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Family history cannot be ignored

Shaun Lewis was 40 years old, fit, happily married and father to three young kids. Although he had a family history of heart disease, he kept a close eye on his health and there were no alarm bells.

Like most of us, Shaun thought an absence of symptoms meant he had nothing to worry about.

But then he began experiencing pain in his jaw during the daily 20km-round cycle to work from Johnsonville to Wellington.

After a month of this, his sister (a nurse) recommended he see his doctor. He was sent for tests which showed there was a problem. Within days, an angiogram revealed a 90% blockage of his coronary artery.

Shaun was suddenly told he needed life-saving quadruple bypass surgery.

“It was shocking and quite terrifying,” he recalls. “The kids were young enough that they didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation. My wife was fantastic…obviously really upset and scared but we just tried to focus on the fact that they got it before I had a heart attack.”

Shaun was forced to stop working for nine weeks, during a busy and stressful period. It took a lot longer to restore his confidence and fitness.

“Mentally it’s quite hard because I was constantly worrying about being on my own and having a heart attack. It takes quite a long time to get your physical fitness back up too.” 

His wife Lynley describes it as a frightening experience - watching her life partner go through open-heart surgery, realising she’d come close to losing “a wonderful father and husband”. 

“You never expect your fit 40-year-old husband to be the one,” she says.

Four years later, Shaun has recovered well and is dealing with the everyday task of looking after himself and finding balance in his life. He has now been married for 17 years and his kids are aged 12, 10 and 7.

Shaun, who works for the Ministry for the Environment, makes sure he eats well, keeps his stress levels down, and gets plenty of sleep and exercise. He takes statins, aspirin, folic acid and multi-vitamins.

He is still surprised that he needed bypass surgery at the young age of 40. 

“Dad has his first heart attack at the age of 37 and then had his second, which proved fatal, at 54. I just thought the way I managed my lifestyle would give me another 10 years than my dad. But I only got three. I do have really bad genes.”

He wants to spread the message that, if you know you have a family history, you need to have a plan for monitoring your heart health.

“All the advice that I’d had over the years was that I was low risk because of my lifestyle and physiological indicators, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. But family history trumps everything.”