One week ago I had sudden cardiac arrest and almost died at my local esports bar
What I remember of the incident is blurry. I know I looked around and wondered why I was on the pavement outside Meltdown London, my local esports bar. I figured I must have felt light headed and stumbled. I’ve certainly been drunk enough to do that in the past, only this time it was four pints of beer and everyone was looking at me in a very strange way. I was getting a bit fed up of this so I snapped at one of the guys “Well help me up then!” and he eventually extended an arm. I stood up quickly, feeling rather foolish. My head and side hurt. I decided to move inside as it was early evening on a December Friday and getting cold fast.
My drinking buddy joined me inside. I wanted to go home at lie down for the night. He told me “You realise you’re bleeding, right?”. I touched the left side of my head and yep, that’s blood. My shoulder ached like crazy too. I told him I was fine, but apparently my audience outside included some medical students, who insisted that I had to wait for the ambulance. They turned up just a few minutes later for my first siren ride, taking me to my first hospital stay. The paramedics checked for injuries as we sped through London to St Mary’s trauma centre in Paddington. It looked like I’d hit the side of my head, but it wasn’t so bad any more. I’d also punctured my chest just above the collar bone somehow, and they were trying to stop the bleeding. It was all a bit surreal, but they were very calm and professional so I sat there and did what I was told.
Accident and Emergency
At the hospital they dressed the obvious wounds and asked me what happened. It was clear to me at least. I’d been in Las Vegas at a friend’s birthday party, having lots to drink and little sleep for a number of days, followed by a long haul flight to London, where I was encouraged to drink more in the hope I’d sleep through the redeye flight. It didn’t work. So by the time I got home I was exhausted and ready to collapse already. Only my friend who was crashing at mine suggested that sleeping in the afternoon would only prolong the jet lag. I’m not one to refuse advice that includes alcohol so we started up a post-Vegas pub crawl, making our way through Camden and across to Islington for our local esports bar. It was during this first pint that I stepped outside and everything changed.
After patching me up and doing some various tests, a couple of police officers arrived to check on me. I had some kind of puncture on my chest and they were concerned it might have been a stab wound. I had to assure them nothing like that had happened… although I still don’t know how I managed it. The staff nurse gave me just one stitch to stop it bleeding and I was pretty much ready to go. Only the doctor said I couldn’t. Apparently they saw something in a scan and wanted me to go to a specialist cardiac unit at Hammersmith hospital. At around this point in the early hours of Saturday morning I told my friend he may as well head back to my place and get some rest instead of sitting around with me twiddling his thumbs. He put up a bit of a fight but it was obviously the sensible thing to do. I was completely lucid, if a bit sore, with the beginnings of a hangover. He eventually agreed and I lay in the hospital bed for a few more hours listening to the craziness of Friday night unfold at A&E until another ambulance crew sped me across to Hammersmith for my new based of operations. The paramedics were hilarious the whole way, doing something of a double act to keep me entertained for the ten minute transfer.
The Heart Assessment Centre
I was given a number of different tests by the doctors, particularly electrical ones of my heart. I’d sobered up and felt totally fine by this point so as a result I really enjoyed it when they put me on a treadmill with wires hanging off my chest. They only let me stay on it for about 15 minutes unfortunately. I was totally convinced I was fine, so when they said they wanted to perform a diagnostic test for Brugada Syndrome that had a slight risk of death I started to freak out. I’m a very logical person, but earlier that morning I had been severely shaken by what happened earlier at 3am. I was woken up to the most anguished crying of a woman. I don’t think Hollywood ever gets the sound quite right because her screams of pain cut straight through me and I was paralysed as the drama unfolded, unable to stop listening and unable to do anything else. At first I thought she was having some kind of heart attack, but the pain in her voice was for her husband. “Take me, not him” she moaned over and over again. It was heart-wrenching to hear. Her husband died just across from me, separated by a blue paper curtain. I didn’t sleep much that night either.
