Skip to main content

Confessions of a Swimmer

By Paul Magrath

Born in 1958 with Fallot's Tetralogy, Paul Magrath had an operation at 4 years old, in his mid-30s he began to experience problems which lead to a further operation. Here he takes a wry look at the business of getting fit after cardiac surgery.

'Are you,' asks Dr. Somerville, 'a kangaroo?'

I have to admit I'm not. Lying in a hospital bed with a tube in my nose, another going into my bladder, and a general postoperative ache in my chest, I don't exactly feel human either.

'Well then,' says my cardiac consultant, with that steely firmness that sends junior doctors palpitating for cover, 'why would you want to go jogging?'

I'm not sure I quite see the connection. After all, I'm not suggesting my recommended daily exercise should take the form of pogo-dancing or trampolining. But then in a sense she's right - jogging is a rather fatuous bouncing kind of exercise. Perhaps not as fatuous as the scenes-from-Hades gym, with the infernal 'Sisyphean" pushing machines, its 'Tantalising" pec-stretchers and 'Promethean" belly-breakers... and all to the sound of industrial disco. (Who need believe in Hell when we have the gym?) But still quite fatuous all the same.

What about tennis? Ideal - if I could find a partner prepared to put up with my pancake-tossing parabolas and fly-swatting net-tremblers. (Oops - sorree!)

Cycling, then? Great - but not in London, where these days it's more scary than open-heart surgery.

That leaves swimming. So swimming it is, which is fine by me. I like swimming. I can even do it quite well.

Dr S. approves. And indeed, there's nothing better at 7.30am, to wake the slumbering musculature and put the heart through it's paces. And if you're lucky enough, as I am, to live within two minutes walk of a decent public swimming baths, then what more could one possibly want?

So I muse, from my hospital bed, looking forward to the day when I will be well again. The angiogram said 'operate' and operate they did. Now I have a brand new, (second-hand: God bless you, donor, whoever you were) pulmonary valve and if I don't yet feel like a million dollars the equipment around me, with its wavy-lined screens and occasional blips as my heart-rate dips, can't have cost much less.

That was three years ago. Since then I have developed a nice little routine at the pool: three or four times a week (roughly every alternate day) I'm in at 7.30am and out at 8.15am. I'm one of the regulars and I've got to know most of the others, by sight if not by name.

You recognise them by type. There's the Tractor, who churns up the water in the slow lane with no perceptible effect on forward movement; the Volvo-driver, who hogs the fast lane (no, you can't overtake) and the Morris Minor, who trundles along in third gear n the middle lane while everyone huffs and puffs and overtakes one by one.

Then there's the Ancient Mariner, who's been coming here since the blitz probably, and spends twenty minutes in the water and forty afterwards reminiscing with the other regulars. There are the two camp gays, Pinkie and Perky, who spend most of their time gossiping in the shallow end, but will occasionally sally forth for a length or two of perfectly synchronised breast-stroke, still talking the while and never missing a stitch. There's the Meteorite, who dives in over your head, makes a terrific splash and craters the water, threatening all us dinosaurs with extinction. And there's Butterfly Boy, with his red goggles and shiny blue helmet, who does his stretches and bends by the poolside, then hops in, waits for a gap in the queue, and then catapults himself up the fast lane, windmilling his arms and bucking his belly. ike a wave-hopping hydrofoil.

Finally, there are the earnest ones with their polystyrene floats, who must do so many lengths like this, for the legs, and so many like this, for the arms, and then switch strokes every ten lengths - breast, back, crawl; da capo - till they hit the magic number.

Me, I'm a 40-a-day man now. Lengths, that is. At 26 metres that's a nice round kilometre. (I'm all for European harmonisation - It's a good deal less effort than going the old mile).

The advantage of the pool is, of course, its predictability. You know how far you've been and can get out, exhausted and satisfied when it's done and know that there's hot tea and porridge to come. And whatever the temptations during the rest of the day - that lunchtime pie and pint, that tea-time bun or extra helping at dinner - one has at least done one's lengths. One has taken the cardiovascular system for its recommended spin. One has earned the right to a little indulgence, from the doctor if not the Pope. One is, in short, justified.

In summer sun, the sea may beckon. Eschew it, I say, or beware. Fun though it might be to splash around, it's not the same. And the effect on your appetite - from the wind and the cold and salt sea air - is wholly disproportionate to the energy consumed, since there's no way you're going to do the same distance, daily, as you would have done in the pool. In fact, all you've done is run in shouting 'Last one in's a chicken!' then 'Eek, it's freezing!' then 'Yuk, seaweed!' and then splash around in the shallows a bit or, if really determined, thrash up and down in your own depth for ten minutes (only to get out half a mile further down because of the sweeping currents) and then race back up the beach, shivering, for another session of beach-blanket bashing and ice-cream munching.

Having said that, a swim is always better than no swim. Or as my friend Christopher put it - as we tiptoed goose-pimpled across the sharp shingle of a Sussex beach into that freezing snot-green soup - 'Remember.' he said 'you only ever regret not swimming.'

My reply? 'Aaargh!'

But he was right. it was worth it afterwards. It was worth it because I'd done it. I was, justified. (Hot tea and porridge. here I come!)

Printed in GUCH News - Issue 24, March 2000

« View all Inspirational Stories
image description

Help & Advice

Information on managing your heart condition, including Physical, Emotional and Mental Health.

Read more
image description Make a Donation

Make a donation to The Somerville Foundation today and you will help us to continue to offer the valuable services we provide to those born with a heart condition.