A clockwork heart
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After all: A brand-new, re-engineered me

With the help of modern technologies, our columnist undergoes a life-saving experience in the caring hands of British and Hungarian nurses and surgeons.

This constant exhaustion. As if you have a brake pedal installed inside your chest and some cheeky little fellow keeps pressing it tirelessly trying to slow you down, to stop you from walking, sleeping and functioning properly.

When this column was first conceived 10 years ago, its brief was simple: to reflect the human face of technology. For over a month now, that very face had been staring at me unblinkingly, with tears of pain in its eyes.

First of all, I want to apologise for the last month’s gap in the sequence of my ‘After All’ columns. As you may have guessed, there were solid reasons for that. To have to undergo one major medical procedure is unfortunate. To be subjected to three in the same number of weeks, including a seven-hour-long session of open-heart surgery, is pure carelessness.

My Dad died of a heart attack at the age of 56, just like his own father, so my cardio history was never too promising. I knew I’d have to do the valve replacement soon, but thought I could wait until the end of this year and in the meantime fix my dental problems, for one of the main preconditions for open-heart surgery, according to the British Heart Foundation, is having healthy teeth and gums.

A victim of merciless Soviet dentistry, with tooth extraction as its main and often only method of treatment, I had not one, but 13 dental problems - equal to the number of my remaining teeth. I was told they all had to go to make space for implants, and when I asked if I could keep at least one as a souvenir of all the beautiful food I had consumed, they said that I could indeed, but I would have to carry it in my pocket.

My dental Dignitas experience was to take place in the Smile Savers Clinic, the best in Budapest. Why Budapest? Because the Hungarian capital has been Europe’s dental tourism Mecca for nearly a hundred years and dental treatment there was not only better-quality, but also much cheaper than at home.

To cut a long story short, that first of my three medical procedures was a success. Technologically speaking, I was subjected (under general anaesthetic) to ‘13 teeth extraction and the placement of 10 SGS implants by Alpha-Bio’, carried out by Europe’s leading implantologist Dr Attila Kaman. It was done within a couple of days and was all but painless, if we don’t count the initial discomfort of coming to grips with my new, unusually crowded, mouth cavity.

Yet before I had time to start stuffing my face with previously unpalatable steaks, apples and stiff Hungarian dumplings, there came a phone call from my London cardiologist, who, having examined the results of my latest angiogram, concluded that I had to undergo a coronary artery bypass grafting and aortic valve replacement pronto.

Ten days after returning to the UK, I found myself in the operating theatre of Harefield Hospital. In that ‘theatre’ I was not an actor, not even a stage hand, but rather a prop, with the undisputed star of the show being the acclaimed British heart surgeon Mr Shahzad Raja.

I was certainly physically unaware of all the technological intricacies of the procedure, whereby my chest was carved open, my heart stopped and I was put on a heart-lung machine – a circuit outside the body containing a mechanical blood pump and the oxygenator (an artificial lung).  My malfunctioning valve was then removed and replaced with a bovine-tissue one – that is, originating from a cow.  No more beef eating for me, thanks.

I vaguely recall waking up in intensive care with cables, tubes and wires sticking out of my hands, chest and neck, making me look and feel like an Ood from  ‘Doctor Who’. I also remember bizarre hallucinations, caused by the drugs I was pumped with, the scariest of which was being laminated alive by some smart Asian students.

Feeling (and looking) like I had been chewed up and spat out, I was then transferred to a recovery ward equipped, among other things, with an old-​fashioned telephone apparatus carrying the rather discouraging sticker ‘Cardiac Arrest 2222’.

Yet it was not the end of my ordeal. My systolic blood pressure suddenly dropped to below 50, while my heartbeat jumped up to 140, as if I was running constantly on an invisible treadmill. I was experiencing post-surgery atrial fibrillation, and the team of worried nurses and doctors, all muttering “We are losing him!” (or maybe, having watched too many Hollywood thrillers, I just imagined that through the haze of my fading consciousness), rolled me to a high-dependency ward, and from there back to the already familiar operating theatre on the following day.

For the third time in three weeks, and with my mutilated heart jumping sporadically in my chest like a monkey in a cage, I was put to sleep and subjected to an electrical cardioversion procedure – a powerful electric shock sent through the heart to stun it in the hope that it ‘forgets’ about the fibrillation and reverts to its normal sinus rhythm.

It worked. At least for the time being, and several days later I was discharged. When my wife came to pick me up, I realised with awe the sheer inability of walking unassisted 100 metres from the hospital to the parked car and was ready to cry with helplessness and despair.

No need to say how happy I am to finally be home. But there’s one thing that I miss from Smile Savers and Harefield – the caring, warm and even loving touch of human hands: doctors, surgeons, nurses. Technologies have certainly progressed from the ancient times when the main tool of a surgeon, often doubling as a barber, was a sharp stone flint or a rusty knife. Yet on their own, they wouldn’t have been sufficient to take me through all those three life-changing procedures.

It was that human touch, the ‘human face of technology’, that re-engineered my body and thus saved my life.

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