My body and me: Returning to full fitness after life-threatening heart problems
Steve Foreman, from London, was a security adviser in Ethiopia when he suffered a heart attack, and then a cardiac arrest. His heart problems changed his relationship with his body. Now aged 66, he shares his story.
“In January 2014, on a hot, dry night in the Ethiopian desert, I walked along the dirt road back to my tent. The next thing I recall was the camp paramedic leaning over me and saying: “Steve, you collapsed. You’ve got to be evacuated, mate.”
I next remember lying in the field ambulance, seeing people lighting flare pots alongside the dirt landing strip in preparation for the plane. I was evacuated to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, as I’d had a heart attack. By then, I was completely unconscious.
My heart stopped for 15 minutes. But they continued CPR and I woke up again
I was rushed into theatre and given an emergency angioplasty. Some days later, I woke up to see my wife, Hellen, my adult son, Zak, and my brother, Grant, all standing over me. I stabilised a while later, and my relatives, thinking I was on the mend, had to return to their lives.
Then I suffered a cardiac arrest. My heart stopped for 15 minutes. But they continued CPR and I woke up again.
Luckily, I didn’t have brain damage. But because of the oxygen starvation, I had total organ failure. Body fluid escaped into my abdominal cavity, my kidneys and liver failed; my heart bled out; my lungs flooded with fluid; and 70 per cent of my stomach filled with blood.
Facing physical and emotional challenges
I was on full life support for several weeks. It was bewildering to be hooked up to an array of IV drips, colostomy bags, scary and noisy kidney dialysis machines and ECG monitors, all constantly observed.
It is quite amazing how the body can be so damaged and still recover to full fitness
When conscious, I was unable to speak, due to an emergency tracheostomy (an incision in the neck to insert a tube to help me breathe), and so I wrote messages on a notepad. But I was pumped so full of drugs that my handwriting was barely legible, and it was frustrating that my body was not letting me communicate.
I had both waking and sleeping hallucinations – I thought I was suffering cruelty and torture at the hands of the night nurses. I still have the notes in which I made these accusations and, even now, reading what I wrote makes me want to cry.
I was bedridden in intensive care for almost two months. My muscles wasted away and I lost over 40 pounds in weight. But I stabilised and my internal organs began to function unaided.
It is quite amazing how the body can be so damaged and still recover to full fitness – which is what gradually happened.
Steve’s dramatic weight loss
Staying fit and strong is an important part of Steve’s job, so when he fell ill the weight loss and muscle wastage he experienced was hard to deal with. Bed-bound, Steve lost 40lbs, and didn’t recognise himself. Now, Steve is feeling good and works out four times a week.
The long road to recovery
In late March I was transferred by air ambulance from Nairobi to the UK to undergo cardiac and renal rehabilitation.
I discovered I had lost the ability to support my own weight or walk, and had to shuffle with a Zimmer frame. I was depressed. This was an old man’s body, not mine. My hair had become grey, thin and wispy, my muscles had fled, my skin was slack and pallid, and I could hardly talk.
I looked and felt as if I had aged 20 years, and had no idea at that time that it was temporary
I looked and felt as if I had aged 20 years, and had no idea at that time that it was temporary.
I began cardiac rehab classes, and could see that I wasn’t as bad off as some of the others; this gave me hope. I started seeing progress. First, with short, unsteady walks in the garden, then longer walks along country lanes in south Yorkshire and, eventually, on a mountain bike. My spirits began to lift; hope was in sight, although it still felt out of reach.
I had always exercised, for my work and for the sake of my young kids, but I just took it as normal routine. I never remember having the feeling of cause and effect as I did in early recovery. Every step (and later every bike ride) was calculated and analysed, and my relationship with my body became deliberate.
I regularly did step-ups on a block of wood or breezeblock, then press-ups and sit-ups, as these exercises didn’t require any special equipment.
Returning to work and looking forward
Now I’m working again, I go to the camp gym about four times a week, eat reasonably well, and enjoy a cold beer on a Friday evening.
Other than taking regular medications I have no lingering physical effects of that terrible time. Considering how very damaged and frail I had been, it is astounding that I am back to doing what I was before the heart attack.
I’m feeling good, and looking forward to being able to watch my kids grow to maturity – and beyond, I hope!”