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The NHS Saved My Life On New Years Day

The plan for New Years Day 2024 was straightforward, to leave the car in for a service and begin watching Dopesick on Disney+. New Years Eve had been a quiet affair, dinner with family and a few glasses of wine to see in the bells.

Come three o’clock that afternoon, having left the car in for a service, I lay on the sofa to binge the series not knowing that within minutes my life was to change forever. At first the discomfort under my jaw was like a mild cramp that needed stretched for it to go away, but after a few attempts it was clear that this wasn’t working. Quickly, the discomfort led to a feeling of nauseousness that made me get up from the sofa to fetch a glass of water. As I entered the kitchen, the thought crossed my mind that I was having the typical signs of a heart attack, but quickly dismissed such an idea; sure I was too young, it was New Years Day and I had plans and a nice bottle of Talisker was waiting for me for later that night. Little did I know, in those initial moments, that I was suffering such a serious heart attack that it had its own nickname in the medical profession - ‘A Widow Maker.’

Thankfully, I was not alone when my symptoms first appeared, and even more lucky that the person I was with was medically trained and knew what was happening, and realised that I needed to get to a hospital as quickly as possible. However, in my stubbornness I dismissed all serious concerns and convinced myself that all I needed was an aspirin and insisted that he go out to buy some. That was a huge mistake that both of us, in the pressure of the moment, should never had let happen. For I was left alone in the house.


Pacing the floors, I tried in vain to stretch out my body in the hope of relieving the pressure that was increasingly spreading to my chest. I was convinced that if I could lie comfortably and get some rest, then that would help, and I would wake up feeling much better. Had this have happened, it would have been likely that I would have died in my sleep, as this is often the action people take when experiencing such symptoms. You see, I wasn’t in any real significant pain. The heart attack I was having displayed only mild symptoms; discomfortable pressure and a nauseousness I believed would pass. This is where this heart attack gets the nickname ‘A Widow Maker’, because the symptoms are so mild that, it is either left too late to seek medical help, or else people go to bed to sleep it off and never wake up.


Unable to sleep or find any comfort, I continued to pace the floors, hoping and praying that I wouldn’t die alone and be found somewhere in my house. I have had personal experience of finding the remains of someone I loved after they suffered a sudden death event. For anyone who has lost someone in this way, you will know that it is a trauma that becomes deeply engraved.


When Daniel returned with the aspirin, having found it difficult to source as a lot of shops were closed on New Years Day, we quickly found that it brought no relief. With him still insisting that I needed to get to a hospital, I foolishly weighed up the options of long waiting times and the possibility that I wasn’t having a heart attack at all, but was suffering the results of a well enjoyed Christmas break. However, somewhere deep within, a voice kept calling out to go and get some help. By five o’clock I decided to go, and we went to the nearest accident and emergency department - Antrim Area Hospital.


That car journey felt like a lifetime, and I could feel the discomfort begin to change into a pressurised pain. I knew I was in trouble and for the first time since 3pm I began to consider that I might not even make it to the hospital. As the pain intensified, I focussed on my breathing in an attempt to remain calm and to know that within a few minutes I would be getting the help that I needed.


Arriving at the accident and emergency unit, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite it being one of the busiest days of the year, there were few people waiting in the reception area. With no delay, I spoke to the receptionist and stated that I had a slight pain under my jaw and across my chest. Reassuring me that the triage nurse would see me shortly, I took a seat and that’s when the place began to fill up with patients who seemed to arrive from nowhere. Within five minutes, I was called by the triage nurse, who took samples of blood before bringing me into a treatment room for an ECG (Electro Cardio Gram) to check my heart. Even as she attached the sensors to my chest and lower legs, I was waiting to hear that I could go home as I was simply suffering a bad bout of yuletide indigestion. However, the moment the printout arrived she took it and left the room to seek advice. Buttoning my shirt, I heard a deep voice say, ‘Get him to resus, immediately.’

 Is that me he’s talking about? I wondered. Surely that’s not me!


‘Did you hear that?’ The triage nurse asked, as she walked back into the treatment room.

‘Is he talking about me?’ I asked, stunned and starting to feel the enormity of what was beginning to unfold in those moments.

‘Don’t be worrying,’ she continued, as she took a wheelchair from beside the bed. ‘You’re in the best place and did the right thing coming here tonight.’

As I was wheeled through the hospital, the feeling of shock began to overwhelm me, and I found it difficult to understand what was happening. Apart from the slight pain I felt okay, and all the other patients in the corridors looked a lot worse than me.

