Chapter 20 : The Process Of Recovery

“I hadn’t realised …….. the amount of pain and discomfort that was kept at bay in hospital by the drugs. All across my back it felt like I had taken a pounding with a baseball bat; a pummelling all over.”

 

When it was time to leave, my dad and girlfriend came to collect me from the hospital. After a wait for the medication, my own small pharmacy of fourteen daily pills, to be signed off, I was on my way home.

When we arrived I hobbled slowly from the car, up the few steps to the front door and I was in and very grateful to be out of the mental institution.  My sister, mum and Gizmo the family dog were there to greet me; I was home, I had made it.

I hadn’t eaten a thing in hospital and was very weak. The food was disgusting and I didn’t understand why. It may have been produced en masse but I didn’t think it was an excuse because it seemed that the most important thing for me, and everyone else on the ward, was to eat healthy food to regain strength and start to heal whilst also keeping any infections away. 

I was never very hungry after the operation; it was something to do to break up the monotony of the day and on the odd occasion where I had felt like eating it would have been nice to have something that didn’t resemble cardboard.  I had been confused about why the hospital hadn’t put more emphasis on providing healthy (or even edible) food, my tastes buds may have been off with all the medication, but it was still horrible. All I had managed was a sandwich the day before I left, which Dad had brought in.

An added issue as a result of all this was that a particular nurse had constantly nagged me, saying that I needed to pass solids before being allowed to go home. I explained to her that I hadn’t eaten in four days so there was nothing to come out!

That evening I sat down to eat a wonderful home-cooked meal which Mum had prepared. On the plate in front of me there happened to be an array of green vegetables and in particular I noticed the cabbage. Looking at the plate I smiled and lifting my head I quietly said to everyone around the table: “I couldn’t have eaten this if I had chosen the titanium valve,” and feeling reassured I ate the whole plate of food, enjoying every mouthful.

Another thing that added to the sense of insanity that surrounded my experience in hospital was the lack of sleep. At best I had been passing out through sheer exhaustion and intoxication; it was never natural sleep.

The first night I was at home I started to settle down in bed which, a very slow process where I moved at a sloth’s pace, if that, because everything was so uncomfortable.  I had instructions to lie on my back and not to roll over onto my side or front for twelve weeks to allow the ribs to fuse together and avoid extra pressure to the chest but I found myself unconsciously starting to roll over in the night and would wake up mid roll to correct myself.

It was hard and very uncomfortable as I preferred sleeping on my side. I had pillows propping me up because I struggled to breathe when I was lying completely flat; it felt like someone was sitting on my chest and the pressure would become unbearable. I didn’t get any sleep for a long time.

I hadn’t realised until I got home the amount of pain and discomfort that was kept at bay in hospital by the drugs. All across my back it felt like I had taken a pounding with a baseball bat; a pummelling all over. It was the ache of many small hard bruises constantly tweaking. I had thought my chest would hurt but it didn’t once.  I had to get extra strong (pass-out-strong) painkillers to cope for a few days and nights.

Of course the pain was a side effect of the procedure.  Sawing through the rib cage to get access to the organs, the ribs had to be put somewhere to stay out the way, so they ram each rib cage to either side of the body which then causes massive pressure on the back muscles which are squashed together.

Something else I didn’t realise was the extent to which I would have to encourage myself to breathe deeply to open up the lungs and reach full capacity again.  They had been deflated during the operation so that now only a small amount of their volume was being used. The nurses advised me to take big deep breaths and inhale as much as I could to inflate them again. As soon as I would start to inhale more air I felt full up and out of breath at the same time.  It was like going for an intense training session and really pushing yourself to the point of gasping for air, only I couldn’t inhale enough and when I did I was full.

This gradually got easier as the lungs started to stretch.  My gulps for air became longer until I built up to holding my breath for a few seconds. I used daily walks (for want of a better word), twice a day, to practice this deep breathing and get the most out of being outside.  On the first walk I managed ten metres to the tree outside my home and I remember saying to Dad: “that’s ok for today,” then turning around and coming back.

The first steps
The First Steps

Each day I would look forward to my morning and afternoon strolls as it was a chance to be outside and feel the open space. It was the most important part of my recovery to start being active as soon as possible. I enjoyed the feeling of my body moving, even if it was at a snail’s pace, the important thing was that I was moving.

