Queen's Lane, OxfordToday I didn’t have a heart attack; I’ve never had a heart attack; I’ve got no immediate plans to have a heart attack.

It was due to be a routine visit to the Churchill Hospital as part of the Sustain diabetes study followed by a quick trip to the bank, some research and an afternoon of writing. What could possibly go wrong?

10:00 Arrive at the Churchill. My name is not on any of the bits of paper scattered across the receptionist’s desk the state of the art booking system, but a quick phone call establishes that I’m expected.

Nikki-the-research-nurse explains that there’s been a change to the study protocol and that as well as the regular tests (blood pressure, pulse rate, weight, waist and half an armful of blood) I’ll also have to have an ECG. She decides to do this first so that the study doctor can check it.

There’s a bit of uncertainty about the ECG machine because it’s the one provided by the company sponsoring the study rather than the more familiar NHS standard issue and when it does work the first two readings have to be rejected due to interference. We search for sources of interference, find none and try again. This time we get an interference-free reading; the printout is whisked off for doctoral scrutiny and we whizz through the remaining checks before I’m released into the blessed arms of the patients’ kitchen and breakfast.

I was just polishing off a second slice of toast and chatting to one of the previous study nurses who now works for the plain clothes branch (plain clothes nurses work for the University, uniformed ones for the NHS), when Nikki came back with the news that there was a problem with the ECG and they would have to do it again.

11:45 Back to the treatment room. The doctor asks whether I’ve got any chest pains (I haven’t) and we’re joined by a second study nurse who takes a new ECG using a “proper hospital machine”. The results look bad.

The doctor explains that they can’t allow me to leave, that they need to do some more blood tests, that I may need to go to A&E, that they can’t send me to A&E straight away because that would make it a “serious incident”, that if I need to go to A&E I can’t be allowed to go on my own and that I may need to be admitted. My plans for the rest of the day start to vaporize like a snowflake in a volcano as I realize that I am, effectively, a prisoner of the NHS.

By this time I’m starting to giggle – not because I think I may have had a heart attack (which I’m fairly sure is the sort of thing you’d notice), but at the increasing surreality of the situation.

14:00 The blood samples were delivered to the Porters’ Lodge about half an hour ago and should, by now, be on their way to the John Radcliffe Hospital (JR) for testing. Meanwhile, I find myself under the constant supervision of a relay team of study nurses and am not even allowed to go the toilet without somebody showing me how to operate the alarm and hovering nervously on the other side of the door.

14:10 I casually wander over to the window, ostensibly to glance at “that little patch of blue that prisoners call the sky”, but actually to case out the potential of the hospital car park as an escape route.

View across hospital car park

“That little patch of blue that prisoners call the sky”

We’re on the ground floor, the window’s open, there’s a library step stool (that’s handy) and a generous patch of lavender on the other side to provide a soft landing. The main problem’s going to be getting across the car park without attracting attention. I could make a quick dash to the nearby Fullbrook Centre – from there it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the golf course and freedom. What if they send for the police helicopter? Police helicopters are always chasing people across the golf course.

14:20 They’re starting to get careless and leaving me alone for short periods to make tea and attend to other urgent Health Service business – I promise not to have a heart attack and to ring the buzzer if anything happens.

Alarm button

“In case of emergency …”

14:30 The doctor arrives and announces that the cardiologist has examined the ECG and decided that the abnormality was just a blip and there’s nothing to worry about. The assembled research nurses are palpably relieved and the alert is scaled down. All we have to do now is to wait for the blood results from the JR – two of the tests have been completed and they just need to wait for the third one to finish cooking – we’re on target for 3 o’clock. They now clearly expect nothing untoward and tell me that I should be able to go home – I might still be able to get to the bank.

15:10 Andy (another research nurse) pops in to say that Nikki is upstairs waiting for the blood test results.

15:45 Find a 2010 copy of National Geographic tucked away among the dead computers and medical equipment. “400 Million Year Old Woman” says the headline, over a picture of a 400 million year old woman. I know how she feels. I’m beginning to have visions being discovered by archaeologists in 400 million years time: mummified and half eaten by Alsatians. Ooh look – there’s a crossword!

15:55 Nikki comes down with my next two months’ medication and then phones the JR (again). The JR is in “another 10 minutes” mode.

16:03 The results will be through in another 20 minutes. ‘Sigh’

16:20 My cardiac enzymes are normal (hurrah!) and I’m free to go (double hurrah!), but will still be referred to the JR for a heart scan – just to be sure.

I never did make it to the bank.

Many thanks to Nikki and the team for their care, concern, conversation and coffee.