Tuesday 4 August 2015

My Fall Guy summer...

A year ago today, I went into hospital having suffered a heart attack.  It was a shocking experience, a real slap in the face from my mortality that made me look hard at - and change - a lot of things in my life.
left - me on a bike ride (picture by Dude) - 3/8/14
right - me & Dude, at Welland Park, playing football - 2/8/15
I wanted to mark today but wasn't sure how and then found this little essay I wrote in September last year but never got round to publishing on the blog.  As it was written 'in the thick of things', it has an immediacy I couldn't recapture now, so here it is...

* * *

As we glide smoothly into Autumn (my favourite season of the year) and the nights draw in and the mornings darken, it seems - as it often does - as though summer was gone in a blink.  It was, I think.

I had such plans for this summer.  There was a novel I was going to write - I thought it was a fantastic idea, I worked hard on the pitch and critiqued the three chapters with my pre-reader band and my chums at the Northampton SF Writers group, there were adventures to be had with Dude, day-trips to exciting places and our Wales holiday.

The first adventure wasn’t the success I’d been hoping for, as Dude & I went to London for the Film & Comic Con event at Earls Court in July.  The venue was terrible, the staffing levels were appalling and we left mid-afternoon, thoroughly disappointed.  “Why don’t we go into the City?” I asked and Dude agreed and it saved the day from disaster, as we had a lovely afternoon wandering around the capital, visiting our favourite shops, eating a lovely meal on Shaftesbury Avenue and then leaning contentedly on each other in the train home as we read our books.

In early July, the publisher I’d approached with my “Fantastic Novel” pitch turned it down - he was very complimentary about the writing and structure but didn’t feel it was different enough for his list.  As nice as he was, as nice as the compliments were, I was gutted.  I didn’t write anything for a week, a fortnight.  I then had three people contact me wanting short stories, I spoke with Ian Whates from my writing group and Sue Moorcroft, my critiquing partner and writing friend and I started to pick myself back up.

All through this time, events in the world (especially the Gaza situation) were darkening my days and in a bid to stave off a black dog episode, I was browsing through ebay and found the first series of “The Fall Guy” for sale.  I decided to buy it, reasoning that I could binge-watch it (on my own, I presumed) and forget things for a while.

On Sunday 3rd August, I had several attacks of acid reflux - that awful burning in the chest sensation - which had me eating Gaviscon like they were Smarties.  When Dude & I went out for a walk, then a bike ride and my elbows ached, I assumed I’d somehow caught them somewhere.

On Monday, I had more of the acid reflux attacks, so much so that I couldn’t get myself comfortable.  “I feel like I’m dying,” I groaned to Alison.  Thankfully, she’s a lot smarter than me and packed me off to the KeyDoc where I was seen by an apparently very inexperienced doctor (who stank of BO) who carried out an ECG on me that didn’t work and sent me to the hospital for a bloodtest with no accompanying paperwork.

I made my way to Kettering General Hospital at 8pm, my Dad kept me company and at 2am I was admitted to the Coronary Care Unit.  Sometime during the day - or maybe on the Sunday - I had suffered a heart attack (“it happens a lot,” the nurse told me cheerfully, “people think they’re having acid attacks and it’s not, it’s little heart attacks!”).  Following a sleepless night, I was second into surgery and after an angiogram to see what was going on had a stent fitted.  The doctor later showed me a video of the operation and, when I was trying to describe it later, I likened it to a SatNav image.  I’ll try it again…

Imagine the M1 cutting down the middle of the screen.  That’s an artery, the dark colour of it the life blood that’s pumping around my body and keeping everything going.  Coming off it is a thinner line, a country lane that doesn’t look wide enough to carry much heavy traffic.  The wire appears, the balloon is inflated, the stent is positioned and suddenly I’m looking at two M1’s.  “Oh,” I said, “I see.”

I spent the rest of the day in hospital, recovering and was sent home that night.  Alison & Dude were thrilled to see me and my Mum gave me a big hug.  Even Dad, who’s not overly prone to displays of affection, hugged me.  They went home, my family went to bed, I sat up and pondered how life was going to change now, how life would have to change now.  And I picked up the box set of “The Fall Guy”, put in a disk and watched it.

I watched more episodes as the week wore on, as people treated me with kid gloves and made sure everything was all right and every time I tried to do something, I was gently pushed back to my seat to take it easy.  I started to call my heart attack an episode, to try and play it down.  I was knackered, I was tired, but I was also very lucky and I wanted to get back on my feet.  As for the attack itself, the doctors reckoned that although my weight was a factor, the contributing causes were my smoking (I gave up when Alison discovered she was pregnant, ten years ago) and family history (my Grampy had several attacks, the last of which unfortunately killed him).

My holiday fortnight came and that first week - which we usually spend heading off on day trips - fizzled to nothing, our only outing being a train trip to Leicester Dude & I went on.  The second week, our time away in Wales, was wonderful but a lot more sedate than normal and I couldn’t chase around in the castle ruins like I’d have done before.

