Peter Robinson reveals his heart attack trauma: 'I started to feel more unwell, very clammy, and the pains got more severe'
Exclusive: First in-depth interview with Peter Robinson since his release from hospital
First Minister Peter Robinson glances rather ruefully at the large wall clock in the study of his east Belfast home and gives a wry smile. It is Sunday afternoon, coming up to 4pm.
"Funnily enough, it was just around this time last week that it was all kicking off," he says, referring to the heart attack that resulted in him spending five days in the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he had a procedure to insert three stents.
It is the DUP leader's first in-depth interview since the health scare and, all things considered, he is in good form.
Like many who have found themselves suddenly admitted via A&E, he is also keen to relive the drama of the events that have engulfed him.
But he is in reflective mood too - at 66 years old, this was the first time he'd ever spent a day in hospital, and he is now under doctors' orders to take things easy for the next few weeks.
Yet as his wife Iris and daughter Rebekah, who join us while we talk, know only too well, this is not going to be easy for Mr Robinson - or indeed for those tasked with ensuring that he does take sufficient time to rest and recuperate.
Less than 24 hours after leaving hospital, he put in an appearance at the Irish Open.
"I suppose when you're never really ill you get a feeling of invincibility and that leads to you pushing the boundaries more and more," he says.
"I was working very long hours, not eating properly, not getting enough exercise.
"I took a decision to be very open about this whole thing - some people wouldn't be - but the way I see it I've had a heart attack and I'm dealing with that. And I hope that by speaking out, I can serve as a warning to someone else too."
Evidently he's also been encouraged to be frank by the many good wishes he has received from across the community in Northern Ireland, as well as farther afield. Hundreds of get well cards, Mass cards and letters have poured in to the family home and constituency offices.
Among those who have written to him is Prince Charles, whom the First Minister met during the royal visit to Belfast just days before he fell ill.
"All the cards mean a great deal, and there are candles being lit for me too.
"It is touching that people take time to send their best wishes and in time we will reply to all those with addresses."
Though he dismissed his symptoms at the time, with hindsight the first signs that something was seriously wrong came last Sunday afternoon.
Mr Robinson recalls: "We'd had a good lunch and I was settling down to watch the football with my daughter Rebekah's husband when I felt a few twinges. But I thought it was just indigestion and took a couple of tablets.
"It wasn't anything that I was overly concerned about, I thought it would pass.
"Most of that night it was in the background; it was annoying, a bit uncomfortable, but nothing more than that.
"In the early hours of the morning I was doing my usual work - I sent the last email to my two special advisors at 3.56am. Later that morning I was due to head to Dublin where I'd a number of visits to make and the drivers were to pick me up at 7.30am. So, yes, that is the way that I have been pushing things... of course, I'd been planning to get to bed for a few hours but as it turned out I did not."
Instead,the First Minister began to feel increasingly ill. "I just started to feel more unwell, very clammy; the pains got more severe.
"I still didn't think it was a heart attack but I thought it was something that would mean that I'd have to make a decision about whether to go on to Dublin or call the doctor... at about 6.30am I called the doctor.
"The paramedics arrived swiftly and stayed with me for about an hour. I had about four ECGs as the heartbeat was erratic.
"It was difficult to move me and I passed out a few times - basically every time the blood pressure dropped. They gave me morphine as well.
"But eventually we ended up in the ambulance. I could give you a very full description of the inside of the roof of the ambulance.
"The whole experience was just so surreal. I could hear people talking in the background... then the door opens and you get taken into Ulster Hospital.
"Staff there assessed my case, determined that I was having a heart attack and said that the best place for me was the cardiac unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital so it was back into the ambulance, staring up at the inside of its roof again.
"The consultant from Dundonald came with me to the RVH. All the way over there you are coming in and out of it, looking up at the ceiling, hearing people around you getting on with their normal lives... conversations going on around you. As I said, it was totally surreal."
Shortly after arriving at the RVH, the First Minister had three stents inserted and quickly began to look - and feel - better.
He pushes up his sleeve to shows off two small incisions on his wrist, marvelling all the while at what they represent. "Look at those two little cuts - the first is where they went in when I first arrived, and the second is where they went in to do the stents... they push a catheter into the wrist and then push a wire with the stent on it in to the heart.
"You're conscious throughout and it doesn't hurt. The whole thing takes around 40 minutes."
He pauses briefly and laughs: "And I can certainly say that if anyone ever again asks me what my address and date of birth are... you keep getting asked those questions so much because staff are always concerned they have the right patient on the table before they do too much."
Remarkably, Mr Robinson was offered the choice of leaving the RVH the following day and returning for some further tests - or staying put for a few days.
He reveals: "Once they had stabilised me and put the three stents, I could have gone home on Tuesday. But there were two further arteries they were not happy about.
"However, they wanted things to calm down around the heart before they would make an assessment of them - there was the potential of two further stents going in. They told me there were a couple of other issues that they wanted to be satisfied about and that I could come back in four to six weeks.
"Alternatively they said that things would have settled down by Thursday and they could have a look then and go back in again if they needed to do so.
