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A calm response to a heart attack

Dennis was not as shaken up by his heart attack as his ward mates, but for a long time afterwards he found comfort in talking to people with the same condition as him.

The first sign of trouble with Dennis’s health was initially dismissed as another part of the ageing process. The workouts he’d done all his life were getting a bit tougher.

As well as not being able to complete his normal gym workouts, he was feeling a bit weak and short of energy. “And mowing the lawns – it’s an elevated section – was taking a while to complete. But I didn’t think anything of it.”

Then, after returning from a trip to Christchurch to help look after his grandchild during a house move, Dennis noticed a strange pain in his throat. “I’d been up about 3 o’clock in the morning, and my throat was really sore, just under my jaw. Nowhere else, just there.

“I thought ‘oh I’m getting a dose of laryngitis’ and went back to sleep. I got up the next morning, just no energy, so I thought I better see a doctor and see what’s up.”

Though his own doctor had recently retired, Dennis managed to get a spot with one of the other clinic doctors at 2.45pm.

“I went down and told him what was happening, and his eyes went like saucers and he said he was going to send me to hospital.

“He asked me if I wanted an ambulance, and big tough Kiwi, I said no. My daughter’s a shift worker and she was on days off, so I came home and she took me up.

“By the time the results of the blood test came back, it was close to 6pm I guess. And they said, you’re not going anywhere, we’re admitting you. You’ve had a heart attack.”

Dennis was neither shocked nor concerned initially. In fact, his first thought was, “Oh well, just another event” – a starkly different reaction to that of other patients he would meet during his two-week stay in hospital.

Support when needed

Though Dennis felt unruffled by his experience, his family was quick to rally around. “I had three daughters come up on my second night in hospital and I think everybody wondered what the hell was going on, our family is often prone to indulge in inappropriate humour.”

At first Dennis avoided telling his wife, who was in Christchurch at the time, but inevitably she got wind of what happened...

The day after he was admitted into hospital, Dennis had an angiogram and was immediately put on a waiting list for open heart surgery. After seven days in Intensive Care, he had a quadruple coronary bypass. Then came seven more days’ recovery in hospital.

All the while, Dennis’s emotions remained intact. “In the hospital there was another guy there, he would’ve been 10 years younger than me. He expressed his anxiety a number of times and on one occasion I saw him break down uncontrollably. For me, I couldn’t understand that from the way I felt.”

Upon his discharge, however, Dennis found himself turning to American websites and a particular forum, where heart attack patients could talk to each other about their experiences.

“One particular person was answering another one who was concerned on that website… and the person that answered him said, ‘Well, on this site you’re talking to people who have had that experience. Your surgeon hasn’t had his chest opened up, so how would he know,’” says Dennis.

The forum offered the sort of practical help Dennis was after. “So that’s why I went on there, like I was still tight in my chest and I wondered if that’s normal? So you’re talking to people who are in the same condition as you.”

Lifestyle changes

Dennis had already made some lifestyle changes before his heart attack, so there was little he had to adjust to afterwards.

“I’d taken early retirement mainly because I was suffering increasing bouts of debilitating arthritis. I was seeing a pain specialist in Remuera and he was telling me that I’d need an operation on my back to fuse two of my lower vertebrae, and I thought ‘to hell with that’.”

Instead Dennis began doing his own research online and eventually found a book in a Bethlehem book fair, written by a Chinese American doctor who at 32 was crippled with arthritis and found relief by returning to the peasant Chinese diet.

“So before I had my heart attack I was on that diet. So no I didn’t make any big lifestyle changes, because trying to stay off meat was one of the biggest challenges ever, and I’d already done it.”

Now, two years since his heart attack, Dennis is a participant (“guinea pig”) in a worldwide clinical trial trialling a substitute for statins, and he has stuck rigidly to his diet.

He says he’s now four kilograms heavier than what he should be, but that’s because he “spent all last year sitting in a classroom” to improve his Te Reo. “My dad chased me on that for years. And I listened to him about 30 years after he died.”

He’s also been to Nepal and India, and has his eye on other goals. “We went overseas back in the 70s and we had to interrupt our travel to have our four kids. So now we’re going back to complete our bucket list.”

His advice to anyone who’s experienced something similar is to stay active. “Even if you just walk down to the mailbox and back. Just do something every day.”

Dennis can do one pull-up now, which he’s proud of, and he’s back to doing press-ups and lifting weights. “My chest is a bit tight, but I know it’s been wired up.” 


Shared March 2017

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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