It only takes seconds for the evening to slide out of control. Despite ceiling fans whirring gently above us, we are newly arrived and the heat in the hotel dining room is stifling. The Caribbean frogs croak and sing loudly, competing with the steel band who are playing raucously by the swimming pool.
There is a party atmosphere and, like many a good party, it’s difficult to keep a full grasp on reality. A different conversation going on in each ear, senses on overload, the band playing louder, the frogs croaking closer, the fans whirring faster. And then suddenly… it all stops.
My husband slides to the floor. He’s been fine until a few minutes before when suddenly he puts his head in in hands and his shoulders slump. After a moment he gets up from the table and says he has to go back to the room. A few steps and he doubles over, grasping for a chair for support. Then, after another few steps, his legs buckle. A man who is waiting for a table rushes forward to hold him up. Together we help him take stumbling steps but after only a couple, right at the entrance to the full restaurant, on the steps to its packed terrace, in front of the steel band, my husband passes out completely. Although he is slight, his completely slack body is heavier than I could ever imagine. Stuart, the man helping me, calls out and others, from nearby tables jump up, take him from me and lower him to the ground. There seems to be silence and stillness and everyone looks at him – as though the film has paused.
When the play button is pressed again, there is noise and music and people rushing. Various hotel managers appear with cushions and a wheelchair. Stuart is kneeling by my husband’s head, talking to him and checking his pulse. I stand up. I turn around to see my mother holding my son’s hand. Another man pulls me aside, tells me he’s a doctor and asks some questions. Before he’s finished, I’m told an ambulance is on its way. Stuart says ‘It’s OK’ and I know he means ‘He’s not dead’.
Waitresses are still trying to serve dinner and a bottle of champagne goes by. I notice some people keeping their heads down and I don’t blame them. At least my son is now surrounded by what might be best described as ‘women of a certain age’ who clearly feel terrified he’s about to watch his father die.
I am very aware that I’m just standing there. I don’t think I’m panicking, or frozen, it’s just that I don’t know what to do. When I hear there’s an ambulance coming, I know from experience that will be hours of hospital waiting to come and so I say ‘I’m going to change my shoes’ and walk off to our room.
When I get there I realise that, of course, there are many practical things I must do. As well as changing out of my frilly maxi dress and sandals into joggers and a t-shirt (lurid pink, which I later see, under the harsh hospital lights, clashes terribly with my sun reddened skin). I also get insurance details, passport, money and gather his many boxes of medication into my beach bag.
I walk back to the restaurant and everything is just as I left it. A couple who are sitting at a table right by my husband’s still unconscious body, have moved onto their dessert.
The paramedics arrive and start to check him over. He’s put on a trolley and wheeled off. I follow, being given hotel telephones and taxi numbers and reassurances from everyone including wonderful Stuart and the hotel chef. My mother takes my son towards his room. A waitress serves some coffee. The steel band does a drum roll as it reaches the end of a song. Dinner theatre is over.
Postscript: we spent four hours in the St. John’s Hospital casualty department. It was an eye opener being away from the UK healthcare system, in that they wouldn’t examine him properly until I’d paid the ER admission fee.
He was re-hydrated and as we’ve only just returned to the UK (in the midst of the cyber attack crisis) the specific cause of his collapse is still unknown but we are pretty sure it was heat exhaustion combined with the vulnerability of coming off the steroids that he’d been taking for a recent Crohn’s flare up. He was very frail for the rest of the holiday and had another collapse on the flight home and is now bed bound until he shows some kind improvement.
I’d initially been nervous about a big family holiday with my parents but thank goodness they were there as coping with alone whilst also worrying about my son would have been awful. I’m so grateful to them for all their support. I’m also incredibly grateful to the staff and other guests (especially Stuart, of course) at Blue Waters Hotel Antigua. They could not have been better and more caring in the days after.
However, it has been another step on the road towards forced acceptance of life being irrevocably changed by his chronic illness. It feels as though the walls have closed in a fraction more. Finding a way through the claustrophobia of chronic illness is something we really need to do as family.
(Disclaimer: as it was quite a chaotic event and I had already finished my second glass of Prosecco by the time it happened, I may have remembered some details incorrectly. Please don’t shoot me! It’s near enough…)
And finally … in case you need to book any flights, Stuart works for Dial-a-Flight under the work name of Dylan so think about showing him some love, please.