When I was 22 and working as a children's theatre performer, we travelled to Adelaide to take part in a youth arts festival.
Sue and I performed our two-person show, based on the Rumplestiltskin story, in the park between the Festival Centre and the river, with me playing the title role. We did a couple of shows a day to big, appreciative audiences, free of charge.
The biggest, most appreciative of these audiences -about 500 school children- gathered on the grass two days before we were due to fly home. It was the best show Sue and I had ever done together, and our last, as things turned out. It was also a long time before I could fly home.
At the climax of the story, when the girl guesses his name, the Rumplestiltskin character is required by the script to disappear in a puff of smoke, which I used to accomplish with a huge vertical spring, and a spin off stage. The audience erupted with sustained applause, and many stuck around to talk to us as we packed up.
But while I was talking to the kids, I began to feel a dull ache in my left elbow, that spread slowly up my arm and into my chest. I began to feel breathless, and to sweat profusely, and I had to sit down somewhere cool.
I went into the Festival Centre and lay down in a dressing room, curled up in a tight ball as an elephant tapdanced on my chest. As well as the pain, I was filled with an overwhelming sense that something was badly wrong with my body, and I needed medical help -fast!
I half-crawled to the stage door, where they rang a taxi (who knows why? I thought they were calling an ambulance) which took me a kilometre or so to the hospital. At one point, I recall, I told the driver I thought I was going to die, so he switched on his hazard lights, leaned on his horn and drove along the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians, to avoid the traffic jam. And he never charged me for the trip, either.
When I told the triage nurse my symptoms she looked me up and down and twisted her mouth, deciding what to do with me. Eventually she had me put on a trolley and given an Asprin and stuck in a booth in the casualty section. I lay there writhing for half an hour until a doctor came and prescribed another Asprin. When he returned half an hour later and found me in the same position, still grimacing with pain, they wheeled me down to Intensive Care and wired me up to an Electro Cardiogram (ECG).
A consultant cardiologist dropped by (from his exalted perch) and scanned the result. He told the resident doctor the ECG "trace" tracking my heart rhythm just wasn't possible with a fit young man like me, he must have wired me up wrong. So the cardiologist stuck the leads on my chest and ankles himself, and ran another ECG. Then he disappeared.
Suddenly, three lovely young nurses were there, putting their hands on my body and turning me onto my side. The resident stuck a venflon thingy into a vein in my arm and emptied a syringe into it.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"We're taking you upstairs to Coronary Care," a nurse explained. "The doctors think you are having a heart attack."
Just at that moment, the morphine rush hit me like a trainload of *******, and I looked at her beautiful face and said: "Oh. Good."
As their youngest-ever heart-attack patient, I was something of a celebrity in Coronary Care for the next four or five days -during which I saw another patient die three times, and get revived twice- and then I was moved to another ward for about a week. My mother and my sister (both nurses) flew over to be with me, and I went 'home' to a friend's house after nearly two weeks in hospital.
I had another weird episode while I was there that I know now was a panic attack, rather than one of the heart, and I went back to hospital for another month. Being out of the hospital suddenly brought home to me the enormity of what had happened.
I later had an angiogram, in which a tube is fed through an artery in the right arm, across the chest, and wiggled around so that it can squirt radio-opaque dye into the coronary arteries, one by one, to check if they are flowing properly.
I saw an X-ray picture of my heart up on a screen above the surgeon's head, saw the snaking tube twisting, squirting black which showed up like a river system, gone in a heartbeat.
The angiogram showed that it was just the one coronary artery that was blocked, depriving a piece of my heart muscle about the size of my thumbnail of oxygenated blood, so that it died and formed scar tissue. This was good news, as it showed I did not have advanced heart disease.
I haven't had any real heart trouble since, although a couple of those panic attacks have made me think it was happening all over again.
Looking back, I realised that I had had heart problems in my early teens, getting puffed just running on to a hockey field. Now that the artery is blocked, the muscle damage done, I actually have a stronger, healthier heart than I did before the episode.