You never think it will happen to you. Until it does. Joe Muscat has something to say about what happens when the unexpected strikes. Here is his story in his own words…
Finally! It had been a hard seven week wait, but I was finally back in the water for a surf. One of the longest wave droughts I can remember was over. The wind Gods had listened to our prayers and sent us a nice cool North Westerly breeze that brought with it a beautiful swell that unfolded into warm, slow peeling waves straight into Ghajn Tuffieha Bay. Pure surfing bliss in the middle of summer!
I had been monitoring the weather forecast for a week so I knew that conditions would be good. Luckily, I live just five minutes away so whenever I know the waves are coming I head down to the beach early just to confirm. I usually use this little trip to assess the waves and I also take a couple of pictures of the incoming swell, which I post on my Facebook wall to try and encourage some of my surfing buddies to get out of bed early and head down to the beach. I also use it to tease the friends who I know will be spending their day at work. It happened to be my day off…. LIFE IS GOOD!
I met my son Luke and his girlfriend Victoria at the beach around 10am. This was going to be Vicky’s surfing baptism. Luke was also super excited since he was going to christen his new board, a birthday present from us that had been waiting patiently in his room for the past six weeks.
I have a bit of a ritual before I surf, just something that became a bit of a habit. I always make the sign of the cross and kiss the crucifix around my neck several times. I also think of my Dad, who passed away just over two years ago. I don’t know why, but I always feel better going in the water after that. Call it a bit of extra protection if you will, but it helps. I then light up a cigarette, put on my board leash, watch the waves while I decide where to get in the water from. Smoke over, I carry my board into the sea while a huge smile develops on my face. Life is REALLY good!
My first surfing session always lasts around 30 to 45 minutes. I guess it’s like a warming up surf that helps grease the now ageing joints and helps hide muscle pains. I was having a great time surfing some beautiful waves that did not want break at all. They just wanted to go on forever. Sweet! Except for that nagging little dull ache I was feeling in my upper chest and left shoulder, things were going better than planned.
Vicky got her first wave and screamed all the way to the beach and Luke seemed to be having a great time judging by the smile he was wearing. So I decided to head back to the beach and rest for a few minutes until my muscles warmed up properly and all the little aches and pains went away. Nothing a cappuccino and a cigarette can’t sort out. Does it get any better?
Luke and Vick joined me and we all had a great chat about what happened so far. It was so nice to be with my son on the beach. Luke had been working on a private yacht in the south of France and I hadn’t seen him for over three months. I had missed him a lot and we always enjoyed surfing together. Joe, my other son and Luke’s surfing buddy would be joining us later. My wife Alison and our daughter Noelle would also be coming down to meet us at the beach. Perfect! A good day out for all of us together.
Cigarette and cappuccino break over, I decided to go for another surf. My shoulder pain was still there but not enough to bother me. A bit of paddling in the waves should take care of that. I got out into the surf and waited for my next wave. I had paddled about a 100 meters to get out and noticed that my shoulder pain had increased, quite a bit. In fact my left jaw was aching now, and my left arm. Oh my God!
That’s when it hit me, very clearly. 49 years old, I smoke a pack a day, my blood pressure could be better, I should be in better shape. I do a lot of paddling regularly but that’s about it….. ALARM bells! Really loud ones in my ears. I am in big trouble here. I have to get back to the beach quick. Either my blood pressure has gone down really quickly….or… I was having a heart attack. Although not wanting to accept my own suspicions I knew exactly what it was.
I managed to surf a wave back to the beach, got out of the water and walked up to the Café where we’d left our stuff. I felt so weak and helpless and tunnel vision started setting in. I needed to lay down, cool off and put my feet up. The temperature was around 35 degrees Celsius and I just felt like fainting. I found a space in between two tables at the Café and lay down, put my feet up on a chair and prayed. People passed by me, around me and past me. Not one stopped to ask if anything was wrong.
I was getting weaker, unlike my chest pain which had spread all the way down my arm by now. I did not feel safe where I was so I decided to move. I could barely make it to my feet but I managed and as soon as I looked up I saw that Alison and Noelle had just walked down to the beach. I took a few steps and practically collapsed next to the bar wall. I looked up to see Alison’s concerned face lean down towards me.
