February 9th 2008 dawns bright and clear with the sun shining from an achingly blue sky. The temperature is below freezing and it is the first fine day for some considerable time. The weather has eased and I want to make the most of it. At just turned 62 I’m still fit but outings on the bike have got fewer than I would like this winter. As I pedal off up Wharfedale on my favourite route I think that coffee and a bacon sandwich at my favourite cafe on the way back is a reward for which it’s worth exerting myself. My breath is making clouds in the cold air and I’m loving it.
I have been a cyclist for many years and have managed to keep this healthy hobby going throughout the many years of hectic travel, although this winter has been bad and has curtailed my normal mileage. Apart from the health and fitness benefits I have always found that I do some of my best thinking in the saddle.
Heading towards the junction with the A59 is a short but sharp climb and, feeling good, I decide to take it out of the saddle, in a sprint. But, “Christ!” The climb puts me out of breath. “You’re getting old,” I tell myself but quickly add the reassurance, “but then you haven’t been out for a while.” Down the steep slope towards the roundabout I try to get my breathing back under control. I don’t, so (with the excuse of adjusting a brake) I wait a few minutes. It doesn’t seem to help and my breathing is still not back to normal. I tell myself I just need to stretch my lungs and get my second wind, so I set off once more. Half a mile later I am still breathing heavily so I stop again, telling myself it’s just to get some life back into my frozen hands.
I sit on a bench in the middle of a little green at Bolton Abbey, under a naked tree hoping to get my breathing back to normal. Feeling like an old has-been and glad that no-one is around to see me I sit in the cold sunshine trying to warm up. After 5 minutes I still feel like I need a really good, deep breath or two to get back to normal. “Bugger it!” I tell myself, “I’m off and the breathing can sort itself out on the way.” On I push, certain that I need simply to get the lungs used to working at the normal rate for the bike.
It’s just past 9.00am as I start a long climb up out of the valley bottom. Normally this is a climb that I would attack out of the saddle but that day I decide to take it easy. I am already in the lowest of my gears but it is hard work as I push on up the long hill. After another half a mile I stop yet again. “Fuck it!” I exclaim to a field of grazing sheep, “You’re a useless, unfit old fart and you just have to accept that you can’t do the things you used to do.” I check my watch and decide it’s not long until the cafe opens. I will have the coffee and bacon sandwich a bit early and amble back towards Ilkley, bowed but unbeaten. I turn and head back.
Coasting back down the hill, I begin to feel even colder in the early February sun and tell myself that it is probably still below freezing. After the long descent I am colder than ever as I pull up outside the cafe but it isn’t open yet. I leave the bike propped against the wall outside and decide to sit on a bench opposite, where I tell myself I can warm in the sunshine. Even in February the sun’s bound to have some warmth. I sit and face the sun, hugging my arms under my armpits, trying to get some warmth into them. It doesn’t happen and I feel colder than ever, still trying for that elusive, deep breath. I tell myself that I’ll warm up soon and then there’s the hot coffee to come.
Suddenly, I feel an overwhelming urge to empty my bowels, not just the normal sensation in the morning, this is really urgent. I hurry over to the gents and, thank God, it is open. Inside I struggle with my layers of clothing, cursing bib tights not designed for rapid toilet manoeuvres. I manage just in time. It is so cold in the loo I am feeling completely frozen and desperate to get out in the sun once more for some elusive warmth. I waddle back to my bench and looking up at the clock above the door I see that it’s 9.40am. Another 20 minutes before I can get hot coffee inside to warm me up properly.
I sit hugging myself, face towards the sun in an attempt to extract some warmth. I realise that I am completely frozen; not chilly, not cold but deep down frozen. There is no warming effect from the sun. I am still desperately trying to yawn and get a deep breath into my lungs but something new has happened. My chest has tightened and I realise that I am in pain. I am absolutely frozen, unable to get enough air into my lungs and the pain is increasing.
“You’re having a heart attack.” I tell myself, quite calmly, the realisation being almost a relief. I congratulate myself on this obviously astute and accurate diagnosis but the pleasure is short-lived, very short lived. Seeing a young lad cleaning tables outside the café, I decide to enlist his help and try to move off towards him. It is a colossal effort, crabbing across to him and the pain and cold are getting worse.
