Paul Barnes: What it’s like to have a heart attack in the time of coronavirus

PUBLISHED: 21:01 12 April 2020 | UPDATED: 21:01 12 April 2020

Paul Barnes suffered a heart attack at the end of March, but with the result of wonderful NHS treatment is recovering well at home

Paul Barnes suffered a heart attack at the end of March, but with the result of wonderful NHS treatment is recovering well at home


Paul Barnes had a heart attack in March. Here he describes what happened to him

When you’re told you’ve had a heart attack it can come as a bit of a surprise. We’d had a quiet evening watching, or half-watching one of those things on the telly that spares the brain much in the way of effort. “Same old, same old ...” we said as each cliché and cardboard character hove into view.

Time for bed and a good book, but before I could get to either I found myself on a kitchen stool, unable to get up, head on the table, gasping for breath, lungs rattling like the shingle on Cley beach as the tide went out, easily persuaded that calling the ambulance would be a good idea. But there was none of that chest-clutching, eye-rolling agony like we see on the pictures. Just feeling like death. So how was it defined as a heart attack? Because together with skill, a thermometer, oxygen and a shedload of kindness the ambulance crew brought a portable echo cardiogram machine and printed the evidence before my very eyes.

I was loaded carefully onto a narrow sack barrow and wheeled through the kitchen along the hall to the ambulance, blue lights already flashing. Our puzzled cats had scarpered to different corners of the house but missing nothing. It’s not every day they can catch sight of me being trundled across the gravel like a cargo of King Edwards.

No need for the siren; nothing else on the road. Norfolk & Norwich, cardiac A&E. There’s swift efficiency but no rush. I’m fitted with a hefty face-mask and hooked up to a high-pressure pump that forces oxygen into my lungs. Some greenish fluid is dripped into my left arm; on my right is a drip feed with the soothing beat of a Westinghouse pump on an American steam locomotive. Could it be The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe? Is that Judy Garland I can hear? Am I hallucinating? No, it’s the rustle of anti-virus smocks and masks as doctor and nurse, both so young, get ready carefully to shunt my bed to the ward.

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The journey to Kilverstone was a little eerie, along dark, deserted corridors with closed doors and signs warning of coronavirus and the precautions it demanded. Somewhere, everywhere, brooding in the gloom was the virus. And the hospital was ready, waiting to deal with it however it showed.

I was wheeled into a little side ward, ideal for self-isolation I thought, relishing the prospect of quiet days with good books. No visiting was allowed but we could talk on the phone, once I’d reminded myself how my elderly Nokia actually worked.

They put sticky patches on me and wires ran from them to tell tales of my state of health, signalled by the beeping from the bedside monitor, beeping that was echoed or answered by other monitors on the ward. Every half hour the cuff on my right arm tightened: blood pressure checked again. All well. But it wasn’t left only to the technology. The monitoring had a human face, a human touch, a human voice. Nurse Lizzie and other calm angels were never far away with answers to my questions. That bloody virus might have been lurking nearby but it couldn’t, didn’t ruffle their calm. What did ruffle their calm was the way certain elements in the media had fostered anxiety and alarm.

Angioplasty, a procedure by which a catheter is inserted into the right arm, manoeuvred into the heart to open up a constricted artery. All this while you’re conscious; you can actually watch it happening on the X-ray. Meet Dr Ryding, consultant cardiologist. He visited on Sunday morning. I apologised for my pyjama top, NHS issue and two sizes too small. “I’m afraid my butler omitted to pack my case properly,” I said. “Your butler,” said Doctor R, “does he iron your newspapers?” My eyebrows rose. “Certainly not,” I said, “he might read them and get ideas above his station.”

The deed was done. I’d felt no pain. I came away brimming with gratitude and a carrier bag full of 11 different pills to be taken at different times of day, plus a big book of dos and don’ts. I’ll applaud my NHS pals at any time.

Hallucination warning: I’ll never forget that radiant Irish barmaid who pours the silkiest pints of Guinness this side of the Liffey; she actually touched my heart, Angie O’Plasty.

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