Wheeled into the resuscitation room, I was assisted by an amazing young doctor and nurse. Getting me onto a trolley, they continued to reassure me as they removed my shirt and hooked me up to a heart monitor. At this point I found it difficult to speak as the emotion was too much to contain.

‘How do you feel Damian?’ the nurse asked, as she placed the electrode stickers to my chest.

‘I’m very confused. Am I having …’ I struggled to say it … ‘a heart attack?’

She gently placed a hand onto mine and looked me in the eye, ‘Yes Damian, you are. But you are in a safe place and are going to be okay.’

For the next hour, after locating Daniel in the waiting room and giving me my first experience of morphine, they both looked after me very carefully and rarely left my side. In that time, I was unaware that I was in a very serious condition which the hospital could not treat. They needed to move me to an acute cardiac hospital where they could intervene to save my life. The problem that night was they had no available ambulance or paramedics to bring me into Belfast to undergo emergency surgery in a Cath Lab at the Royal Victoria Hospital. That night the Antrim hospital was filled with paramedics, but they all had patients in their care which they could not hand over to the hospital, such was the backlog.


For the young doctor, my situation was becoming more and more critical by the minute. Then, as if they were two Guardian Angels, two paramedics came to my aid. Even now as I retell this story, I find myself welling up with tears because their actions undoubtedly saved my life that night. Not only had they finished their twelve-hour shift for New Years Day, but they lived in Ballycastle which is in the opposite direction to where I needed to go. Seeing my plight, they stayed on, and got me to Belfast with little time to spare.


Apart from having resuscitation pads placed on my chest, in case I went into arrest in the back of the ambulance, it was my first and hopefully only time being ‘blue-lighted’ and it all seemed very surreal. Whilst one paramedic drove us to Belfast, the other stayed with me in the back, reassuring me that all would be okay and that everything would be fine once they got me into the Cath Lab.

 Upon arriving at the Cath Lab, a young man met us and enquired if I was Damian. Told that I was, he directed that I be taken straight in. Inside that room, the reality hit when around eight medical professionals got me onto the table and began to prep me for what was coming. I remember seeing the young man, this time he was dressed like a bomb disposal expert, watching me intently as he and a colleague scrubbed up before coming over to me. Turns out the young man was one of the finest cardiologists in Ireland, and what he said to me, and what he did, not only saved my life but it has changed it forever.


‘Damian, you are having a very serious heart attack, and we need to intervene right now to save your life. Do we have your consent to proceed?’

Sitting upright on the operating table, nothing could have prepared me to hear those words. I had no idea what they were going to do, and I had no time to consider my options. Instead, two thoughts crossed my mind, both have left an indelible mark on my being. Firstly, I knew that there had to be risk involved and that I could die that night … but I felt a complete peace fill me. Secondly, I knew that I had to surrender to what was about to happen … and that freed me from all worry and fear.

‘I give my consent,’ I said, before a nurse gently leaned me back onto the table and the consultant explained what was about to happen, as the monitor beside came to life and a small robotic box positioned itself above my chest and fed live images of my heart and surrounding arteries onto the screen.


The only pain I felt during the procedure was the brief sting of a needle in my right wrist, as the consultant injected a local anesthetic to allow him to enter my heart through the artery in my arm. With nothing to do but lie still, I recalled those I loved and prayed that the peace I had would never leave me that night. It turns out that I had a clot in one of my main arteries, which was bulging with the pressure to supply whatever blood it could to my heart.


There is a hormone called Troponin that the heart excretes when it is under stress. I’ve been told that normal levels range between 6-12, mine on New Years Day were just over 2,900. Thankfully, due to the technology within the Cath Lab, they were able to remove the blood clot and repair any damage the heart attack had caused. Unfortunately, they also discovered another issue, but they are dealing with it, and it will require another visit to the Cath Lab around Easter, but I have been reassured that the outcome looks well and please God, I will make it through a much stronger man than when they met me on the 1st of January.

 I share this story with you to thank the teams within the NHS who treated me. In their professional modesty, they said at the time that they were just doing their jobs, but they saved me from the depths of an early grave, and for that I will be forever grateful. But more importantly, if you’ve gotten this far in my story… please leave nothing to chance. Heart Attacks aren’t what you see on the television, often they show mild symptoms that appear from nowhere. So, if you ever have any discomfort across your chest or under your jaw, never ignore it. Go and get it checked out, because that quick response could very well save your life and allow you to have many tomorrows with those that you love.

Life has never felt so precious. Time to publish the conclusion of my trilogy?


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