Monday, January 30, 2012

Dude, Where's My Cardiophobia?

(Don't) be still my beating heart

On Sunday 18 March 1973 I was 12 years old when I saw a man drop down dead from a heart attack right in front of me, and I was haunted by it for over 30 years, so much so that I can remember the exact date after all this time.

I used to play for a junior football team and on that particular day the opposition had failed to turn up.  Still, we had the pitch booked and we were all changed and ready to go, so our manager decided we may as well have a game between ourselves.  Of course some of the dads who had expected only to play the part of spectator and taxi driver joined in with us, just as I did in later years with my own children.

Everything was quite normal until one of the dads just keeled over backwards and hit the ground with such a thump.  After the initial consternation we were sent off to the changing rooms, dragging the man’s distraught son with us.  Someone was telling him not to worry and his dad had only fainted, but I think we all sensed it was worse than that.  After what seemed an age, an ambulance came but by that time we were changed and heading for home.  It was at school the next day that we knew that he’d died from a massive heart attack.  He was 46 years old.

I hadn’t known him that well and I wasn’t a close friend of his son, but it affected me quite badly.  It wasn’t that moments before he collapsed he’d chased me round the pitch after I’d made some cheeky remark to him; I didn’t feel guilty or anything like that.  I knew I hadn’t done anything to contribute to his death, but even so I was badly shaken by the whole event.  I would lie awake at night listening to the beat of my own heart, convincing myself that it was irregular and that it was on the verge of stopping.  I became morbidly convinced that one day I too would die of a heart attack.

I don’t know why this obsession took such a hold of me.  Stranger still, although I became aware of the risk factors of heart disease, I did nothing to protect myself.  I may have got plenty of exercise (I was sports mad), but I’d already started smoking and as I got older I smoked more and more heavily.  As soon as I could get served in pubs I would drink like a fish, and I never turned down a plate of chips or a bacon sandwich.

In fact, I was and still am fairly outgoing and mostly a happy person.  Yet the worry was always there at the back of my mind.  I couldn’t even have a hangover without assuming that the occasional palpitation must be some sort of sinister foreboding.  It didn’t bother me by day, nor when I was in the company of my friends, or busy doing homework or, later, working for a living.  But at night, while everyone else slept soundly, I would frequently lie awake in the dark, listening to my chest.

This nagging fear that my heart would suddenly give up on me remained in the back of my mind until I was well into my 40s,  when it pretty much left me almost as suddenly (although less dramatically) as it had come.  I don’t know if it was because I’d simply reached the age where I’d outlived the dead man, or whether I’d just got so used to the fear that it became bedded down too deep for me to notice it any more.

Of course I now know that if I’d talked to someone about how I felt there’s a good chance I would have been able to deal with it better.  The closest I got was saying something to my brother a couple of days after it happened.  Big mistake, he laughed.  I can’t blame him, it was so ridiculous I’m sure I’d have done the same thing.  I’m glad however that in later life I always made a point of taking my own kids’ worries seriously, however silly they may have seemed to me.

There’s no punchline to this post, and nothing here of any interest to the reader.  Indeed you’re probably thinking it’s a strange subject for someone to blog about, but I’m not too bothered about that because writing it down has helped me to bury it, finally.

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