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The day that changed everything

Faye, a 48-year-old schoolteacher at a primary school in Whanganui, epitomises the term ‘busy mum’ juggling a job, husband Ivan, and three children. A cardiac arrest at a sports event brought her life to a screeching halt forcing her to reassess things.

“Before it all happened, I had some funny chest pain, but I put that down to stress,” she recalls.

“I’d always eaten quite well, I took care of myself and exercised regularly so I never imagined something like this would happen to me.”

Faye also took herself to the hospital just in case, but they didn’t find anything amiss.

“Just a year before, my brother had died from a heart attack,” she says. “So, I was aware of heart issues, but no one at the hospital seemed worried – they told me they would send me to someone else and that would be another month or so.”

But in late November 2019, Faye's life came to a screeching halt when she suffered a cardiac arrest while participating in Whanganui’s annual Tough Kids event with her students. 

“It was so quick. I was ushering the kids back to a seated area. I suddenly collapsed. I was lucky that it happened where there were a lot of people,” she says. “There were teachers with me and medics for the event, so I had an immediate response and then an ambulance came in and I got everything that I needed.

"It was like winning the lottery," Faye says. "Yes, it was a traumatic experience, but if it had to happen then I’m just so grateful that it happened like that. Afterwards, I was flown down to the cardiology department in Wellington."

Faye woke up in the hospital in Wellington where she received an S-ICD defibrillator implant. The defibrillator wire runs across her chest, a constant reminder of her second chance. It took her days to regain her memory and even longer to process the enormity of her experience. 

"I didn’t even know what a cardiac arrest was before it happened to me,” she says.

"This knowledge needs to be out there because there are a lot of people that don’t understand about heart events – like the need for AEDs to be absolutely everywhere possible to save people’s lives."

Upon further tests, Faye discovered she has Familial hypercholesterolemia, a hereditary condition causing excessive cholesterol levels. Her father and late brother had the same condition. Two of her children have slightly elevated levels and are on statins. 

"The long game," as Faye describes it, "is to prevent our arteries from clogging. The main arteries of my heart are OK, but the little arteries in the bottom, the small ones, are a bit clogged and I think that’s what threw my heart out of rhythm. That's what they believe happened, they weren't 100% sure. They put the defib in and said, ‘Get on with your life because you are very lucky.’” 

Beyond the physical challenges, Faye grappled with psychological trauma. Counselling helped her process the "Why me?" questions that haunted her, especially given her brother’s similar fate at a young age. 

"It was a very scary way to learn that lesson. I am also very lucky I don't have any brain damage or anything like that,” she adds. “The possibilities are endless. I've had some counselling to help me deal with it, I wanted all the help I could get to deal with it. There's nothing shameful and having counselling to help you process it all is so valuable. I’ve got to live for my kids, live for my family.”

Her near-death experience became a catalyst for change. Faye's school now hosts St. John’s instructors who teach students cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques and what to do in emergency situations. Faye spearheaded fundraising for an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) for her school, educating her community on its use. 

"I hope that one day I can help someone else be as lucky as I was," she says.

Faye now also focuses on preventive measures, carefully watching her diet, reducing stress, and enjoying an active lifestyle. While she remains cautious, avoiding solo swimming or long drives, she embraces her second chance. 

"I am trying to enjoy life at the same time because I’ve been given another chance," she shares.

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