It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in July 2001, and I was driving my Irish girlfriend, Evelyn, to Stansted airport to catch her flight home after the weekend we had shared in Bromley. She was asleep beside me and I kept nodding off for fractions of a second. I knew I should pull over and get out of the car, but there was too much traffic on the M11, and I was hemmed in at over 70 mph in the fast lane.
Suddenly I fell into a deep sleep. Approaching a right hand bend on the motorway, the car drifted across three lanes of fast moving traffic without hitting anything, and left the road.
The bumping woke Evelyn and she screamed. That woke me up and in a daze I wrenched the steering wheel over to the right. The car skidded across the hard shoulder and slammed sideways against the wheels of a passing lorry. There was glass everywhere as we spun and slid backwards into a ditch.
We both emerged from the wreck unhurt, but I knew something was wrong. I had been falling asleep at my desk, and becoming increasingly breathless over the previous several months. As a speaker, runner and singer, I was particularly aware of that growing breathlessness, and by December I checked in with my GP.
He promptly referred me to a cardiologist who was associated with the British Heart Foundation. He put me through a treadmill test, telling me that the average time was nine minutes. Despite being a marathon runner, I came off the treadmill after seven minutes.
The cardiologist carried out an angiogram two weeks later. When it was over, I asked, “So what did you find?” Without preamble he said, “You are going to need a heart bypass. Next week. And don’t fly.”
I asked for a delay of one week because I had just started writing a book and had a deadline to meet. (I completed the book the day I went into hospital for the bypass.) Dr Jackson explained that two of my coronary arteries were 95% and 70% blocked.
I asked, “Is there some alternative to the bypass?”
“Yes,” he replied, “a massive, disabling heart attack.”
I said, “I’ll have the bypass.”
I was a widower in my middle years, with two grown up children who had not yet got over the premature death of their mother. There was concern in the Khan-Panni household.
Five days after the operation, I went home, and had a total of two weeks off work, but it took a further month before I was able to drive a car with a cushion over my chest. I was on a batch of pills that would provide me with protection against a recurrence of the blocked arteries: Aspirin to thin my blood, Valsartan for hypertension, a statin to control my cholesterol, and Metformin to keep my Type 2 Diabetes at bay. Plus a strong recommendation to walk briskly for 30 minutes at least three times a week.
There were changes. For one thing, my energy level dropped by a massive margin. I became less aggressive, and more able to tolerate or even ignore unpleasant encounters. There was a distinct slowing down in my pace of life, and I established a more regular pattern in all the things I did, including my meals.
One pleasant after effect was my decision to get married. And three years later Evelyn and I were married in Trinity College, Dublin.
Other after effects included a slight memory loss, poorer concentration and, as I said before, significantly less energy. But a calmer, more positive attitude to life and less anxiety.