With each walk I would make sure I went that one step or a few paces further, so by the end of the week I had reached the top of the street.  There would be a point whilst walking when I would suddenly have no strength and I knew it was time to turn back. It wasn’t a gradual loss of strength; it was immediate, as if I had used all the energy my body was going to provide and a switch had been flipped telling me that I was done for the day.

It was slow going but never felt that way. I stayed focused on just doing the task at hand, without any distractions. All I had to do was walk as best I could and take some deep breaths.

My parents had been looking after me for the first week I was at home and quickly worked out that the day would be based around when I was not passed out, which would happen at any instant.

I would be up early and relaxing on the couch, then I would drift off for a while and then come back around for a bit. I was never fully with it because I was still taking a lot of medication which gave me a strange spaced out feeling. I couldn’t make any decisions, all I could do was be awake for a while and then pass out without warning.

I have a wonderful memory of watching Clint Eastwood films with Dad in the afternoon; it felt so special just spending time with my parents with nothing to do but get better.

Mum’s cooking and both my parents’ love was what I needed and it helped more than I knew.

The following week my girlfriend was there to care for me; it was still a full time routine of helping me shower, get dressed and then general support when I was awake.

She had started her dream job only a few months before and I could sense a struggle in her between wanting to do well at work and passing the probation period as well as giving me the care that I needed.  She had never been emotionally strong and it became clear that it was all too much for her.

One day we went for a morning stroll as normal, reaching the park common at the end of the road by now, and as we turned to head back I recognised a figure coming towards us; it was my friend Ben. 

Ben lived nearby and happened to be going through the common so came over to say hello. He remarked that when he had first seen me from afar he had thought I must have been a very old, crippled person because everything looked like a complete struggle.  It was only when he got nearer that with some shock he realised it was me. We smiled and chatted for a few brief moments and all of a sudden, as usual, the switch had flipped and my energy drained away, so we said goodbye and started to make our way back to the flat.

Park BW
The Walk Back

On the way Tiana asked how I was doing and if I knew whether I would like some food when we got in as she wanted to get some work done.  I said that I wasn’t sure and that I need to get back to the flat to see how I felt and go from there.

She pressed further asking if I could give an indication and saying: “I need to know to plan the day and to get things done.”  I let her know that all I could do was focus on walking and getting home as I felt very weak, and asked for a moment to just do that first.  In an instant she became annoyed and seemed wound up asking: “how do you not know? Can’t you answer this?”

I started to feel unsure about what was going on, I felt as though I was surrounded by a tense cloud of confusion.  I explained that at that moment it was a struggle simply walking and it was taking all my concentration, anything beyond that was unanswerable until I was back in the flat. If she could just help me to get home and we could go from there.  Muttering under her breath she impatiently walked a few steps ahead and said: “I think you’re being selfish.”

I froze on the spot and stared at the pavement in front of me in disbelief. I couldn’t comprehend what had just been said; it seemed that my slow walking and lack of clarity had got to her.

We got home and I didn’t speak to her. I tried to do things for myself; making a cup of tea and even getting into the shower to wash but it was a waste of time as I couldn’t lift my arms more than a few inches from the side of my body.  Not only did I not have the strength to lift them, but I also wasn’t allowed to raise my arms that high as it would stretch the skin across my chest, opening up the wound and splitting the ribs underneath as they healed. For the same reason I couldn’t turn my body appropriately to wash; unable to bend down I was still rigid and feeble like an old man.

She was in the lounge on her laptop and tried to speak to me when I came in but I ignored her. She tried to talk to me a few more times but I didn’t know what to say and sat in silence. My head was spinning with confusion, like a whirlwind it was a complete emotional mess.

There was now this void, like a glass wall separating us as I sat on the other side of the lounge.  I tried to understand the reasons for her reaction. Perhaps she felt the operation had come at a bad time. At last she had something to work for and was extremely interested in; not just a normal job, and taking care of me had come at the worst time for her.

She had spoken to her boss and he was happy for her to take a week off to care for me, saying she could do some work as and when she could.

Looking up from the laptop she said: “I can’t do this, you won’t let me help so there’s no point being here.”  I was still in shock and barely acknowledging her I shrugged my shoulders and she went downstairs to pack her bags.

My sister was in the flat and about to leave to start her shift at work. She came into the lounge to say goodbye and immediately sensed something was up as I sat there.  She was late and rushing out the door so went downstairs to leave. I heard voices from downstair and then the front door opened and closed. There was a long pause and I waited to hear my sister’s car start.

