Letter to myself: Losing a hobby after a heart attack
After a series of heart attacks, Martin Brooke was forced to stop playing his beloved squash. In a letter to himself before his heart problems, he reflects on the challenges of recovery and the importance of perspective.
In February 2011 something surprising will happen to you. For the first time in 40 years, you’ll leave a squash match because you feel unwell.
The next day, you’ll go to the doctor. He takes a blood test. Then at 7pm, whilst cooking pasta, you’ll get a phone call from the hospital.
It turns out you’ve probably had a couple of heart attacks. You were totally unaware of them, but you have a high level of troponin, a protein showing heart muscle damage.
You go to hospital. You’ll be frustrated about being kept there for over three weeks because by now you feel so fit and well. You’ll help the nurses, making toast and drinks and chatting to other patients, but feel like a fraud the whole time.
You’ve gone from squash playing and training every other day, to barely being able to exercise
You’ve gone from squash playing and training every other day, to barely being able to exercise, and you will start to feel institutionalised. You listen to Coldplay on your daily walk around the grounds, feeling sorry for yourself.
But you are a 'glass-half-full' guy and you are in good hands, so you remain positive about the future, right up to the moment the cardiologist performs the angiogram and says: “The bad news is, you need a quadruple heart bypass.”
Your emotions go into overdrive. Your mind explodes. How can this be? A day before the op, answering the most important question of all, the consultant tells you: “Of course you can return to playing squash.” Hooray! This gives you enormous confidence that all will be well.
On the morning of the surgery you will reminisce over your squash career, from your first time on court at age 17, to being picked to play for your county. Squash has been likened to high-speed chess, and you agree. Nothing beats pitting your wits and ability against an opponent in a 9x6m box.
The surgery will be successful and you’ll be alive and – maybe not kicking – but certainly hobbling about within a couple of days. You attend the dedicated, caring NHS cardiac rehab, and go to the subsidised gym. Nine months later, you’ll win your first game of squash 3-0! The following June you will be 60, and you’ll enter Masters Squash tournaments and even play in the British Open over-60s event. You feel better and fitter than ever. You are immortal!
Ah, younger self, can you hear a ‘but’ coming? On 16th March 2014, three years to the day since the last op, you will have breathing problems in the pub as you watch the footie. At half time you walk home and your long-suffering wife Jane takes you back to hospital where they confirm you’re having another heart attack. Two stents and two days later you’re home.
However depressed you get, look out of the window every day and see the world, and be grateful
A week later you’ll visit the consultant who performed the procedure. He’ll explain that, even though squash has kept you fit for 40 years, it’s time to give it up. You’ll be devastated, and angry that your body has let you down. But, younger self, you don’t yet realise that you’ve always had coronary heart disease and if you had not played squash, you may not be here at all now.
Hey ho, so now what? Well, a bit of depression and a lot of anger for about a year. You will be told you can try tennis, badminton or crown green bowls, but don’t feel like doing any of these and start to shun exercise and put on weight. In 2015 your squash club will ask if you would like to be their team manager. Your still-angry head will say “nah”, but your positive heart will say “I would be honoured”.
You will take the exam to become a squash referee, help start a junior section at the club and become a coach.
So, younger self, where are we now? Older and wiser, often found gardening, taking the dog out, playing with your grandkids, but not really pushing yourself too much. You’ll remember the wonderful days of 7am swims, doing timed runs, then squash training all afternoon. You will always have these good memories, but that was then and this is now.
Time is a great healer. You’ll gain perspective, and understand that what you have – friends, family, a job, your whole life in fact – far outweighs what you have lost.
And remember – you’re still here! However depressed you get, or however bad any of the other stuff is that comes with this territory, look out of the window every day and see the world, and be grateful.