Tuesday, 8 November 2016

42 Runs Later... joining the parkrun 100 club

The response to my first blog post a year and a bit ago was fantastic.  Surviving cardiac arrest was like a weird dream and all sorts of thoughts had gone through my head, so putting them down on a blog post was a helpful experience on its own.  But the reaction I got blew me away, with well wishes coming from all over the globe.

Since that post, my life has gone back to relative normality, so I haven't posted since.  I didn't feel that dwelling on what happened would help me or my family.  Instead, I've tried to get on with my life as it was before - I'm thankful that other than six-monthly check-ups at the hospital I've done pretty well at getting back into the old routine.

However one vital part of that routine will forever remind me of what happened on 1 January 2015, and it's something that I will always be grateful for and I've not once considered giving up now I'm back to full health.  My cardiac arrest happened at my 58th parkrun; a weekly 5km run round a local park on a Saturday morning.  I had discovered parkrun in 2012, and soon it became an important part of my week.  Shortly before New Year's Day 2015 I'd worked out that all being well I would join the "100 club" later that year - a small(ish) group of people who have completed 100 runs, that parkrun recognise with a free running shirt to mark the achievement.

The unfortunate events of 1st January meant that for a while it looked like I would never make it to 59 parkruns.  Six months of rehab however got me back to fitness, and I successfully completed my return to parkrun on 8th August 2015, in a not-too-shabby time of  28m47s.  Since then I've been back as often as I can, and on 5th November 2016 I finally reached that landmark and completed my 100th parkrun.  My cardiologist had given me the sensible advice to take it easy on my return to running and said that it would be unlikely I could ever run as quickly as I did before the arrest.  However as I've felt stronger and stronger over the last few months my times have been improving - and 3 of my last 4 runs have been quicker than my "pre-cardiac-arrest-personal-best"!  In a neat piece of unintentional timing I finished my 100th run in 23m31s, exactly four minutes faster than that ill-fated run on New Year's Day.

Every time I go back to parkrun I'm reminded of the fabulous people at Hilly Fields who kept me alive - it was only their amazingly quick thinking and teamwork to perform CPR on me for over ten minutes that gave me the chance to pull through and get back to running.  I'm delighted to see that even in the short time since it happened, parkrun as an organisation have taken steps to encourage the presence of AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators) at their events - these fantastic machines massively increase the chances of survival from cardiac arrest and are surprisingly easy to use!

I plan to carry on with my routine and will be back at parkrun at next Saturday.  The next landmark for me is 108 runs, as that will be 50 "bonus" runs since being given my second chance.  Do parkrun do a t-shirt for that?!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Back From The Brink - How I Survived a Cardiac Arrest at 34

My first memory of 2015 is from 8th January, and it's of my family standing around my bed in a hospital room, trying to explain to me what had happened.  Not a lot was sinking in as I was still heavily sedated, but they were telling me that I'd collapsed after a run on New Year's Day, that I'd been rushed to hospital, and that they had found a complete blockage within one of the arteries in my heart.  That still seems surreal to me now, so imagine how it sounded when waking up after a week sedated in a hospital bed.

I tried to piece together what happened but my short term memory was completely wiped – apparently a common occurrence for people that have been through a trauma, and an example of the body's "self-defence" mechanism.  I didn't even remember starting parkrun, let alone finishing two of them (I did 5km at Peckham Rye then another 5km at Hilly Fields)… and in fact the end of December was also a complete blank as well.  It's probably just as well I have no memory of the day, as the story got more and more frightening as people relayed what had happened to me.  

I finished the second parkrun, was in line to have my time recorded, complained to my friend that I wasn't feeling well, and then collapsed to the ground.  My heart had gone into "ventricular fibrillation" – where for whatever reason it just couldn't pump enough blood round my body… and then nothing.  It stopped beating.  This was a full-on cardiac arrest, that thing you hear about in the news but never imagine happening to you at 34 years of age.

I was incredibly lucky to be quickly surrounded by some amazing people… my fellow parkrunners came to my rescue and went into life-saving mode.  A team of four of them administered CPR for nearly 15 minutes while we waited for an ambulance. They somehow kept my blood (and crucially, oxygen) pumping round my body, which meant that when the ambulance arrived they were able to 'shock' my heart back into a normal rhythm and keep me alive.

I now know that surviving an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is rare, surviving for over 15 minutes without a regular heartbeat is extremely rare, and making a full recovery without brain damage or ongoing heart problems is almost unheard of.  They put my chances of survival somewhere between 2% and 4% (thankfully this statistic wasn't passed onto my family at the time!).  The realisation of how lucky I was has been made even more significant by the tragic events in Belgium where footballers Gregory Mertens and Tim Nicot both died within a few days of each other after cardiac arrests, and closer to home at Whyteleafe FC when Tonbridge player Junior Dian also died after collapsing during a pre-season friendly.

There’s no doubt that I survived only because of the intervention of my fellow runners, who thankfully had been trained on life-saving techniques.  Learning CPR really is straightforward, yet the majority of people sadly wouldn’t know where to start.  I was really impressed to see my former employer Barclays put 10,000 members of staff through CPR training recently, and I really hope other big organisations follow suit.  