Tiana then called up the stairs to say she was leaving.  I didn’t know what was going on and I desperately wanted to. Not knowing if I had imagined the whole thing or done something terrible to upset her. I mustered all my strength and cried out: “what’s going on? I dont know whats happening, please, am I imagining this?!”

I heard the door close.

There was a short pause followed by the sound of footsteps coming slowly up the stairs. Tiana came into the lounge and sheepishly sat on the end of the couch with her bag.

Looking at her and feeling as though I had finally lost my mind I explained how confused I felt and that I didn’t know what was going on. I carried on to say that I understood the job was very important to her and that I was sorry I couldn’t be more specific about how I felt: ‘‘I’m tired one minute, hungry the next, then passing out, feeling sick, exhausted, emotional, in pain; it changes so quickly. That’s why I can’t tell you that I’m going to sleep or that now is a good time for you to work, I genuinely don’t know. My emotions and body are all over the place, everything is really hard right now and I can’t think constructively, or at all. I just need some help please; to be looked after.’’

She timidly nodded her head in acknowledgment, heading downstairs to unpack her bag. Perhaps I needed to explain all this for her to understand how I felt and what was going on.

My sister checked in with me shortly afterwards and I let her know everything was ok and that she didn’t need to come back from work as Tiana was staying. I later realised she had hung around outside in her car for a while to see if Tiana left.

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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.

Chapter 26 : Rehabilitation

“I didn’t know how far from total recovery I was but it didn’t matter because I felt good and appreciated every step.”

 

My first rehabilitation session was now due and I was looking forward to it. The idea of being more proactive with an exercise routine, seeing professionals and being surrounded by people who had been through the same torment, felt reassuring. It could be a positive environment to be in, helping each other to get well, I thought.

I was hoping to be able to connect with them as they had been through something similar to me, so they would know certain things that I couldn’t explain or relate to people. I knew everyone would be a lot older than me, but it didn’t bother me. The nurses seemed to think it would be an issue as they wouldn’t want to communicate with me; I struggled to think why, on a logical basis of other than my age, as there would be a lot that could be discussed. We had a shared experience and that’s what was important.

The programme was scheduled on a rolling basis for every six to eight weeks and would focus on the same group of people.  I was greeted at the sports centre by Manuel and signed in.  We had a room on the ground floor that had been allocated to us and it was large, with mirrors from floor to ceiling on two walls and a series of long, thin rectangular windows on another side to allow anyone to see in before entering the room. On the fourth wall was a projector screen, a set of speakers and cages on the floor containing various bits of equipment.

Right down the centre of the room, from one side to another, was a stretch of monkey bars spaced at different distances from each other, fastened along the ceiling. Looking at the bars I pondered on when I could have bounced up there and swung enthusiastically between them pulling myself up with ease.

Next to the wall with windows there were chairs lined up for us to sit on and wait for everyone to arrive.

Two older gentlemen, who barely acknowledged me as I said hello, were already there.  I sat down next to one of them who was quite large and seemed bothered to be there, almost in a huff as if he had better things to do with his time. I introduced myself and after a moment of silence leant across to him and said: “that operation was fun eh?!” hoping to ease into a conversation or at least get a smile.

He looked at me puzzled, frowning as if he had no idea what I was talking about and turned his head away, ignoring me. I said nothing and didn’t take it personally. Perhaps he found it hard to talk about the procedure and was still going through his own emotional journey of recovery.  I was a stranger and very young by comparison, after all. We waited and a few more people arrived.

The fitness instructor in charge specialised in After Operational Medical Care, and she took us through the first set of exercises. She was from New Zealand, the slight twang in her accent gave it away, and in her late twenties or early thirties.  She had a slender build, brown hair and a very attractive bum in tight joggings, which no doubt helped. Quite the opposite of Manuel who was short and slightly overweight.

We did simple stretches with some movement and walked in circles, like horses in a ring on a lead rope, round and round with the instructor at the centre.  We would switch directions and then finally do some more stretches.

To say it was basic doesn’t even come close, for anyone else it wouldn’t have even been a warm up.  The hardest part was a standing up press up which involved standing facing a wall and placing both arms out with our hands against it, then leaning in and pushing ourselves back again; it was a press up standing up. I could feel the lack of strength and wanted to stop after a few repetitions.  Even a simple movement like that was hard and tiring.

The muscle pain was evident, but I didn’t mind. I was happy to be away from home, taking part in an activity and knowing I was getting stronger every moment. I was happy to feel like I was living.