“What’s wrong Joe?!”
“I’m in trouble Ali! It’s serious! Please go and call the lifeguards! I’m sorry!”
I had no idea how I got those words out as by this time my energy levels were zero and I was slurring whatever I said. My chest felt like it wanted to explode, I felt like I was going to black out at any moment and I was overheating. My daughter Noelle got me a freezing bottle of water which helped cool me off and helped me stay conscious. A middle-aged woman who happened to be having a drink at the café with her husband, came over to help me. She had a way about her. She calmed me down and made me feel safe. I was in good hands. She was one of the angels sent my way that day.
A couple of minutes later Ali came running back accompanied by the two young lifeguards. In hindsight I feel sorry for these two young lads whose low paying summer job was about to turn into something possibly nasty; something they were totally unprepared for. They really tried their best with the little that they knew, but on the day that would not be good enough. One of them, I assume, the one who had slightly more authority, tried to call his boss/supervisor on the radio.
No luck there since the radio works better on line of sight and Ghajn Tuffieha being covered by hills all around wasn’t making it easy to get a decent reception. The second option was to call his boss from his own cell phone. In the meantime my breathing was getting more shallow, my blood pressure was going dangerously down, and the lifeguard’s supervisor was trying to make a diagnosis of a patient over the phone through a young lifeguard who by this time was in deep panic mode himself.
Luckily for me, my wife and this middle aged lady (who happened to be a retired ITU nurse) were pulling together to try and make me feel more comfortable. This lady suggested to the life guards to give me some oxygen since it was available. This was administered to me with her help since they had no idea as to what oxygen level to set the machine to. In the meantime my wife called an ambulance, which was immediately dispatched. While this is happening I am hearing the lifeguard say to my wife that his boss had told him that there was no need for an ambulance yet. Apparently this was the end of their conversation as the young lifeguard’s cell phone credit ran out…
Once an oxygen mask was placed on my face, things started getting better and I started feeling a bit more comfortable. My chest pain was still there but at least it was feeling more barable. My next step was the journey to the parking lot at the top of Ghajn Tuffieha. One of the lifeguards ran up to get his own car and drove down to the café on the beach so that he could drive me up. I don’t know if any of you know the little trail that leads from the beach to the parking lot, but even on my mountain bike it’s a tough off-road climb. So you can imagine how rough the ride up was going to be, especially in my condition. I needn’t have worried as the young lifeguard turned out to be a very efficient off-road driver and managed to get me up the hill as painlessly as possible. God bless him and his colleague’s efforts.
By the time I got to the top my wife, Luke, Noelle and Vicky had all walked up the never-ending staircase that in general is either the beginning or the end of a great day at one of Malta’s most beautiful beaches. Not the perfect ending for me on this particular day, or was it?
In no less than ten minutes the ambulance had arrived on the scene. They immediately got me inside and performed an ECG, which they transmitted to the hospital. Wow! Today’s technology is just unbelievable! The ambulance got a reply from the hospital within a couple of minutes, confirming that I was having a heart attack and that a cardiac team would be waiting for me at the hospital.
I spent a week in hospital after surgery. During that week, starting from the ambulance crew, I got to meet some of the most caring, professional and dedicated people I have ever known. Thanks to whom I am well enough to write about this amazing experience.
Yes, that’s the way I choose to see it. The most amazing part is that I am still alive and I have been given a second chance at a relatively young age to make changes in my life that will decrease health risks drastically. I think it’s amazing to discover that your wife and children are actually more awesome than you ever thought possible. It’s amazing, because God lined up the right people at the right time to help me through my ordeal. The calm, soothing voice, experience and kindness of the middle aged nurse who happened to be at the beach. The fact that my wife and daughter arrived when they did really boosted me inside.
Truly amazing was the cardiac team led by Dr. Mark Sammut at Mater Dei Hospital’s CCU. For these people I do not have enough words to come close to thanking them. I am sure they are loved by everyone they take care of. The Nurses and staff at the CCU ward are second to none and their dedication, love and extra smile when you need it, makes all the difference.
Amazing for sure is my father who, I know, was watching over me this day as any day. Thank you.
And last but not least thank you to my amazing God who has always answered my prayers.