Alan’s road to recovery after his brush with death

Cardiologist Dr Julian Gunn
Cardiologist Dr Julian Gunn
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Two years ago Alan Powell, then editor of The Star, had a massive heart attack. He was unconscious for six days, his family were told to expect the worst and colleagues at The Star prepared an obituary for their boss. Today, aged 66, having retired and recovered from his heart attack, Alan tells his story for the first time, to Health Reporter Ben Spencer

LIKE most extraordinary days, this one started innocently enough – up at 6am and the usual breakfast of porridge with a smattering of sultanas and a little honey.

Back on track: Former Editor of the Sheffield Star Alan Powell.           picture: Barry richardson

Back on track: Former Editor of the Sheffield Star Alan Powell. picture: Barry richardson

The car journey from home in Dronfield to the city centre was uneventful until I reached the traffic lights at Moorfoot and felt discomfort in my chest.

It gradually got worse and by the time I reached Campo Lane, just a few hundred yards from the office car park I realised something was seriously wrong.

I thought I would get to the office and maybe ring for advice. I parked up as usual, but never made the office door.

Apparently I collapsed. Fortunately I fell on my face and that probably jerked me conscious.

There followed a series of amazing coincidences of good fortune. An employee of the pub that shares the car park saw what happened and called an ambulance.

There was one in the vicinity and it arrived quickly.

And one of the best heart hospitals in the country was within easy reach.

I can remember the journey as ambulance personnel spoke over the sounds of the sirens. They were already doing all sorts of tests and radioed ahead to tell the Northern General what to expect. They kept me talking.

I knew I had the answers to their questions – like where do you live – but somehow I just couldn’t remember. We arrived at the hospital. Then oblivion.

I woke up six days later. I was confused, but strangely felt no fear. Curiously, all I wanted to know was the time.

I spent 10 days in intensive care and it was only when I arrived on a general ward that I pieced together the enormity of what had happened.

It slowly dawned that I had almost died.

My family had been called to the hospital having been warned of the critical situation and The Star had started calling friends and colleagues as they prepared an obituary.

I found it traumatic as the nurses explained I’d needed three electric shocks to restore my heart rhythm; I’d had a stent inserted during the emergency surgery to keep the previously blocked artery open; my lungs had filled with fluid; my kidneys had been damaged and I had a brain scan to see if there had been any deterioration.

I never looked in a mirror, but apparently my face was badly bruised; I’d had a plastic surgeon stitch my mangled eyebrows and, as one doctor described it, I had ‘rearranged my nose’.

The worries came when I started to think about what next? Would I be able to walk again? Could I expect a normal life?

My arrival home started the journey back to normality.

My wife Andrea, and daughters Lindsay and Hannah, who had suffered all the initial traumas that I had been blissfully unaware of, were brilliantly supportive.

A heart attack is without doubt a life-changing event and, although I may not be as strong physically as I was before, there’s no reason to let it affect me in any way.

You and those around you need infinite patience to come to terms with your condition, but, with the right support and a bit or determination, you can make sure all your small steps are sure steps.

How has it changed my life?

I am probably more emotional; I value things I used to consider incidental – like the joy of picking grandchildren up from school – and I put everything in the context of what could have been.

Every day is a new present. I unwrap it every morning with eagerness. And I thank God and the Northern General Hospital.

‘To see him looking so well meant a great deal’

I REMEMBER the day well. The ambulance crew had brought a 64-year-old man from Dronfield in at 8.20am, because he had collapsed at the car park at work.

He was a diabetic and was known to have heart trouble, having had some stents fitted in a coronary artery for angina several years before.

He was now in pain, clammy and sweaty. The ECG showed definite signs of a heart attack. “Would we take him?”

“Immediately,” we said. “Send him up.”

He was given aspirin and other drugs to thin his blood and morphine for the pain. The porters and nurses connected Alan to a heart monitor, gave him oxygen through a mask and put a tube in a vein. Then they rushed him to the catheter laboratory where we have the equipment and personnel to deal with the emergency.

We immediately put local anaesthetic at the top of Alan’s leg and inserted our tubes, leading right up to his heart valve via the artery.

Injecting dye, we used our X-ray cameras to determine that the whole of Alan’s left coronary artery was blocked up with blood clot.

As we were taking the pictures, his blood pressure collapsed – we call this shock. We immediately inserted a pump to support his circulation.

While this was going on, his heart became dangerously fast and required three electric shocks to restore his normal rhythm.

Then we inflated a balloon in the blocked artery and implanted a large stent, which is a metal mesh tube designed to keep the artery open.

This did the trick and blood flow to the muscle of heart was restored.

But then his lungs filled with water, so our intensive care specialist put him to sleep completely and a machine did his breathing for him.

Alan spent 10 days in the intensive care unit. His kidneys were under pressure and his blood became too thin.

But, gradually, everything improved. All the tubes were removed and he was weaned off the ventilator.

I remember the great moment when I led him back upstairs to meet the staff in the cath lab and ITU who had saved his life.

I don’t mind telling you that this was an emotional moment for all of us.

To see Alan looking so well meant a great deal with everyone there. We knew Alan was going to do well. He had just the right attitude.

We brought him back to our outpatient clinic a few months later and were amazed at his progress. We even put him on our treadmill and tested out his newly-healed heart. He did brilliantly.

How pleased we were. People like Alan make our jobs entirely worthwhile.

What to do if you have a heart attack

If you think you are having a heart attack dial 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance;

Do not worry if you have any doubts about whether it is a heart attack – play it safe and call 999;

If you know that you are not allergic to aspirin, chew – do not swallow– an adult size tablet while you are waiting for the ambulance to arrive. The aspirin will help to thin your blood and restore the blood supply to your heart;

Heart attacks do not always cause severe chest pain. Symptoms can also include shooting pains from your chest to your arms, jaw, neck, back or abdomen; shortness of breath; nausea; overwhelming anxiety; coughing; vomiting; wheezing;

The level of pain can vary significantly from person to person. It is not the level of chest pain that is important, it is the overall pattern of symptoms that is important. The misconception that a heart attack always causes severe chest pain has led to many people dying needlessly.

South Yorkshire Heart Appeal

All this week The Star is highlighting the work of the South Yorkshire Cardiothoracic Centre, to mark the start of National Heart Month.

Alan Powell was taken to the Northern General Hospital Heart Attack Centre, in the South Yorkshire Cardiothoracic Centre.

He received primary angioplasty – a procedure to insert a mesh stent in the coronary artery to increase blood flow to the heart. The Sheffield Heart Attack Centre performs 1,600 angioplasty procedures every year, 600 of them for heart attacks.

Some 88 per cent of patients at the Northern General receive primary angioplasty within 150 minutes of calling for help. The service is ranked amongst the best in the country.

For patients who undergo an immediate coronary angioplasty, the survival rate is 98 per cent at the time of discharge from hospital.

The Cardiothoracic Centre is part-funded by Sheffield Hospital Charity’s South Yorkshire Heart Appeal. To donate, call 0114 226 3517.