Mary Rose Cook

When I died

The first thing I remember is:

Someone said, “How do you feel?” I said, “Terrific”.

However, that happened after I had been in intensive care for several days. The story starts a few days before.

At 7pm on 12th May 2009, I was walking along Tooley Street near London Bridge. I had just left work and was on my way to meet Andie at Bar Wotever. I fell and hit my head. A crowd of passers-by gathered. One of them put me in the recovery position and one of them called an ambulance. PC Lee and PC Harmsworth passed by on their motorcycles, saw the crowd and went over. They examined me and found that my heart wasn’t beating. One of them did CPR until the ambulance arrived.

The paramedics took over the CPR. They gave me two shocks from the defibrillator and managed to restart my heart. They took me to the Accident and Emergency department at St Thomas’s Hospital. I was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. I was heavily sedated and a machine was breathing for me. My Mum and Dad and my older sister, Jess, arrived in the late evening.

To reduce the chance of brain damage, the doctors used a cooled saline drip and ice blankets to keep my body very cold for the first twenty-four hours. After a couple of days, a doctor decided it was time for me to breathe on my own. The sedatives were stopped and, as I came awake, my air tube was removed from my throat and I breathed.

My Dad says he asked me whether I could hear him and I nodded a tiny “Yes”.

I was in intensive care for a week and then I was transferred to Beckett, one of the cardiac wards. I remember little of the first week there. I talked to my friend, Nick, on the phone one day and he referred to something we’d spoken about the day before and I said I didn’t recall the fact that we’d talked. One night, I awoke in the midst of a dream where I was attached by wires to Jeremy from Peep Show. I found a nurse adjusting the leads of my heart monitor and I said, “No, don’t touch those! You’ll kill Jeremy.” The lovely ward sister, John, came and took me through an excruciatingly embarrassing compos mentis test (“What is your name?” “Where are you?” “What day is it?”)

After a week on the ward, I was basically back to normal. Unfortunately, the doctors couldn’t work out what had caused my cardiac arrest. The original plan had been to install a defibrillator in my chest. This would detect dangerous heart rhythms and revert them back to good old sinus with an electric shock directly into my heart. However, somehow the doctors’ aspirations became much greater and things turned into a sort of Sherlock Holmes mystery.

After a CT scan (3D organ imaging with X-Rays), several angiograms (wire with camera on the end fed into the leg and up into the heart), several MRI scans (3D organ imaging with magnetic resonance), several echocardiograms and a lot of blood tests, the following was discovered:

Part of the lateral ventricular wall of my heart is dead.

The circumflex artery that runs down the middle of my heart was coming from the wrong place. In most people, it comes from the aorta - the main artery into the heart - and delivers lovely oxygenated blood. In one in forty-thousand people, it comes from the pulmonary artery and delivers lame deoxygenated blood.

My aorta was bulging dangerously.

The doctors worked up some theories.

Most of the people with the misplaced artery die as infants because the part of the heart supplied by the circumflex doesn’t get enough oxygen. My body compensated by growing little vessels to deliver oxygenated blood from another heart artery to the under-oxygenated area. However, as I walked down Tooley Street, the already poor oxygen supply to the lateral ventricular wall of my heart became very bad. The tissue there died from lack of oxygen. My heart went into ventricular fibrillation and then stopped.

When I was one year old, my aorta was too narrow. A surgeon slit it open and installed some synthetic material in the slit to widen it. Now, aged twenty-eight, the stitches in the synthetic material were coming loose. If left to its own devices, my aorta would rupture and it would be curtains.

After about five weeks in hospital, the doctors cooked up a solution to these problems.

To get a good oxygen supply to the lateral ventricular wall of my heart, they would perform a bypass to move the circumflex artery so it was fed by the aorta. To prevent my aorta rupturing, they would chop out the bulging section and replace it with a synthetic tube. This would be done in one mammoth operation.

I found some of the details distressing. I would be on a heart and lung machine for most of the operation. Because the main vocal cord is wrapped around the aorta, it might be severed, thus destroying my voice. Because they would be operating near the arteries that supply the spine, it was possible they might sever one and paralyse me. There was a 10% chance that I would die on the table.

On the morning of the operation, my Mum and Dad and my brother, Matt, hung out with me at my bed. We laughed a lot. Matt told me he loved me for the first time. I was given two Temazepam and went off to theatre waving a jaunty goodbye.

The operation took ten hours. Afterwards, I spent twenty-four hours unconscious in intensive care.

I woke up in the High Dependency Unit. I could move my legs. I could speak. I was drugged up to the eyeballs on morphine. I ate four yoghurts and talked to my Mum.

The next day, the nurses removed the tubes that were draining blood from my chest. The day after that, I was moved to Doulton, another cardiac ward. The day after that, the nurses removed the dressings that covered the main incision in my chest and I had my first post-operative shaky-kneed shower.

When they were developing the original Macintosh, the Apple engineers referred not to a deadline for the project, but instead to a constant time to completion. In other words, the end was always in sight, but never got any nearer. I felt the same way about being in hospital. However, two weeks after the operation, eight weeks after I’d been admitted, I was discharged.

Two weeks after that, I am sitting in bed at my Mum’s house and writing this. I have a new scar down the middle of my chest. I have been to a party and into town a few times and came back very tired. I sleep in the afternoon. I can’t run. Sneezing feels like my collar bone is going to split in two. Sometimes, I feel afraid when I go to sleep. I get out of breath when I speak.

Dying meant that I missed out on a bunch of life: The Acorn, Horse The Band and Jamie Stewart gigs, several parties, supper with my brother and sister, the Queer Insurrection gathering in Leeds, a screening of Objectified, the Radical Routes party and my sister’s birthday, and a beside-myself-with-excitement visit to my ungirlfriend in Bradford.

But, life is slowly coming back.