I have spent more than two decades working for one of the most renowned American communications companies, covering initially the Middle East and Africa but, but more recently Asia. I rarely return to the UK, my home country.
However, it was during one of the rare occasions that I was actually in sunny Manchester that the first attack occurred. Initially, no one spotted it, so no antibiotics and Ventolin for my lack of breathe, ill-health in general and weight gain. This went on for nearly three weeks. Throughout it all, I endeavoured to ride a bike daily to try and prevent the unexplained weight gain.
However, one day I woke up and I knew something was drastically wrong - excuse the wording, but my balls were the size of melons. Upon presenting myself to the doctor I said: “Are you still going to try and tell me that there's nothing wrong?” I suppose doctors who deal with such situations on a daily basis have quite thick skin and a sense of humour. Before being diagnosed I was obviously tested, and the doctors were alarmed that my resting heart rate was over 200bps.
What followed was three fantastic weeks in the hands of the nurses and doctors from Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, part of the poorly underrated, but magnificent British NHS. I lived in the critical unit for those weeks, and quite frankly it's one of the best holidays I've ever had. I quite literally had my own army of highly qualified, and every patient's nurses. I loved every minute of it. I shudder to think how much this cost the British taxpayer.
In the bathroom brushing my teeth one morning when the frantic movement of my arm set off the monitors in the control room. All three of my ‘angels’ rushed into the bathroom to find me wearing nothing but a toothbrush. Upon realizing that I was not dying anytime soon, one of them observed: “Yes, if you do anything else that involves this frantic movement of the arm, we will know about that too!"
It transpired that the reason the doctors had failed to spot the heart attack or the heart failure for nearly three weeks was that it was caused by a condition called Myocarditis. When it attacked me it shut down half my heart, leaving me with an irregular heartbeat, even after having cardioversion (electric shock). My heart was beating at over 200 pbm because one half of it was closed down and the other half was having to pump furiously in compensation.
In short, I went to Hong Kong on a business trip and contracted a tropical disease of some kind. I returned to Singapore, my home base, with a fever. I did not venture into work if for no other reason than for three days I was continuously drenched in sweat. It was then that I made my ill-fated adventure into the food court. On the fourth day, I woke up feeling fine and returned to the office as if nothing had ever happened. In other words, I ignored it.
The second incident was the stroke.
Strokes and heart attacks are actually quite closely linked - your brain obviously has to give instructions to your heart when it wants to accelerate, so you can run, and slow down so you can sleep. But they are obviously different kinds of pain. The main difference between a stroke and a heart attack is inconvenience. With a heart attack, all you have to do is survive - unless of course, you're stuck with a pacemaker. I was walking 9 km a day, three days after leaving the hospital from my last incident.
With a stroke the chances are you might have to learn basic skills all over again - reading, talking and even spelling. This takes time, and that’s assuming you’ve decided that you want to survive, and you want to learn all those skills again from scratch. In my case, I had to learn to speak and read. However, to this day I cannot spell. You have to adapt; as I write this article I am using Speech-to-Text software on my computer. I basically had to read children's books, mostly by David Walliams, out loud for as long as I could manage every day, for a month until I was able to have a semi-literate conversation once more.
I woke one night before Christmas 2019 here in Thailand dying of thirst. I opened a can of 7UP and promptly dropped it, as unbeknownst to myself I was sort of semi-paralyzed in the right hand.
The soda exploded all over the floor and I promptly slipped and crashed on the floor. It took every grain of energy I could muster to get myself up again, and back onto the bed where I blacked out.
In the morning it just felt like a bad hangover, so I chose to walk it off. Upon reaching the restaurant I had been to the previous night, I tried to ask for a glass of water and the words fell out of my mouth like gibberish; I tried once more and it still came out as gobbledygook.
Suffice to say the very kind owner of this establishment called an ambulance and I spent a couple of very lonely days in a public hospital. The doctor who could speak English came round for an hour a day. No other person in the hospital could speak any English, and I couldn't speak any Thai.
