Back from the brink of death

This time last year, I was in a hospital bed unable to get up and walk two steps without oxygen. How did I end up there? Well, now that I’ve had time to reflect I know the journey that got me there started many months earlier.

It started with a cough that just wouldn’t go away. But that wasn’t a big deal, I was a bit run down a bit stressed at work. A few weeks later, I started to feel a gradual tightness in my chest when walking up stairs. Just a chest infection I thought. I’m a bit run down. I got on with life, sleep, eat, work, friends, repeat, repeat, repeat. But each day, those simple things got a little harder. I was struggling to breath just simply walking.

I tried to ignore how my body was letting me down. It was an inconvenience. I had things to do. There was a lot going on at work. I was renovating my home and was temporarily staying with a friend. I didn’t want to be that flaky friend that makes excuses not to go out. So I kept on going.

Commuting into central London for work was the journey from hell. Everything was moving fast around me. I was slowing down, and with every step taken and every stair climbed I struggled to breathe, my chest was tight, my heart pounded. It was like climbing a steep mountain. I know, because I’d climbed a mountain the year before, and three others before that. Admittedly, the last mountain I did was a bit tough, but it was nothing compared to how my daily commute now felt. The only relief I had was when I could drive to our Coventry office. I’d park as close as I could, so I didn’t have far to walk.

The week I ended up in hospital started like any other. Monday was a slow and painful commute to the station, two tubes and a walk later I made it to the office.

I was burning up and coughing and knew I shouldn’t be at work. But I had a new starter, so I had to go in. Later that day I decided to work from the place I was staying. But first I had to check on my renovation. The builders were demanding, it chaotic, stressful and dusty. When I eventually got to my temporary home I was exhausted and not fit to do anything.

Tuesday thankfully was a Coventry day. I was up and getting ready but within minutes my heart was pounding, and I was struggling to breathe. How was this taking up so much energy! I drove to work and parked 5 minutes from the office. This walk felt like a marathon.

I was in a few fraught meetings that day and was feeling increasingly unwell. My chest had got tighter, my heart pounded faster, and my skin was hotter. It’s just a chest infection I thought. As I walked back to my car I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath and calm the vice-like grip in my chest. Struggling to breath and talk, I called my doctor and they told me to come in the next morning.

Wednesday, I drove to the doctor first thing. It wasn’t my usual doctor. This one asked me what I thought was wrong. Of course by the time I had got to the doctor, I couldn’t quite articulate what was wrong. I felt like a fraud. To her question, I said a chest infection I guess. She agreed. Prescribed antibiotics and an inhaler.

She signed me off work a week and suggested I pop to the hospital next morning for a chest x-ray. I left, got my meds and stopped by my home to see the builders, then drove to my temporary home to sleep.

Thursday, my plans to get an x-ray were scuppered when I couldn’t find anywhere close to the hospital to park. I couldn’t make the walk as my breathing and chest pain had got rapidly worse. Meanwhile, my builder asked me to stop by and make some decisions on the renovation. That done, I decided to get a bit of shopping before heading back to where I was staying.

I parked up, grabbed my bags and climbed the stairs to the first floor flat. I dropped the bags feeling light-headed and struggling to breathe. I headed to the bed and flopped on it. The room spun and then nothing. I had passed out. I think I came around fairly quick. But as I was laying there I realised I’d left my mobile in the car and forgot the parking permit. I had to go back downstairs.

I staggered back down the stairs and grabbed my mobile from the car. Heart pounding, I couldn’t catch breath as I shut the door. I stood on the bottom step a moment dizzy and trying to calm myself. Then I took the first step up. But my head was spinning, and I was falling. Slumped on the stairs I was sick, exorcist style. I felt my heart slowing down. Then there was just darkness.

I felt at peace. I’m not sure how long I was slumped there, but when I came around still holding my phone I knew if I didn’t get help I would die.

The emergency services were amazing. They stayed on the phone and got me to get up and open the door for the ambulance staff. They asked if I could walk to the ambulance. Yes, I said. I remember stepping on, then waking up in my bed. But it wasn’t my bed, it was the ambulance floor. They got me on the stretcher bed and gave me oxygen. They said I gave them a fright I was burning up and turning blue. I passed out a few more times in hospital after that, until I learnt that I couldn’t move without oxygen.

After various checks and a CT Scan the doctor explained that I had multiple pulmonary embolisms, blood clots in my lungs. The clots were putting pressure on my heart. But they couldn’t find any direct cause for it. They would do more tests and keep me on oxygen and anticoagulants. So that was that.

The next morning, the friend I was staying with was visiting until my family got there. I was feeling a bit better, so I unhooked myself from the oxygen to go to the bathroom. As I was brushing my teeth I felt the ground shift. I felt like I was floating towards my bed. Everything went black. Here we go again, I thought. I woke up to lots of voices and doctors standing over me. I had a seizure, apparently. This I think was more traumatizing for my friend than me.

After a week in hospital, test were ongoing. One test led to a cancer scare and an emergency appointment on Christmas Eve. But thankfully, they were able to give me the all clear the same day. The consultant decided I had an unprovoked pulmonary embolism.

They told me recovery will take at least a year, and that I would need to stay on anticoagulants for life. Not me, I thought. I’ll be back at work soon.

And by December, I was working from my newly renovated home. But that was a big mistake. By late January, I was physically and mentally exhausted. My blood pressure was high, my breathing worsened, and I felt anxious if I had to go outside. Work felt hard and stressful.

On what was feeling like yet another hard day at work, I popped to my local surgery for a blood pressure check with the nurse. After taking the reading, she said I couldn’t leave without seeing the doctor. He signed me off work immediately. I was still convinced I’d be okay in a couple of weeks, and would only allow him to sign me off two weeks at a time. After a month, he said you are not going to feel better for a long time. You need to take the time to recover emotionally not just physically. So I took his advice.

In a lot of ways, this past year and the months leading up to my collapse are a blessing. I had to slow down.

Before I went back to work, I did cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with the anxiety I felt going out, walking up stairs and using public transport.It helped, but the irony was when I was just about ready to get back out into the world Covid-19 pandemic broke out and we went into lockdown. It was a strange time, with people suddenly experiencing symptoms similar but not the same. It made me wonder if stress was a factor in people with the worst Covid-19 symptoms, making it harder to fight it.

It has now been more than a year since I went into my workplace. But I am back working full time and I’ve even taken on more responsibilities, but I know my limits. Now, when my head spins, my chest tightens, and my breathing is shallow I stop and think. What is making me feel this way.

While I’m not back to full fitness, most of the time it’s not walking up hills or stairs that trigger this anxious feeling. It’s my blood pressure rising, it is stress. A pulmonary embolism almost killed me, but it was stress that was killing me slowly. Stress made me blind to the warning signs. Now I know better, I choose to let go of stress in my life.

I also choose to have a fully charged phone with me at all times. The second trip I made to the car which caused me to collapse on the stairs also saved my life. If I didn’t have my phone, I couldn’t have called the emergency services. And I wouldn’t be here now to tell this tale.

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