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Hydrochloric acid


There was no question I was going to die. I felt like I had been kicked in the chest by a very large stallion. All I cared about now was minimising pain and getting it all over as fast as possible.

The spasms started around midday. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a vice was strapped to my chest and very slowly being tightened. I did what any normal human being does in such circumstances – I panicked. As I got more alarmed, of course it became even more difficult to breath. This felt like such a cliché…the rapid onset of what could only be a heart attack, I was certain. Yet why was I certain? I’m not a doctor, after all. “Can you take me to the hospital please?” I asked my wife. “Do you mean the GP?” She clearly hadn’t grasped how I was feeling. “No, I mean A&E.” We beat all the traffic lights.

Of course I didn’t die. I’m still here to tell the tale. Although the pain in my chest is easing, I still feel like I have been pummelled there for weeks by a nasty squat demon. And six weeks later, I still feel like shit and the pain is disappearing very slowly, after almost a week of medication.

My body has been trying to eat me

The local NHS hospital was superb. Joining the detritus of human misery in the A&E department on a Friday afternoon, my wife forecast a lengthy wait, as the person behind the desk insisted on taking details I was in no fit state to give. Fortunately, out popped the triage nurse who could see I was in real distress, and immediately got me onto a trolley. She started taking blood pressure, which was going up and down like a yo-yo, attached me to an ECG machine, and gave me a shot of morphine to ease the pain, by now agonising. Over the next day and a bit I enjoyed some hospital food – rather good – and a peaceful night in my own room, and some more morphine shots. The pain eased; I was discharged; no heart problems, no major blood vessel or lung troubles, the scans were all normal. I hadn’t really noticed, but in the couple of weeks before the attack I had stopped drinking water (because it was too painful, such was the sore throat I had). My pee shifted colour from elderflower cordial, to Don Pedro’s fine old madeira, to Rancid Jack’s Best Tennessee Rum. And such was my mental fuzziness (another symptom) that I just looked down at these changing colours with a silly grin on my face. My body seemed to be going haywire: yet the A&E department produced no diagnosis.

So I was discharged, even though I had an unexplained diminishing pain in the chest. I felt pretty bloated, as though there was a lot of gas in my belly, and the pee was still closer to Rancid Jack’s than I liked – but the docs professed themselves at a loss. I went back to my normal habits – eating a bit late, not drinking enough water, back to 175 mg of aspirin just before bed (to fend off strokes)…and wham! The horse kicked me again within a couple of days. What the hell was going on? This time, I was completely laid out – exhausted, total loss of appetite, couldn’t face drinking anything.

Over the course of the last six weeks I have had around 60 litres of hydrochloric acid slosh around inside my upper body

A typical adult human stomach every day secretes about 1.5 litres of gastric acid, the biggest constituent of which is hydrochloric acid, one of the more important uses for which is the pickling of steel, to remove rust or iron oxide scale. Putting it simply – it’s one of the strongest acids. If, for some reason, your stomach decides to produce an excessive amount of hydrocholoric acid, or your valve at the top of the stomach stops working efficiently, then when you sleep and lie horizontally, the acid leaks out of the stomach. And, thus freeed from all restraint, it proceeds to burn all the organs in your upper body cavity – lungs and heart and all the bloody tubes that go in and out of them. My stomach has been trying to eat me. Over the course of six weeks I have had around 60 litres of hydrochloric acid slosh around inside my upper body – that’s probably more than George Haigh ever used to do away with his victims. Haigh was a serial killer, known as the Acid Bath Murdererer. He did away with six people but hydrochloric wasn’t his forte – he used sulphuric instead.

There are some very powerful drugs that can help, called proton pump inhibitors. The one I have been prescribed – omeprazole – is even on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines. What it does is kill the acid production, giving my body a chance to heal itself. For the first time in six weeks my body is not a cannibal. When I think about what my thorax might look like after six weeks of regular acid drenching, I imagine a downmarket butcher’s shop window. Instead of all the enticing cuts of meat neatly arrayed to set the mouth water, this butcher – my butcher – has dangling from a rack a series of ghastly entrails, sometimes lividly purple, sometimes fatty and white.

So, oesophagitis – for that’s what I have – is at least not death, even though it put on a thoroughly convincing performance as far I am concerned. For the next two or three months I need to practice a racist policy about my diet – white foods only, such as rice, mashed potatoes, white bread. Absolutely no smoking or drinking of alcohol. And never, ever again any aspirin – probably the very worst thing. Instead of fending off heart attacks and strokes all I was doing was causing my guts to meltdown.

For some reason I have become addicted to tinned peaches and pears (both fine), and one day craved doughnuts. One day I will be sent by my GP to have a camera tube inserted into by oesophagus, just to see how bad the damage is. But for now the sun is shining; children are delightful; I am still alive.