I am the luckiest unlucky person I know

Heart failure and multiple cancers – the last 20 years have been anything but normal for Sheilagh Foley

Sheilagh and her daughter swimming in Donegal this year.

Sheilagh and her daughter swimming in Donegal this year.

 

I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for air as my lungs started to drown in the blood and fluid my failing heart could no longer pump. I physically felt my heart stutter and stop, my vision began to fade and my body started to collapse . . . just as I was letting go my heart pounded me back to life, once more.

One in five people in Ireland will develop heart failure. I didn’t think it would happen to me, until it did.

I love hospitals. They are my safe space.

That may seem like an unusual thing to say, but the last 20 years have been anything but normal for me. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma aged 22 while living in Australia. I returned home to Ireland for chemo and radiation and happily slipped into remission – bald as a coot but a few stories to tell.

The cancer returned in my breast bone the following year. The doctors were less cheery the second time around, and a stem cell transplant was performed with high dosage chemo. It was described as a “rescue attempt”. Rescued and relieved, I moved to London in my mid 20s and lived a busy, vibrant life.

A few years later, the month I got married, I was diagnosed with mouth cancer.

It was one hell of a wedding.

Several operations later my margins were clear, remarkably my jaw and speech remained intact.

Sharp pain

Soon after moving to San Francisco in our 30s I developed a sharp side pain which turned out to be a tumour in my pancreas. After a curative operation, we moved back to Ireland, not long after turning 40. Within two months of returning home I suffered sudden and severe heart failure (chemo 20 years prior had left me with an incurable heart condition – there’s no such thing as a free lunch). I cashed in my ninth life and, after a month in hospital, insertion of a defibrillator, followed by open heart surgery, I returned to “normalcy”, whatever that is!

A happy and healthy Sheilagh outside her apartment in San Francisco, one month before pancreas diagnosis
A happy and healthy Sheilagh outside her apartment in San Francisco, one month before pancreas diagnosis

My body’s survival instincts astonish even me – frankly, I am the luckiest unlucky person I know.

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Little wonder that some of the strangest, funniest, and most endearing moments of my life have unfolded in hospital corners. I remember waking up in the intensive care unit of a hospital in San Francisco following my pancreas operation. I felt like I had been shot, but thanks to painkillers I was delightfully delirious. My dancing saucer eyes followed the central line coming out of the jugular vein in my neck, then rested on the drain protruding from my side, collecting the blood that was internally hemorrhaging from my stomach. In the midst of all this in walks a lady with a harp! This seemed perfectly in keeping with my delirium at the time, I think I even cheered.

For a split second it occurred to me that I may have died and this was heaven. When she kicked back her harp to play and I saw the “Made in China” label I thought, “Wow, even God had to sell his debt”. I sat through one round of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It was a welcome distraction from the pain. I understood the sentiment; some people read books to the elderly, some people drive the wheelchair bound to doctor appointments, and some people wheel large musical instruments into medically sensitive areas and play harp music to the critically ill who are in a vulnerable state of hallucinatory psychosis. The whole carry on was so completely nuts it had to be encouraged. The nurse wasn’t so sure though, when she caught sight of old Harpo she gave her the heave-ho.

During these Covid times the spotlight is on the heroic doctors and nurses and rightly so – they’ve been saving lives long before saving lives became a hashtag. But I want people to be vigilant with their health, don’t assume it can’t happen to you. If you’re concerned or feel something isn’t right get it checked out. I am a private person but I tell my story to people because I was a “normal” person and then the unimaginable happened to me, again, and again, and again.

It’s going to take a lot to finish me off. Rasputin is only trotting after me.

Meantime, from my hospital bed I’ve seen it all, from the dying to the lying.

On one visit to A&E I was transfixed by the woman in the trolley across from me. Despite the crowded conditions I found myself in, she seemed to have lots of room around her and was treating the whole affair like a slumber party. She was in her early 30s, surrounded comfortably by a cloud of cushions as she leaned forward to apply her makeup. I had no pillow, I thought about using my coat as a pillow but I was busy using it as a blanket because I didn’t have one of those either. I was dying to ask a passing nurse for one but it seemed outrageous when they were so busy.

