It was a grey day – as grey as Eeyore – but considerably colder.
Not the best weather to be leaving hospital. But I was grateful and apprehensive to be doing so. With my armoury of pharmaceuticals and so many leaflets I could barely carry them in my precarious state, I left Papworth with my parents carrying my luggage – which seemed strange in itself.
I was grateful that my folks had brought a cushion as requested to shield me from the bumps and the seat belt.
In Cambridge, I climbed gingerly out of the car and shuffled up the street towards Parker’s Piece. As I reached the corner, the force of the wind hit me and the green space was stretched out like a huge ocean: equally overwhelming and exhilarating.
In the early days of recovery at home I was struck that I never felt ill as such; it wasn’t the sensation of flu or sickness for me, it was simply being drained of all energy. My big brother apparently remarked how I looked “a little peeky”. Which was possibly an understatement.
As with so many things in life, it’s only when you look back that you realise how far you have come. I was touched by the care from my family and friends, but perhaps, as with all bereavement, it’s when the phone stops ringing and cards and messages stop arriving that you realise how difficult a prospect you are facing.
I was shocked how vulnerable I felt and how much I had to rely on others for very simple tasks: opening a packet or lifting more than a bag of sugar. I was determined to take the advice of cardiac support and walk from day one. But I was shocked how daunting the prospect of walking just a little around the park was and my mind went back to the start of this journey, some eight years before on the same stretch of green.
I feel blessed to have such great friends and support throughout it all: the casseroles and hugs, the flowers and cards, the chocolates, the walks with furry companions, the long lazy pub lunches and afternoon teas, but above all having the ear that listens. And maybe I feel blessed to realise how terrifying It must be to go through this without friends.
As a councillor one spends quite a lot of time looking after the needs of the most vulnerable and this recovery has give me an extraordinary insight into that. Walking through the shopping centres of Cambridge I experienced first hand the anxiety of an older or less mobile person in a crowded place. The feeling that people are coming from all directions and that their trajectories all seem to involve knocking you out of the way.
On one such occasion, after navigating the crowds, I found myself using one of the backstreets that I knew so well from the many door stepping sessions of a local politician. On this particular street there is a funeral directors which I had passed many, many times before and usually had only given a cursory thought to its activity. However, on this occasion the yard door was unusually left open and there in front of me was an empty hearse. I stopped in my tracks and looked at the sombre vehicle and I realised how easily I could have been its occupant if events had taken a different turn.
It’s often been said that the only taboo left in Western society is death. That confrontation with the hearse was a stark reminder of its reality in all our lives.
I’m pleased to say that accompanying this surgery and recovery I had been offered a rehabilitation programme consisting of exercise classes and talks. The irony was not lost on me that the talks took place in one of the highest rooms at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and at some considerable distance from the main entrance. It was as though they were giving us a challenge just to get into the room.
Since cardiac surgery I’ve tried to avoid heart cliches, but it is almost impossible and indeed I think it is fair to say my heart did sink as I walked through the door of the seminar room to discover a place where NHS furniture went to die. With banks of cabinets, chairs in varying states of neglect, stained ceiling tiles and indeed many of them missing. The final flourish of decay and neglect has to be witnessing the tutor trying to move a table, that in geriatric protest quite literally lost its top.
Needless to say I was immensely glad that I didn’t see this room until I’d actually had surgery. I am not sure it would fill me with confidence of the NHS’ ability to manage broken things.
That said the talks and the sharing with other cardiac patients was helpful, even if they did feel a little bit like a cross between a school class and a rather strange Channel 4 sitcom. I will leave you to decide which role I played within that… But of course that was just the start of the programme: managing stress, diet, and the theory of exercise were merely the horderves and exercise was the main course.
A few weeks later I had a physical assessment. Whilst the staff and equipment were great, the premises were like entering a somewhat decrepit gym in a school in the 1950s. I was then enrolled on an exercise programme, that at the time of writing I am still involved in.
Having had this surgery at a point where I was regularly exercising in a gym and cycling every day it has still been a huge challenge undergoing an hours supervised exercise a week and my heart goes out to (oh, there we go with those unavoidable cliches again!) to my fellow cardiac recoverers who entered into this with less time and less options. Thankfully the staff are lovely and that wonderful mix of caring, somewhat sarcastic and most definitely vigilant.
My outward physical recovery has been quick. The colour has returned to my face, but as I keep reminding others as much as myself, I am recovering rather than recovered. Whilst the sternum has now healed and I can carry things again, at the time of writing, I still have considerable stiffness and pain in the chest and get very tired after exercise. With more time and exercise these will ease but the psychological will take longer.
For me this surgery is intrinsically linked with my faith. Perhaps it is the only way I can understand it and make sense of it. It has forced me to pause, dwell and reflect. But it has also given me other opportunities: to understand; to gain a better empathy with others pain; to share; to spend more precious time with the precious ones in my life; to laugh; to pray and to cry.
I am hugely grateful for the love shown by my family and friends and the support that I continue to receive. I hope and pray that whatever may be ahead on my journey I can give such hope and support to others. Because after all, we are all of one heart and we all need help to keep ticking.