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A heart attack, but not like on TV

“There was no pain at all, there was no clutching of the chest, no saying ‘ooh-oh really sore’, nothing,” says Stephen who was surprised to learn he’d had a heart attack.

Heart attacks aren’t always as painful as the ones in the movies. Stephen’s experience was different – he did not even know he had one.

It was September 2011 – Stephen was 48 and in fine health. But one morning, around 4.30am, he woke up from his sleep feeling hot, cold and clammy.

“I tossed and turned for quite a while and felt a bit off, but had no pain.” After an hour and 15 minutes, he woke up his wife and told her he’s going to have a shower – “I just can’t sleep, don’t quite know what it is,” he said.

Stephen went to work that morning as usual but as the morning had been a bit odd, he decided to see the doctor just to be safe.

“I tossed and turned for quite a while and felt a bit off, but had no pain.”

The doctor checked his blood pressure and hooked him up to an ECG but the results showed everything was normal. The doctor also took some blood tests as a precaution, even though he was happy with the ECG results, and told Stephen to take it easy as he was probably just overtired.

Stephen went back to work and “was feeling a bit shattered probably because I felt like I hadn’t had much sleep,” he says. But then at 4pm he got a phone call – it was the doctor saying ‘we want you to present yourself to the A&E clinic, you have had a reasonable heart attack.’”

‘In shock’

Stephen ended up at the hospital Accident & Emergency clinic where he was immediately admitted, had more bloods taken, and put under observation for a few days. All the while he was in shock because he hadn’t had any of the “classic symptoms” of a heart attack. “There was no pain at all, there was no clutching of the chest, no saying ‘ooh-oh really sore’, nothing. Not even quiet suffering so far as pain is concerned,” he says.

“So apart from feeling tired, I just went with the flow because the doctors normally know what they’re talking about...” 

During his hospital admission Stephen also had to do a treadmill test. “That seemed to be going okay and they kept speeding it up and they said all the way through ‘you need to tell us when there’s any pain as that will tell us right away that there’s an issue there.’” Still, Stephen felt no pain. “But the nursing staff said ‘we’re stopping here, thank you’, and they could tell there was a heart event being triggered,” says Stephen.

“So that was a bit of a shock because most other people seem to get to a level where they could do no more, whereas it didn’t seem to be the same for me.”

Treatment and support

It was discovered Stephen had one blocked artery, so a stent was put in.

He was partially awake when it happened. “I could feel when they had activated or released the stent, whatever they do to open it up, so that made like an immediate difference, you could sort of tell straight away.”

The stent was so tiny but it shows how vulnerable you are to such a small difference, says Stephen.

The next day he was discharged and has not had any further problems.

Education and Support

Stephen went on to do a 10-week course run by the hospital that covered a range of topics, including heart disease triggers and how to prevent future problems through the likes of exercise and lowering daily salt intake.

Here, he learned about the other signs of a heart attack besides obvious pain, such as going from hot to cold and sweating.

Though he felt a little out of place at the sessions, because he was the youngest there, there was still information he gleaned from the meetings so he did not think they were a waste of time.

Hearing other people’s experiences helped drive home the fact that heart disease catches many by surprise, regardless of age or fitness level. “There are all kinds of snippets you can take away.”

Now, five years down the track, it would even help to have a refresher course, he says. “Because apart from taking the pills on a daily basis, you do get back into your normal routine. As time goes on, it’s easy to slip back into old lifestyle habits, if you’re not careful.”

Stephen travels a lot with his work, and spends much of his time sitting at a desk, car or on an aeroplane. During lunchtime, he tries to walk around the block every day as he knows it’s important to be active for at least 30 minutes a day.

The take-home message

What stood out most for Stephen through his journey is that heart disease manifests itself in different ways. “It’s not always going to be in a dramatic form that you would see on the TV or that you hear about, with people having the associated pain as well.”

But while a heart attack might be “easy to miss”, the damage is worse if it goes unnoticed and untreated. Stephen advises anyone who’s in pain or discomfort to see a doctor even if they don’t suspect a heart attack. It might be nothing but it’s better to get checked out, he says. 


Shared December 2016

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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