The doctor walked in, said something in Hungarian I did not understand, then pulled out a huge syringe.
It was 2014.
I was in an intensive care bed with 24/7 observation, in Budapest, Hungary. Tubes sprouted from the side of my chest. A respirator was in my mouth pushing air in when I breathed. Multiple coloured wires snaked from sensors on body to machines I could not see above my bed.
It was the uncomfortable start of a personal transition – into someone that took responsibility for his health outcomes.
Six Week’s Earlier: Short of Breath
I had first noticed a problem coming back from the local shops.
There was a gentle hill back to my apartment. Suddenly, I was out of breath, struggling to get enough air.
After all, I was happy to run 10k, and worked out regularly.
Must be an infection, right? Maybe the first signs of a virus?
A Failed Run and the Start of Worries
A few days later I went for a run at my usual spot, a picturesque running track around Margit Island, in the middle of the mighty River Danube.
100 meters into it I was struggling, by 200 meters I turned to walk home. Baffled, upset, and confused.
By the end of the week, I was terrified.
I’d gone from fit and healthy, to being unable to climb the stairs to the second floor where my apartment was, walk up a hill, or work out at all.
At this point I had a private doctor.
I knew I needed to visit, and fast. Yet, something made me put it off. It could have been hay fever, I mean, lots of people get it later in life. Maybe a flu? Or a cold? In the back of my mind there was a voice whispering – or maybe it is something much, much worse…
Flying and Moving: The Diary of a Stupid Health Denialist
If trying to run when you can’t breathe is foolish, then flying was plain stupid.
Yep, stupid, and I did two return trips over the next month. One was a conference in Amsterdam. I carried cases up the narrow stairs of a canal side hotel – collapsing onto a bed at the top unable to get my breath for ages. Despite having trouble breathing at 30,000-feet the first two times, I then came back to the UK for my younger sister’s wedding.
Looking back at the photos now, I was white as a ghost.
My older little sister was the one that spotted it.
She took me aside, hands on hips.
‘Mark, what’s going on? you can’t f***ing breathe!’
She was right.
I told her I did not know what was wrong and that I was scared to find out. If there is one person in this world that your promise is unbreakable for, it is this sister. I promised to go to the doctor as soon as I got back to Hungary, and to report the results right away.
The flight back was rough, I really struggled to breathe. People were staring at me, puzzled.
Just in case you had not read enough stupidity, we moved apartments immediately after returning.
Movers came, but as anyone that knows me would attest, I’ll never shy away from lending a hand with moving the boxes and furniture.
Visiting the Doctors: Go Straight to Intensive Care
Six weeks after that first breathless experience, I made it to see my doctor.
I had a problem.
My left lung had collapsed, this is a medical emergency.
Instead, I had ignored it, allowing the tissue to get damaged, the cavity to start to fill with fluid, and my heart to move slightly.
It was not just dangerous; it could have been fatal. Risks are that the second lung is induced to collapse, or pressure on the aorta causes a cardiac arrest.
I was sent directly to hospital. No going home, oxygen tubes in my nose, not allowed out of the doctor’s sight. I had my lung reinflated and kept up with a suction machine and tubes. This started the longest two weeks of my life – as a client of the (highly educated) Hungarian health service.
Let’s skip quickly over the details here. Two hospitals, three beds. A guy in the next bed in shock and disbelief by his diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. X-rays every morning, the doctor stressed that I could not read the disclaimer form to get my surgery (I signed anyway), not being able to reach my wife as my op appointment was early due to a cancellation, the lights above the operating table, coming round, and then the pain…
Two weeks after I was sent to hospital I was home again, minus a chunk of lung – in discomfort but out of danger.
I broke down, finally terrified for what I might have done to myself, my wife and my family by my ‘too tough to see the doc’ mindset. The psychological scars took a lot longer to heal than my lung.
Why Did I (and many others) Not Seek Immediate Help?
The cliché is that avoiding the doctor is a male phenomenon. It looks like there is some truth to it, at least in percentage terms.
Looking back, a large part of it was attitude. Most of us go through our 20’s and 30’s feeling like health issues are things that happen to other people. Sure, some people work out and eat healthy, though looks and social bonding are important drivers.
I was certainly one of those people. Not the tear-away teenager who unwittingly did a lot of damage to his health, but someone with the off-hand arrogance to believe he was immune.
The whole unpleasant experience may have been a blessing. It started my journey to regular screening, and to a new responsibility for my own health outcomes. Ultimately, the journey got me to setting up The Age Well Times – with an interest in helping others avoid becoming frail in old age.
Testing and Medical Screening is Vital for Longevity
You are not a hypochondriac, or someone ‘making a fuss’ if you visit your doctor to discuss any health concern.
Your GP (MD) is the first line of defence against any number of conditions that will shorten your lifespan or health span.
If you can afford it, regular screening is even better.
This helped me spot a new health issue a few years after this episode. If you can’t stretch to a full panel of tests, then find out which ones are free, or go for a cheap postal alternative.
Most important – if you develop serious symptoms – don’t be like me. I could have saved that chunk of lung, and a lot of stress and worry, simply by picking up the phone the day I first felt out of breath. Had the worst happened and the other lung also collapsed, I would never have known how stupid I was.
Wishing you a long and healthy life,
PS: I don’t have any lingering effects and started gently running around six months later. The only continuing issue is that I was advised not to continue scuba diving. A small price to pay for a new perspective on taking responsibility for my own health outcomes.