We also had 0.5-2kg weights for arm pumps of thirty seconds each. Even these felt heavy and after a few movements of raising my arm up and down a kilogram soon turned into a tonne. The main point of the routine was to build the heart rate up slowly over a period of time and then slowly bring it back down again. It was a long warm up and cool down process; a gentle hill of exercise gradually sloping up and then down again.

We took our heart rate and blood pressure at the beginning and end of the session for a record to be kept throughout the course and to see the difference at each session. Placing our first and middle fingers on the wrist facing upwards and feeling for a beat, then counting it for fifteen seconds and multiplying it by four to get the rate for one minute. Some of the other members struggled to find their heartbeat, and looking at them throughout the session I could see why. They were frail and old. The results were quite interesting and varied due the medication and also different amounts of it. Some of the heart rates were very slow thanks to the beta blockers; I was very thankful to not be on those anymore, I remembered how exhausted they made me feel, which makes sense if your heart rate is forcibly slowed down.

At the end we sat on chairs and Manuel started to talk about all the different types of heart operation, the signs that lead up to them and also what to look out for.  After a while I couldn’t help but ask: ‘’why are we going over all this?’’ Continuing with, ‘’everybody in the room has had symptoms, seen a specialist and then had an operation. I’m confused about why we are going over all the signs when we have been through it. We are on the other side of this, shouldn’t we be be learning about recovery tips?’’

She didn’t seem to understand what I was saying so I rephrased the question pointing out that this is old news for us and you become a bit of a mini expert throughout the surgery process, so learning about the symptoms didn’t make sense, to me at any rate.

Manuel stood in silence for a moment, I was half expecting ‘’que?’’ to come out of her mouth.

‘‘It’s what we’re told to do and have always done at the start,” she said.

With that response I realised I wasn’t going to get anywhere so I remained silent and let her continue.  The last procedure she went over was valve replacement surgery.  She summed it up quite well and when she got to the decision that patients have to make regarding a tissue or mechanical valve she said: ‘‘you would only go for the mechanical valve as it’s silly not to,” and glossed over the entire subject as if it was completely irrelevant.

If I hadn’t had the previous meetings with her and affectionately dubbed her Manuel, I imagine I would have reacted strongly at this point and challenged her opinion. Instead I realised that she simply hadn’t bothered to contemplate both scenarios and was relying on her medical notes or script to get through the presentation and interpreted them in this way without thinking for herself. 

‘Why would you willing go through another operation again?’ was the limit of her understanding. I chuckled to myself in disbelief, did she even read my notes?

Later I learned that the other people on the rehabilitation programme had been through a different operation to me. Most had a stent inserted into an artery having suffered either a heart attack or angina. The stent was inserted with an injection in the thigh and pushed up through an artery to where it needed to widen a blood vessel which was narrow. They would have been in and out of hospital in under twenty-four hours with no major trauma.  I suddenly realised this was why the larger gentleman had given me an odd look, it wasn’t anything to go through compared to open heart surgery. 

It then dawned on me that I would have to carry on not being able to relate to anyone or share my experience with them.

Despite all of this I still, I looked forward to the classes as it was a time when I would be exercising beyond the normal day-to-day routine and I could feel myself getting fitter and stronger. For some reason we only had two talks after the exercise classes in the end. The other speakers either couldn’t make it or there was a mix up. I was disappointed but didn’t let it bother me and focused on the physical side of improvement.

About half way through the eight-week programme, the New Zealand fitness instructor was swapped for another lady who I instantly connected with. She was older, probably in her mid forties and resembled more of a mother figure. Kind, understanding and always smiling I seemed to be able to talk to her easily; she always had time.

She took us through the last few sessions and then up into the gym.  On the last session I managed to jog gently on the treadmill and I couldn’t stop smiling on the inside and out. I never thought I would be able to run again or even want to, and here I was jogging!  I knew for certain if I had gone for the mechanical valve I wouldn’t have been able to, that choice would have been made for me because of the risk of bruising, but here I was with the freedom to choose for myself.

Throughout the whole process of getting stronger I always felt good. The sense of achievement at doing the smallest thing was so rewarding.  Every week I could do something I simply couldn’t in the previous one.  Each day I would get up and make sure I did just that little bit more than the day before; one more step on my walk, a deeper breath, anything I was doing I improved on what I had done previously.

Throughout the third month of recovery I felt the happiest I had ever done in my life. I was feeling well and could really sense the progress I was making. I had nothing to do but get up, feel good and carry that with me throughout the day.

