Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Heart - courtesy

Heart - courtesy

Heart to heart (2)

Before Christmas HOT columnist Sean O’ Shea was diagnosed as having heart problems (HOT 13th December, 2013). In part two of Heart to Heart he shares some more of his experiences with the NHS. 

The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish,
cutting the heart asunder.

Virginia Woolf

Before Christmas I was diagnosed as having atrial fibrillation (AF) – an abnormally fast, irregular heart beat – and a left ventricular dysfunction (LVD).  AF is a common disorder which varies in severity. Unfortunately I happen to be one of the people who are quite disabled by the condition, the symptoms of which can include breathlessness, dizziness, chest pain and chronic fatigue.

In mid-January I had a cardioversion.  This is a medical procedure used to normalise the heartbeat by the administration of a therapeutic dose of electricity via pads placed on the chest, and was required before further investigations could take place to identify the underlying cause of my problem. Whether the operation was successful or not, I anticipated that it might at least liven me up.

Marionet heart

courtesy -

Pre-op room

My fellow patients and I were assembled in a ramshackle office improvised for the occasion as the usual medical transit room had apparently been purloined for another purpose. There was no privacy but we settled in and chatted amicably amongst ourselves while the nurse went about confirming our identities and gathering final details – any dentures, allergies or peculiarities etc?

A small bespectacled man wearing an ill-fitting pale blue gown appeared in the doorway looking lost and confused. The patient on my right was first to spot him. “Hope that’s not the anaesthetist,” he said. “You bet it is,” said the patient on left. “Then we’re done for,” said the patient on the right.

Some sort of a dispute ensued between the bespectacled man and the nurse as to which was the correct patient list to be observed.

“Could be anyone, couldn’t he?” continued the man on the left, fanning his paranoia. “Like a terrorist who thinks we are all infidels and wants to dispatch the lot us to hell.”

“Didn’t you notice, even the nurse didn’t seem to recognise him.”

The jocund rapport we had shared earlier had subsided as all three of us eyed up the fellow in the ill-fitting gown. He had moved to the computer desk and was shuffling papers around. Finally, raising his hands in the air in a gesture of exasperation, he hurried out of the room

Some minutes passed and the man on my right was summoned.  The man on the left waved him goodbye with exaggerated gestures, and when he had disappeared from view, winked at me and made the sign of the cross.

It was my turn in the operating room. The bespectacled man with the ill-fitting gown stood beside me. I couldn’t discern if he was still looking confused but hoped he was well-intentioned and knew what he was doing. As I drifted towards unconsciousness the fleeting image of a broken, heart-shaped marionette dangled before my mind’s eye.


A hand was gently squeezing my arm. The hand belonged to a male nurse with smiling face and kindly eyes. “You OK?” he enquired. “Fine,” I replied though a bit groggy. “Looks like you’re back in tune,” he says. “Great,” I replied though I didn’t feel particularly different. “Thought you were the Buddha when I first saw your face,” I confided. “Spent some time in Nepal,” he replied. “While not immune to western commercialism a tradition of fellowship and compassion was still embedded in their culture. Loved it there.” “What are you doing here then?” I enquired. “Well, nursing is my vocation. Was offered a management position but preferred to care for patients rather than manipulate statistics.” “Wise move,” I said. “There isn’t much call for compassion in management circles.”

My smiling Buddha nurse wheeled me out to the recovery room. The rest of the patients were seated in a half circle with their brown paper goody bags on their laps. With the excitement and expectancy of a child I opened my bag. There was a sandwich, a tub of yogurt, orange juice, a chocolate bar and packet of crisps. I wasn’t hungry so I drank the juice, put the sandwich in my pocket for later and distributed the other items amongst my fellow patients. I felt cared for, tearful and oddly serene. I could stay here for a bit, I thought to myself. The mood was not to last.

Five days later I returned from a shopping expedition and went to have a lie down. As I lay on the bed I became aware of my heart racing once again. I felt dizzy, mildly nauseous and had a dull pain in my chest.

Stethoscope graphic

Waiting room

It was Monday and I found myself quietly palpitating in the corner of my local surgery. I hadn’t bothered bringing a book on this occasion but instead listened to the stories of my fellow patients. The atmosphere was like that of a convivial public confessional. One shared horror trumped another and at times the air resounded with absurd, almost hysterical laughter. There was the 80-year-old man who claimed to have had so many stents, implants and other paraphernalia installed that he had lost count. He would be dead without them though, he assured us. There was the woman who was unable to eat normally and had to have food in liquid form passed through a tube. She longed to be able to get her teeth into something, and craved the taste of baked beans. There was the man whose wife had Alzheimer’s, didn’t recognise him anymore, and sat clutching a battered old toy dog while singing –

Memories, memories
Dreams of love so true
O’er the sea of memory
I’m drifting back to you

Childhood days, wild wood days
Among the birds and bees
You left me alone, but still you’re my own
In my beautiful memories

Memories, Gus Kahn

As I observed these pilgrim patients and listened to their stories I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry but it become apparent that things could be a lot worse. And there’s a strange camaraderie in shared suffering.  “Must be thankful for small mercies,” said one patient, as the laughter subsided. “No use dwelling on things,” said another. Then, as each of us retreated into solitary reflection, a deep silence fell upon the waiting room.

My GP confirmed that I was out of tune, adjusted my medication and told me I was on the list for a CT cardiac angiogram. However, he explained that there could be quite a delay as this procedure was not undertaken on a daily basis. Given the urgency of getting to the root of my problem I enquired about the cost of having the scan done privately. “Upwards on a grand,” he replied, “but that’s a guess.” “Thanks but no thanks,” I rejoined. “I was just being curious.”

I rationalise my situation by reminding myself that we are all on a waiting list of one kind or another. The “underlying cause” of my problem may eventually be revealed and addressed. Meantime I shuffle patiently out of one queue into another as I continue my journey through the long, convoluted corridors of the NHS.


March 2014

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Posted 20:24 Monday, Mar 3, 2014 In: SOS

Also in: SOS

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