1/ How it all began...
Picture the scene, it's summer 1992. Ah the 90's, fan-bloody-tastic! Life is good, I'm loving everything, school, mates, no bills, leisure time seemingly ad infinitum, copious amounts of hearty food served up by my mum meaning even more energy for my real passion, sport. I recall things such as the Maastricht Treaty being signed by John Major, the guy with no top lip, Charlie and Di are in freefall and Alan Shearer is coining it in. I've learnt that E's are good from that Ebeneezer Goode fella (but very naughty) and that Rhythm is a Dancer.
I'm 16, extremely active and loving a whole host of sports. I didn't care what sport it was, if it involved beasting myself then I was up for it. I sprinted at county level and only narrowly missed out on the England Schools Squad for the 100 and 200m and came 4th in the same events in the Hampshire Athletics Championships in my first year of competing after only a couple of months of training. I had already discovered MTBing and if I wasn’t running I was riding pretty much every minute of my spare time.
I had three jobs outside of school, a 7 day morning paper round, then on a Saturday at a hotel unloading a couple of coaches of all the OAP's suitcases, most of who packed their whole worldly possessions for a week long seaside trip on the Isle of Wight. I wasn't complaining though, they were very generous with the tips. I put it down to guilt having the skinny lad lug their multiple cases up two flights of stairs and through numerous fire doors. Once done there I'd nip around the corner to a café to hang out with my mates whilst we flipped burgers and grated cheese. My mates and I would coordinate our shifts so we could either ride before, after or between shifts. My brother would often come and join us and we formed a great little group of mates, each as obsessed as the next.
The jobs were all essential to enable me to save for my bikes and associated paraphernalia. Every minute of a school holiday was earning potential to be able to afford my next dream bike. My mum and dad provided all of life's essentials but where bikes were concerned, it was for me to understand the importance of grafting to appreciate the value of hard work and the sense of achievement of saving for the things I desired. I loved all my jobs and the start of the transition from childhood to one of relative freedom with my own money in my pocket. Life was simply perfect and I was living it up in my element.
One relatively unremarkable day whilst out riding I was having a bit of friendly competitive rivalry racing up the downs with a friend. Yes I'm talking about you Rob. We could never ride non-competitively, if a wheel got in front of yours then the challenge was on. When we blasted to the summit of one particular climb I quickly became aware my heart rate wasn’t dropping and in fact it was far higher than I had ever experienced before. I sat down for a few minutes to catch my breath thinking it might be a bit of heat stroke as it was a fiercely hot day. After a fair few minutes the rate eventually dropped down and I decided it best to call it a day and rode home at a sedate pace with a banging headache. The very next day the same thing happened again, only this time it didn’t stop. This really concerned me as I was only riding to my job at the café and for that reason I hadn't ridden too hard. Time to phone home for some advice!
My parents arrived swiftly, took one look at me sweating profusely sat at a table, my T-shirt violently shaking with the heart rate and took me straight to A&E. On arrival my rate was brought under control naturally when I threw up in the bin in the hospital foyer, boom, sinus rhythm back again but VERY embarrassed. I was however admitted to the Children's ward after a brief stop at A&E.
Whilst in hospital, my heart behaved normally and the doctors weren't able to capture any arrhythmia via electrocardiogram (ECG) so were frustrated in being able to offer any explanation. I was discharged with the advice to call an ambulance should it occur again. Totally convinced that this was just a strange blip, I happily went home, full of enthusiasm at being able to carry on as normal.
A short while later and I was back out riding with friends, reassured by the calmness and normality of the heart rhythm in my chest. Once again we were out having a blast, enjoying the sun and having fun until, wait, what the heck, is it doing it again? I pull up on my bike and sure enough the cardiac gremlin is back again. This wasn't in my plan for the day, this can't be happening again? We've decided where we are going on this ride, the day was planned out and nowhere in my plan did it involve sitting down on a grass verge next to the road whilst my friends came around me very concerned as my head pulsated and I rocked as my body was shaken by the violently strong rhythm in my chest. Remembering the hospital's advice I said to my friends "we'd best call an ambulance" but therein lay a conundrum. We needed an ambulance quickly but as this was 1992, we didn't even know mobile phones would be a thing of the future, let alone have the luxury of being able to have one to use. My mate Manni, living up to his reputation as a pocket size pit bull, jumped into hero mode and said he would tank it along the downs to the nearest building, a pub, to use their phone to summon help. It was quickly agreed this was the best option and I appreciatively watched him disappear into the distance, his legs a blur. Alex stayed with me to chew the cud about how maybe going out wasn't a good idea so soon. I focused on trying to remain as calm as possible whilst trying my best to ignore the doubt about myself that was starting to build.
"Where's Manni? He should be back by now, or the ambulance should have arrived. The lad is fast on a bike so he would have made it to the pub by now. Oh no, I hope he hasn't had an accident! This is taking too long...."
It was a relieving sight to see the familiar bobbing head and blurring legs of Manni approaching rapidly in the distance. "I've called, they are sending an ambulance" he gasped, desperately trying to catch his breath. "I couldn't believe it! I got to the pub and asked to use the phone. They pointed me to the payphone. I explained it was an emergency and could I use their phone as I've got no money. They refused!" The poor lad all in a fluster had to jump on his bike and ride to the next village to another pub where they were happy to oblige. In hindsight, if only he'd realised 999 calls are free he would have saved a huge amount of calories!
