At the hospital I ask for a physio but the doc, after going through a list of questions, wants to have me scanned. I'm taken down to the ultrasound room where a specialist works his way down my leg from the groin to the ankle, grunting satisfactorily as he does so. Until he reaches the swollen calf muscle. He pauses, looks very serious and mumbles something to his assistant before looking at me over the top of his specs. "No good. Thrombosis."
It started the morning after I flew into Saigon (that's Ho Chi Minh City to you) from Bangkok (that's Bangkok to you) with a pain in the lower half of my right leg. I gave my calf muscle some stretching exercises, thinking it was just a strain, and thought little of it. The following day, it was worse. More stretching and a bit of hobbling. By day three, I couldn't walk on it.
A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot which forms within the deeper veins of the body. Worst case scenario - and a very real and high risk - is a clot breaking off and travelling through the bloodstream to the heart or lung where it blocks the blood flow. That's the pulmonary embolism stage. In other words, you're fucked. I was lucky this time.
Now of all the questions which have crossed this perpetually restless and at times self-pitying mind I never thought I'd ask myself this one: what sort of a man gets a deep vein thrombosis from a ninety minute flight? And furthermore, what sort of a man goes to Vietnam to be among his socialist comrades only to end up stretched out on a trolley in a private hospital? Well there you go. And there I was. On my way to the cardiology department.
What failed completely to impress the cardiologist was my lifestyle, aspects of which included a smoking habit which had recently rocketed to about forty-a-day (I blamed the long-island iced teas, as if they had absolutely nothing at all to do with me) and a lot of time spent working sitting down. The cardiologist put the cause down to those factors with the flight more or less tipping the whole thing over the edge. It was a wake-up call, stern, unsmiling and completely non-negotiable. My body - literally screaming at me from the lower leg upward - was telling me in no uncertain terms that it could taketh no more. No more drinking. No more smoking. And more exercise, please. I was lucky this time. It was treatable.
For the first week I lay flat out to the sound of the man in the bed next to mine coughing up blood during the day and sobbing into his pillow at night. I didn't ask what was wrong with him. Hospital is a bit like prison that way. You don't ask people what they're in for. Like prison, hospital is anything but lonely. What, with a man dying beside me to a soundtrack of forty channels of Vietnamese soap operas being flicked from one to the other every two or three minutes, how could a man possibly be lonely?
Long days and nights - about two weeks in all - were spent being attended to with total care and precision. I was given anti-coagulant drugs, numerous blood tests, injections into the abdomen, and three proper meals a day. Not to mention plenty of sleep. More than I'd had in years. Compression stockings were rolled upon the legs to help with circulation. Finally an intravenous drip was inserted via the hand. Early one morning, as a fresh needle was being fed into me, the nurse kept missing the vein she was aiming for. After five or six attempts we finally got it just right. I remember thinking: I don't know how junkies do this. It's horrific.
At times during that first week, neurosis kicked in spectacularly. The number of imagined what if's was staggering. The biggie was whether or not they'd have to amputate my right leg from the knee down to stop the clot from moving upwards. Would I ask to see the leg afterwards? I questioned. No. I absolutely didn't want to look at my own severed, wrinkled, bloodless leg. Thanks all the same, but me and my stump over here are doing just fine.
Why me? I kept asking myself in a grandiose self-sympathizing tone. Surely in real-life I belonged as much to the haut monde of drinking/smoking writers/performers in reality as I do in the fantasy-flecked recesses of my own mind? Am I discovering after all these years that I'm actually not Lennon, Kerouac, or Gainsbourg? Why did they get away with it and I can't? Getting a DVT in my thirties was absolutely not part of the plan. But once I'd retrieved my monstrous ego from the uncompromising corridors of my own arse, bringing it into the cool light of clarity and reason, I found myself staring at a beautiful and liberating truth: why not me?
Health scares can be good for the health if you can learn from them. I am addicted quite seriously to cigarettes, but I don't smoke anymore. There are times when I miss them (when I have a cup of coffee or I'm waiting for a train, blah blah, yawn etc.) but I know myself far too well. I can't go there. Post- DVT, us smokers put ourselves at the greater risk of a recurring blood clot. It's a non-runner.
So, after being a good boy and doing just what the nurses and the docs told me, I was on the mend. The swelling decreased and the pain subsided. Around day ten, I was up and about and even managed to shower all by myself. Independence. It's bloody brilliant when you've been a while without it.
It is - as I've come to realize and appreciate - an extraordinary life, and one in which we have no right to predict the surprises which come sailing (or crashing) around the corner. I live on blood thinners now - continuing my travels in Asia seven weeks later - which leave me without energy a bit of the time and I can't be too careful not to cut myself as the wounds take much longer to heal. For example, only last week I fell through a hole in a pavement. I'm serious. I got helped out by a Frenchman called Thibaut. As I write, the toe of the right foot is bandaged and I wonder what might be in store for me next. A road accident, perhaps? Wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. Pneumonia? Bring it on.
Folks. Listen to your body. It's usually right.
Concluding thoughts from a restless mind:
I'd previously thought DVT's were for oldies only. But no. A quick Google search will bring up countless cases of death by DVT. Young, healthy athletes are among them. To break it to you, you've got a 5/1000 chance of getting one. One of the most common symptoms is the calf pain. Flying as we know can put you at a greater risk, but there are simple (almost effortless) ways to reduce the risk of developing a DVT. Wear the compression socks. They're as cheap as chips and they help circulate the blood effectively. In fact next time you fly, watch what happens to a small plastic bottle of water as you ascend to the skies. That's what's going on inside your legs. Exercise as much as you can on the flight. Keep hydrated. Don't be drinking too much alcohol. Preferably none at all. Some people say to take aspirin which helps to thin the blood but the jury seems to be out on that as far as I can see. Above all, don't take risks. Always take out fully comprehensive travel insurance.