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“At the end of the storm is a golden sky!”

The memory of waking up in a hospital bed on the afternoon of Tuesday 12th March 2013 is not a pleasant one. When I opened my eyes I could see that I had a plethora of tubes and cables in my mouth, up my nose, and in various other parts of my anatomy. Surely this was some kind of nasty dream and I would soon wake up in the comfort of my bed at home. But no – the nightmare was real.  

I slowly moved my head on the pillow and could see my wife and children staring at me with worry etched into their faces. Unable to speak because of the afore-mentioned tube in my mouth I motioned for a pen and paper. In total confusion, I wrote ‘What happened?’ It was my son who did most of the explaining. Two days earlier I had gone with him to watch a football match at Anfield. My team, Liverpool, were playing Tottenham Hotspur. He told me that I had a cardiac arrest at the end of the match and was given CPR. I also learned that paramedics gave me five electric shocks with a defibrillator before my heart started beating normally again. I was struggling to take it all in, so I fell asleep again!

After several lengthy explanations of what had happened I gradually began to put together the pieces of the jigsaw. I could not remember anything about the day of the cardiac arrest or the previous evening (I didn’t even remember that Liverpool had won the match – just as well they did win because goodness knows what state I’d have been in if they had lost). It was as if my memory of that day had been wiped clean. Not surprising I suppose, under the circumstances. And I had been in a medically induced coma for two days. 

One thing that was absolutely clear to me, however, was that I was unbelievably lucky to be alive. On a normal Sunday I would have been out in the countryside with my walking group. It just happened that my son was able to get tickets for this match, the first we had been to for quite some time. Getting tickets for games at Anfield is extremely difficult these days. So it dawned on me very early on that if I had been in the countryside that day my chances of survival would have been barely more than zero. 

One of the consultants later told me that if you are going to have a cardiac arrest outside a hospital one of the best places you could possibly be would be a football stadium, where there are likely to be medical facilities and people trained to help. It was certainly my good fortune to be in that place at that time. The CPR had been given on the steps of the main stand within three to four minutes of my collapse, which meant that the chances of brain damage had been massively reduced. That was thanks to a Karen, a kind Spurs fan who gave me chest compressions, and Dominic, one of the official Liverpool FC stewards, who gave me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Following this (I have found out since) the paramedics and Liverpool FC medical staff did everything possible to save my life.

In addition to all of that, the staff at Liverpool Royal Infirmary were fantastic. My body had been medically cooled down to prevent brain damage and I was looked after by some wonderful doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, I suffered a couple of setbacks during the two weeks I was in hospital – I had two more cardiac arrests. But these were dealt with efficiently and effectively and I slowly began to recover. The care of the hospital staff and the love of my family certainly made a powerful combination. And, after I had been fitted with an ICD (Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator) at the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital, I was sent home. Three or four weeks later I felt much better but was persuaded to take early retirement. Since then I have devoted most of my time to writing and have completed an 88,000 word novel called ‘Missing a Merseybeat’ (for which I am currently seeking a publisher).   

What was the cause of the cardiac arrest? Well it’s a very interesting question. In 1970 I had a minor car accident and was kept in hospital overnight for observation because of a bruised chest. However, the overnight stay turned into more than two weeks and they were clearly reluctant to let go of me. In fact, every day I was swamped with groups of doctors in training queuing up to listen to my somewhat ‘offbeat’ heartbeat. They had found a heart murmur and were initially unsure whether or not this was a result of the accident. Eventually, they discharged me with the title of ‘mystery patient’, since they really didn’t know what was wrong with me.

Nevertheless, because my general health was good, I was advised to take warfarin and digoxin, lead a normal life and come back for annual check-ups. It actually took over thirteen years before ultrasound technology helped diagnose the problem - a congenital disorder called ‘Cor Triatriatum’, which means that I had an extra membrane blocking the flow of blood through the heart, creating three atria (instead of the normal two atria). Now I could understand why I always ran out of puff before all my friends when I played football as a child; and why cross country running was most definitely my least favourite activity at school. I never seemed able to get myself ‘fully fit’ and the reason for this was now crystal clear. 

In any event, the diagnosis came at exactly the right time for me because my health began failing in 1984. In other words, I needed surgery badly. The harsh reality is that had I been born a generation earlier there is little chance that I would have survived beyond my thirties. But, luckily for me, surgery was now an option - though this was by no means an easy operation. It was actually the first time the operation had been carried out at Manchester Royal Infirmary. My consultant told me at the time that my condition was so rare that only ten patients out of a million would have had it. I always knew I was unusual, to say the least! 

It was on 14th February (an auspicious day for matters of the heart!) 1985, only two months after my marriage to a wonderful Scottish lady called Doreen, that I underwent surgery to remove the membrane. Doreen supported me through the whole process and I often think it must have been harder for her than for me. The loved ones of people who are ill go through a massive period of emotional upheaval and turmoil as they watch and wait on the sidelines. But, thankfully, the operation was a great success and after a three month recovery period I was able to resume a normal life. Then in 1989 I received a pacemaker implant, which was a further benefit because of my irregular heart rhythm. Following this I enjoyed tremendous health until my cardiac arrest in March 2013, the possible cause of which is the scar tissue from my initial open-heart surgery. 
Nevertheless, the combination of my ICD (which has an inbuilt pacemaker and defibrillator) and medication such as beta-blockers did appear to stabilise my health. Though I had an unfortunate setback last weekend - my first cardiac arrest since the ICD was fitted. I had just fallen asleep in bed at the time and I have to say that it wasn’t the nicest way of being woken up. But it is good to know that the ICD works! It’s amazing that the next day I felt fine and was able to carry on with my normal routine. What an incredible piece of technology it is!  

Every day I wake up I am so grateful to be alive and well. It’s fantastic to be able to do ten mile walks with my walking group once again and to be able to swim a mile three times a week. My GP explained that it is highly unlikely I would have survived my cardiac arrest if I had not been as fit as I was prior to March 2013. So I don’t want to let my standards slip if I can help it!
So many people have helped me along the way and I can’t thank them enough for the precious gift of life. The heart is an incredibly delicate and important organ. It’s so easy to take it for granted. But those who were born with a heart condition will never do that. People like me know only too well that there is a very fine line between life and death. I simply can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be on the right side of this line. 

By Colin Albin

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