it was Christmas in between it had been pushed back a further two weeks.

It was the first appointment I had back at the hospital and it was simply to see how I was doing and to run some tests.  It felt like a day of reckoning; if it went well they would sign me off and I would just have yearly check up scans to go to.  If it didn’t go well and something was spotted a course of action would have been planned.

When the appointment was only a few days away I thought about someone I had met in hospital.  He had to come back a few weeks after surgery because his heart rate was not returning to a normal rhythm.

It was faster than it should have been so they were going to give him an electric shock to see if it jolted it back.

He was with his wife and seemed fine in appearance; I couldn’t distinguish anything out of the ordinary other than the patient gown he was wearing.

We had spoken briefly and he seemed fed up about being back in hospital again. He was taken away and after his wife kissed him goodbye she turned to me and said: “is this the part when I’m supposed to cry?’’  She sat alone in her chair with an empty space next to her where her husband had been a moment ago, started to cry and then left.

I was both excited and nervous.  It was great to be at this stage of recovery, feeling good and happy, but I also felt cautious about going back to the hospital and anxious about whether everything would come rushing back. That was the last thing I wanted, to relive it and have flashbacks.

I decided to get to the hospital early and visit the wards I had been on to see the nurses, doctors and staff in general so I could thank them for all their help. I took thank you cards with me and left a personal message of gratitude in each of them. 

I had three in total, the first for the main ward, the second for the high dependency ward and the third for the surgeon and his team.  I addressed each card to the whole team of people and hoped I would see them when I handed them out.

As I arrived at the front entrance of the hospital where I had once said goodbye to my family, I felt anxious. It was a familiar place and yet the memory of that day was already vanishing.

I got in the lift and went to the second floor where the high dependency ward was located. The door was locked shut and I needed to be buzzed in.  As I peered through the glass pane in the door I could see a nurse coming down the hallway towards me and I instantly recognised her as ‘crazy nurse’.

As she opened the door she gave me a slightly puzzled look and was about to stop me from going in when I smiled at her and explained why I was there. She paused and then grinned back saying she did remember me and told me how well I now looked: “the last time I saw you, you were on your back and barely alive!”  We had a brief chat wishing each other well and she went on her way.

I got to the reception desk and didn’t recognise the nurse who also gave me a bemused look. Upon reflection I don’t think anyone was meant to be on the ward unless it was absolutely necessary.

I explained that I had been a patient, had come back for a check up, and while I was here I wanted to thank all the nurses for their help and would she mind taking this card and giving it to the right people. She asked me the date of my surgery, duration of stay and my name so she could check the records and give to the appropriate team of nurses.

It was lovely to speak to her, especially as having told her what had happened and why I was here she gave me the biggest smile and firmly promised to make sure the right people got the card.

I then went up to the main ward on the third floor. I went through the double doors and the hot temperature hit me square in the face with a heavy rush of air similar to getting off a plane in a hot climate.

I started to walk down the corridor and instantly felt lifted, as if I had grown in height, and I marched along with newfound vigour. A feeling of peace and happiness flowed through me along with an air of confidence.

I passed through another set of double doors down the corridor with various rooms on either side of me. A few doors had been left ajar and I could see the pain, exhaustion and insanity of the patients inside. That familiar look of despair I had become so used to. I felt relieved and assured; I was beyond that!

I arrived at the reception and recognised the nurse, who instantly remembered me. She had a bubbly character and was one of the main nurses who checked on all the patients on the ward. She was the maître d’, the mother hen in charge of the flock of nurses.  We chatted and I explained how grateful I was for everybody’s help and as a gesture of thanks, here was a card, asking if she could make sure it was seen by the other nurses.

Opening up the card, a wonderful smile appeared across her face and I could sense the other nurses’ curiosity about what was going on. They leaned in on the conversation as they walked past with some peering over the reception desk to see what the fuss was about.

All these smiles were becoming infectious and a buzz of conversation filled the air. I felt so happy to be able to share my sense of joy and gratitude with them.

She said “you look so well!  I can’t believe the progress you have made. You’re young and that’s of great benefit look how quickly you are recovering!”

I didn’t stay for long as I had my appointment to keep and felt the need not to linger. It was long enough to appreciate how well I was doing.  By going back and expressing my gratitude to them it had made their, and my, day.

I walked back down the corridor a free man, head held high with life and all its possibilities before me.

Chapter 24 : Fawlty Hospitals

‘‘You’re five foot and twelve inches’’

 

My next appointment was a week after my trip back to Bart’s, and it was at the local hospital to meet with the nurse who would be working with me on my rehabilitation programme.  The hospital wasn’t too far away from where I lived so I decided to walk to it as part of my daily exercise routine, and my friend Ben came along to support me.

