“Oh good grief, not again”. Four days, four bloody days and I was still suffering.
This was my twelfth day on the GR7 in Andalusia and it wasn’t going so well. My guidebook was useful only as toilet paper and the trail markings were, how to put it politely, shite, that’s what they were, total shite. To make my experience of getting lost twice a day so much better I got food poisoning.
Monday morning, I was up and ready to roll at 06.30, still dark but the stars meant a clear sky and the promise of another day being bludgeoned by the Spanish sun. The key is to get 90% of the day’s hiking done before midday. So, a quick coffee to get the motor running and offski.
In Andalusia, especially the rural areas, when you order a drink they bring a small plate of free food, tapas. Today’s local speciality was creamy chorizo sausage mashed on to toast. It didn't look appealing, more like a cheap dog food but hey ho, beggars don't turn down free food.
That was Monday, now it’s Thursday and I was bent double looking at what reminded my of a small liquefied jelly fish.
It always started on my first climb. My chest grew uncomfortably tight, my throat and lungs would burn like I was sucking in a slush puppy and then, no matter how I tried not to, I barfed. Not that there was much to bring up, I was hardly eating, it was just water. When your body makes so much effort to retch up … nothing, you get hit with the seats and that head smothering tiredness. I had to sit and rest for a few minutes, sometimes longer, sometimes much longer.
This day should have been beautiful. The track was an easy to follow meander through olive, lemon and orange groves. The aroma of a thousand different wild flowers attracted a billion bees which made the air vibrate. Instead, I was collapsed under an olive tree being eaten by ants.
I was so exhausted, it took me over an hour to walk one kilometre, just one kilometre. I detoured into the small town and found a cheap hotel, I needed a proper bed, a proper sleep.
I sat on my balcony sipping warm water. To my right, the view was over the town, and back over the previous days walk, hilltops crowned with rows of lazy wind turbines. To my left, tomorrows 400m climb up a zigzag path to my first ridge. My guidebook then promised a rugged descent into the valley, a 12km path and an 850m ascent to the next ridge. It looked like a very tough day and I knew at that moment, I didn't have the heart for it.
The next morning I took a bus to Granada, and a taxi to the hospital.
I am a nice Scotsman who can’t speak Spanish and I met a nice lady doctor who couldn’t speak English. Thank you Google translate.
I typed in ‘food poisoning’ [comida envenenada] and ‘dehydration’ [deshidración].
She typed in ‘síntomas’ [symptoms]
I typed in breathlessness, tight chest, vomiting, sweating and fatigue.
She typed in ‘ataque al coazón’ [heart attack]
“Ha ha” I guffawed, I re-typed ‘food poisoning’.
She sighed and thought ‘idiota’, picked up the phone and a minute later I was in ‘emergencia’. Three nurses started removing my clothes, that was nice, but then they stabbed my hand with a needle, sprayed something under my tongue and stuck plastic tubes up my nose. “Okay” I thought, “not food poisoning”.
Three hours later I was transferred to the specialist cardiac unit. It might sound odd but I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I had seen Casualty and I knew what a “heart attack” looked like and it wasn’t what I had. I told the doctor.
The only English speaking Spanish doctor sat on my bed, took my hand, looked me in the eye, and very slowly, because English was his second language, said “you had a heart attack”.
So it turned out I was right after all.
I didn’t have the heart for it.
The stereotypical signs for a heart attack are pain in the left arm, crushing chest pain and collapse. Certainly that's how it appears in films and tv shows. All very dramatic.
However, these are more likely to be male symptoms. Yep that's right, male. Other symptoms are a tightness in the chest, it's very uncomfortable but not painful, along with troubled breathing, sweating, weakness, body draining fatigue and of course, vomiting.
In my case, one vessel to my heart was 90% blocked. The extra exertion of climbing with a big back pack put too much strain on the blood supply and the heart started to struggle to keep a strong rhythm. The body knows this and forces itself to stop the exertion by having a vomit attack. This also helps to "shock" the heart back into a more stable rhythm. The vomiting saves your life, literally saves your life.
The Spanish doctor told me, I was a very lucky man. If my body couldn't get the heart working properly then it would have been the chest clutching, collapse and I would have needed immediate medical attention. On those hills ... I would have died.
The brilliant Spanish medical team did a small procedure and placed a stent in my blocked heart valve.