For many people, a single, sharp head pain would be something noticed but ultimately ignored. No medical consultation, no trip to the emergency room, no panic over what might have caused that feeling.
And Irishman John Hassett reacted in much the same way to his own headache, until a voice told him that it could be something more serious. The voice wasn’t coming from his own head or from a concerned loved one, though – it was coming from his radio.
Hassett, 63, wasn’t always averse to seeking medical attention for something that appeared minor. In fact, a family tragedy had once made him obsessed with seeking a doctor’s opinion for “every little pain” he felt, Hassett subsequently told The Independent.
“My wife died from cervical cancer aged 35, and I was left with our two young kids, then aged just six and eight years old,” he explained. “They were so young and I was petrified of every little pain I’d get and used to persecute the doctors, running to them convinced I had cancer.”
Eventually, he was able to assuage his fear that he, too, would be unexpectedly struck by a fatal illness. “It was all in my head,” he said. “Slowly, over time, I convinced myself there was nothing to worry about.”
On top of that, Hassett had made an effort to lead a healthy, active lifestyle – with the occasional indulgence, of course. “I was always out during the day, climbing mountains and cycling, and I tried to eat healthily,” he continued. Nonetheless, he’d often end his days with a glass of whiskey or wine and a cigar.
It could have been these habits, plus a tendency to have difficulty sleeping, that led Hassett to very occasionally experience severe head pains. He suffered them twice, in fact. First in 2013 and then again in 2017, when he also heard a radio warning that made him realize that his symptoms were serious.
On the first occasion, Hassett was partaking in one of his favorite activities. “I’d been out cycling … got a puncture and had to carry the bike back to the car,” he recalled. “Suddenly, there was this surge of pressure in my head. Not painful exactly, but an awful sensation. Then it was gone. It was the only one, and I soon forgot about it.”
The second time was different, though. Hassett had hopped out of the pool after going swimming and “felt a brief, sharp pain in [his] head.” He said, “It’s hard to describe, but it felt like a surge that was there for a split second, leaving me feeling faint, and then gone.”
At that point, however, he wasn’t paying too much to his symptoms. But as he drove home from the swimming pool, he felt a second wave of the strange pain. And then, he heard it: a radio ad for a round-the-clock cardiac health center. Its content was eerily familiar to Hassett.
“There was something about the symptoms they were describing that made me think, ‘That’s me,’” he said. “I rang the number when I got home, and when I told them my symptoms, the woman on the other end said to come in.”
Hassett had his daughter drive him to the appointment, at which point he knew that his health was in a crisis: the surges of pain kept happening. “The traffic was heavier than usual,” he recalled. “I just kept talking to myself, saying, ‘You’re nearly there, John. You’re on your way to the right place.’”
At this point in the story, Hassett’s memories become blurry, probably a side-effect of his deteriorating health. He did remember a nurse who cheerfully chatted with him until she checked his vitals. “Suddenly [she] went very quiet and looked a bit red in the face,” he said. “I knew then I was in trouble.”
Cardiologists then came to examine Hassett and finally diagnosed his condition: he had a heartbeat so out of the ordinary that he was considered to be in a pre-death state, hanging onto life with minutes to spare. He needed surgery to save his life.
A doctor subsequently told him that his chance of dying during surgery was around 20 percent. That left Hassett to mull over all of his regrets, including the secondary symptoms that he hadn’t heeded. He admitted to ignoring heart palpitations and an erratic pulse, the latter of which had been detected by the heart-rate monitor on his exercise bike. Hassett dismissed the readings, however, believing that the device’s batteries needed replacing.
“I disregarded the signs of heart disease, and I don’t know why,” he admitted. “I can only say I was foolish. Getting the news that this might be it for me… there’s no other words than to say it was heart-stopping, and I couldn’t help but cry.”
Thankfully, the surgery was successful. “The section of my heart that was out of control was removed, no discomfort or pain,” Hassett explained. “It just felt like a bit of thread going round and round [the bottom of my heart].” And he credited the radio commercial for his now-clean bill of health.
“I feel that radio ad saved my life because it jolted me into action,” he said. He later found out that the timing of the ad – and the moment that he decided to call the center – were serendipitous. “It’s only if you phone the cardiac call line before noon that you get to be seen that day,” he said. “Any later appointments are usually the next day. If I’d left it even another half-hour, I might have missed it.”
Now, Hassett’s learning how to live with his new normal. “I could so easily have not been here, and I’m so grateful to everyone who helped me,” he said. “But it can sometimes feel like there’s pressure to make the most of this given time.”
For Hassett, that has meant playing it safe, which has led to solitude and time to think about – and mourn – the deaths of other family members, including his wife and, later, his son. But he also has moments that take his breath away for all the right reasons. “I’ll ride the bike somewhere up Howth Head, gaze out at the sea and think, ‘Aren’t I lucky?’” And it’s very clear that he is.