This year has thrown a lot at so many of us with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. My family and I have been observing the restrictions since they came in… indeed K and I were working from home for a couple of weeks before the restrictions came into effect here in Melbourne, as we have K’s parents staying with us from the UK. I have missed my regular run commutes with my friends and parkrun, of course, but have made up for this by running 5km each day and catching up with friends online for coffees or beers, depending on the time of the day.
On Saturday, 16 May 2020 my family got a big disruption thrown their way. Our five-year-old found me face down in the doorway of the bedroom. He calmly alerted K and then sought out his granny (whose flights back to the UK had been cancelled shortly after arriving in Melbourne back in March) and told her that I’d fallen over. My wife and her mother called the ambulance and identified that I was in cardiac arrest. They performed effective cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until the ambulances arrived about 15 minutes later. K had recently injured her wrist in a running accident, making CPR quite painful to perform, so I was doubly fortunate that my mother-in-law was stranded with us and in the house and able to assist. The ambulance crew got my heart beating by itself using their automated external defibrillator (AED) and took me off to hospital.
I don’t remember anything from the Saturday morning until the Tuesday evening, but have had the story relayed to me a number of times. I had to be shocked three or four more times after that initial use of the AED to allow my heart to re-establish an effective rhythm. I had burn marks on my skin as a testament to this but they have since faded. I was then put into an induced coma to stabilise my condition.
Coming out of the coma was very confusing. I didn’t know where or when I was. The drugs they’d had me on caused an hallucination where it felt like I was in a tunnel with amber flashing lights. A voice told me I was in the Royal Melbourne Hospital and eventually I was asked if I knew what the date or even the month was. I thought it was March, isolation perhaps adding to the confusion. Apparently I realised pretty quickly I’d missed World Whisky Day but I don’t recall saying this out loud. Funny how the brain works!
I was tired and drowsy after becoming conscious. K helped me eat some cold custard in the Coronary Care Unit (CCU) ward to try to boost my energy levels. I slept well that night.
On the Wednesday morning, two of the physotherapy team helped me learn to walk again. Putting my feet flat on the floor felt like a big deal but it felt good to take those first tentative steps around the CCU, with one arm hooked around the physio’s. It felt like a very positive step to get upright and mobile and I made every effort to get up and walk around when there was a nurse around to assist that day.
By Thursday, I felt comfortable walking short distances without assistance. I’d had all kinds of readings and measurements taken to check that the levels of medication I had been prescribed were working to keep my heartbeat regular and my heart muscle strong. Day on day, I was feeling stronger and stronger.
On Saturday morning, I had a visit from some cardiology experts who were really happy with my progress and talked to me about fitting me with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to prevent a similar incident in future. The operation was planned for Monday, with a view to me being discharged from hospital on the Tuesday. I felt elated! I had envisioned a much longer road to recovery at the beginning of the week. We were still unclear as to what the cause of the cardiac arrest was and we may never know for sure.
The weekend was quiet on the hospital ward. I followed the physio’s advice “Don’t get the sits” and took regular walks around the ward to keep myself active but also used the time and the fact that I had the two bed room to myself for most of the weekend to catch up with some friends with video calls and to read some books.
I wasn’t fitted with the ICD on the Monday but I was told that I might be better suited to a subcutaneous ICD (S-ICD) because I am “young” and “athletic” (not adjectives I’m used to hearing but it’s all relative, I suppose) but this would require a stress test. I did the stress test on the Monday afternoon, walking, jogging and running on a treadmill, while hooked up to an electrocardiogram (ECG) as well as an S-ICD simulator to ensure that the device wouldn’t administer any shocks that I didn’t need.
The stress test was a success and I was fitted with the S-ICD first thing on the Wednesday morning. Having such a sizable device implanted under the muscle under my left arm resulted in quite a lot of discomfort but that was a welcome distraction from the sore ribs from the CPR!
Now that I had suitable drugs to keep my heart free from ectopic beats and my own personal defibrillator to keep the heart beating should they fail (or, more likely, I forget to take them), there was no reason for me to take up a hospital bed and I was sent home to convalesce on Wednesday.
I am so very grateful to my family for their fast response, to Ambulance Victoria for administering the defibrillator and getting me to hospital, and to all the team on the CCU at Royal Melbourne Hospital for giving me the very best of care. I am also very thankful to everyone who sent my family messages of support, reading each one gave me a real boost and I am sure that the positivity really helped with my speedy recovery.
It is so good to be back home with the family. I am still adjusting to life post-cardiac arrest and post-implant but I know one day the ribs will heal, my fitness will return and I’ll be able to ease back into work and into running. Each patient on the CCU ward had a whiteboard for noting important information (name, nurse’s name, doctor’s name, estimated discharge date, daily plan, et cetera) and this board had a question about what is important to the patient. I had plenty of time and space to think about this and thought I’d share it as a part of this post:
To be an active member of a global family and to leave the world a little better than I found it.
Having this written down and shared with my family I’m sure will be helpful as I settle back into life. Much like the pandemic we’ve all lived through and the restrictions associated with that, we get to evaluate which parts of “normality” we want to keep and which we don’t.
I now have a plan from my GP for easing back into work and am looking forward to being back online with my colleagues. I’m told that cardiac arrest survivors have a high risk of depression, so my mental health is something I need to pay attention to in the coming months.
There were a few other things I want to share with you that my family and I have learned over the past few weeks. I hope you find them useful.
The survival rate for out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrests is terrifyingly low. Effective CPR saved my life. Please learn how to do this properly: lock your elbows (don’t bend them like actors do) and don’t be afraid of cracking a rib or two, the casualty won’t mind. Trust me!
Know the location of your nearest defibrillator
There’s an app for that. If you don’t have one in your office or other building where you frequently meet other people, consider asking for one to be installed.
Family rooms in hospital are not just for bad news
K feared the worst when she was seated in the family room to have what had happened explained to her and had to ask at one point if I was still alive!
Offer specific help
We felt very well supported for all of the time I was in the hospital and many people said, “if there’s anything I can do”. Genuinely we couldn’t think of anything. Some friends offered very specific help such as cooked meals, looking after the kids and taking the eldest running: these were absolutely amazing.
Store you partner’s work contact details in case of emergency
Your employer probably has your emergency contact details on file for should something happen to you at work, but do your family know how to contact your work if you are incapacitated?
Have someone you can delegate to at work
At the beginning of the pandemic, I nominated a member of my team who could represent me were I incapacitated due to COVID-19. This made it easier on my team when I was out of action.