I was unable to communicate in any way shape or form. I could not tell them my name or where I was staying or indeed most importantly whether I had insurance or not. Because I was unable to answer that last question, I was sent to a public hospital. On the first day, I managed one word, “hi.” On the second day, I managed two words, a 100% increase overnight - a big achievement at the time.
Okay it was a little cramped, and we had an obvious communication problem, but all in all, it was generally a happy atmosphere. The nurses were very patient with this man who could not communicate. I was also on my own; every other patient seemed to have family with them.
In the British hospital, the overriding theme was peace and quiet. In the three weeks I was there, my mother was my only visitor for one hour a day. In the public hospital in Thailand, they encouraged the family to become involved to the extent that both patients on either side of me had at least two members of the family with them 24 hours a day. And those visitors chose voluntarily to do things like chop up my food, remove the tray or replace water, without any requests.
Odaughters slept underneath his bed with only a bottle of piss for company. Despite the heat, she always appeared from under the bed in the morning wearing a Bob Marley woolly hat. When she saw that I was awake she would give me a beautiful big smile and wave. It was a delightful way to start the day. One night I remember singing to myself in an attempt to get myself to talk enough to communicate with the doctors the following morning; suffice to say I failed. However, it was not the run-up to Christmas I had planned.
Obviously I was not able to travel for some time to allow my bruised brain to heal a bit and fit into my skull once more. I obviously had to spend a month learning to communicate once more, so that I did not appear perpetually blind drunk!
Of course, we all know what happened next - Corona 19. And Heart Attack 2
We have all had to adapt to some drastic circumstances over recent months.
Clearly, curfews and restricted movement serve a purpose which we can all agree has been very successful in Thailand. However, they also provide challenges which we all have to learn how to cope with. In my case I discovered that the hospital I needed to go to for my medication from the stroke wasn’t easy to get to; a number of checkpoints separated us.
The obvious answer was to get a pharmacist to supply the necessary medication. However, this became problematic when it was discovered that only one hospital supplies the drug. After two or three days without the medication, I set off to get through the barricades. At the very first checkpoint, the police lady took my sweaty panicking demeanour to mean Covid-19. Thus I returned to the chemist shop.
Later at the hospital, I took the whole situation as an inconvenience, even after they electrocuted me twice. The poor nurses must have thought me the most ungrateful man alive when I told them I was bored, I'd had enough and started getting dressed to go home. Yet again I was adopting the Lance Armstrong policy of refusing to go down without a fight!
It was only after the senior doctor informed me that I was simply not going home that I relented and allowed myself to be taken to the Private Hospital where I was able to communicate and say the magic words, "ys I have insurance." Once again I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was quite happy for the doctor and the nurses to get on with saving my life whilst I enjoyed round-the-clock BBC, three fantastic meals a day and two-bed baths a day provided by two beautiful nurses. Who could ask for more? In the meantime, please get on with saving my life.
Obviously, on a serious note, I cannot expect to get lucky on a regular basis, I will not win every battle. Three times I have refused to go, but there comes as a point when you have to change everything. Like….today.
Yes, health insurance costs money, but you get what you pay for, and that can be no denying that the doctor who looked after me was incredibly experienced and also had access to the finest and most up-to-date equipment.
I would very much like to make it to at least 70, preferably in good health.
1. It doesn't matter what anyone else says, like a modern car your body will tell you when it is not happy; even doctors make mistakes. When you know in your heart of hearts that you are seriously ill, ignoring it will not make it go away.
2. Toxic people will not help your lifespan. It doesn't matter who they are, they cannot be real friends, colleagues, family or even your partner. If they make you feel toxic, get rid of them.
3. As an expat, convincing yourself that you only had a couple of drinks last night when the reality is a couple of drinks, followed by two bottles of wine, will not work for very long. Many expats will say that I am stating the obvious. Many expats are in denial.
4. Rather like being able to tell when you are ill, it only takes a glance at the chubby cheeks in the mirror to know that you are overweight. Get off your ass and start working. It is a very simple equation; do more exercise than you shove chocolate in your mouth.
- Ian Wilde