I am 74. I have always considered myself to be fit and healthy, even though I have been living with the consequences of a serious rock climbing injury for the last 20 years. I have followed a healthy diet and lifestyle: largely vegetarian, low alcohol consumption, not overweight, no drugs for the last 40 years, and high level of physical activity.
So, one day in July this year, I was shocked when swimming in the sea near my house in N Wales – to discover I could hardly catch my breath. And then the following day when I started to go up the stairs at home, I found myself struggling to get to the top without stopping. At that point, I chose to tell myself that age has finally caught up with me, whatever that was supposed to mean. Any crap rationalisation rather than consider myself to be less than a perfect specimen of humanity!
The next morning, when I struggled to get out of bed because I was so breathless, I took my pulse and fear shot through me as I registered how fast it was beating. Then, after an emergency visit to my GP, I am being whisked off to my local district hospital in an ambulance with flashing lights, feeling somewhat detached from it all.
When told I have heart failure with the left side of my heart working at less than 25% of its expected capacity, I refuse to take it in and incongruously argue that I am healthy. Part of my reluctance at this point is because two days later I am due to fly to Corfu to take part in a week-long group process: Tantra Mantra with my beloved. At this point, I desperately hold onto the belief that I am still going to make it.
All in all, after a week in hospital I am discharged feeling weak, with two pieces of metal scaffolding (stents) in one of my coronary arteries, which had become completely blocked up with fatty deposits. My heart lifted, and I felt like cheering towards the end of the stenting procedure when the artery reappeared on the monitor screen as it finally became filled again with blood, signalling that the operation, during which time I had been fully awake, had been a success. It took all of ninety minutes – the blockage had been a long one and it required clearing a little bit at a time to avoid any mishap. And my breathing was easier.
For the first four weeks, I had to take things very easily, and was not allowed to drive. Since then I have been making a steady recovery back to normal day to day life: looking after the large house and smallholding where I live, taking my dog for walks, even logging a large fallen oak tree using a chainsaw. This morning I went for a rather cold, even in full wetsuit gear, but enjoyable swim in the sea. It was the end of October.
Although I feel a lot better, I am taking a lot of medication to control cholesterol, thin my blood and slow down the heart and more. This is to prevent more blockages and clotting around the stents as well protecting my heart muscle while it heals. I am even following a more strict, self-imposed diet: cutting out almost all dairy, less sugar and taking specific heart associated supplements.
Until I get the results of the MRI scan, scheduled to happen end November, I am still being treated for heart failure. I am hoping then for confirmation of the improvement I feel. Of course, as Ischaemic Heart Disease is the number one killer in the Western world, it is not surprising that I have some definite anxiety around the outcome.
Whatever the outcome I have been prompted to take stock of my life: accepting my ultimate mortality and not knowing when that will be. And there have been positive developments: in my close relationships. My beloved tells me I am sweeter now than before all this happened, and my daughter says she likes spending time with me and appreciates me. She and I have a chequered relationship which has been very tense at times gone by. It is a great relief that it is so much better now.
On self-reflection, I have realised I can be kinder to myself and that means being kinder to other people around me. I live at a slower pace and rest most afternoons. I expect less of myself and of others. What’s the point of driving myself to an early grave while there is still so much to live for. I don’t know about being sweeter, but I do know I can choose to be harmonious in the way I interact with those close to me rather than being over-reactive. And this makes for a happier life in many ways. And with so much experience of living it is time to choose the easy option!
I now look forward to sharing simple pleasures with my beloved, leading to a deeper, soft connection, without needing the excitement that is so often associated with friction. I think it amounts to being in the heart rather than the head. I have been on this journey for the last four years since finding a new lover. Together we have been through several positive, life-changing experiences. This is just the latest.