Paul Bailey: My recovery from heart failure in Romania

I think I suffered heart failure in Corfu during the third week of July. I think I had heart failure then, although I can't be certain, because the amiable doctor I consulted in the small town of Kassiopi diagnosed bronchitis, and put me on a short and intense course of antibiotics. My best friend, Jeremy, with whom I was on holiday, had a persistent cold, and the doctor reasoned that I had somehow picked up a stray germ or two. That, he explained, was the cause of my breathlessness. I felt instantly reassured, and the medicine that he prescribed seemed to do its work. Within 24 hours I was breathing normally again.

Or was I? Soon after returning to London, I began to notice that I was often slightly out of breath after taking a long walk or climbing the three flights of stairs that lead to my kitchen. I emphasise "slightly" for the reason that I wasn't worried - perhaps I had simply walked too far this time, or darted too quickly up the stairs. I wasn't aware that my body was sending me instructions to slow down and to stay calm.

Then, early on the morning of September 23, in a hotel room in Neptun, a beauty spot near the Black Sea, I experienced once more what I had endured briefly in Corfu. The circumstances were almost identical. I awoke at 3am from an unsteady sleep gasping for breath. I assumed I was having a bronchial attack and told myself that there were tablets I could take before the literary conference I was attending resumed. Yet whenever I attempted to lie flat on the bed, the chronic breathlessness returned, urging me to stand upright and pace about the room.

By 6.45 I could bear it no longer. I showered, dressed quickly and staggered down to the reception desk of the Hotel Arad. A woman was vacuuming the carpet. "Doctor," I managed to splutter, and she switched off the machine and rushed into the adjoining office, where the overnight receptionist was enjoying a nap.

She awoke, and was soon phoning the hospital in nearby Mangalia. I asked her to contact one of the Romanian interpreters who were staying with the foreign writers, and within moments, Manela was at my side. She translated as I informed the two paramedics, who had arrived at five past seven, that I was prone to bronchitis and was in urgent need of antibiotics. These, I learned, could be purchased at the hospital's dispensary. The paramedics insisted that Manela accompany me, and she was initially disgruntled - understandably, for she had much work to get through.

I learned later that she had never been inside a hospital before, and was startled and discomfited by what was revealed about my state of ill health. In the accidents and emergencies department, the doctor on duty, who resembled the young Ava Gardner, scorned the idea of bronchitis. She instructed her staff to perform an ECG and to fit me up with an oxygen mask. I was given two injections, one of which, I was assured, would make me pass water instantly. Sure enough, the urge to pee was soon overpowering. I was handed the bottom half of a plastic Fanta bottle - part of the label was still intact - and some resourceful soul, sensing that a serrated edge might damage the penis, had moulded the plastic into a rather pretty fluted shape. I was shocked, amused, and touched by turns.

By eight o'clock, I was aware that I had a heart disorder. I was to be transferred to the general hospital in Constanza, where I would undergo tests and be placed under careful observation.

The physical appearance of the hospital in Constanza is reminiscent of what one has read of the gulags. My only sight of a toilet during my brief stay induced instant constipation. There were no screens or curtains, and I had to pee into my Coke bottle - also fluted - at a discreet angle so that the woman in the bed next to mine would not catch me in the act. The night sister, Valentina - another Ava Gardner lookalike - took me by the hands and advised me not to worry. She could see that I was the anxious type, and predicted that I would shortly be well.

That evening, the placid woman in the bed adjacent to mine dressed, packed her things into a carrier bag and went away. An obviously dying man, with disconcertingly white skin, was brought in in her place. He was screaming with agony and had to be sedated. The drug clearly wasn't very potent, for the screams were not pacified, but merely replaced by an eerie whimpering. "I don't want you to hear any more of this," said Valentina, and gave me a sleeping tablet.

When I woke, I saw that the three women who had come with the man were holding lit candles to light him, Orthodox fashion, into the next world. They left in tears. Valentina turned me on my side because she was going to have to wash the corpse with the assistance of a nurse.

As I lay there, a scene from my early childhood came to me. My grandmother, who had a brownish moustache from the snuff that she inhaled, was laying out the bodies of the newly dead in the Hampshire village where she lived. She was the local Mrs Gamp, and at the age of four or five I munched an apple while I watched her clean up the body of an old man. She wiped and washed his bottom. Being a curious child, I stared in wonder at the spectacle.

Thanks to the generosity of friends, I was flown back to England in the solicitous company of two Germans - a doctor and a paramedic - the next day. The airbus landed at Biggin Hill, the setting for those gung-ho British movies starring Kenneth More or Richard Todd that I sat through in my youth. By 5.30pm I was in the casualty ward at Hammersmith Hospital.

The copious notes that my Romanian doctor had written - running to three pages - were read and translated by a Romanian cardiologist who was on duty that evening. She confirmed that they were accurate in every particular. On Wednesday evening, I was given an angioplasty, which revealed that two of my main arteries were in decent working order, while the third had become blocked with fatty tissue. A balloon was inserted, the artery expanded, and a tiny metal clip called a stent now ensures the progress of blood to my heart. I now owe my life to the dedicated team of doctors and nurses at Hammersmith, and to the splendid Romanians who are forced to work in circumstances beyond the imagination of the tabloid hacks who routinely refer to the "third world" conditions in NHS hospitals.

My life since then has changed in two crucial respects. I am taking eight tablets a day, to steady my heart, to reduce cholesterol, and to aid and abet the work of the stent. I have been eating sensibly for the past decade - but now I am eating even more sensibly. My alcohol intake has been reduced to a glass of really good claret with my frugal dinner. I look, and feel, perfectly healthy.

This horror story, with its happy ending, started the morning after a radiant day spent on a boat on the Danube Delta, among friends both old and new: a day I wanted to be repeated for ever, and is now the sweetest of memories.

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