News Brendan O’Connor

Sunday 21 September 2014

Mid-life Crisis: My suspected heart attack – suspected by me, that is

Published 02/12/2013 | 02:30

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There was a time when rites of passage were a good thing, because they meant you were getting older, and soon you'd be able to do the things your older brothers did – go to Irish College, and then on and on.

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In these middle years, rites of passage are a bad thing, because they mean you are getting older. I found a line the other day, on the side of my face. A line that I was convinced hadn't been there the day before. I wasn't even looking for one. So that is how they come. They just arrive. You don't age gradually. It happens suddenly every day.

So anyway, I had another big milestone last week. My first suspected heart attack. I should say, before you get alarmed, that it wasn't suspected by anyone except me.

It used to be that a suspected heart attack was a simple affair. Unless you fell to the ground clutching your chest you didn't suspect a heart attack. Because that's what a heart attack was. You couldn't breathe and you suddenly keeled over, clutching your chest.

Then we learnt about arm pain. Shooting pains in your arms apparently meant you were a goner. Shooting pains in your arms are much easier to conjure up than falling to the ground clutching your chest. I bet you could do it right now if you wanted to. Focus on your arm. (Right or left?) Now feel the little barely perceptible darts of pain. Can you feel them? Maybe even a hint of pins and needles? I don't mean to alarm you but you are having a suspected heart attack.

Easier again, and more worrying, is the indigestion. Suddenly you keep hearing about people who thought they had indigestion and it turned out to be a heart attack. More commonly, in fairness, you hear about people who thought they were having a heart attack but just had indigestion. I think what stuck in my head once was Nell McCafferty, who talked about being up all night, getting sick now and then, and then eventually someone telling her she was actually having a heart attack. This gave me a whole new level of fear. So you could be around, just feeling a bit sick, not really realising that all the time you are having a heart attack. In slow motion. You could be living through a heart attack without even knowing it.

I was having a rather busy day and I had tacked onto it to do an event. I don't do many events because I put too much work into them in advance and get myself all worked up. Yes, if asked in a job interview what my biggest fault was, I'd say that I was too much of a perfectionist. And I get a bit nervous before events. My nerves before things manifest themselves in not wanting to talk to anyone, which isn't ideal if you are doing an event. So anyway, I was on the way there and I started feeling a bit seasick. I put it down to a bumpy taxi and opened the window a bit.

But it didn't stop when I got there, and I started having kind of empty burps. Obviously by now I was also getting nervous about the event so my mind was racing. I managed to locate a barely perceptible pain in my arm/chest area. It was hard to pinpoint it exactly but of course I told myself that the greatest trick a heart attack plays on you is convincing you it isn't happening. Then I felt a bit like vomiting. I generally have a fairly strong stomach so what else could an urge to vomit be except a heart attack?

I rang the emergency services – my wife. I went through everything with her including my food and drink intake for the last 24 hours in case there was anything suspect there. I mentioned that I had a strong espresso earlier and then a cup of tea shortly after it and she offered the diagnosis. Seasickness due to too much caffeine.

So there it was. Another little rite of passage. All the things I've put into me down the years and now I can't have a second hit of caffeine in case it gives me a suspected heart attack.

Sunday Independent

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