As we got nearer the hospital there was a low mist covering the streets. Despite being daytime the streetlights were on and added an orange tinge to the fog. It was the height of winter so there was that grey gloom in the sky that’s typical of British weather at that time of year. With the mist, orange haze and grey sky overhead it all added up to an eerie atmosphere as we walked.

The hospital was a lot smaller than Bart’s so it didn’t take long to find out where to go.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’d been told that we would be discussing an exercise regime with meetings on a weekly basis.

We settled down in a small and cramped waiting room and a nurse came along shortly after our arrival and called my name, gesturing that we should follow her. She was quite short and had an air of bewilderment about her. We stopped in a hallway next to the waiting room and she said:

‘‘ooohhhh you’re very young, are you still at college?’’

I was surprised and not sure if she was joking or trying to be nice.  I responded playfully with ‘‘I’m thirty years old, do I look seventeen? That’s quite a difference,’’ and glanced at Ben who was chuckling to himself. 

She responded abruptly with “oh, well you never know these days!” before going on to say: “you Western lads have it all; cars, houses, mortgages and so young. It’s not like that in Africa.’’

I turned towards Ben who was looking back at me with a bemused expression to match my own as we wondered what she was going on about and where the comment had come from.  Hesitating I asked what she meant: “It’s easier over here and I’m just never sure, as you do look so young. It’s the way things are,” came the response.

I stood in the hallway not sure what to expect next and felt an awkward pause. Not knowing what to say I remained silent and waited for her cue.  She continued without a fuss as if the previous conversation hadn’t happened: “ok, I need to measure your height and weight, please stand here against this wall,” she said, gesturing accordingly.

I turned to have my back against the wall and she got out a measuring tape, lining it up against me and in a definitive tone said: ‘‘You’re five foot and twelve inches’’.

I paused, then chuckled and coughed at the same time in amazement, looking at Ben who by now had his head in his hands, and I said: ‘’do you mean six foot? I thought I was five foot eleven inches so maybe I gained some height in hospital!’’

Muttering under her breath she said: “oh yes, well, it’s all the same,” and rolled the tape measure up quickly. She then asked me to step on some scales and I wondered what she was going to come up with next.  Thankfully she confirmed my weight as 67kilograms.

‘‘Right, follow me into here please,’’ she said and we went into a long but small room which had a low ceiling. It felt like an afterthought in the architect’s design.  By now I wasn’t sure what to expect so thought I’d let this play out and see what happened.

We sat down and she asked me how I was and what procedure I had.  I paused for a moment in shock and despair. I could feel the disbelief in Ben who was standing over in the corner.  She had carried into the room and placed on the table next to her a big folder with my name on it, which clearly contained all the notes from the past few months.

“Don’t you know?  Haven’t you read the file and been briefed?  Isn’t it all in there?’’ I asked, pointing to the folder.  Nonetheless, I was taken aback by this and immediately thought I had better tell her to save any confusion. So I summed up the operation, the type of valve and what had lead to all this.

“So you went for the tissue valve and not the mechanical one?  Oh dear that’s not what is recommended.’’ She said.

I chuckled and refrained from reacting to her. I suppose it made sense for this to carry on in the same the manner it started.

‘‘It’s a personal decision and I felt this was best for me.’’ I replied.

I think Ben was banging his head against the wall at this point and about to demand that we saw someone else.

She told me the rehabilitation sessions would take place at a centre nearby and didn’t feel that I needed to start at the hospital with the first round: “the majority of patients start at the hospital where you have lots of help and go through all the different exercises very slowly to begin rebuilding the movement and strength,’’ she said, but as I had walked to the hospital she could see that I was already beyond phase one and so I could start at phase two.

I quizzed her more on this, not feeling too comfortable with the advice after the charade that was the previous fifteen-minutes: “It’s fine, you needn’t worry. The sessions are every Tuesday from 14:00 and here is the address,’’ she said.  Handing me a letter she continued: “the exercise routine is followed by a discussion from someone who comes in to speak on various topics, a medical expert, psychological expert etc. to help and offer advice.’’

The idea of meeting people who had gone through the same thing as I had, and then experts in different fields helping with advice on medication, adapting mentally to the situation and how to deal with things emotionally appealed to me greatly.

Ben and I then left and walked home, discussing and laughing about the last thirty minutes: ‘‘it’s a good thing you didn’t go there for any confidence building or support, because that’s the last thing you got! I mean, what the hell was all that about?’’ he said.  All we could do was laugh in amazement between ourselves. If Ben hadn’t been with me I would have thought I had imagined it all.

We walked through the fog and as it started to lift we mentioned how the whole situation could almost have been another reality that the fog had taken us to, it was so surreal.

The meeting reminded me of scenes from the TV show Fawlty Towers, so I decided to nickname the nurse Manuel.