It was a wonderful period of calm and joy, the simple discovery of just feeling well was all I had and that brought tremendous peace and presence into my life.  The simplest tasks were a joy and I did everything with the utmost care and attention, partly because I was still taking time to do things but also because I could. 

I didn’t know how far from total recovery I was but it didn’t matter because I felt good and appreciated every step.

Chapter 27 : Understanding It All

“Again, with acceptance I found release.”

 

I began to notice that my body felt different and it would reject certain foods and drink quite quickly. My sense of taste had changed slightly; one of the comical sides to this was that I seemed to be going off dairy which was of great amusement to family and friends as I was now part cow after all. I have always been a big fan of cheese but I didn’t have the desire or taste for it any more.

I found myself not wanting milk and started to have oat milk instead.  My body would let me know instantly if something was wrong or if I was in discomfort. I felt very in tune with every aspect of how I was feeling on a physical level, more than I ever had done before. My senses seemed heightened and quicker to react, as if I was coming to life with extra feeling.

I thought this could have been down to having gone through so much pain and torment, now my body is on hyper alert for anything that wasn’t good for it, and it was reacting dramatically or rather, with a sense of urgency. 

Everything felt exaggerated, perhaps now that I was finally well anything other than that normal feeling reminded me of not feeling good so it induced signs of alert.

Without knowing it, there was a lot I hadn’t dealt with. For the most part I maintained a sense of being in the now and I found that total acceptance was key.  The better I got physically, the more I noticed my emotions and internal struggles were starting to come forward. It seemed like they had been put aside while my focus and strength was on the immediate task at hand, which was physical as it was all I could do. Now that I was able to do practical things, the emotional pain and confusion required healing.

The situation and events hadn’t just involved me; the ripples had dispersed beyond my knowing.

Physically it may have been happening to me and I had the weight of the decisions to make, but my family and the people around me had been going through their own emotions, questions and internal angst.

It became apparent that it was the time after the operation rather than during it that would reveal the most about the relationships around me; showing who would actually care and be there when things got hard.  In one sense I felt lucky as all I had to do was simply get on and get well. 

Before the operation all I had to focus on was that I would either wake up or not. I didn’t have to contemplate anything else.  Once the decision for the valve was done it became that ‘simple’ for me. I was not on the other side, watching someone go through it, seeing their health deteriorate before my eyes and having to deal with the potential loss, so I had no way of understanding how anybody else felt.  In that sense, perhaps it was similar to the way I felt about not having anyone to empathise with about the operation itself.  At the time I didn’t have the emotional strength to see things from their side and used all the strength I had to remain positive and free from turmoil.

I realised the relationship I was in with my girlfriend wasn’t good and ultimately it wasn’t going anywhere.  I didn’t love Tiana and it seemed as though she felt trapped by the situation and couldn’t cope, or at least that’s how I interpreted her behaviour. Whether I had misread everything or not I didn’t feel the same as I once had done, and decided to speak to her about it.

Breaking up is never easy, especially after what had happened and I was still on the road to recovery, building up my strength. It felt right to break free and it became clear it was part of the process of healing and moving on.

For the following two weeks I entered into a very deep depression. I had never felt like that before; I was like a zombie; half asleep and never quite there.  I was going through the motions of my daily routine, plodding along but my feet felt stuck to the ground as if I was dragging them everywhere, tied to a heavy boulder; I felt like I was always being held back. I went out on a nearly constant thirty-six-hour binge and subsequently felt extremely ill. I had now aided my depression with twenty-four hours of vomiting and an extensive hangover which took a week to recover from. I had reverted to my old ways, dealing with things by lashing out, and it turned the cloud of depression into a thick, dark overbearing thunderstorm.  I felt hurt, tortured, heavy and twisted inside.

Going through the motions was all I could do. I would get up, eat, and walk, like a puppet I felt my body moving but it was like I wasn’t doing it myself. I was a few feet behind the movement, pulled along, observing, disconnected from the reality I was living.

Breaking up with Tiana had in part brought on the realisation of what had happened over the previous nine months; the lead up to the operation and everything else, and it all came crashing down on me.  The enormity of it all had finally hit me and it was a dark few weeks that seemed all encompassing.

I am grateful for the daily meditations and continual reflection I did on everything which then allowed that feeling of heaviness to dissipate, freeing me up to realise how good I actually felt and focus on the positive progress I had made.

Again, with acceptance I found release.

