Inside a human heart
A couple of months ago I had felt unwell all morning, went for a swim in the sea, felt worse, got home and found my blood pressure was rather high, felt even worse, so called a taxi to get me to the local Emergency Hospital. An hour or two later an A&E doctor, was telling me I had had (was having?) a heart attack. In response to my disbelief he suggested I might need to lose my ‘cloak of invincibility’.
This continues to amuse me, as the gentlest possible rebuke for not taking my health seriously, not acknowledging my mortality. I was a bit resentful at the time, but, on reflection, I am grateful to him (and the others who ushered me along the heart attack pathway) for considering that my (admittedly mild) symptoms could be typical of the way heart attacks present in women. I now know that, too often, male bias has led to women dying because their symptoms aren’t as severe as men’s- women’s pain just not as significant.
So my cloak of invincibility stayed crumpled on the floor at my feet for a further 4 days in solitary confinement (COVID times) in Cramlington Hospital waiting for transfer to the Freeman for an angiogram to establish what was actually happening inside my heart. The 4 days included Mothers Day and I wasn’t able to see anyone or leave my room. Plenty of time to experience loneliness and vulnerability and make deals with God- working out what the post-heart attack rehab would mean, what kind of life?
I still want to weep with gratitude for the NHS and the staff who work to try to keep us well. Everyone who looked after me was lovely, even in the midst of the pandemic. I was particularly grateful to the part-time nurse (and aspiring writer) with purple hair who was kind, noticed I was upset, helped me have a good cry, then gave me permission to walk out of my room and down to the foyer (FREEDOM).
I was also even more aware that these COVID days, months, possibly shading into years, have confronted us with the limits of our invincibility and led us to doubt whether our ‘cloaks’ can protect us. We have all felt vulnerable, or maybe just realised that we are all vulnerable- always have been and always will be. Meanwhile most of the world knows better and cannot afford the luxury of our vainglory- we lucky affluent few.
Part of the vulnerability is our new, hard-won ability to live with uncertainty, through the ups and downs of this ‘plague year’. So much that has been predictable, regular, secure, comfortable, familiar, has been swept away. But what is left, what has been revealed, what could or should prevail? First of course is love, and generosity, time, kindness, flexibility, acceptance, gratitude, patience, creativity, connection, community, solidarity, listening, friends, altruism. The ‘present’, so lauded, keenly looked-for, and usually so difficult to ‘be in’, has become a refuge- from preoccupation with the past and anxiety about the future. It has been easier to find joy in simple things, good food, books, the vivid wonder of nature which just keeps going, growing and falling back in her beautiful cycles, thriving in a respite from human interference, skies free from aeroplanes, birdsong free from distracting traffic noise, the air cleaner and our spirits soothed.
Writing at a time when the crisis MIGHT be receding, I feel nostalgic for the earlier, slower, more peaceful times. We are speeding up again, back to ‘normal’. Can things can ever be normal again? It seems such an irrelevant and foolish ambition. My cloak of invincibility is resting much more lightly upon my shoulders, flimsier and more conditional. I don’t want to need it. I wish my negotiations with God had been a bit more conclusive. I’m still unfit, overweight and struggling with alcohol. But my heart turned out to be healthy apart from the atrial fibrillation which has been with me for several years. It has got worse but is manageable- not life-threatening and only mildly life-limiting. I really happy that I can keep on doing everything, especially sea swimming, which all the doctors assure me will only do me good. Not a heart attack but a useful brush with mortality, at a time when so many people have lost their lives or their loved ones, and so many worlds have been turned upside down.
For those days in hospital and after I was overwhelmed with kindness, concern and love. I am very, very grateful. Long may it continue, for all of us, for each other, now, everywhere, here, forever.