Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Death's Door: Part 1
Last Thursday was one of the most interesting days of my life. No, truly. Fascinating. Confronting. Frightening. Over-whelming ... in fact, awe-inspiring.
I had spent the better part of the day at a press approval with my associate James. It had been a long and ultimately fruitless exercise. Never in the life of my small business have I been unable to approve a job on the press. On some occasions it has been necessary to slightly alter the balance of the inks ... but on this occasion, there were significant problems with the job and it was with considerable reluctance that I (un)happily agreed to compromise the considerable value of my eye for detail in defining flaws in a print job ... and let it go. The Press Manager guaranteed me that my little list of flaws would be corrected, but apparently I was not to see the fruit of this particular promise. To his credit (and perhaps mine as the Designer and Finished Artist) he rather humbly acknowledged that I had set them a complex and difficult task. I was challenging the press (and the people who operate it) to deliver a brochure of such technical superiority that it would be some hours before they were happy to press the 'Go' button on the job.
James dropped me back at my office and I sat down at my computer to look through a dazzling array of emails that had flooded my inbox in my absence.
The chest pain started almost immediately ... a clamping, cramping pain of such immense, polarising discomfort that I thought I was going to pass out where I sat. My computer monitor was suddenly blurry and I was almost completely thrown by the thin layer of persperation almost bubbling to the surface of my forearms, my chest and - somewhat unusually I thought, my neck. My breathing was short and shallow and the tips of my fingers were tingling. The immediate fear was brain-numbing ... and my first instinct was to lie down on the floor of my office and relax. Breathe. Relax. The usefulness of years and years of breathing classes (I trained to be an opera singer for a long time ... and an actor for longer) evaporated. Try as I may, I could not 'send my breath' any further into my body than the top of my lungs, which were now aching and contracting ... as if someone else was doing my breathing for me.
The temptation to yield to the panic was overcome by my immense proclavity for common sense. I knew I was in a danger zone because, since I was about ten, I have known that I have "a heart problem". An irregular heart-beat. A semi-blocked left ventricle - the ventricle (valve) which is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood from the heart on its journey through my body. I have never been able to over-exert myself physically ... and at the risk of being considered weak and ineffectual (two attributes I despise in people of my sexual inclination), I have always managed a show of strength.
But not on this occasion ... which, unlike previous 'chest pain dramas', was rendering me totally and utterly inert. And afraid for my life.
My breathing was becoming shallower and shallower ... to the point where I thought I was, shortly, not going to be able to inhale at all. I prised myself from the floor and, gripping the edge of my desk, dragged myself up from the floor (which had provided no respite whatsoever from the pain) and fell back into my chair.
I've heard and read many descriptions of an episode of chest pain ... and every one of them fled my mind and my consciousness with record-breaking speed and alacrity: "concrete slab" ... "knives" ... "squeezing the air out of me" ... "such immense pressure" ... "unable to control the depth of my breathing" ...
Hunched over like a man 20 years my senior, I walked up the corridor to the stairwell at the back of my office building and did what I always do when I feel stressed and out of my depth ... not to mention my comfort zone: I had a ciggie.
Well, the tiniest bit of a ciggie ... because inhaling was impossible. My lips and my mouth were willing, but my chest and my lungs were not. I gagged on the smoke and immediately stubbed the cigarette out in my full to over-flowing ashcan. I sat on my 'smoking step' and wondered if this, in fact, was going to be the end of my life. Laughingly, I thought first and foremost about the amount of work I have on at the moment. Deadlines for this job ... and that. Concepts and ideas to be submitted. "Typical!" I remember thinking. "Here I am ... as busy as I have ever been - and now I have to go and have a fucking heart attack!"
I was amazingly unsentimental. Fear of what was happening overrode every other mental capability. I immediately wondered who in the building I would ask (and want) to help me. I pondered how to ask ... when to ask ... and, rather innocuously, decided that if I was going to shit myself (as people apparently do when their bodies go into death-throes) whose life did I have the right to change to that extent? In whose arms and at whose feet was I going to writhe in pain. And cry. And beg.
It pained me to discover that there was no-one within my immediate surrounds who I could turn to. I was on my own. It's the way I like it.
I knew the extent of this pain - not to mention the time it had gone on for - was a bad sign. A very bad sign.
I staggered back to my office and closed the door. I sat in my chair and Goggled 'heart attack symptoms'. I devoured every syllable of every piece of information like a vulture ... at the same time, buying myself great swathes of relief in the realisation that even though I was in such complete agony, nothing else like what was being described was happening to me. There was no pain in my head or my arms. Yes, the pain was immense and uncomfortable, but it wasn't like what was being described on the two or three websites that trumpeted information about the possibility of my impending and immediate demise.
And then it hit me. A stab of sheer eye-watering and mouth-drying pain in my heart like I have never experienced. I groaned from the intensity of it ... and with one hand to my chest, I grabbed my keys, my wallet and my mobile phone and decided to walk the four or five blocks to the Alfred Hospital.
I considered my options for company and support as I left the office ... and as I shuffled, blindly bound with pain along the footpath outside our building on my way to Emergency ... I wondered who in the world I would chose to die in the arms of.
And to what I imagine will be my unending surprise, I decided I wanted that person to be A Complete Stranger.