Letter to myself: Living life to the full after a heart attack

Dave canoeing in Spain

David Hermelin, who had a heart attack on holiday, writes the things he would like his younger self to have known.

Six years before all this happened, you were diagnosed with angina. You had an angioplasty and a stent fitted, but you thought that was behind you.

You and your wife, Sam, loved good food, accompanied by good drink, but you’d decided to be healthier. And it worked! You both lost a couple of stone, just by being careful and maintaining an active lifestyle.

But this wouldn’t be enough to stop what your body was already preparing for. Just a few days before a caravan holiday, to Saumur in the south of France with Sam and two friends in 2017, you’ll experience some familiar symptoms.

Dave pictured with his wife, Sam

David, pictured with his wife Sam

You’ll go straight to your GP, who will say, “Your ECG is normal, your blood tests are normal; go and enjoy your holiday.” Just in case, you’re given some nitrate tablets and a GTN spray – you need these.

A heart attack in France

As soon as you start walking uphill, you’ll get that familiar pain. But a couple of puffs of the spray and you feel better, almost immediately.

You’ll get the condition sorted out when you get home, you tell yourself – you’ve had it before and you know what to expect. You’re not worried. So you go on your holiday, just as the doctor advised.

But one night on holiday you’ll wake up with a horrendous pain in your shoulder and left arm. Your smartphone app that measures your heart rate reads 140bpm, which is very high.

No one speaks English, which makes this all much scarier.

Sam, ever practical and supportive, will call your surgery’s number immediately – she knows it will divert to 111. Upon describing your symptoms, Sam’s told to ring the French emergency services, immediately.

No one speaks English, which makes this all much scarier. An ambulance arrives, rushing you to the nearest hospital, a worried Sam following. After being poked and prodded, the doctors will explain, in their best attempts at English, that you’ve had a heart attack and you’re being transferred to a specialist cardiac centre.

Onto the next hospital you’ll go. After a long wait, you’re wheeled into the catheter lab. You’re surrounded by mysterious equipment. The procedure begins, and it’s not pleasant. You’re only under local anaesthetic, so you’ll feel particularly unsettling sensations of the catheter being passed across the inside of your chest.

The surgeon will then tell you that you need two new stents, and they may as well perform the procedure there and then. So they do.

Dave balancing rocks on the beach

David balancing rocks on the beach a week before his heart attack

Finally, the ordeal will be over, and you’ll be taken back to your room, where Sam’s been good enough to bring you some edible treats to make up for the inedible hospital food – something you, a foodie, will continue to remember with equal parts amusement and disgust.

Sam will sort everything with the insurance company. She’ll be absolutely terrified throughout this whole ordeal – but, ever selfless, she won’t reveal that to you until later. She doesn’t want you to worry.

Dealing with the shock

Thank goodness for your friends, who will provide both you and Sam with infinite support, both in France and back home. Luckily, you’ll have the chance to enjoy the final few days of your holiday. You’ll stroll through Saumur in the sunshine, taking your time.

When it’s time to go home, the insurance company will send a doctor to accompany you. You’ll be whisked through the airport like a VIP – it’s actually quite fun!

Finally, you’ll get home. There will be a time when the emotions of what have happened hit you, and you’ll deal with depression – like so many after a heart attack. And it won’t just be you – those around you will be emotionally affected, too. But this difficult time will pass.

Dave, pictured six months after a heart attack

David in Cornwall, six months after his heart attack

You and Sam will celebrate 12 months since your recovery with another, much better, holiday – one you both deserve. You’ll take the caravan to northern Spain and south-west France. You’ll go canoeing and walking. You’ll enjoy the holiday you were meant to have the first time. You won’t ever let this heart attack define you.

You know you are lucky – your life won’t actually change that much at all after the attack. And your positive attitude will remind you of that every single day. You’ll tell yourself, it’s not the end of the world – it certainly isn’t the end of yours and Sam’s.

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