I had a health scare last week. There was nothing wrong with me. But there had been once, ten years ago this year. And frankly, I was scared.
I was also in pain. Intermittently. This was the main problem. The thing I had had sent waves of pain through me. Not just like shutting your hand in a door, although that’s painful enough. I’m not a notably small person and I’m talking about the kind of pain that drops you to your knees mid-stride, vomiting. It wasn’t a stomach thing. I guessed that was just part of an extreme fight:flight reflex. We’ve all advanced such a long way, haven’t we? Apparently not when the chips are down. Or coming back up again as in this case.
The thing is, when five minutes later apart from doubting your own sanity there’s nothing much wrong with you at all, it’s quite hard to get a doctor to take you seriously. Or at least, the doctor’s surgery I went to, the one where I was told “if you can cycle 20 miles there’s nothing much wrong with you.”
Well, there was. That ‘advice’ very nearly killed me. The doctor was trying to avoid doing a blood test that would have cost about 80p. It has a reputation for providing false positives, which means that sometimes it will tell you that you have something when you don’t. The up side is that if the test says you don’t have the thing it’s testing for then you really, really don’t. And obviously, terms and conditions apply. Nothing is 100% accurate. Not even me.
It was DVT, or deep vein thrombosis back then. It happened when I was flying long-haul a lot and my blood clotted too much and blocked a vein. Which hurts if it’s a big vein, which it was. It isn’t the vein that’s painful but the things around it which hurt, I think. I don’t think there’s anything veins are made of that can feel anything much. I felt cold and slow and old and as if I was dying, which thanks to my doctor’s desire for an easy life and saving 80p, I was. It was no thanks to her that I didn’t. Instead I woke up one morning a decade ago with one leg nearly twice the size of the other and raspberry coloured, after three nights of terrifying dreams. Even my useless GP had to admit there was something wrong then, the way I’d been saying there was for three years. When I wasn’t dropped to my knees vomiting in pain.
Then a brilliant surgeon asked me if I’d like to be in his experiment, which having seen Marathon Man I wasn’t totally keen on. So he offered me a choice. Be part of my experiment. Or go on Warfarin anti-coagulant, so your blood flows more easily because it’s going to be made thinner. The snag being that it’s a cumulative drug, varying the dosage doesn’t work immediately and it’s easy to over or undershoot, so you’ll need a weekly blood-test. And after ten years you’ll probably haemorrhage spontaneously and that will be pretty much splashily that.
It wasn’t a difficult choice, really. I became the third person in the UK to have an iliac stent. If you remember Slinkies, think of one six inches long and just a few millimetres wide. Now think of it stuck inside your iliac vein. That’s the big one that gets the blood up out of your left leg, crosses over your spine and takes it to your lung. Which is why an iliac DVT is somewhat problematic.
If the blood clot breaks up and moves to your lung you’ll have a pulmonary embolism. Which can kill you. If it keeps moving it’ll go through your heart and probably block the artery on the way out, so your heart will literally explode as it keeps pumping blood into a blocked tube. Which can, obviously enough, kill you. Or it might keep going and lodge in your brain, when you’ll have a stroke and not be able to speak and have to learn how to eat again but with a spoon this time unless you’re already dead, which might be preferable. It wasn’t all that much fun, any of this. I think it was worth spending 80p on a blood test. My previous GP didn’t.
An hour of surgery under local anaesthetic. I watched the whole thing live on TV. That was stupid. Even the surgeon said so, afterwards. More nightmares, for two weeks. But in a thousand years when my grave is excavated on Time Team the only thing left will be the stent gleaming in the bottom of a pit. There is no way my iliac vein will be blocked there ever again unless I’m hit by a steamroller, in which case it will be an inconvenient day anyway.
Some people live with near-constant discomfort from stents, I was warned. My surgeon told me that might happen, or it might be only when I’m really tired. Which is what happened the day before yesterday but I didn’t know if it was that or the whole thing starting again.
So I went for a blood test at a new, different GP surgery. I don’t understand the talk about waiting lists. I phoned up and got an appointment ten minutes after the surgery was closed. The woman on Reception said it was ‘urgent.’ I drove over and gave a blood sample. Four and a bit hours later they called me on my mobile. Clear. I don’t have DVT.
I do need to sort my sleep out and I think a lot of that is simply bad sleeping habits. Like doing Facebook in bed, for example.
I’m lucky enough to live in a country where I can get health care like this. Most of my ancestors ended-up dead from DVT. OK, everyone ends-up dead sooner or later, but it’s not a quick or painless way to go. Luckier still, this kind of health-care is free. Still, after everything.
It doesn’t matter how rubbish you think politics is, or how much you want to pretend ‘they’re all the same’ or it doesn’t make any difference if you vote or not. Because it does. The National Health Service, free at the point of demand, is probably the greatest single achievement ever made in this country. It’s benefitted more people more fundamentally that anything else. And it came about precisely because politicians are not all the same. And because people didn’t try to justify their inaction with a self-fulfilling script about their own irrelevance.