Chapter 30 : Feeling Good

“All the decisions I had faced and torment over the procedure, the questions, doubts, uncertainty had now been realised and vanished.  A huge sense of relief came over me and I took great satisfaction in my own beliefs and way of thinking.”

 

It had been just over a year since the operation. I was feeling well, strong and active, living a good life.

The first annual check up scan was around the corner.  It seemed a long time since I had been to a hospital and the operation was a familiar but distant memory.  I was confident about my overall health although the appointment made me question it. What if things underneath weren’t as they seemed?  What would happen if the results came back with bad news?  I pondered this more and more as the appointment got nearer and reassured myself that I was in tune with my body.

The date arrived and I went back to hospital for an ECG scan. It was in the same part of Bart’s where I had my first scan after the operation. This time it was much further down the corridor, which seemed strangely dark and very long, like a tunnel with no end.  This old part of the hospital was slowly being renovated and it was clear things were being moved around to accommodate the changes.

I sat in a makeshift waiting room which was equally dark, with a few chairs in it and not much else. It wasn’t long before I got called through by a young female nurse who was very chatty. It was the first time in a while I had heard someone say: “you’re a lot younger than most of the people we get in here!” and I remembered how accustomed I had become to that phrase. We started talking and she told me she had been doing this for a while having moved around within her field of expertise from role to role and was now contemplating a change.

I sat down on the bed which was tucked up close to the wall in a corner, took off my T-shirt and she placed the wire patches on me. I then lay down with my back to her staring at the pale green wall right in front of me.

“The gel’s cold,’’ she said, and placing the scanning instrument on my chest the examination began.

I stared at the wall which was cold and bare with small bumps of rough plaster on its surface reminding me of a barren wasteland. It seemed to reflect how I was feeling as I lay on the bed; alone, sad and empty.

I was transported back to the time just before the operation and remembered things I had forgotten. Emotions rushed out from my gut and head and tears gently made their way to the corners of my eyes and drifted down my cheeks, leaving a sense of sadness in their wake. A trail of history was etched on my face in the form of two clear, lonely roads.  It wasn’t pleasant to be here again.

The examination was completed and as before there would be a thirty minute wait while the results were prepared and sent through to the surgeon or a member of the team.  I was directed out and into another building. This was the new, modern hospital that had recently been completed, with a big central atrium which allowed lots of light in and felt very spacious. There were plants dotted around adding an uplifting feeling; it was a hive of activity, quite the opposite of the old hospital with its dark and cramped rooms adorned with thick heavy walls.

I took in my new surroundings, trying to understand that this would now be part of life and once a year I had to come back and do it all again so they could keep a close eye on how the valve and I were doing.

I got called in to see an Italian doctor who was very welcoming. He was wearing round glasses, had short, black curly hair and a few days’ growth of stubble on his chin. He reminded me of the A&E doctor I once saw.

He asked how I was doing and how I had found the previous year. We had a pleasant conversation, chatting about life and my recovery and he then went over the scan.

‘‘Everything is fine, it’s all working perfectly,’’ he said with assurance. Immediately an internal release of tension flowed through my body in a wave of relaxation and joy.

He explained there was no need for me to come here again as this was where they fix people; it wasn’t for check ups and the medical view had changed: “we, the surgeons are like car mechanics, we fix you. We are not part of the diagnosis, treatment, aftercare or preparation. As you are well there is no need for you to come back.”

He went on to say: ‘‘you are the best doctor and the only person who really knows how you are feeling, so stay in tune with your body and you’ll know if you need to come back.”

It was music to my ears and I instantly took reassurance in how I had felt: “I knew it!” I thought.  This was exactly what I had been thinking and feeling all along, I would know if things weren’t going well.

I decided to open up to him and explain how I felt. I couldn’t see the point in all the check ups and going through this process once a year if I felt good. The experience itself wasn’t pleasant and I didn’t want to feel as though I was going through it all again every year. It would be as if I could never let go, forget or move on. It was a constant reminder of what may be around the corner.

Up to this point I had also continued to take aspirin every day to ‘thin the blood’ as a precaution and I spoke about this and whether it was still necessary.   With a confused expression he frowned at me and said: “no, you needn’t take it. Although I will refer you to the cardiology team to make sure. The cardiology department are best to advise on this, so to be certain go and see them.”

We carried on chatting and as I was preparing to leave he said: “If you don’t mind me asking, why the tissue valve?”

I looked at him, smiled and said: “way of life, the freedom to choose and live how I feel.”  He nodded his head and told me to go and do anything I wanted and live life as I saw fit.