Photo: Finishing the Bath Half Marathon in 2013

The ambulance took me to King's College Hospital, where they performed an angiogram, which is basically a camera that went into the artery through my wrist, all the way into my heart, where they found the blockage.  They cleared it, and re-enforced the artery with a bit of what I call 'scaffolding' but which is actually called a stent.  It lines the artery wall, keeping the vessel open for blood to start pumping again as normal.  So what caused the blockage?  Well that's the bit nobody has ever really been able to explain.  All of the scans showed the rest of my heart to be in "pristine condition" (not my words but those of the consultant) which suggests it wasn't heart disease or anything related to lifestyle.  Most likely it was something genetic that meant that bit of my heart was pre-disposed to problems, or it could have been some event from earlier in my life that damaged the artery, unbeknown to me at the time.

Whatever caused it, the biggest positive was that they fixed the problem, and that all the scans were showing my heart to be functioning normally after the operation.

For the first month after the arrest, I couldn't even imagine running again.  I was in hospital 23 days, and when I was finally discharged my legs were so weak I couldn't walk to the end of my road without feeling like I'd done a marathon.  Apparently for many people, the hardest part of recovery from any sort of heart attack is psychological – that worry about it happening again.  This is where the hospital did something amazing to give me peace of mind – they fitted me with my own personal defibrillator.  I have a small device implanted into my side, with a cable that runs across my heart, and this device monitors my heart activity.  If my heart ever goes into a dangerous rhythm, it will administer a shock that should effectively "reboot" my heart and get it working again.  This means that if it did happen again, I wouldn't have to rely on my team of life-savers or the appearance of an ambulance to get my heart back into a normal rhythm.  As weird as it sounds to have a device sewn into your chest, it provides amazing reassurance to know you have your own little insurance policy should anything go wrong again.

Before New Year’s Day I’m not sure I even knew what a defibrillator really was, but now I know that they really are the difference between life and death for a lot of people that go through similar events to the one I had.  Both the British Heart Foundation and the London Ambulance Service are trying to raise awareness of how vital they are, and the LAS generously donated a defibrillator to Hilly Fields parkrun after my arrest.  They now have one on standby at every run, and although hopefully it will never be needed, it’s great for the runners and organisers to know they have the equipment they need to potentially save another life if the worst was to happen.

 Photo: My medication.  More pills than Pete Doherty!

My implant, together with the excellent cardiac rehabilitation programme run by King's College Hospital, has rebuilt my confidence in running.  I started with a few quick walks on the treadmill, and within a few months I had built up to being able to run properly again.  I'm now at the point where I want to make my return to running out and about, and am planning my return to parkrun on Saturday August 8th.  I may be quite a bit slower than I used to be, but the beauty of parkrun is that it doesn't matter.  It's a free 5km run that happens in parks all over the world, and it's a great way of gently getting back into a regular running habit.  As tempting as it is to go back to Hilly Fields and run with the people who saved my life, I've opted for the familiar (and more importantly, flat!) surrounds of my local park in Dulwich.

The question I’ve had most regularly since this all happened is “has it changed your outlook on life?”  It’s a very difficult question to answer, but it has certainly made me realise what is most important in life.  Learning so much about heart problems has made me in awe at the work that leading charities do, such as C-R-Y (Cardiac Risk in the Young) who offer cardiac screening to people under 35, to try and detect any heart abnormalities.  Amazingly they find an abnormality in 1 in every 300 people they test, and by detecting it at an early stage they can make sure the individuals get the treatment they need to hopefully prevent anything serious from happening.

It’s still the early stages of my recovery so I will be taking it easy and sticking to 5km parkruns for the time being.  However if things go well I would like to do a longer event and raise some money for charity.  In the meantime I’m trying to raise awareness and I urge you all to have a look at some of the information at the links below.

Thanks for reading, and if you feel like lending some moral support, I will be at Dulwich parkrun on Saturday 8th August.  I’ll be the one in the pink and blue Dulwich Hamlet FC shirt so should be easy to spot!

British Heart Foundation: https://www.bhf.org.uk/

Cardiac Risk in the Young (C-R-Y): http://www.c-r-y.org.uk/

Special thanks go to:

My Hilly Fields Team of life savers: Siggy, Liam, Anne and Bhupinder

My 1st Jan running partners: Darren and Gila, who had the unenviable job of breaking the news to my girlfriend Alex and keeping her company in hospital

My ICU nurses (I don’t remember you but I’m told you were awesome): Steph and Mike

The KCH Cardiac Rehab Team: especially the "Thursday Team" of Annie, Phillippa, Tony and Ian

Everyone who visited me in January, sent cards, brought grapes, and generally helped keep me sane while in hospital for nearly a month

And last but definitely not least, my partner Alex, probably the only person who had a worse January than I did.  She was amazing through the whole thing and has been unbelievably supportive.  She even approves of my return to parkrun!

I can be contacted at neil.m.cole@gmail.com - feel free to get in touch that way, or comment below if you have any questions or comments about my experience.