After challenging the doctor slightly beyond what was reasonable I finally agreed to the test, an Ajmaline Challenge, which is the definitive way to determine if someone has Brugada Syndrome. I was convinced I didn’t have it up to the point that the doctor came around to the other side of the bed and told me the results were positive. I was struck dumb while they cleared all the equipment away from around my bed. The consultant cardiologist would see me the next day to discuss what we would do next.
Brugada Syndrome is a rare genetic condition that causes abnormal electrical conditions in the heart. Given the right environment my heart might go from beating normally to ventricular arrhythmia that often results in sudden cardiac death. The triggers aren’t completely understood, but the well-known ones are specific medical drugs (such as ajmaline), high fever, dehydration and the recreational drugs alcohol, cannabis and cocaine. My almost-deadly combination during the incident was alcohol and dehydration, which caused me to go into cardiac arrest. I probably dropped like a stone outside the bar onto the pavement and was out for a few seconds. Thankfully this time my heart switched back to a normal rhythm before any serious damage was done, but it was a close thing.
I’m 42 years old and for as long as I can remember I’ve been incredibly healthy in a way that seemed almost superhuman. I don’t have the aches and pains people talk about in their forties. I feel just as strong, quick and sharp as I ever did. It seemed to me that this had to be some kind of edge case. But the cardiologist told me that since I had already suffered one cardiac arrest, it meant that it was likely to happen again. As a result I agreed to her suggestion to have an S-ICD device implanted just under the skin of my chest. This miracle piece of technology would monitor my heart and breathing continuously 24 hours a day 7 days a week, always on alert for any sign of cardiac arrest. If that happened, it would give my body a specific window of time to correct my heart beat by itself, after which it would automatically give me an electric shock through the heart allowing normal rhythm to return. Basically this S-ICD is an insurance of last resort that could very easily save my life.
The technology has come a long way and this unit is implanted subcutaneously so it doesn’t require major surgery. The risk is low and recovery is very fast. It even has a wireless base station you keep at home that lets the device upload all data regularly to a central server where my doctor will be alerted to any issues. While I’m going to have a small visible lump just under my left arm where the device sits, there are practically no downsides and I can go about my active life as if nothing had ever happened. I’ll have to “party” less, but maybe this is a good line to draw between being a child and being a responsible adult. It’s about time I grew up.
The State of Play
I certainly haven’t processed this crazy week yet. What I do know is that I am incredibly thankful for the series of events that has led me to today. My heart went back to a normal rhythm by itself after cardiac arrest, otherwise I would have died last Friday night. The trauma centre I went to first spotted the almost imperceptible signs of Brugada in my ECG. They convinced me to stay at the hospital long enough for the positive diagnosis. And for the future this condition won’t affect me much at all, apart from avoiding specific drugs. I can pull high-stress all nighters at work, have as much wild sex as I want and run a marathon exactly as if I didn't have this condition.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the NHS, our universal healthcare system in the UK, even though I’ve hardly ever had to make use of their services. Every single person that I interacted with has been my guardian angel, my knight in shining armour, my counsellor and my close friend. At times I’ve struggled emotionally and if I didn’t have a visitor with me, the staff were straight over to talk to me and make sure I was OK. Even now as I wait for my procedure, they monitor me and entertain me and most importantly, bring me tea on a regular basis. I just can’t imagine living in a country that didn’t have this kind of system. I can’t imagine having a cashiers office in the hospital. I can’t imagine hoping my health insurance would cover the procedure. I can’t imagine at a time like this, stopping to wonder what I could or couldn’t afford. Everyone deserves to be treated this well when the worst happens, and for that I’m so incredibly proud that my country has managed to maintain the NHS up to this point.
I’m not writing this looking for sympathy. Save it for people who are really suffering. With everything going on, I’m mentally disoriented and it’s hard to contact everyone that matters in my life to let them know what’s going on. I think it’s better if I just write up the whole story in detail one time so I can share it quickly with those that are interested and those that care. WIsh me luck for the procedure, but otherwise take care of yourself. We’re all teetering on the unknown brink between life and death. I just have a little more control than I did before.