In the space of fifteen minutes I had been told I didn’t need to go back to hospital for any check ups, take the daily medication I was on and to live life as I wanted.  What a fifteen minutes!

All the decisions I had faced and torment over the procedure, the questions, doubts, uncertainty had now been realised and vanished.  A huge sense of relief came over me and I took great satisfaction in my own beliefs and way of thinking.

I went to the cardiology department some months later after finally getting referred and spoke with a specialist doctor about everything.  He was unaware of the meeting I had a few months earlier so I explained why I was there, to just discuss if I needed to take aspirin daily.

He confirmed I shouldn’t be taking any and seemed confused about why I had been for so long.  I pressed him on this, “are you sure? I remember for certain being told that I would have to and that the surgeon himself had said so.”

“Ok let’s see if we can clear this up then,” he said.

To my complete amazement he got out his mobile phone and called up Dr Li (the surgeon) right there in front of me and explained that I was sat in the room with him and my concerns over not taking aspirin anymore.

I could hear the surgeon speaking and he said that I didn’t need to take aspirin everyday, it would have only been for a few months after the operation and it seemed there had been some confusion.

In my head I shouted: “YES!”

“Good I’m glad we cleared that up,” said the doctor. He then went on to say he was going to book an appointment for my next ECG scan in a few months.  I paused for a moment and then explained further the appointment with the Italian doctor, not only did we discuss the daily intake of aspirin but also that I wouldn’t need anymore scans. I would stay in tune with my body and come back at a later date or as and when I needed to.

This doctor was not keen on that idea and felt I should have them every year. I explained that I felt that I would know if my health was deteriorating and if this was the case I would get in touch to start having tests. I put it to him: “believe me, you know when your heart isn’t working.”

He understood although came from another perspective, explaining that it takes time to prepare for an operation.  I would need to have all the tests again and it’s best not to rush that process: “the more time we have, the better. You will also need to prepare your own life with family arrangements and we will need time too.”

He continued: “you could leave it so long that your health is in such a bad way that we only have a short time to prepare for the operation and that isn’t good. The more time we allow to do tests the more prepared we and you are so it is more likely to succeed.”

I hadn’t thought about it from this point of view; he had a valid point.  It does take time to prepare for something of this magnitude and I wouldn’t want to be rushed into hospital unprepared.

We carried on chatting, agreeing it was best he signed me off and in a couple of years I should come back for a scan, even if I felt well,  to see how things were going. If the scan results were fine I could then come back in a few years. If it wasn’t and there were signs that it needed to be monitored they would schedule yearly or six-monthly appointments.

This felt so much more manageable and made sense to me. I would come back at my own will to see how I was doing; no pressure, no build up.  I felt that this way I could forget about it and carry on with life without having the thought that every year there would be more tests. 

This gave me the sense of freedom that I had wanted, that I had fought for and had ultimately chosen to live for.

Chapter 31 : Moments of Realisation

“I paused on a few occasions after taking in the view or hitting a big run and said to myself: ‘‘a year ago I was struggling to walk and here I am living as I wished.”

 

I decided to purchase a blender to change my diet and experiment with different foods. I was interested in having more energy and thought my diet would be a good place to start.

Opening the manual of the blender, on the first page in big bold red letters it said ‘ATTENTION Speak with your doctor first before using this blender if you have had heart surgery’. 

My heart sank and I called the local practice, thinking this would now be something I would always have to do; check with the doctor first.  ‘‘How can I help?’’ the local doctor enquired and I explained the blender warning instructions and the procedure to him.

‘‘That’s fine. As you had the tissue valve it doesn’t apply. Generally people make smoothies with lots of green vegetables, cabbage etc. so this means it can’t be used due to the blood thinners as the balance would be thrown off, amongst other things,’’ he said.

“OK great! Thank you for your time,” and I proceeded to make my first homemade smoothie with great excitement and encouragement.

It was then with some hesitation that I booked a snowboarding trip with a close friend and his girlfriend. My mate had found a resort known for incredible boarding off the tourist trail and so we decided to go.

I felt nervous and excited before the trip. I was pleased to be fulfilling a choice I made early on with the tissue valve, to be able to go snowboarding again. Although now I wondered whether I would struggle to breathe; the air is thinner and my body might react poorly, I could have no energy and didn’t know how my body would cope with the extreme environment. 

I’d already put myself through a lot and a winter sports holiday is not relaxing, it’s like going to the gym all day carrying the extra gear around the mountains.  You are in awkward boots that make walking hard, layered up like the Michelin Man; it can be quite a struggle and it’s very cold.