Colossal handbag

Sheilagh in her early twenties.
Sheilagh in her early twenties.

At one point a nurse rushed along closing all our curtains as a dead body was wheeled past. It’s awful to admit but it did cross my mind . . . does that mean there’s a pillow up for grabs?

Sleep-over Sally opposite me completed her makeover then whipped out her laptop and dialled up a movie. As a reminder, this was the emergency department not a 10-year-old’s birthday party. Out of her colossal handbag she pulled a bag of popcorn. A hair brush was also produced and she swept her mane of hair from cape to crown then popped her head back for the big reveal. I will always wonder what on God’s earth had brought her to A&E – looking for a date with a doctor? Was she on a date with herself? I stared at her monitor for a clue to her illness – heart rate? Blood pressure? Whatever all those other numbers meant? It all looked good to me.

Then again, I myself would be told by people (including doctors) that I didn’t look unwell, and certainly didn’t seem like I had any heart problems. Book, cover, kettle, pot, etc. Who knows what’s going on under the hood.

Excuse me, I think your wheels are compressing my life support

A curtain was pulled, another sardine was shoved in beside me, the usual awkward exchange. “Excuse me, I think your wheels are compressing my life support. Oh no, it’s my handbag, that’s okay.” When I looked backed Sally was gone!

Whatever happened Sally, I hope you got to watch the end of your movie.

My favourite hospital in the world is St James’s Hospital in Dublin (I’ve been admitted to multiple hospitals in four countries so I have a feel for what’s out there). I’ve had my dark moments there and my bouts of frustration but there is nothing quite like the chat from Dubliners, especially sick ones, that keeps you hanging on for more. When I first landed in with heart failure, my ward was lined with elderly Dubliners who took turns sitting in the chair beside my bed to introduce themselves and their ails and of course get to the bottom of what a “young one” like me was doing in a heart ward. I never felt so popular! They were all True Blue heart-of-the-rowl lovely gorgeous Old Dubliners. The spirit of this city is alive and kicking within the walls of one of its oldest hospitals.

The leader of the patient pack was a gentle old geezer from Ballyfermot, flanked with tattoos and a cheeky chappy way about him, he rattled through his complaints. Funnily enough, we were in a similar heart boat. “We’re a pair of walking time bombs you and me” he concluded, “our hearts could explode at any minute”.

Miracle

Sheilagh back in Dublin in 2020.
Sheilagh back in Dublin in 2020.

I gave him the bog standard Irish response that can be used in any situation at any time, “Sure look it . . . This is it” (it means absolutely nothing, but fills every gap, even the explosive ones). As he told jokes about his wife, I wondered if it was booze, smokes or food that got to his heart. Tut, tut, to me and my judgments as he described his lifestyle – non-smoker, a daily open-water swimmer and an avid cyclist, he had actually had his heart attack while cycling and refused to stop!

I guess I’m not ready to stop, either.

I tell my daughter that we come from a long line of seanachai’s, that my job is to tell her the stories of old and create new stories together, only when the stories stop will she take over. My story isn’t over yet, in many regards, it’s only beginning.

My daughter is a miracle in herself. After chemo, in my early 20s, I was plunged straight into menopause and given a 1 per cent chance of having a child. It was phrased to me as a 99 per cent certainty I would not bear offspring – I repackaged it as a 1 per cent challenge and ran with it. Many, many, too many, IVFs later, only producing one egg, it grew into my gorgeous wild six-year-old –- who has no clue how precious she truly is.

Life is littered with the unexpected, Covid is snipping at all our heels, but you are in charge of your own story – remember, whatever happens, try to tear the heaven from the hell.

- Sheilagh Foley writes a blog at lettersfrombeyondthepale.com

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