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A tale of father and son

Unlike his father who died suddenly of a heart attack at 54, Lyall was given a second chance.

Lyall’s experience with heart disease doesn’t start with his own heart attack, but that of his father – his best friend and mentor.

In his last years of college, Lyall started working alongside his dad as a bricklayer – a job he did because he enjoyed the outdoors and the company of his father.

“Apart from dad teaching me the trade of bricklaying, he was also my mentor as a rugby referee. He himself refereed all the way up to Ranfurly Shield games in the 1950s.” Lyall started refereeing after suffering three concussions at the age of 18 prevented him from playing rugby or any other contact sport.

Lyall describes his dad as a fit man who’d only occasionally have a beer, maybe at rugby on a Saturday. But at the age of 53, he started having shortness of breath and one night had some chest pains, which he was given medication for. Then, six months later, the unthinkable happened.

"Poor old dad, he had no way, they didn’t have the technology or the medication."

His dad arrived to work on May 5th and Lyall greeted him as usual - 'How are you doing today?’ His dad talked about the night before when Lyall had given a talk to referees. “The last words he said to me were, ‘I enjoyed your lecture last night, you did well.'

“And he was putting on his overalls, I was bricklaying just alongside my other uncle, dad’s youngest brother, and I heard just ‘uhhhmm’ and looked around and there was dad, flat on his back with one leg in his overalls.”

Of that moment, Lyall says: “I not only lost my dad, I lost my business partner, I lost my best friend and I lost my refereeing mentor – and I was 24 years of age. So it was pretty traumatic...”

Lyall’s own experience

Of the many things Lyall learnt from his dad, he also learnt something from his death – how to recognise the signs and symptoms of heart disease. And some decades later, he found himself drawing on that knowledge.

“So on the 7th February, 2006, I was out banging in a post and I got the shortness of breath… The next day, same thing happened and I had an awful burp and it burned,” says Lyall. “I remembered dad would burp away at 2 o’clock in the afternoon when we’d be working and I’d say ‘what’s the matter?’ and he’d say, 'oh that damn cucumber in my sandwich is repeating on me.' Of course now we know it’s an angina sign.”

Lyall got to his doctor straight away and as well as the nitrolingual spray he was given, he was also sent for a treadmill test and angiogram which found some blockages. He already knew his cholesterol was high and was on medication for that. He was told to keep up his walking and take his medication so that’s what he did – “we trucked along”.

But then again in May he had another "wee turn". He’d decided to do his workout on the treadmill in the shed rather than outside that day. “But I just could not get going,” Lyall says. After three puffs of nitrolingual spray in 10 minutes and still no improvement, he thought he should get to hospital. “Just as I was thinking about that, my arms just felt as though they had two buckets of concrete hanging on the ends of them. So that was the sign.”

His wife Elaine took him straight to the hospital – “we didn’t ring 111 which was naughty,” says Lyall.

As soon as they arrived at hospital, he told the nurse he had high cholesterol and a very tight chest. “She was out of that chair like a rocket and she says ‘come this way’. By the time Elaine had parked the car and she didn’t have to go very far, I’d had a couple of pills under my tongue, I was on oxygen and in the wheelchair ready to be wheeled up to the ECU unit.”

Blood tests were taken and the next morning a nurse, who Lyall knew well, broke the news: “We’re negotiating to send you to Wellington in the helicopter, you’ve had a heart attack, she said. So that was that. That was my first event.”

It still surprises Lyall that there were no chest pains – “I just had shortness of breath, just tightness, and my arms were dead – they just had this dead weight hanging on the end of them, but no chest pains.”

At Wellington Hospital, Lyall had two stents put in. “They had to be joined onto each other because the blockage was 95% closed and the stent is about 20mm long and they had to make it 40mm long and that’s how clogged up it was.”

Two years later in 2008, he had an arterial lateral bypass, which was hailed a success and Lyall was discharged from hospital four days later.

It was another five years before Lyall experienced his second event.

“I’d had a shower and I’d tripped a little bit – I thought 'oh, that's a bit unusual for me.' It was the day of the America’s Cup race so we were sitting on the couch to watch it, and I was eating my muesli, then all of a sudden I got this awful indigestion… or what I thought was indigestion.

“I didn’t even see the end of the race, I said to Elaine, ‘I’m going to have to go and have a lie-down.'  She said, ‘You go and lay on the bed and I’ll get you something to try and clear the wind in your stomach.' Well, I lay down and a couple of minutes later Elaine came in the door and looked at me and said, ‘I’m ringing 111.' I did not argue, I just felt that awful.”

At the hospital, tests showed Lyall needed more stents. Despite keeping fit and having a good diet, more arteries were blocking up.

The explanation: it’s hereditary

In a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist Lyall was told there was a hereditary element to his blockages. He was told that the arteries with stents were 100% clean, which could indicate that the new blockages in other arteries were more to do with genetics than lifestyle.

Lyall had always eaten well: “Elaine, right from the start, had been strict with our diet and cooking and it’s paid off.” Similarly, he’d always kept active, particularly with his refereeing, and walked at least three kilometres every day. So it came as no surprise to learn he might have his father’s genes, and that despite doing the right things he was still prone to cholesterol plaque building up in his arteries.

But for Lyall, that didn’t mean the situation was out of his hands. “I can play a big part in my future with the exercise and monitoring that I do,” he says.

“For example, keeping up my fitness keeps my heart muscle strong, so that if I do have another little blockage somewhere, it might not cause big damage to my heart.”

Understanding the signs and symptoms, and knowing when to get checked also gives Lyall a strong sense of control over his condition.

“I have six-monthly blood tests where they check on my cholesterol levels, my triglycerides, the full range of bloods and they’ve all been within the limits – the lowest my cholesterol’s ever been so that’s a very good sign.

“And from now on if I feel really out of sorts or whatever, I’ll go to my doctor and say ‘hey, what’s the chance of having either a treadmill test or angiogram just so that we don’t have a heart attack.'"

Making the most of his ‘second chance’

Now that he is semi-retired, Lyall is committed to helping others with heart disease and has joined forces with the Heart Foundation’s regional healthcare advocate to build a support group in Blenheim, now consisting of 33 members and growing.

He’s modelled the support group on the cardiac rehab course he did after his discharge from hospital following his first heart attack.

It’s a chance for people to have a cuppa and talk about their experience, he says. But Lyall also organises guest speakers which have included a doctor, physiotherapist, and sports people.

Lyall says he does it for two reasons – firstly it’s a chance to repay all the goodwill and support he received when he was ill. “I got a great deal back from those six sessions we received – it gave me a good feeling that I had great support.”

And more importantly, it’s a chance to make his second chance really count.

“Poor old dad, he had no way, they didn’t have the technology or the medication, he just got cut off short in his lifestyle,” says Lyall.

“Both Elaine and I think about what dad and mum missed out on, by dad dying so early. So we’ve classed it as being given that second chance and we’re going to make the most of it.”


Shared November 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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