A life of farming with AF

Owen had his first atrial fibrillation (AF) episode in his twenties, but with his active lifestyle he never imagined it was his heart. He wasn’t diagnosed with the condition until middle-age.

Owen always knew that farming was the life for him. He’d grown up on a sheep farm and that was where he wanted to stay.

"When I left school, I hadn’t quite turned 15, all I wanted to do was to get a horse and a dog and become a shepherd," he recalls. It was during World War 2 and Owen picked up work on a variety of farms: harvesting, sowing, shearing and sheep droving.

"It was all physical work and that is how it was in those days – you enjoyed every bit of it as that was all that there was. I had no regrets with what I did."

At 21 he got married and returned to the family sheep farm. As someone whose was very physically active, Owen had no reason to doubt his health or his heart. So, the first time he experienced an atrial fibrillation (AF) episode, while in his twenties, he didn’t think too much about it.

"I remember going out one night to do some shooting of hares or rabbits and I felt really faint. I stopped beside the fence post and I didn’t know what had happened. But I waited and then I just carried on from there."

By the time he returned home, he’d put the event behind him and didn’t even think to tell his wife.

"I just got on with my life as a sheep farmer with shearing and crutching and fencing."

AF episodes increase

Life continued as normal, but when Owen reached 40 he started to get more AF episodes.

"As I got a wee bit older the spasms came on more often and I didn’t really know what it was. They would just come and go, and as I got older they came on more often and lasted longer."

For the next decade Owen experienced increased episodes of AF but didn’t seek medical help or even mention it to his wife or four children. At that stage, Owen didn’t know what his condition was or that it was putting him at risk of a stroke. Finally, however, the attacks were coming too often to keep quiet about.

"I finally went to the doctor because I did the silly thing and mentioned it to my wife," he laughs. The GP immediately referred him to the hospital for an ECG.

"When I went to the hospital, the letter that the doctor had given me was probably three to four weeks old. So, I handed that over and that caused almost a panic in the hospital because they thought I was going to drop dead straight away."

"The lady that did the ECG said I was getting reduced blood flow through the system. She said, ‘That will affect your brain.’ I said, ‘It is not a very big brain to have an effect on!’ But she said that it will still affect your brain."

Three hours later Owen was sent home with an AF diagnosis and medication to reduce his symptoms and his risk of stroke (a possible complication of AF).

Life goes on

Since that time – now more than 40 years ago – Owen has continued to lead a physical and active life. He walks a couple of kilometres every morning after breakfast and does balance exercises every day. He also stopped smoking 53 years ago and remains a non-smoker to this day.

Even with medication, however, he continues to get dizzy spells as a result of his AF. One was so bad he was forced to call the ambulance.

"The ambulance lady took my blood pressure and she said if your blood pressure hadn’t dropped another couple of points then you would be on the floor. I said I felt like that too!"

Medication aside, Owen has not needed further treatment for his AF. However, his condition has progressed from paroxysmal AF (when the heart beats irregularly for a while but then returns to normal) to permanent AF (when the heart beat is permanently irregular).

"Now it is permanent, I know that I got it," he says. "This morning I felt light headed when I came out of the chemist shop. I don’t feel like running 50 metres, because I know what will happen if I did. So I just get light headed and I manage that myself."

Now he’s 92, he’s started to take things a little easier.

"I have probably slowed down a lot, I don’t run around the house. If I want to do the luxing (vacuuming) of the house I spend two days doing it instead of half a day. So that is sort of how I control my life, just slowing down a bit, knowing the problem is and not overdoing it."

Shared August 2019

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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