Manni's efforts paid off, we heard the siren approaching in the distance, a sense of relief enjoyed by us all. The ambulance staff duly did their thing and I was loaded into the back. Manni, his hero cape still wafting in the breeze, exclaimed "Don't worry, I'll drop your bike back" as he threw it on his shoulder and mounted his own bike. I watched him set off, very wobbly, summoning all his strength trying to ride in a straight line whilst lugging a 26lb bike on his shoulder as the ambulance drivers closed the doors. My heart concerns dissipated swiftly as my concern moved to my bike. The thought of how many papers I'd delivered, how many burgers I'd flipped and hotel rooms I had filled with kitchen sink laden suitcases to afford that bike. Please Manni, don't drop it!
As frustrating as it was being in the ambulance, they were able to capture my heart rhythm. I soon found myself back in the hospital and readmitted to the children's ward. This time I went on to have a couple of incidents whilst admitted of ventricular tachycardia (VT), each time it was corrected by dunking my head in a bowl of iced water. Given the lack of cardiology expertise at my local hospital, the decision was made to obtain specialist diagnosis over on the mainland. I was subsequently transferred to the closest Cardiac General Hospital on the mainland.
Being 16 I was given a choice, go on the general adult ward, or go on the paediatric ward, in my own side room with a Sega Megadrive! Needless to say I went to paediatrics.
I was very fortunate to be assigned to a lovely consultant cardiologist, a gentleman who must have been getting very close to retirement. He was a very calming influence on my family who were naturally concerned about me. I, on the other hand, was becoming very tired of the situation, the constant suggestions of diagnosis of this condition or that condition, all serious heart problems. As lovely as the consultant was and clearly very experienced, he was just barking up the wrong tree. I'd simply had a bad reaction to the heat and pushed a bit too hard. All very simple and logical. I just wanted to be out of the hospital and back on my bike and all these tests and prodding and poking weren't going to change those facts;
I mean, how ridiculous, me, 16, I'm fit, I'm healthy, I can run 100m in 11.7 seconds and I can ride my bike damn quickly too and for hours on end. How on earth could I do that if I have a heart problem? Old people are the ones who get heart problems, right?!
The days trudged by, the monotony, the boring view out of the window onto the flat roof. The highlight of most days was when the mass of medical students would squeeze into my room with the consultants to be grilled on how to check a patient, and to look at the confusing case. I was beginning to absorb the knowledge of the required standard observations, where they should be checking for a pulse, how to wire up the ECG machine etc. I did take pity on one poor student who was clearly very nervous when his short straw got pulled and he had to perform the required checks. A consultant was giving him a hard time that he'd missed a pulse check somewhere and the poor lad was getting very flustered. I casually extended my feet back and forth as a hint only for the Consultant to say "Yes, thank you Nick!". The poor student quickly immersed himself back into the mass of bodies, praying the swarm would hide him from the glare of the Consultant. I fear he didn't hide for long! That was about as much fun as I could have, that was until little Aaron took up residence in the room next to me.
Now this little lad epitomised angelic. He was a little lad of about 3 years with a big mop of surfer style blonde hair and all his clothes were that of a surfer dude. Following his admission, we soon became friends with his parents who were also expecting their second child. They had to travel a long way from home to the hospital and were concerned about leaving him for any amount of time. I volunteered to help out and said he could come and buddy up with me and we could guide Sonic through all of his hedgehog trials. They were very grateful and many a day he would come and join me, play the Sega and be obsessed with turning the light on my watch on and off. I grew very fond of the little lad but didn't like the idea that he was facing a very serious operation that was 50:50. If he didn't have the operation he was unlikely to make it past 5 years of age. His parents faced an awful decision, every parents worst nightmare. I at least thought I could be there for when he would have his surgery and I could be rooting for him with his parents. This all seemed so wrong though, why him, so very young. It's a good job I felt in my gut that he would be fine and everything would work out and he would grow to be an old man. That made me worry less for him.
"He's too angelic for there to be any other outcome. Anything short of 100% success is just messed up."
A month passed before I was finally discharged with a diagnosis of exercise induced Supra Ventricular Tachycardia (SVT) and a fist full of the beta blocker tablets sotalol hydrochloride, after being titrated up to a dose of 300mg twice a day, a whacking great dose. I was so pleased to be leaving the hospital but also saddened I wouldn't be around a few more days to help out Aaron and his parents with positive vibes. We promised to keep them all in our thoughts and we arranged, with the parents consent, for the ward sister to keep us updated with his progress. I left the hospital and boarded the ferry for home.
My parents were understandably still very concerned on my return home, as any loving parent would be when it's their child. However the delusion of invincibility in my teenage brain still wasn't buying in to any of this malarkey. Pish! Their requests for me "to be careful", to "not go mad" were all met with my best attempt at a convincing nod accompanied by a verbal acceptance that was as shallow as a frying pan. I didn't need to listen because I was the only one who understood what was going on. Not only that but I had a plan to prove them all wrong. It wasn't just any old plan, this plan was the type of plan other plans would look at in awe and with envy. And the beauty of it was it was so simple;
"I just need my bike, the steepest gradients I know and to ride harder than I've ever ridden before. I mean ride so hard that I vomit. That will show 'em all and then they will listen to me..........."