What a great excuse for a picture of The Fall Guy team!
(Douglas Bar, Lee Majors, Heather Thomas)
As the days went by I could feel myself starting to get stronger.  I’d already started losing the weight (some weeks before I saw a picture Alison took of me & Dude on the patio and I was so disgusted at the Jabba The Hutt I’d become, I decided to do something about it - cutting down on crap, more bike riding and loads of walks had lost me 17lbs before the episode), I don’t drink or smoke, but I did have to start eating more fruit & veg and I felt like I could do it.  Dude & I took to going out for a walk - of at least 2 miles a session - at least five times a week, if not six or seven.  And when we came back, after his shower, he & I would sit in a chair - him on my lap - and watch “The Fall Guy”.  He loved it (I didn’t think he would, its pace is much slower than the kids TV he now watches), it was our time and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think he did too.  When we’d finished the first box set, he immediately wanted to watch the next so I ordered it (in case you’re wondering, series 3 to 5 haven’t been released on DVD due to ‘lack of demand’ - it would appear that Dude is the only 9 year old fan of the show).

As the weeks went by and I got better, my desire to write came back and I finished off the story I’d written in first draft before my episode.  The process was fairly smooth, I read it aloud to Alison and it worked for us both and I sent it to the editor who liked it a lot.  I worked on a second story, using images I’d picked up in Wales and the editor liked that one too.  I have another story to write, which is rolling around in my head at the moment but I’m confident about it.  With my other writing, I really want to get back to the novel, to build on the pitch and go off-tangent to it at the same time, as characters and situations suggest themselves to me.

The hospital team made an appointment for me to go in to have a second angiogram, to make sure everything was okay with the first procedure and to see if another thin artery they’d seen before was standing up to the strain.  The appointment was made for Monday 8th September so I got to enjoy the FantasyCon weekend in full before it and I’m so pleased I did.  The Con was great and it was wonderful to see so many old friends, to catch up and laugh and hug and lovely, too, to realise just how much I meant to them.  To those of you reading this who came up to me that weekend and hugged me or held my arm and looked me in the eyes and said “it’s so good to see you”, it meant so very much to me, it really did.

We were almost done with the second series of “The Fall Guy” before FantasyCon so Dude & I agreed to leave a couple of episodes over until I’d been back into the hospital.  I went in on the Monday afternoon for the angiogram and it was awful - they simulated another heart attack and for a terrible handful of minutes, it felt like someone was wringing my chest bones.  Everything was clear though and I was home by 8.30pm without a need for the second stent.  I’m due to start the Cardiac Rehabilitation Programme on the 29th and, hopefully, they’ll give me the nod to get back on my bike (Dude & I have so missed our adventures).

I feel better in myself, my strength is returning, my fitness is increasing all the time and the weight is still coming off, which is reassuring - I’ve not gone back to the takeaways or loads of sweets and it’s not been the struggle I thought it would.  But then, I look at my family and friends, I look at Alison & Dude and see them looking at me and realise that’s why.

I want to remember 2014 as my “Fall Guy” summer and I hope that Dude does too (he doesn’t talk much about the episode but I can sometimes see it playing away behind his eyes) because that 30 year old TV show managed to sand off a lot of the sharp edges caused by a couple of months of horror, pain and sobering reality and I’ll always be grateful for that.

The update:
- The Cardiac Rehabilitation Programme was a huge success for me (thanks so much to Iona and her team), they gave me a real burst of confidence to get out and get exercising (and not worry that I was going to kill myself)

- The Cardiac team at KGH were so impressed with my progress, my twelve-month assessment was brought forward and I was released from their care after six months

- Dude still worries about the whole thing (though it's lessening with time).  For months, he didn't like me going out on my own ("If I'm not there, who'll help you?") and he & I have had several long and indepth chats about it - he can see that I'm thinner, that I'm looking after myself and getting fitter, but the doubt is still sometimes in his eyes.  The British Heart Foundation produce a brilliant pamphlet called "My Dad's Heart Attack" which we read together and I think it helped, as the story in that is identical to his experience with me.

- I never did write that novel, though I've now sold a novella based on half of the pitch so that's a plus

- Dude still talks about The Fall Guy and when he leaps around, I sometimes call him Colt-junior, which makes him smile.  I wrote a blog post about the show, which seemed to go down well

- I've already blogged about my quest to lose weight and I'm pleased to say that yesterday's weigh-in saw me down to 13st 7.5lbs (a total loss of 69.25lbs and just 0.75lbs off 5st), so I'm obviously going in the right direction

- I am fitter than I have been in years, so much so that a few weeks back I played for a Dads Eleven at Dude's football team and didn't disgrace myself at all

- I'm still here, I'm enjoying my life, I'm surrounded by wonderful family and friends and I'm writing again.  What more could I want?