Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I knew I was in trouble' - what if feels like to be minutes from death

John Hassett felt a sharp pain in his head after getting out of a swimming pool. Here, he reveals how a radio ad helped save his life

'Lucky time': John Hassett is grateful to still be alive after his health scare
'Lucky time': John Hassett is grateful to still be alive after his health scare

Chrissie Russell

Dublin man John Hassett (63) knows he might not have been here today if it hadn't been for a radio ad, playing in his car 10 weeks ago.

"Eighty per cent, one in five… it doesn't sound like bad odds. But, generally, if I'm in a room with five people, then I'd say I'm the one who won't win that particular raffle. I remember sitting in hospital with the doctor telling me that the operation I needed to have was 80pc safe and thinking: 'John, with some of the luck you've had, you're going to be part of that 20pc.' But there was no alternative.

"My condition had gone so far that medication wouldn't help. I knew the outlook wasn't good, so I signed the piece of paper in front of me and was taken to intensive care.

"I hadn't even packed a bag when I asked my daughter to drop me off at the Mater Private Hospital on June 13 earlier this year. And I don't know if it was because I didn't want to worry her or because I felt embarrassed, but whatever the reason was, I didn't tell her anything was wrong.

"That day, it was a Tuesday, started so normally. I keep thinking back to try and remember if I'd felt anything wrong in the days before, but I don't think I did. I went swimming - so I must have felt fine - but when I got out of the pool I felt a brief sharp pain in my head.

"It's hard to describe, but it felt like a surge that was there for a split second, leaving me feeling faint, and then gone.

"I'd experienced the same feeling just once before. About four years ago, I'd been out cycling around Howth, got a puncture and had to carry the bike back to the car. Suddenly, there was this surge of pressure in my head, not painful exactly, but an awful sensation, then it was gone. It was only the one and I soon forgot about it.

"This time was different. On the way home to North Dublin from the fitness club, I got another surge. I had the radio on in the car and an ad came on for 24/7 Urgent Cardiac Care at the Mater. There was something about the symptoms they were describing that made me think 'that's me'. I rang the number when I got home and when I told them my symptoms, the woman on the other end said to come in at 1.30pm.

"It was late morning when my daughter drove me and the traffic was heavier than usual. The surges were coming more frequently now and I just kept talking to myself saying: 'You're nearly there John, you're on your way to the right place.'

"It's hard to clearly remember what happened next and I don't know if I have it in order in my head. I felt very faint in the hospital and I remember the nurse who hooked me up to a machine, and who had been very friendly and chatting away, suddenly went very quiet and looked a bit red in the face. She called another nurse over and they both went quiet before one of them said: 'Will I get him?' I knew then I was in trouble. [John presented at the Mater Hospital in Dublin with such an irregular heartbeat (intermittent ventricular tachycardia) that cardiologists later said he was in a 'pre-death' state - literally minutes away from death.]

"The next thing I was in a room and very aware that someone was always with me, I was never left alone. First I had an angiogram done through my arm, then the doctor came to tell me another procedure was imminent and gave me the warning that it was only 80pc safe.

"That's when all the regrets came that I'd let it get so far. I hadn't had the surges until that Tuesday morning, but I'd been having heart palpitations for months. I have an exercise bike in the house that takes pulse measurements and it had been showing my heart rate was erratic. But I'd blamed the bike and thought the batteries were going. I disregarded the signs of heart disease and I don't know why, I can only say I was foolish.

"In my younger days, I was the opposite. My wife died from cervical cancer aged 35 and I was left with our two young kids then aged just six and eight years old. They were so young and I was petrified of every little pain I'd get and used to persecute the doctors, running to them convinced I had cancer when really it was all in my head. Slowly, over time, I convinced myself there was nothing to worry about.

"I thought I tried to live healthily. I was always out during the day, climbing mountains and cycling, and I tried to eat healthily, although takeaways were starting to be more common. But at night, I had the sports channels and I'd sit and have a drink of wine or whiskey and a cigar. I didn't sleep well and I know now my heart problems had been building up over the years.

"Getting the news, that this might be it for me… there's no other words than to say it was heart-stopping and I couldn't help but cry.

"The operation (a catheter ablation) went amazingly well. I don't know if it was my imagination, but I felt like all I could feel was a knotting, or a circling of thread around the bottom of my heart. The section of my heart that was out of control was removed - no discomfort or pain - it just felt like a little bit of thread going round and round.

"That was 10 weeks ago. I count the weeks now because that's 10 weeks I wouldn't have had. I feel like now I'm on, not 'borrowed time' exactly, but lucky time. Given time.

"I feel that radio ad saved my life because it jolted me into action. Also, I didn't know it at the time, but I found out later, it's only if you phone the cardiac call-line before noon that you get to be seen that day. Any later and appointments are usually the next day. If I'd left it even another half hour, I might have missed it.

"I could so easily have not been here and I'm so grateful to everyone who helped me. But it can sometimes feel like there's pressure to make the most of this given time. I've to be careful and I'm being so careful that I'd almost get bored. I'd be frightened to have a night in the pub with company like I used to.

"I'm on my own in the house sometimes if my daughter's visiting her partner or a friend and the loneliness is kind of emphasised when, in the past, having a drink might have mitigated that. And when you're bored, your mind wanders.

"I have thoughts during the night when I'm missing my wife and my son who was just 25 when he died, and my Dad and Mam, who had a sad slow death from cancer… I feel fearful sometimes when I cycle somewhere remote that I might be taking a bit of a chance.

"But then there's other days when I'll ride the bike somewhere up Howth head, gaze out at the sea and think: 'Aren't I lucky.'"

Irish Independent

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