Aged just 38, Phil had no reason to think the aches and pains he had been suffering were anything sinister. Here is his story in his own words.
I lived a balanced life – running 25km a week and regularly using the gym, but also having an active social life where I enjoyed having a few beers with friends. The state of my heart was the last thing on my mind.
After having breakfast one morning, an uncomfortable feeling materialised in the centre of my chest. I put it down to overdoing it at the gym or indigestion, so I took some ibuprofen and the pain subsided.
The following day, the discomfort returned again after eating and a rare crafty cigarette, so again, I swallowed some ibuprofen. However, this time the pain wasn’t going anywhere.
I remember I took 25 minutes mopping the bathroom floor after accidentally flooding it while showering – all while I was experiencing chest pain.
It was 3am and nearly 7 hours later that I decided enough was enough. I couldn’t sleep, I’d taken all sorts of pain killers, and I was due at work at 8am. I thought if I went to the hospital, they could send me on my way with some pills. I still had no idea that this could be something serious, so I drove myself. On arrival, I realised I had no change for the hospital car park, so I took the time to find a side street where I could park for free. Meanwhile, the chest crushing continued.
After a wait in the emergency department and some blood tests, in walked a fresh-faced doctor who dropped the biggest bombshell of my life.
Everything stopped. It felt like forever. There was nothing. No noise. No thought. No feeling. A void. It was like that moment when you are editing clips on your phone and the video goes from normal speed to super slow. The words just hung there in the air.
And then bam! Every single feeling, emotion, thought smashed my head at the same time. What? How? There must be some mistake. Not me! I’m fit!
I was transferred to a specialist heart unit for an emergency angioplasty performed under local anaesthetic, which was one of my most surreal experiences of all time. It made the pain disappear, which was a huge relief.
I can see now I had heart disease in my family history, as my grandfather and grandmother had suffered heart attacks, but we’d never discussed this in our family. On reflection, I was particularly susceptible, especially as a smoker.
I was told that while I was extremely unlucky in what happened to me, in a way I was lucky too. Being younger, I was more likely to regain full fitness, my heart was strong due to my regular exercise, and my cholesterol and blood pressure today are as low as they have ever been (obviously helped by the medication I’m now on, which consists of eight pills a day). To all intents and purposes, I am as healthy as I was before the incident.
However, the experience took a toll on my mental health. In my desperation to show nothing had changed, I started to rush things. I wanted to prove I was the same as ever. I was immediately doing housework, lifting, going for long walks. I even tried to book myself in for personal training at the gym. Look guys, I’m fine!
One year on, and things have begun to improve: not so much ‘back to normal’ but more a ‘new normal’. I run further and faster than I ever did before. We now have a dog, a husky, who provides daily entertainment and laughs, which keeps any anxiety at bay. The help from friends, family and colleagues has been invaluable, and without it I no doubt would have sunk. How anyone manages without a support network I will never know.
I tend to sleep with ear plugs in at night, and while that blocks any external sound, it means the final thing I hear every day is my own heart beating in my chest. It’s a blessing and a reminder – despite it all, my heart’s strong and still working, so I need to keep looking after it.
This story has been written with Phil. A full version is available to read here.
Images provided by Phil.
How is HRI helping?
HRI is conducting innovative research to develop new therapies for detecting, preventing and treating heart attacks.
Our Arterial Inflammation and Redox Biology Group is investigating unstable atherosclerotic plaque, which can cause blockages leading to heart attack, and how to detect and prevent the formation of this high-risk plaque.
Our Coronary Diseases Group is investigating whether the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine, which has already proved safe and effective for treating conditions like arthritis and gout, can be repurposed to protect against repeat heart attacks. A collaboration between the Coronary Disease Group and our Clinical Research Group has also discovered that the heart releases certain substances during a heart attack that can be detected in the laboratory.
Our Thrombosis Group is undertaking research to understand how blood clot formation occurs in healthy individuals. This research is crucial for developing safer and more effective therapies for heart attacks, amongst other cardiovascular diseases.