“Can you help me?” I ask in what is intended to be an authoritative request but which emerged from my oxygen starved lungs merely as pathetic pleading.
The young lad is very efficient. “What’s the problem? Have you had the pain before? Sit here and I’ll get the manager.” I sit and don’t think. A few moments later an attractive, young, blond lady appears and asks similar questions also in a very efficient manner. Later, I know her as Helen and I call her my guardian angel. Helen tells me she is taking me inside and will call an ambulance. They both take an arm and help me into a very small back room. Walking is an effort and the pain is getting worse.
“Is there anyone I can call for you?” Helen asks as we wait for the ambulance. I suggest she calls Denise but the effort to remember the number is too great. “Just give me the phone,” says Helen in her calm and capable manner, “I expect you’ve got it listed under home?” I am grateful not to have to be in charge of anything, least of all me. I feel like shit and it is getting worse by the minute. Helen isn’t able to reach Denise. I remember that she will be walking the dogs. “Don’t worry,” Helen tells me, “I’ll try again in a few minutes.” “Will you look after my bike?” I manage to ask. The ever efficient Helen informs me that it will be put in their garage and not to worry. Helen makes small talk and tells me again that the ambulance won’t be long. But I am cold, so bloody cold and in pain.
Soon the room becomes full of two cheerful ambulance guys and their equipment. I see that it looks like a miniature, portable hospital. The questions start whilst clothing is rearranged to fix electrodes on my chest. “It hurts.” I say. “We’re going to give you some morphine in just a minute.” they tell me. I look forward to morphine. I have never taken recreational drugs but it seems like a good thing to be going to have morphine in just a minute and I am sure that it will take the pain away. I don’t notice the injection as I am too busy looking forward to the pain going away and trying my best to answer questions. I think that I am doing well with my answers and being very grown up about the whole thing. It hurts though.
“We don’t think that you have had a heart attack.” he one hovering over me informs me. I feel vaguely disappointed that my astute diagnosis is wrong. “We’re going to take you to Airedale hospital,” I am informed; “they’re expecting you.” I am then shuffled onto a wheelchair and am soon being pushed through the café under the curious gaze of those lucky enough to be having coffee and breakfast. I don’t have the energy to feel jealous or embarrassed at my depleted state. I am simply concentrating on my pain. I am surprised to see that the ambulance is backed up close, doors already open and I am soon inside and lying strapped onto a stretcher. It feels cold inside, like a deep freeze.
We set off and I soon summon the energy to curse aloud the stupid, ignorant, thoughtless fuckers who invented speed bumps. I am vaguely conscious of the siren as we finally get onto the main road but the sound is far away. The pain is getting worse. I decided that I don’t know what drug addicts see in opiates; they are doing fuck-all for me.
I try to work out exactly where we are at any one time; this is both so I can concentrate on something other than the pain and because I really like to know where I am. It doesn’t work and I am conscious of the pain being, well, very painful, crushingly so. Why is it taking so long to get to the bloody hospital? I tell myself everything will be alright once we are there.
Finally we stop outside A&E at Airedale and the doors are opening. I am being wheeled out when I see Denise. I am encouraged to see that she is not breaking down or in tears at my depleted state; she gives me a very welcome kiss and holds my hand all the way down endless corridors. Finally, we enter a small room filled with lots of people in medical gear who started adjusting my clothing once more. I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and see my skin is white, perfectly white, corpse like. Things are happening to me whilst I am in pain and Denise continues to hold my hand all the while. My clothing is designed for cycling not hospitals but somehow I am soon wired up like Frankenstein’s monster and I notice lines on computer monitors out of the corner of my eye. I don’t want to know what they mean and look away, trying to control the pain. It doesn’t work.
The activity around me continues. I feel like a third party to the process but it doesn’t bother me. I am far beyond caring. I’m not scared but believe that ‘they’ are responsible for me and will shortly make me feel better; ‘they’ will make me feel better. Please?
Image courtesy of floridacyclingcoach.com