'The scary thing is it wasn't that bad': My heart attack was nothing like what you see on TV

A heart attack can come suddenly and have a profound impact. Reporter Mark Andrews talks of his own health scare.

Mark Andrews at home after his heart attack. He says the experience has made him reflect on the need for a better life balance.
Mark Andrews at home after his heart attack. He says the experience has made him reflect on the need for a better life balance.

The scariest thing is that it wasn't really that bad. One moment I was suffering mild chest pain and a spot of pins and needles, a short while later a doctor was solemnly warning me the procedure I was about to undergo included the risk of fatality, but was so urgent that normal protocols were suspended.

I did wonder what was the point of this disclaimer. If I didn't make it through the operation, I was hardly going to be in a position to argue about it, was I?

It all happened on St George's Day. About to finish my last job of a pretty hectic day, a strange dull ache began to appear in the chest. It's quite hard to describe, unlike anything I had experienced before, I can only liken it to an extreme case of indigestion that wasn't going away in a hurry.

It was nothing at all like you see on the telly. There was no crashing to the floor clutching my chest, and no writhing or groaning. Had it been a scene in a soap, it would have been something of an anti-climax.

As the ache slowly started to moved up towards the neck, I started to vomit, and became short of breath as I developed pins and needles in the arms. It wasn't much pleasant, but it wasn't agony, either. Certainly much less of an ordeal than suspected Covid, 12 months earlier.

Slightly disturbed by the unusual symptoms, I dug out the old blue NHS Direct booklet which advised me to dial 999. Sheepishly apologising to the ambulance controller, I said I hoped I wasn't wasting his time and that it was probably indigestion or something. An ambulance was dispatched immediately.

To say it came out of the blue would be an understatement. While I might have a couple of decades on Christian Eriksen, and concede that the Danish international footballer might even be marginally fitter than me, I did consider myself to be in pretty good shape. Just five days earlier I had walked four miles around Chasewater in Staffordshire, with long walks in the countryside being my standard Sunday afternoon routine.

Mark Andrews relaxes with a spot of watercolour painting

One of the saddest moments of my short spell in hospital came when I was woken one morning by the sound of medics battling unsuccessfully to save the life of a fellow patient in a neighbouring room. It brought it home how precious and precarious life is for all of us.

The life-threatening but urgent procedure I received on arrival involved the fitting of a stent fitted to one of my coronary arteries. A truly remarkable feat of technology, the inner workings of my heart were accessed through a pin-prick sized incision on my wrist, all done under local anaesthetic.

My main memory of the operation was one of shivering in the cold – the surgeon said that was the adrenaline – but considering what was being done, the discomfort was mild to say the least. The doctor advised me to turn my head to the left while the operation was being carried out – and when I saw the amount of blood on my wrist afterwards, I think I can see why.

Once this incredible piece of surgery was complete, it felt like a simple matter of counting down the hours to my return home. Feeling right as rain by my fourth and final day in hospital, I assumed it would just be a case of walking out the door and picking up where I left off. This illusion was quickly dispelled by the moment I reached the car park, where I found myself gasping for breath from the exertion of walking out the building.

Precautionary

There was a hairy moment a few hours after leaving hospital. Having fallen asleep in a chair after watching one of the most horrible films I had ever seen (Ray & Liz, since you ask), I woke to find myself once more suffering mild chest pains and pins and needles. Paramedics gave me the all clear, but it was back in the ambulance after a few weeks later after another incident left me needing a precautionary check-up in hospital.

The cause of my illness is unknown. I had no underlying illnesses, no medical history, have never smoked, and was not diabetic. I enjoy a pint and a steak dinner, but only in moderation. My cholesterol level was not excessive. The only explanations that anybody has so far come up with was that it could be the result of my four-week experience of suspected Covid at the start of the pandemic, a rather tenuous family history of heart problems (my grandfather died from heart failure in 1983) and that I was simply unlucky.

So what have I learned from my experience? First, it is that heart attacks can happen to anybody, even apparently fit and healthy individuals like myself. They are not the preserve of obese, ruddy-faced chain-smokers who angrily call into radio phone-in shows.

Secondly, while in the past I might have said that lunch was for wimps, and that talk about a work-life balance was a euphemism for swinging the lead, the past few weeks have caused me to reflect on that. While I'm not ready to go the full Gwyneth Paltrow or chillax at Woodstock any time soon, I've realised that if you live your life with the accelerator constantly pressed to the floor, sooner or later you are going to run out of petrol. I've even taken up painting watercolours – badly obviously – and most shocking of all, I've tentatively dabbled with vegetarian meals.

And while I marvel at the incredible feat of surgical genius that has brought me back from my brush with death, it is important to remember the role of old-school technology too. It was a small blue book, given to me about 20 years ago, that ultimately saved my life.

And if you do find yourself experiencing unusual chest pains, shortness of breath, a tingling sensation or vomiting, don't hesitate to dial 999. It was one of the best calls I've ever made.

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