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Mar 26 / Caro

One Summer Night That Proved to Me the Value of Life

I remember the feel of the air that summer day as if it were only this afternoon. Warm and humid – enough to edge the London Underground towards insufferable amongst the crowds, especially for someone with one leg in plaster. The effort of moving about on crutches was enough to make my clothes stick to me uncomfortably and my head spin ever so slightly. England were playing Portugal in the quarter finals of the World Cup and I was meeting friends to watch the game in a London pub.

I can tell you, even now, that England lost 3-1 on penalties, but I can’t recall any of the details of the match, nor of the conversations I had that evening. I know I felt unwell because I’d felt under the weather for weeks, frequently coming home from work and falling straight in to bed, sleeping right through until my alarm the next morning. Existing on a diet of cereal and painkillers for the ankle injury that had now been unresolved for 18 months. I’d really struggled to recover from surgery almost exactly a month before and a sick, dizzy feeling had become my constant companion. I’d already been readmitted to hospital once for a suspected wound infection, and had spent the month battling severe, intractable low blood sugars. Perhaps it was because I just felt too awful, but I hadn’t connected the dots together, or identified the red flags that, with hindsight, were staring me in the face. So I’d forced myself to go out that afternoon, afraid that I was becoming antisocial and missing out on seeing people who mattered to me.

As it turned out, I’m so glad that I made the effort.

It’s hard sometimes to pick out what I really remember against what people have told me. Where my true memory merges with the pieces coloured in by friends and the medical paperwork. But apparently I left early in the evening, saying I felt unwell. I declined offers to see me to the station, or even all the way home. I insisted that I was fine – just hot, uncomfortable and in need of sleep. I didn’t want to curtail anyone else’s fun.

Less than twenty minutes after leaving my friends, I was lying on a dirty London pavement in full cardiac arrest.

I was twenty-six years old.

When I think back to that evening, it’s hard to deny the existence of luck. I was in a busy place and my collapse was not only witnessed, but witnessed by people who knew what to do. I wasn’t dismissed as being drunk. I was in a public place that happened to be equipped with an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) which is really the only way the restart someone’s heart when it stops beating. Despite the hoards of people out watching the football, and the consequent level of high spirits and drunken antics, a paramedic was apparently on scene incredibly quickly.

The days that followed were a confused blur, and included me discharging myself from one hospital (before walking straight in to another) when a doctor, who was lacking considerably in bedside manner, voiced a suspicion that I was abusing narcotics. The reality was that I had a prescribed – and carefully controlled – pain management schedule for my ankle, which had nothing to do with my collapse. The cause of my arrest, although rare, was subsequently identified and treated.

When I think of how differently it could all have played out, I realise how lucky I am to be alive.

It’s not something that I like to think about much, though, for obvious reasons. And in the almost eight years that have passed since then, I have never written this openly or honestly about the events of that night. My reasons for not doing so are probably mainly down to a misguided notion of self-preservation. I think I believed it would be harder, and more negative, to think about than it has been. My reasons for actually sharing it now are complicated. In part it’s because I continually feel that I need to promote the value of accessible public AEDs and training in Basic Life Support (or bystander-CPR). Because those things really and truly make a difference. I’m living proof of it.

If you wouldn’t know what to do if someone collapsed on the pavement next to you, then please, go and learn.

But what really compelled me to share this now is the fact that it has repeatedly come to mind in the last couple of weeks as I struggle to come to terms with a different reality to the one that I’ve dreamed of. And to do so has been surprisingly positive and uplifting. In the most basic terms, when I remember what I’ve come through, it puts it all in to a bit of perspective.

I’m alive. Every day is a gift.

And for now, that is more than enough.

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