After all, all through my 20s I exercised three times a week, ran marathons, ate a balanced diet, and when I was diagnosed with high cholesterol in 1996, I started taking statins and – even with occasional lapses where I forgot to update my new prescription – assumed this would keep everything under control.
A year ago there were some glaringly obvious warning signs this was no longer the case – the fact I got out of breath walking up stairs and felt tired walking to work. But my lifestyle was still healthy – I was still only 50 – so I still shrugged it off and continued to hope I could outrun the shadow of cardiovascular disease a little bit longer.
I couldn’t though.
Last September on holiday in Tenerife, I planned to do ‘a quick 30 lengths’ of the hotel pool – but I didn’t even have the breath to do one.
Back home, after initially researching online and deciding it was ‘probably just gastro-related’ I did finally see the GP. I’d recently moved to a new area so they had no record of my or my family’s history, but I explained (like I’d end up having to explain to every new health practitioner I saw) and they referred me straight to a cardiologist.
I’ll never forget what I saw on that cardiogram screen: one completely blocked artery and only two of my heart’s three ‘cylinders’ still functioning. Or the words of the specialist: ‘It’s angina. You have heart disease. And you always will.’
They said they could reverse some damage by inserting a stent then putting me on five medicines a day (more statins, aspirin, pills to control blood pressure and prevent stent rejection, and beta blockers), but essentially I would never be free from it.
It was a huge wake-up call – obviously physically, but especially emotionally. The care I received was very transactional, being well looked after in a practical sense, but with no real mental support. I think women are better at proactively seeking out a support group and finding a community of other CVD sufferers to talk to. But as a stereotypical man, left unprompted, I simply tried to cope with it on my own.
A year later I am feeling better but I’ve still not fully come to terms with what’s happened. Facing your own mortality is not easy, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem with healthcare in general: Compliance. Motivation. Accepting that your health can be fallible and you have to take care of yourself.
Because even though I was living healthily in many ways, there were things that slipped up: occasionally forgetting to take my statins, not seeing the doctor as often as I should, not tracking my cholesterol. And even now, I’ve started using a fitness tracker but to be honest – beyond initially monitoring how much exercise I do in my daily routine – I haven’t really engaged with it, and certainly haven’t proactively shared any of the data with my doctor.
I hope in the future this will change. How? Well of course, part of the impetus needs to come from the patient, but a big part needs to come from both the healthcare system and the tech industry. If for example my fitness tracker gave an alert if my heart-rate went too high, rather than relying on me to check it. Or if my prescription of statins was automatically updated, any check-up appointments automatically scheduled. It’s not about shifting responsibility, it’s about providing better patient-doctor communication and a better support system so everyone can learn to take responsibility of their own health, and control of their own life.