2020 has been quite the year. I turned 60, like many of us suffered the hardship of the COVID-19 restrictions on normal life and for the first time in my life had a major stay in hospital.  

Until this year, I had an enviable health history with no overnight stays in any hospital. I was a non-smoker, pretty fit for my age and barely a day off work due to illness - all of which I complacently took for granted. All that changed in January. 

What happened? 

I developed pneumonia. Maybe it was COVID-19, although that was hardly on the radar at that stage. Whatever caused the pneumonia also caused inflammation leading to the build-up of fluid around my lungs which required draining. This inflammation had also caused the hardening of the pericardium around the heart. 

I had never had a heart issue in my life let alone knowing what a pericardium is. Google is useful at times. The pericardium in layman’s terms is a sack of skin there to hold your heart in place. In my case the skin was inflamed and hardening. 

The problem was discovered by the excellent respiratory team at Charing Cross Hospital, who had carried out a routine ECG. I was immediately referred to cardiology that same day. 

Between January and April, the medical teams performed all sorts of tests and scans on me. The swelling caused the pericardium to harden and that constricted the functioning of my otherwise healthy heart. At one point it was pumping my blood at a third of what it should have been. I felt exhausted after the slightest physical exertion, and the build-up of fluid around my body caused parts of it to swell up. 

My only option was to have the pericardium removed - I was told that one can live perfectly well without it as it is almost like your appendix - redundant in evolutionary terms. 

I was to be operated on at the height of the pandemic so I had to quarantine myself and take a number of tests before I could be admitted to Harefield. The surgery was to be as routine as any open-heart operation could be and I anticipated being home within a week. I travelled to Harefield on the 27 May and had my operation the following day. 

Even now I have to pinch myself to remind myself that May was this year. So much has taken place since and because of what I will come on to explain, my sense of time took a severe jolt off its axis. 

The operation   

The surgery was a success, unfortunately, that same night complications set in. I was placed in a medically induced coma for 18 days while the amazing ICU doctors and nurses cared for my heart, lungs, kidney and liver. Fortunately, Harefield had the expertise to insert an Impella device into my heart. 

Impella is the world’s smallest heart pump, inserted via a catheter, and provides short-term mechanical ventricular support.  

The experts tell me that my journey was a bit of a rollercoaster and that there were times when it was touch and go if I would make it. However, thanks to the involvement of so much technical equipment and skilled expertise, coupled with the tremendous emotional support from my family and friends, I survived. Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to everyone. 

After ICU 

My anticipated one week in Harefield in reality turned into a total of 11 weeks of which 8 were spent in Harefield. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was not allowed any visitors, so little acts of kindness took on even greater significance. Once I had moved onto the high dependency ward and was able to drink and swallow unassisted, I mentioned to a nurse that I was dreaming of my first sip of Coca Cola - it was a throw away comment I made and thought nothing more of it. On Monday morning, and after a difficult night for me, out of nowhere appeared the same nurse with a pristine bottle of Coca Cola and a straw. She had gone out of her way to buy it and carry it in. She said I had been doing so well and this was her way to say “well done”! I saved the bottle for 2 more days before I opened it as a reward for achieving one of my own goals I had set myself.  

That act of kindness brings a lump to my throat every time I think of it. I cannot repeat often enough how much I owe to the NHS teams who looked after me – from the radiographers to the receptionists - I must have come into contact with around 200 individuals. I want to give something back to those who dedicated so much to me, so I’m planning to set myself some challenges and fundraise for the charity. 

Raising money to give back 

I lost 20 kilos in weight while in ICU and the muscle waste was savage. When I emerged from the fog of the coma, I could barely move my left side leg or arms and even moving around the bed was a struggle - I was just so weak. 

I had to build up my muscles and learn to walk again. With expert guidance and a modicum of determination, progressed and by the time I was discharged on 14 August I could walk. However, rehabilitation does not end on leaving the hospital, it’s only the beginning and is a much harder routine when you are on your own.  

I will be doing my best to participate in a number of activities with the first being a 35-mile walk next spring. I would be the first to admit that this is nothing like some of the really heavy-duty stuff I have read about however at this stage of my rehabilitation and looking back at where I was only some months ago, it looks like Everest to me!! 

You may ask why walking? For far too long this year illness and muscle loss meant I could not walk and starting to do it again has taken time and great effort. Since I have been home, I have made decent progress managing several days of walks of one mile (1.6 km)I know there will be days when my stiff joints will grumble, but I will say “no pain no gain” and get on with it knowing I’ll be helping to provide for others like me who’ll need Harefield’s expertise in the future.  

Inspired to support Eugene with his challenge? You can visit his fundraising page to donate and get updates on his challenges