Christine Tongue: A silent heart attack and our vital ambulance service

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We all think we know what a heart attack is – it involves a lot of chest clutching, extreme pain, falling over and eventually somebody shouting “CLEAR!!!”

But have you heard of a silent heart attack? None of that happens.

We went to the Labour Party conference – my partner Norman was the Thanet delegate – ate some dodgy food (well it was Brighton) and he wakes up with stomach ache. But being Welsh he ploughs on, goes to the conference, back to our B&B to lie down, feels a bit better, and carries on until we get back to Thanet.

Our doctor’s receptionist is reluctant to give him an appointment (“post viral tiredness” she thinks he’s got) and he’s pleased it’s nothing worse. But it is worse.

When he finally gets an appointment with the GP he’s been walking round with a heart attack for ten days. Off to QEQM by taxi (too urgent to wait for an ambulance), then by ambulance to Ashford.

Too hard for Ashford to deal with so another ambulance is ordered to take him to St Thomas’s in London. I’m supposed to go with him as he’s in extreme danger by now.

But the first ambulance that arrives can’t do the job. He’s now hooked up to a lot of machines that are keeping him alive and the old ambulance can’t support them. We have to wait for one to come from Folkestone. It doesn’t arrive until 11pm – a five hour wait.

He stays cheerful. I’m not! They can’t take me in the ambulance, so I’m stuck in the car park of Ashford’s William Harvey hospital, in the dark, having waved off my partner who I may not see again.

Thank goodness for Greek heroes! A violinist friend in Canterbury, who comes from the same stock as Alexander the Great, offers to drive me to London. I sit on the car park barrier getting colder and trying to be sensible – drink water, eat sandwich. Our Greek friend turns up in record time and is relentlessly cheerful all the way to the relative I can stay with in North London.

I ring the intensive care ward and manage to speak to Norman, who got there alive.

A team of wonderful Italian surgeons repair his broken heart and I apologise for Brexit every time I see them.

I once asked a GP friend whose practice in Abergavenny extends to the Brecon Beacons “How do those hill farmers get to the surgery? Do you have to go out to them?” “They don’t go to the doctor. They just carry on and then sit at their kitchen tables and die!”

So, here’s the lesson: our ambulance service is vital and needs investment – otherwise you might need a Greek hero! The NHS is fantastic and full of skilled foreigners who may all unfortunately go home in a couple of years’ time.

And if ever you’re in charge of a Welshman, don’t believe him when he says “I’ll just carry on. I’m all right really.” They’re such liars.

But, in my opinion, a bigger lie is that the way ahead for the NHS around here is to close down vital services like the stroke unit at QEQM and ambulance Thanet people to Ashford. It’s too far away. Believe me – I’ve been there.


  1. The infrastructure of the NHS is falling apart due to underfunding and staff cutbacks. Would be nurses have had their bursaries taken away and Brexit is looming. Our local MPs seem to br comfortable with this and want us to wait and see how the proposals for removal of the stroke unit at QEQM to Ashford will work. Not to mention the hollowing out of other services. Thanet is out on a limb and it will drop off into the sea. A friend who is severely diabetic was visiting Canterbury and had to be rushed to hospital in Canterbury on the last day that A&E still existed there. He believes that it saved his life – he wouldn’t have made it to the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford.

  2. Hope Norman is OK and makes a good recovery. NHS needs money but it also requires major surgery. Our GP’s surgery is about the most inefficient thing I’ve ever seen and, whilst the treatment you get in hospital is excellent, the way it’s all organised is shocking. This, despite the fact that they seem to have more administrators than clinicians.

  3. I worked in the NHS for almost 42 years, from initial SRN training in 1967 onward. I trained post graduate in several specialities; I’ve seen first hand the demise of what was once looked up to by the rest of the world and seen the NHS rapid descent downhill. The dedicated nurses, doctors and ancillary staff do their utmost to give their patients the best care possible but are having a daily fight against budgets, lack of adequate staff, and the substitution of poorer quality supplies because of budget cuts. Because I am well known at my local hospital through working there until retirement and being a Trust governor, I am often stopped by former colleagues, not just for a chat but also if I can look into various problems and find a solution. Unfortunately I’m not a fairy godmother and can only do so much. Due to my visits around the wards I see the everyday struggle there just to give routine basic nursing care, daily treatments and dressing-changes.The patients come first although this hasn’t always been the case recently, with managers being more concerned with saving money and keeping within budget.

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