My mother was understandably very anxious that I would have scratches when I was a child. I remember not being allowed to do many rides at Oakwood Theme Park in Wales. The same thing happened at Disneyland in Paris, where myself and three of my sisters won a trip through a raffle when I was about eight or nine years old.
Wrapped in cotton for years, I had a strong urge to assert my independence in the dumbest way. Our local beach amusement park, Tramore, had the waltzers, which I defiantly pursued with predictable results: rapid heartbeat. Dizziness. Nausea.
I moved to go to college when I was 18 and relished the freedom, even though I was only two hours from home. Since then I have moved twice: first to the Czech Republic, where I met the woman who would become my wife and she convinced me to move to her home country, Norway, where I live for six years.
Most people with a serious heart defect don’t tend to go abroad, and that was never really my plan. But among the many lessons that a life lived with an unpredictable condition teaches is that you sometimes have to take risks when they arise. Plans, as we have all learned over the past couple of years, are contingent at best.
Hospitalized during the pandemic
At the beginning of 2020, during a routine check-up with my cardiologist in Oslo, signs of arrhythmia were detected. Concerned about this, the cardiologist scheduled me for an ablation in March 2020. If that didn’t work, he wanted to install a pacemaker. I was about to turn 32.
Suddenly my life was turned upside down. Just before I had to undergo the ablation, Norway closed.
A few days later, I caught Covid-19 and was quickly hospitalized. My situation deteriorated rapidly. After 11 days of intubation in intensive care, I was transferred to the cardiology department for a week.
After 18 intense days, I was sent home from the hospital to begin to regain my strength – my muscles had severely atrophied after so long in bed. In August, I was well enough to have a pacemaker implanted.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to live with a serious illness. Part of that process culminated in my book. I started to see how all those times when I was given more slack as a sick child, as well as those times when I was prevented from doing the things I wanted because of the risks I they represented, molded me into the person I am now.
Instead of seeking the thrill of a roller coaster or the exhilarating buzz of conquering a mountaintop, I learned to enjoy traveling the world, absorbing it.
I spend a lot of time walking but rarely take steep climbs, preferring instead to cast my gaze upwards, to approach the landscape in the same way that one would crane one’s neck in front of a skyscraper in awe.
Recently on vacation in Trondheim, my wife and I visited the majestic Nidaros Cathedral, which dates back to the 11th century. We paid extra to go up to the roof of the cathedral to admire the view of this beautiful city.
The climb to the roof, a stone spiral staircase, was a steep 40 meters in just 172 steps. A sign said people with heart problems should consider whether it was safe or not. I went up anyway.
Pacemaker, by David Toms, is out now (£12.99, Banshee Press)