All this makes it hard work but it’s worthwhile because it’s so much fun!  Anyone who has caught a fresh powder run and been up on the mountain early to see the sunrise will understand. The mountains have their own stillness and beauty that can only be experienced, when you are in close contact with them it’s incredible, gliding down the mountain feels like flying.

We arrived, settled in and got our gear on to head out for the first day of boarding. I took it easy to allow my muscles to get used to the strange movement and unfamiliar posture, although it was like riding a bike and it came straight back to me. We did a few runs and I was in heaven, working my legs and hips hard to free them up and feeling the snow gliding beneath me.

We got out of one of the cable cars to walk over to a viewing platform and I started to feel out of breath. ‘‘Oh no, this isn’t good,’’ I thought. I knew that a certain amount of this was due to the altitude but I was nervous.  I sat down on a bench and turned to my friend asking how he felt. ‘‘Knackered, but incredibly good,’’ he replied breathing heavily. It was then I knew he felt the same and the heavy breathing was normal for being up so high.

I had the best holiday I have ever had, hitting some of the biggest trails and getting incredible powder runs.  I paused on a few occasions after taking in the view or hitting a big run and said to myself: ‘‘a year ago I was struggling to walk and here I am living as I wished.’’

Mountain View
Mountain View

 I took this picture whilst on top of the mountain as the lifts were closing. We couldn’t drag ourselves away from the view and sat for thirty minutes taking it all in. The air was cold and crisp and the sky was a perfect blue. It seemed we could have heard a pin drop from down in the valley below, the air was so still.  The lifts were closed and we had the mountain to ourselves. We eventually set off and boarded back down what felt like our own mountain.  Life is incredible.

A month after returning from holiday I went to a TEDx event held at the London Business School, called Kaleidoscope.  I had been two years previously and was looking forward to hearing the various speakers to see what I could learn. I was there with a friend and we enjoyed the day taking in the beautiful surroundings just behind the Royal Albert Hall where it was being held. After the lunch break we went back to the auditorium for the afternoon session of speakers.

A female doctor came on and began to discuss stem cell research stating that it would change the future. The talk was on all aspects of stem cells and what they could do, from helping us with diseases to brain injury and transplants. After explaining how stem cells worked, she went on to talk about tissue and organ replacements using 3D bio printing machines with stem cell regenerative medicine. She said: “this is one of the most exciting parts of the research and it is in its early stages. A scan is taken of the organ and then a special bio gel is used to form a model of the part being replaced, then the stem cells would then be put on it to replicate it.”

The example she used was a heart valve.

I turned to my mate with a look of awe and realisation. I had to stop myself from jumping up in the air with a fist pump and shouting: ‘YES!’

She went on to say the science was in its infancy and the time scale was ten to twenty years before it was viable, but that they were working towards it. I left the event mesmerised by her talk which had eclipsed the others in my mind.

During the summer I had a meeting in central London not far from Farringdon Tube station and decided to walk to the Tube to get back to the office. I found myself walking past Bart’s hospital and as it was a sunny day I decided to sit on a nearby bench outside the hospital and take a moment to contemplate.  I sat down on the stone bench and after a few moments a taxi pulled up right in front of me. The front passenger door opened quickly and out got a middle aged man, and from the rear driver’s side an elderly women. They hurriedly went round to the rear passenger door and help an elderly man get out.

The man had oxygen tubes coming out of his nose, a bottle of oxygen with him, which they carried, and he was taking everything very slowly. The son and wife (I presume) cared for him and helped him walk as best he could. As they closed the door to the taxi he started hobbling along with a cane in one hand and paused for a moment, staring at me.

I sat there looking straight at him and gave a gentle, reassuring smile. I could see a wonderful sense of life in his eyes mixed with fear. I felt like I was staring directly into his soul, his eyes looked like glass balls as they reflected the light with a rich brown coloured centre.  He slowly lifted his arm and gave me a thumbs up with a heartwarming smile.

In such a beautiful moment of connection no words were spoken, just an acknowledgement to each other.  I couldn’t help but feel elated, I didn’t know what this man was about to go to or what he had already gone through, but I remembered that I couldn’t have managed the walk he was doing at one time and now I could do anything.

Stone Bench
The Stone Bench

In the space of six months I had competed in a boxing match and had open heart surgery. In the following six months I had survived to have, for the first time, a fully functioning heart and be in the best shape of my life.