Two years ago, aged 37, I had a heart attack. I was following my usual Saturday routine, exercising in Hyde Park, when I felt a shortness of breath. The cause, I reasoned, couldn’t be anything more than a late night the evening prior. I took a break, sat by the Serpentine, drank water and mused that nothing could be wrong on such a sunlit Spring day, rays dancing in the water.
At brunch afterwards I couldn’t manage a mouthful of my mashed avocado and poached egg; I willed myself to ignore my chest pains. ‘Go and have a hot bath,’ my German friend Georg said, while no-nonsense Aussie Jane shouted after me as I walked feebly onto the street, ‘Don’t go and have a heart attack on us.’
It was her prophetic words that probably saved my life. I hailed a taxi for home but her words echoed in my head and I asked the cab to divert to St Mary’s Paddington. There in the waiting room of A and E, I collapsed and had a massive coronary. If you must have a heart attack, I recommend doing so in a hospital.
I was then – and still am – healthy, not overweight, take regular exercise and eat sensibly. I drink too much but compared to many of my peers live a pretty blameless life. The cause was genetic. It made me take my health more seriously which I’d taken unquestioningly for granted.
I’m now a big pill taker and see a cardiologist and lipid consultant. And so, still somewhat paranoid, and a regular at Chelsea and Westminster, I booked myself to the new Viva Mayr on the banks of lake Altaussee in Austria so I could become more of a master of my own well-being rather than an unquestioning pill-popper.
The place is a brand-spanking-new wooden and glass construction. The mountains surround you, still snow-capped in May, and temperatures varied from sunbathing to jackets on. The staff are dressed in full ‘Sound of Music’ regalia, the men wearing lederhosen leather shorts (which I couldn’t help feel looked a tiny bit fetish).
The clinic follows the Mayr principles which aim to rebalance and cleanse the gut, believing that ill health, stress and tension are contained within. The practice is clinical and you see the same doctor daily, a trained physician and Mayr expert. Mine, Dr Sepp Fergel, looked like Clark Kent, complete with thick horn-rimmed glasses.
The joy of seeing a doctor daily, whether a hypochondriac or not, is that you really invest time in discussing your health. I had a blood test, an ECG, kinesiology tests and was then prescribed a programme for the week: nasal reflexology, infusions and saline inhalation, foot detoxification, a facial, massages. I incorporated my own daily hour and half walk around the lake, inhaling the pure air.
Each day I lay on Dr Fergel’s examining table as he massaged my stomach into obedience. It felt strange initially but the aim is to get the intestines in order, unclog them and allow them to run free. Not only that but we talked about my health and what could be done to improve it.
It’s all very logical: mindfulness, eating well, not rushing through your meal times, balance. There’s something of a return to childhood in having decisions eliminated from your daily routine, your meals decided for you, as you waft from appointment to the next in a white towelling robe. With your mind cleared of other distractions (there’s internet access in your room and in the lobby but you’re encouraged to keep it to a minimum), you start to examine your fellow ‘white-robers’.
It’s the perfect setting for a sit-com. I found myself sitting next door to a photographer in her sixties as our veins were opened up for a cocktail of vitamin infusions. In large leather armchairs we faced the mountains in front of us and talked of our lives – hers infinitely racier than mine.
A great pal of Mick Jagger’s from the late Sixties, she’d photographed swinging London in the Seventies, LA in the Eighties where she shared a flat with Helen Mirren, put on a play with Anjelica Huston and lived it up in New York in the Nineties.
She was accompanied by her great friend: they’d been debutants together, the self-confessed ‘naughty ones’. The friend had kept her Russian princess title from her third husband – and why not? These two enthused the place with their energy and presence – as Virginia Woolf commented, some in life are radiators others drains, and they were firmly in the former camp.
By contrast there was a journalist half their age – a definite drain – who’d been on a detox for six months and was allergic to everything. She was a professional moaner. The long-suffering staff (to their credit) kept a smile on their faces and persevered answering endless passive-aggressive queries without a whiff of disgruntlement.
Among the other guests was a city banker who jumped into the eight-degree lake (he had trained to swim the Channel) and a glamorous French lady, again in finance, who left her phone SIM card at the front desk.
She had been to the other Viva Mayr thinking it was just a hotel and not realising the clinical and cleansing aspect of the programme. After three days she’d tried to escape but could find no flights so she stuck it out and by the end of the week she was a convert and was now on her fifth trip.
And by the end of the week, I too was a convert. We service our cars, dishwashers and washing machines but rarely our bodies. In an age of endless communication, we seem to connect on a human level less. We think little of the health of our bodies and though the programme is not ostensibly to lose weight, in seven days of healthy living I lost six pounds.
The Jesuit saying, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, kept coming to me, as I realised that in just seven days Viva Mayr had me. It took more than a hello but I returned to London zinging with energy and good intentions, and long may that last.
Sebastian Gibson runs property advisers FG Consultants