The thin black snake that heals

“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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The thin black snake that heals

  1. John Candido says:

    So far I have been lucky, despite having insulin dependent Type 2 Diabetes and obstructive sleep apnoea. I don’t have a story of physical suffering thank God! I am sure as night follows day that I will have something or other. I think that we can all thank our lucky stars that we live today with the knowledge and skills of the medical, nursing and other ancillary professions at our disposal, in the NHS or Medicare health programs that we enjoy. We are so fortunate and lucky.

    Future generations will have benefits that we can only dream about. I would imagine that things such as diabetes, cancer, cardio-vascular problems, progressive degenerative neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, genetic disorders, neonatal conditions, chronic pain, as well as many other diseases, will have been cured or successfully managed with effective treatments.

    Obesity will become a historical curiosity. Addictions to alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs will be much better controlled in future. I believe that illegal drugs such as heroin and ecstasy etc. will be better managed in future by making these substances legal, and primarily treated as a health issue. Even old age will give way to advances in regenerative medicine with more energy, muscle tone, less skeletal pains and a quicker intellect not slowed by age. Of course death will never be cured, just delayed.

  2. tim says:

    Quentin – truly happy that you are still with us!

    We are indeed fortunate to live in a developed country in the 21st century. Medicine has improved out of all recognition over our lifetimes. I was born with a heart murmur (detected by my grandfather, a GP, without the aid of anything other than a stethoscope). It gave me no trouble until the end of the 20th century. In 2000 I had the defective heart valve replaced with a mechanical one (which works much better than the original, though it emits audible clicks) – the only minor drawback is the need to take rat-poison daily. Two years ago I was diagnosed with lymphoma – which didn’t sound good – but treatment with monoclonal antibodies and chemotherapy has shrunk the tumour and controlled all symptoms. My experience leads me to support wholeheartedly your remarks about the health service and the immigrants who provide such a large proportion of it.

    John C. is right to be optimistic about the future (though he prudently refrains from giving dates for any of his forecasts). To him (and others) I’d make the point that the money to pay for advances in heath care has come from economic growth. Braking this growth (for ideological reasons, or because of perhaps exaggerated concerns about carbon emissions) will delay new developments, as well as the extension of existing ones more widely round the world.

  3. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Quentin – thank God you’re still here!

    • John Candido says:

      I want to pass on my concerns and sincere hope Quentin that you are well and that you will have a complete recovery. I also hope that you are not put-off by any future outpatient appointments that you have to attend in future. They are just as important to you as any initial diagnosis and treatments. Yes, thank God you are well.

  4. Singalong says:

    Quentin, thank you for that riveting account, and thoughts about your experience, and amazing to realise that several of your contributions earlier in the week must have been made from hospital. It is very good to hear that the looming heart attack was averted, and I hope that you will take any convalescence that may be needed.
    My thoughts and involvement in anything connected might be difficult to put into words, but I hope to try later.

  5. Nektarios says:

    Quentin – sorry to hear of your encounter with a possibly fatal heart-attack. We pray the Lord restore you to health and strength and grant you many years.
    Perhaps such a situation you have been through, is a signal to take things a little easier – yeah I know, I may as well speak to the wall over there, however, having reached this situation healthwise,
    it is wise to listen to your body more. If you need to take it easy, or rest, or whatever, do so.
    Get well soon!

  6. Brian Hamill says:

    Good to hear you are still in the land of the living, Quentin. I liked the bit about refusing painkillers by referring to childbirth pains for women. Having been with my wife throughout the births of our six children, the phrase, ‘We’re in this together’, has a familiar and goodly ring.

  7. milliganp says:

    Very pleased to hear you are still in circulation, if you’ll excuse a bad pun. This weekend the parents of St. Chiara Luce are speaking at the Bright Lights festival and the Amigo Hall. Chiara Luce chose to have no pain medication while dying of bone cancer so that she could remain lucid to the end. So, perhaps she is someone to pray to in those difficult moments. I suffer from mental illness, but since I’ve heard about her life, I try to pray to her at the most difficult moments.

  8. tyke says:

    Your remark about pain ‘ceasing to matter’ does ring a bell. But in my case, the pain became ‘precious’ because through it I was being touched by Christ. Sounds morbid, but it wasn’t at the time. Luckily, for me, the context wasn’t nearly so dire as for you.

    Glad that you’re pulling through, and I hope that you’ll soon be fit enough to give us your thoughts on subsidiarity.

  9. I am most impressed with your email.
    My best wishes and I will remember you in my prayers.

  10. John Candido says:

    I agree that the economic wealth of any country is based on its resources, agricultural, manufacturing & services sector, all tallied up to its GDP or gross domestic product. What would tend to increase productivity is worker output, clearing infrastructure bottlenecks, all forms of research and business investment. All of these things create wealth and are the engine room of our economies. Rising profits and incomes should mean rising government receipts in the form of taxes. And from these taxes come the means to pay for our health system, medical research and other infrastructure.

    Any taxation that is absconded from legitimate government receipts is not in the public or economic interest of the nation. What I find to be hypocritical is for a government to pillory the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the elderly, while at the same time tolerating or turning a blind eye to income tax evasion. This is patently unfair and governments need to eschew such an approach. Any government who trades on the pillory of welfare recipients and creates a moral panic around them, while ignoring the national benefits of recovering taxation receipts, is unfit to govern and should be thrown out of office.

  11. Quentin says:

    I am most grateful for everyone’s good wishes and prayers. I seem to be convalescing well, and, although I still quickly get short of breath, there is no sign of the old angina. I hope that by a cautiously graded scheme of exercise I will extend my range of activity.

    By contrast, I spent yesterday at Newnham College, Cambridge, celebrating the graduation of my granddaughter. And I have another granddaughter who graduates at Durham in the coming week. While I was at Newnham I had time to discuss with a grandson his plans for his final year at King’s College. All these splendid young people on the eve of their careers, reminds me of constant re-birth. We oldies must rejoice that we have such legacies as we are ready to give place to the new.

    On a sadly related subject I must report that St Joseph has no better news. May I remind you that we hope to remember her at Mass tomorrow.

    • John L says:

      Been down this road myself. Patched and medicated for nearly 20 years, I now await a further (late stage) rescue campaign before the lights go out altogether. My pain experience was different to yours, but I won’t enlarge on it. Suffice to say that I am delighted you are still with us, and I agree with you that healing miracles are still here. They appear different from those of Our Lord’s touch, but, thank God, he is still with us too.
      God bless.

  12. St.Joseph says:

    Thank you to everyone who have offered up prayers for me this morning and for those who prayed for me on Friday on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the kind request of Singalong.
    I also thank Our Lord as my pain stopped during Holy Mass this morning and I did have some relief and it has not yet returned.
    I have Pancreatic Cancer and please God more research into a cure will be forthcoming in the near future.
    Also a special thankyou to Quentin for asking for prayers for me..

    • Quentin says:

      St Joseph, you are very dear to us on this Blog. We hope very much that the remission of your pain continues – and that, if that should not be the case, you will be able to bear it.

      We look forward to hearing better news from you. If writing is too difficult, perhaps your grandson will be willing to keep us informed.

      Quentin

  13. Iona says:

    Having been away and not attempted to keep up with emails or anything else internet-based, I have just come back to this blog and was both alarmed and relieved at Quentin’s news. Very best wishes to Quentin, and to St. Joseph, and prayers for you both.

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