What Will I Do with a Second Chance at Life? Play More Video Games

After my pulmonary embolism I’m watching trash TV with my son, spending hours on the Xbox… and reading The Iliad.

Does a near-death experience make you a better person? This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off since my pulmonary embolism. Initially, it hadn’t occurred to me that a PE was a big deal. But the research that I’ve done since suggests that these things aren’t unserious. My seen-it-all ex-army GP, for example, was properly impressed. As too have been the various people I know whose friends and relatives have died of them, one a 23-year-old girl who succumbed after breaking her ankle while walking on the moors. So yes, as my fellow ‘survivors’ keep telling me, I should be grateful for my lucky escape — and perhaps see it as a heaven-sent opportunity to put my life into perspective.

What I can’t work out at this stage, though, is whether the experience has really changed me — or whether I’m just inventing it because I feel it’s what I ought to do and I’m a bit of a drama queen.

One effect is that I’ve been dedicating a lot more time to playing Call of Duty, Saints Row 2 and Medal of Honor on the Xbox. The Afghanistan sequences in the latter are just amazing, especially when you’re in a US infantry unit moving up a valley swarming with Taleban, and you cover one another, keeping the enemy pinned down, being careful to conserve ammo because if you don’t you’re stuffed a bit later when you have to hold out in a crumbling outpost against hordes of RPG-toting al-Qaeda.

In the past I would have felt guilty about this spectacular waste of life. Now it causes me no qualms whatsoever because a) I’ve decided that it’s an important form of therapy, and b) I’ve remembered how very much I enjoy playing video games and, now I realise how precarious existence is, it seems quite wrong to deny myself so vital a pleasure.

Same goes with the kids; just simple stuff like making sure I spend more time slobbing with Boy in front of whatever crap TV he’s watching when he’s home on school leave. Previously I scarcely dared do this, for fear of being accused by the Fawn of being a lazy bastard. Actually, though, if you want to commune with teenage children, this is pretty much the only way. It’s not like they’re going to say: ‘Yes, please Dad!’ when you say: ‘Fancy coming to walk the dog?’ And though you don’t say much to one another while watching TV, you do definitely bond in that companionable near-silence. So not only do you get to catch up with funny old stuff you might otherwise never have watched, such as Two and a Half Men and Malcolm in the Middle, both of which I highly recommend. But you also get to be a really good dad: the kind I now wish I’d been to the Rat when he was growing up, because then I’d have got to play a lot more video games and watch a lot more trash TV in my mid-thirties, rather than just in my early fifties.

Work: this is another thing I’m feeling healthily ambivalent about. Though I’m still perfectly happy being a journalist, blogger, gun-for-hire, I no longer think it would be the end of the world if it all went tits up and I had to do something else. Podcasting on a more regular, professional level, say: I’d probably be quite a good shock jock. Or teaching: my brief stints at Malvern and Radley were among the most satisfying things I’ve ever tried. Or just writing more books, which is, after all, what I most wanted to do in life before I got distracted by the adrenaline-buzz immediacy and regular-ish income of hackery.

If you don’t want to die young — and I really don’t — I think this ambivalence is important. Anxiety, fear about your job, about where your next work is coming from, is an absolute killer. It can be so all-consuming you might as well not exist, because it ruins even those moments when you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself. It makes you desperate, needy and afraid to say no, which isn’t exactly conducive to great self-esteem. ‘He ate shit because once you hit 50 what other option do you have?’ I’m not necessarily sure it’s what I want as my epitaph.

Read the rest at the Spectator.

I Thought I Just Had a Nasty Cold

In fact it was a killer lung clot: It’s the second biggest cause of sudden death, but it’s hard for doctors to spot. 

My first indication that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary Monday was when I coughed in to my handkerchief and saw, to my surprise, a big splodge of deep red blood.

‘Oh dear. That can’t be right,’ I thought. But still I wasn’t too worried. Four days earlier, I’d had surgery to repair a clavicle (shoulder blade) that I’d broken quite seriously in a riding accident. Add to that at least three broken ribs and it was no wonder I should be feeling rough.

Perhaps, I wondered, the blood might be some delayed result of my accident. Maybe the sensible thing would be to get back into bed and continue the nice long rest I’d been having since the operation.

But then it struck me that one of my friends on Twitter was a surgeon. So I told him about the blood; and about how I’d woken up that morning, tried to take the dog for a walk, but been unable to continue because I’d been short of breath.

As an afterthought, I added that two nights earlier I’d woken up drenched in sweat, as a result of what I thought was a fever induced by fighting off a cold. ‘It would be wise to see your GP or go to hospital,’ advised the surgeon.

Even then I wasn’t sure. That word ‘wise’ didn’t seem very strong. Also, I was wary of bothering my wife with my worries. I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac, prone to depression and anxiety, and forever thinking I’m dying of some incurable disease.

Read the rest in the Daily Mail.

What I Learned While Nearly Dying

My NHS experience, with a life-threatening problem, was an encouraging one – apart from the other patients.

There’s some journalistic research you’d really never do by choice. Spending four days in an NHS hospital with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, for example.

Unfortunately it was out of my hands. I fell off a horse, one thing led to another, and suddenly there I was, lying in what I imagine is a reasonably typical NHS ward being tended by all those multi-ethnic nurses and hard-pressed doctors you read about in the newspapers but rarely encounter yourself because in order to do so you have to be quite seriously ill.

So: what have I learned?

First, that it’s not as bad as you’ve long feared, especially not for anyone hardened by the experience of the military, prison or — in my own case — being at an English prep school in the 1970s. Yes, it’s all a bit spartan, but the staff from the porters and cleaners to the consultants were a delight, and I grew very fond of my multinational assortment of nurses from Poland, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Ghana and south India, who couldn’t have been harder-working, jollier, more competent or more caring.

Also, the routine and the retro ambiance can become weirdly seductive: the morning clean-up team who’ll either shave and wash you in bed or give you the towels and shower gel to do it yourself (NHS razors are horribly blunt, though); the jolly dinner-lady type who comes round and round with tea, forgetting every time that you don’t take sugar; the endless blood-pressure and temperature checks; the dispensation of your medicines in those little plastic cups; the school food; the hideous but oh-so-practical, one-size-fits-all pyjamas. If you were healthy you’d be appalled by everything: the noise, the light, the smell, the Soviet basicness. But when you’re ill, there’s almost nowhere you’d rather be and you feel in very safe hands.

That’s the good side. Now the bad — and it’s so bad I’m surprised it isn’t more of a national scandal. We read a lot about a service stretched to breaking point but what few of us grasp — I didn’t until I saw it myself — is perhaps the main contributory factor to this: bed after bed occupied by elderly, often Alzheimer’s-afflicted patients who simply don’t belong in wards designed to treat acute, short-term conditions.

I don’t mean to be heartless here. Clearly we need to find some way of ensuring that our elderly, especially those with no family to care for them, live out their twilight years free from misery and discomfort. But the place for these people is a dedicated home run by carers, not an expensive-to-run NHS ward with highly trained staff and valuable equipment designed primarily for emergencies.

A pulmonary embolism isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you but it’s pretty bad. On my first night, as I lay wracked with pain that sometimes penetrated even my morphine delirium, I could not but be conscious of the skeletal, rambling old geezer opposite me spraying his entire bed area in explosive diarrhoea.

Read the rest at the Spectator.