"I decided to stay - at that point I knew that if I had escaped, then I wasn't going to come back.
"So, I decided to get it all done in one go, that it wouldn't kill me to wait until Thursday.
"That meant I had the time to be given a tour by the consultants of all the facilities including the Cath Centre where they inserted my stents.
"In fact, while I was there they showed us the blockbuster movie of the day which turned out to be my actual operation, so I could sit and watch my own stents going in.
"And then when I came out of that, Martin McGuinness arrived to see how I was feeling. It was good of him to call in and I appreciated it."
After further investigations on Thursday, Mr Robinson was told that he would not need any further stents, and that medication would be sufficient.
It is clear, however, that doctors have given him a stern talking to about what may have contributed to his heart attack - and the issues are undoubtedly going to have to be tackled by the two women in the room with us.
For starters, that trip to the Irish Open on Saturday seems to have caused some consternation, though Mr Robinson is unequivocal about his decision to travel to Newcastle.
"I've been told there is no reason why I will not make a full recovery, though yes I've been advised that I have to do nothing for two weeks..." he concedes, then rallies: "But the doctors' advice to me was 'Do not let them wrap you in cotton wool' so I take that as licence for doing what I want to do."
He repeats the advice his doctors gave him: "Gentle walks, healthy meals, long nights of steady sleep... yeah... but I will start off well and with good intentions.
"And it does not take me to change an awful lot to do better than how I was doing.
"I was telling the consultants my eating arrangements of the last seven days before I was admitted to hospital.
"They included two Chinese meals, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a McDonalds and a cowboy supper, plus the normal meals you get at business lunches and all the rest of it... the trouble is you are not at home to get regular, good, homemade food."
There are indications of a slight change of approach, however.
He will meet the Secretary of State tomorrow to discuss the welfare crisis but that is the only engagement planned for the next fortnight.
Mr Robinson says: "As much as anything else it is the hours that I put into the job and I probably don't need to put all those hours in, I probably don't delegate enough.
"But for the next two weeks there will be people at the end of phones getting plenty of advice."
He warms to his theme: "It's probably about managing all those kind of things better... I have to walk from here (he points at himself sitting on the leather couch) to there (he points at a spot just outside the window), then I get into a car and am driven to the door of wherever it is I am going to.
"I don't even get the normal walking around that people would get coming in from the car park to work.
"So you are having to create opportunities for exercise and if you're working all the time, you don't get that chance.
"Typically in the winter I would put on up to 40lbs and then take them all off quite quickly in the summer months when I do have an opportunity to exercise. A few of us go who go out cycling on Saturdays - Jonathan Bell, Sammy Douglas and myself.
"We'd been out the last couple of Saturdays and I'd been slightly chastised because I was at the front of the group going down the road from my house.
"I was going at a fair old speed and told to slow down. But I enjoyed the cycle on Saturday, it was a good day and I didn't feel any pain when I was out."
The First Minister insists that he does not find the job of running Northern Ireland stressful, instead blaming the lifestyle issues that come with it.
"In my mind I've been trying to distinguish between being stressed, being busy, and then the lifestyle factors of diet, exercise and sleep, and my greater failings are definitely the latter three.
"There would be few minutes in the day that I'm not churning things over in my mind in terms of planning and you can't turn that off... as I said, the last email that I had sent before I was taken ill was at 3.56am to my special advisors, about the 12 facts about welfare reform that I believed needed to be made last Tuesday and I also had First Minister's questions to prepare for...
"So, 40 years of that - and if I'm honest a wee track from the computer to the fridge to keep yourself going, too.
"In fact, that is probably the most exercise that I was getting, walking to the fridge and back... and it wasn't for a stick of celery either.
"And as I said the fact you've enjoyed good health makes you feel invincible. I remember going on to South Korea with the NI Select Committee and going to see my doctor for a range of injections before I went, only to discover the poor man had died 20 years before..."
He adds: "Is there a delayed shock? Well, at the time there was nothing scary about it because you are in that zone, it is happening to you and you are dealing with it.
"Afterwards there is a mixture of relief at having been able to deal with it but there is also heightened sensitivity for any pain in your body - you start to wonder whether there is any connection or not with the heart attack, but I suppose that feeling will go away in time."
'I could not speak more highly of the hospitals' staff'
The First Minister has paid warm tribute to all the staff who cared for him, from the paramedics who arrived with the ambulance to all those he met in the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
"The team at the RVH are experts; you suddenly appreciate their level of expertise - they would be European leaders and indeed are certainly up there in terms of cardiac services across the world," he said. "There is a new suite opening there, with space-age equipment in it that will be even better than the state-of-the-art stuff used on me.
"And I could not speak more highly of the staff, the people who work at every level in the Royal... from the people that came in to empty the trash to the ones that were doing the washing and cleaning, the people who filled your water jug... they were all wonderful and so pleasant.
"And I have to bear in mind there was a fair disruption to their normal routines because there was a security operation on all the time with police all over the hospital. We were putting them out much more than a normal patient would."