Learning Classical Greek aged 87. Excerpt from Chapter 28 of ‘Woman in a White Coat’

Our grammar textbook

I had wanted to learn Classical Greek and read the Greek masters in the original for some time and finally enrolled for a beginners’ class at CityLit starting in September 2016.

But it was not to be. On August 9th 2016 Death Came Knocking at My Door and i had  a major heart attack.

When i recovered after having had two coronary stents and an intra-aortic balloon pump inserted and been on a ventilator, there was no way i could attend classes that semester and had to cancel.

I started a week’s intensive course in Classical Greek in the summer of 2017 but the beginners’ class the following September was in the evening – and i hate evening classes.

Finally I started the daytime Classical Greek Level 1 at CityLit this September. Unfortunately I’ve catching up to do – one session missed while we were visiting our daughter Louise in the Basque Country and another with a heavy cold caught out there, but I’ve bought some extra textbooks and hope to make up the missed classes.

Read here about what it’s like to have a life-threatening heart attack from my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat’.

Buy Woman in a White Coat on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99

Extract from Chapter 28 ‘Death Knocks at My Door’

Death came knocking at my door in August, came right in, cold bony fingers at my throat and foul charnel-breath in my face. I had a major heart attack – blocked my coronary arteries and killed off areas of the left ventricle of my heart, the part that pumps freshly oxygenated blood around the body.

My heart attack was a searing pain in the centre of my chest radiating down my left arm. Was it bad? Not as bad as having three of my four children without analgesia, but after labour you get a lovely present. There are no rewards for having a coronary artery occlusion.

Was it expected? Yes and no. I had several ‘risk factors’. I was old – nearly 85, had high blood pressure, albeit well controlled with medication, and high ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). Statins – cholesterol-lowering drugs – made me depressed, utterly miserable, so I couldn’t take them.

On the plus side, my ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) was high. I had never smoked more than four cigarettes a year and was just on the right side of my BMI – Body Mass Index. I had even managed to lose the few extra pounds I felt I didn’t need.

But I had been having occasional chest pains, was a bit breathless on exertion and was being investigated by my GP.

Not feeling well, I went to bed early. I had cooked dinner for Josh, my husband, Louise, my elder daughter, her husband, Mark, and their two teenage children, Samantha and Daniel, and washed up.

Louise and Mark live in the Basque Country in the North of Spain. Being teachers, they get school holidays so they and their children come to stay with us in our London flat at Christmas, Easter and August.

The pain struck at around 8.30pm. I stumbled into the living room and asked Joshua to ring 999. In what seemed only minutes, two very calm and competent paramedics were at the door. They carried out an ECG (electro-cardiogram) and confirmed that I had indeed had a major heart attack.

From then on, things are a bit vague. I remember the paramedics taking me down in a stretcher-chair to the courtyard from our 9th floor flat and lifting me into their waiting ambulance. They had Josh and Louise stand outside as they carried out some further manoeuvres. Fortunately, the August night was mild. I have a vague recollection of being wheeled into the hospital and then remember nothing more until I was thanking the cardiologist for saving my life. He had inserted stents – tiny perforated metal tubes – into two of my blocked coronary arteries. These are the arteries that supply oxygenated blood to the heart itself. My third coronary artery was beyond salvation.

Next day, in the Cardiac Care ward, it was apparent that my heart wasn’t coping and the cardiologist decided to insert an intra-aortic pump – a tubular pump that is threaded into the aorta, the main artery that supplies the body with fresh blood. It is powered by a large external pump. I remember having my groin dry-shaved in preparation and apparently told Louise that having the pump inserted was uncomfortable. I have no memory of being asked for my consent, though I must have been asked, nor of telling my elder son, Simon, that the pump sounded like a washing machine. Later, in a period of delirium, I became convinced that the circular air vents in the ceiling were the portholes of washing machines.

I was then moved to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) where I remember my bed being in the corner of the ward next to a window and seeing my two English grandchildren, Simon’s two, standing at the end of my bed. Though Josh and my children visited me every day, sometimes twice a day, I have no memory of seeing any of the rest of them for the five days I was in ICU – five days lost to me. I only know of most things that happened while I was in Intensive Care from being told about it by one of my children.

It became clear that my heart couldn’t cope with supplying enough blood to my lungs for me to breathe unaided. I was asked if I would agree to being put on a ventilator but said I’d prefer to wait another day before taking such a major step, to see if it was really necessary.

It was, and I was on a ventilator for the next three days. My only memory of that time was that at one stage I was wearing white linen mitts – fingerless mittens like ‘scratch mitts’ for babies. My son, Bernard, told me later that I apologised to the nurse looking after me for attacking her when she tried to stop me pulling out my various tubes. I thought she was trying to kill me – a delusion experienced by many critically ill patients.


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