“May I have a look at your groin?” The question was disconcerting – especially since I was in bed, and it was asked by a comely young lady. But I allowed immediate access, you don’t fool about with the femoral artery. I had meant to write this week about Pope Francis and subsidiarity, but nature intervened. Here is the timetable.
Monday 1am. Woken from sleep by intense and rising angina across my chest. 5am, a doctor at St George’s Hospital doesn’t do platitudes, I am a heart attack waiting to happen. The rest of Monday is boredom and tests. Tuesday, I am lying on a bed of pain while Doctor Jacques begins his work. Wednesday, I am driven home by a Somali cab driver, still in my pyjamas – and here I am, faced by pages of emails, almost as if it never happened.
It was very different from my last experience of the condition, some 17 years ago. That meant open chest surgery, a machine to stand in for my heart, and months of convalescence. Things have moved on from then.
The principle of angioplasty is quite simple, if not the practice. The surgeon inserts a catheter into an artery and, using a dye, explores the arteries of the heart. He identifies obstructions to the blood flow and, where necessary, inserts stents to keep the artery permanently open. It is fascinating to watch the screen and to see what looks like a thin black snake searching, probing and healing.
Hospital gives you time for thought. I know nothing of Dr Jacques’ personal life but, being something of a solipsist, I saw his apotheosis as the point where he worked away on me, quietly telling his team where he was and what he proposed to do next. It was the culmination of a skill that started at school, followed by medical school, then specialist qualifications, and then developing the great skill which enabled him to work in the very heart of life. I know, because I have read the thoughts of surgeons, that they are troubled by the heavy responsibility they sustain but which they have to control lest it interferes with their work. They do it day by day and the result is a restored life, and, very probably in my case, defeat of the Grim Reaper.
A miracle? Not by technical standards, but surely a miracle that a man may devote his life to the loving service of others. I know that the grace of God was in my surgeon’s hands. It is a mystery that God and man do not supplement each other; in loving action they are the same.
And I do not forget his team and the nurses who looked after me during my brief stay. They were models of human kindness and professional care. Many of them were immigrants, or daughters of immigrants. I heard a view on the radio that the public’s main concerns were getting the NHS right, and reducing immigration. Believe me, you can have one or the other, you can’t have both.
What I remember most vividly was pain. I had been warned of discomfort during the process of angioplasty but in my case, as I lay motionless on my narrow table for well over an hour, the pain was intense. It varied like the surface of a troubled sea, and I began to learn which activities I saw on the screen accompanied the ebbs and flows. Painkillers were offered, but I declined. My wife interprets this as machismo: I saw it as discovering myself. But wives have babies and pain is no stranger.
I have read of the particular pains of crucifixion. The body slumps into asphyxiation. But as the victim pulls himself up to relieve the agony, it is the feet and hands which suffer, until exhaustion takes over. The cruel cycle is repeated again and again. You may see the effect on the Shroud, where the separate blood flows from the hand register this terrible sequence.
Of course my pain was nothing by comparison, but I saw that the pain in my chest bore some remote similarity. It must at least have been present in the pain Christ suffered in his chest. And, when I accepted that I was asked to be part of that, a strange thing happened. The pain did not go away, but I did. The pain was happening in my body, but was no longer happening in me; it ceased to matter. I can think of neat psychological explanations, I’m good at that sort of thing. But I can also recognise digitus dei when it touches me.
Nor will I easily forget the people. The incoherent nurse who got confused by the wiring of my monitor – we ended up in a giggling hug. The nurse who, finishing her last session, came over to thank me for my company. Becky – busy, busy,busy. Large Mathilde, a senior nurse, who just simply sorted things out for everyone.
And the patients. Giacomo, the Italian window cleaner, lying there leaking abdominal fluid into a container. Always cheerful – the prettiest nurses attracted to his bed like flies to fly paper. Denzil, who communicated with shouts and grunts, and watched much football. He seemed well suited to that. And Pip who looked as though he was about to die, and very nearly did – panic button and all. It was a microcosm of human nature at its extremities. It was a privilege.