Heart Attack on Holiday

Alex Cowland
David, Shona, Geogia and Alex at Charles Nicolle Hospital

David Cowland from Colne shares his experiences of his holiday in France when his wife Shona suffered a life threatening heart attack.

Shona and I set off on a cycle-camping tour of the Seine-Maritime region of northern France. It was my birthday. The ferry crossing to Dieppe was slightly rough; we caught the tail end of ex-hurricane Henri. With the wind now calmed to gale force, we made our way to Arques-la-Bataille, a small town not far from Dieppe and the first of many campsites. The evening was perfect, warm, blue sky, bright sunshine and stunning scenery.

The following morning we had packed, had coffee with the campsite owner and were on the road by 10am. A leisurely, downhill cycle into town made for a perfect start to a day of cycling. As we approached the beginning of the Avenue Verte, Shona said she felt a little shaky. Perhaps she needed some food. She often felt this way when she had not eaten enough. A couple of pieces of fruit were consumed and we strolled to the purpose-built cycleway.

Shona said she did not feel well and she became tearful. Not liking to make a fuss she huddled into me, as a couple of people passed by. As she calmed a little, I went to find a bench to sit on for a while. I took the bikes the few metres and returned for Shona. As we walked she repeated that she did not feel well and, when pressed, added that she felt ‘funny’.

She repeated that she did not feel well and, when pressed, added that she felt ‘funny’

I told her to sit, and as she did so, she told me her fingers and toes were ‘tingling’. I recalled seeing or reading that this could be one of many signs of imminent heart problems in women. Women’s heart attacks often present themselves differently to men’s. I immediately dialled 112, the European-wide emergency number. I explained in awful French that the problem was medical, it was my wife, and that we were on the Avenue Verte in Arques-la-Bataille but could not recall any French word for ‘beginning’, or ‘start of’.

Two men and a woman heard me struggling to give our precise location and dialled for the emergency services themselves. Shona said she could not move her hands. I asked her to lie on the bench. The woman from the passers-by brought an inflatable cushion from her car and placed it under Shona’s head. At this point Shona looked at the lake, trees and surrounding hills and said, jokingly, “It’s lovely – but I don’t want to die here”.

As soon as she said these poignant words she started to gasp for breath. I was trying to roll her into something akin to a recovery position when her arms stiffened and she had a look of distress on her face. Her eyes rolled back and she stopped struggling for breath. As I put her onto her back again, I placed my hand on her chest to feel for a heartbeat.

I realised she had gone into cardiac arrest. No pain, no tightness in the chest, no sweating: just sudden onset cardiac arrest. I immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). I had no idea if I was doing it correctly; I had not received any training. According to the records I continued this for five minutes until ‘les pompiers’ arrived and, thankfully, took over. I now realise that I may have done a better job if had combined the chest compressions with rescue breaths.

Les pompiers are fire fighters who have had emergency medical training. They cut off Shona’s upper-body clothing, including a brand-new, borrowed, cycling jacket. They did this to enable access to attach a defibrillator. If there is a public access defibrillator available, send someone to find it, while you perform CPR. Modern defibrillators are semi-automatic in that once the contact pads are on, the machine will only deliver a shock if it is necessary.

Shona was shocked three times before her heart regained a normal rhythm. Les pompiers phoned a friend of theirs, Mrs Feriane, who was a local school teacher, teaching English. She acted as an interpreter for me. By now 8-10 minutes had elapsed when a doctor, accompanied by four other members of staff, arrived from Dieppe Hospital. Dr David Gerault sedated Shona, made her condition stable and prepared her for transport to Dieppe. From Dieppe Hospital she was air-lifted, by helicopter, to CHU-Charles Nicolle Rouen, a distance of about 55km.

After six days of therapeutic hypothermia and intensive care, Shona was brought out of sedation. I had been joined by Alex and Georgia, our son and youngest daughter. At this time we had been told her chance of survival was 50-50. Her chance of survival without neurological damage was even less.

As Shona became more aware of her surroundings she mouthed, “What happened?” “Cardiac arrest”, I said. Her face distorted into a caricature of surprise and disbelief. Even though she could not speak, due to her six days of attachment to a life-support machine, it was obvious that she could hear and understand what was being said.

Shona is back in the UK, back home and under the care of a cardiologist. She is expected to make a full recovery. It is vital that you should know the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. It is vital that you should be able to perform CPR if it is a cardiac arrest. It is vital that you should do these things – if not you, then who will?

Help to save a life. Go to the British Heart Foundation website:- www.bhf.org.uk

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