Northern Ireland author Claire Allan reveals health scare - 'I've never known fear like it'
I had a busy week. My second crime novel had just been published, I was working on edits for book number three, drafting number four and on top of that we were getting work done at home.
I spent the week running around organising new carpets, buying new curtains, choosing wallpaper, clearing rooms out and putting them back together. And that was on top of all the usual mum duties and responsibilities — I have a son Joseph (15) and daughter Cara (9).
By Friday I was feeling worn out and, if I’m honest, a little worse for wear.
My husband was away for the evening so I decided on an early night and was watching TV in bed, just getting ready to turn the light off and go to sleep when I very suddenly felt exceptionally unwell.
It was staggering how quickly I went from feeling fine to feeling as if something was very wrong.
At first I felt as if I would faint, and quite quickly realised my heart was racing. I happened to be on the phone to my sister at the time who told me to lie down and raise my feet and to take deep breaths, which I did, only to feel an increasing tightness across my chest, aches and pains in my arms and neck.
I’ve seen enough Grey’s Anatomy to know these are all the classic signs of a heart attack, and while I’m only 42 with healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, I started to fear the worst.
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It’s a very surreal experience to realise you have to call an ambulance for yourself. I tried to tell myself I was being overly dramatic, but as the sensations continued to worsen, I imagine a survival instinct kicked in.
It’s very sobering how any potential problem with your heart will focus your mind and make you want to get better — and quickly.
Dialling 999 and trying to stay calm while speaking with the dispatcher was tough. Part of me hoped she would tell me I was fine and there was no need for an ambulance, but a bigger part of me knew I needed help and quickly.
Thanks to our NHS, within five minutes I had two paramedics in my Waterside home in Derry, hooking me up to an ECG monitor, taking blood, monitoring my blood pressure and, perhaps most importantly of all, doing their best to keep me calm in a situation that was exceptionally frightening.
Very calmly I was told my heart beat was “a little higher than we would like” and that they needed to try some methods to slow it down. I didn’t know at the time, thankfully, that a little higher than they like meant my heart was beating at in excess of 200 beats per minute, when a normal heart rhythm while resting is considered between 60 and 100 bpm.
Essentially my heart was ‘short circuiting’ — thanks to a condition known as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). While the paramedics had me try a method known as a vagal maneuver (in this case blowing into a syringe as hard as I could), my heartbeat didn’t slow and it was a case of moving me to the ambulance to try one last manoeuvre before hospital transfer.
I like to consider myself a fairly sensible person but to hear a paramedic say they have to radio an alert ahead so that a resus bed will be available is terrifying.
At that stage I felt sick, dizzy, faint.
My body was tingling all over (which I now know was due to poor circulation of oxygen around my body) and my heart felt as if would beat out of my chest.
And yet, holding my hand and talking to me throughout was a paramedic who provided continual reassurance, and who helped to keep me as calm as possible as we made our way to Altnagelvin Area Hospital.
Most of us have seen depictions of resus rooms in emergency departments on TV, and we hope never to find ourselves in them, but there was a calmness to the room. There was no shouting or calling for tests, but there were six people around my bed all working together to help me feel better.
In the midst of all that work they still had time to reassure me. I was soon told I would need a drug called adenosine to return my heartbeat to normal.
I was told it would probably make me feel worse before it made it feel better, but a doctor held my hand and focused my attention on him.
“Do you see my face?” he asked. “I don’t look worried, so you’re not to be worried unless you see my face change.”
Adenosine basically restarts the heart. The equivalent of turning it off and turning it back on again very quickly. Although those seconds when it is being administered through an IV line feel like a lot longer.
The pain in my chest was immense, the sensation through my body was indescribable. Even worse was that it didn’t work the first time, and a second higher dose had to be administered.
I have not known fear like it.
But within seconds the drug had worked and while I was still dizzy and nauseous, the thumping in my chest slowed and I started to feel relatively normal again.
Some time on observation, blood tests and a further ECG rule out any damage to my heart and amazingly, within three hours of it all starting, I was allowed home.
SVT, while it can feel as though you are dying, is very rarely life-threatening. It is possible it will happen again, and if it does I’m to go directly to A&E, but at least I’ll know that my life is not at risk.
To have that knowledge so soon after such a terrifying episode meant the world. I was able to leave hospital knowing that I had received what tests I needed to rule out any serious condition. I have been referred onto outpatients at cardiology for a follow-up.
And I left knowing I would not be receiving a massive bill for the treatment in the post.
I was going home to rest while the staff who had worked so hard for me continued with their shift on a very busy Friday night in A&E. As I was leaving, two police officers were leading someone drunk in for treatment. There was a child crying in a nearby cubicle. People waiting for beds. The staff just continued on with their shift, helping others and healing others.
Every person I interacted with treated me with kindness and reassurance. From the dispatcher on the phone to the nurse who discharged me.
I could not have received better care anywhere else in the world.
The NHS isn’t perfect — no health model is — but it is amazing. To have that level of care there, on call, in an emergency is something we should never take for granted.
We don’t have to think about whether or not we can pay for treatment before we dial 999. We know that the staff working will do all they can to not only treat us medically, but to treat us as the scared and vulnerable humans we are too.
This is just one story, of one scary experience, but it shows how effective and essential our NHS is.
Apple Of My Eye by Claire Allan, published by Avon, £7.99, is on sale now
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