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A Waitangi Day to remember

Pete's wife, Pam, experienced an angina attack on Waitangi Day in 2018. In this Journeys story, Pete shares his experience of the event and what happened while Pam was in hospital.

Pete and Pam were enjoying a long weekend around Waitangi Day when Pete noticed that Pam wasn't herself.

"We got up on the Tuesday morning and went out to do a little bit of shopping," Pete remembers. "We came back home and Pam was in a really bad mood, which was really out of character. She was just snapping my head off at the slightest thing."

When the couple got home, Pam, who was still in a temper, stormed off to cut the grass.

"We are on quite a sloping section and within 10 minutes, if that, she staggered back up to the house, came in the front room, not collapsing onto the settee but sat on the settee and then just lay down.

"She couldn't get her breath, she was clammy and sweaty, and I knew then that there was something wrong. Even at that point she was still in a bad mood and angry, she didn't want me to do anything. She didn't want me to call anyone or phone for any help."

First aid training comes in handy

Fortunately, Pete had recently attended a first aid course and, thanks to his training, realised quickly that something serious was happening.

"The signs were there. She was blue around the mouth. I don't think she had much pain. She could breathe in, but she couldn't breathe out."

Pam refused to let Pete call an ambulance, or their GP neighbour, so instead he called Healthline and spoke to a nurse. Pete explained Pam's symptoms, then after speaking to Pam, the nurse told Pete that an ambulance was on the way.

"The nurse stayed on the line and talked me through. Told me just to be calm. When you do the first aid training, you’re not connected to the person, so you just go in and do what you have to do. But in that moment in time it was surreal. I knew what to do, but the reassurance of speaking with someone on the phone was really good."

The ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later and after initial checks and an ECG, the paramedics took Pam to hospital.

Waiting for surgery

Pete followed the ambulance to Christchurch Hospital, where Pam was admitted for further tests. Doctors suspected that she’d had an angina attack.  

Over the next few days, Pete visited Pam in hospital as much as he could while Pam waited to have an angiogram

"I was working a 15-minute walk away from the hospital, so every lunchtime I went to see Pam, and then when I finished work I would walk back to the hospital. I stayed with her until pretty much closing of visiting time, which was around 9pm. Work was really good as well, they said if you want to go, just go."

Pete found that going back to work during that period was helpful as he was only allowed to visit Pam during visiting hours. 

"Being at work took my mind off things. If you can't do something to occupy your mind you just sit around and think about things. So it was better to be at work and be around people."

A serious heart attack 

Pam went for an angiogram on Friday that week. The test discovered a previously undiagnosed congenital heart condition, which had caused abnormalities in her arteries, and confirmed that she would require surgery to help restore blood flow to her heart. 

A few hours later, the seriousness of her condition had escalated. Pam was moved to the cardiothoracic ward and was scheduled to have emergency triple bypass surgery in the morning.

"I got a phone call on the Friday night to tell me that she’d had a severe heart attack and was in a critical condition. That is when the reality kicked in that. This was really serious. It was from then that we didn’t know what to expect, what was happening, what was going to go on and how long it was going to be.

"I can't remember much about that Friday night. But I remember going back home and speaking to the neighbours. Martin (the GP) was entertaining some friends but he invited me in, shoved a plate of food and a glass of wine under my nose, and we sat there talking away. It was reassuring talking to them guys about what was going on and the fact that she was in the best place and centre of excellence for heart surgery at Christchurch Hospital."

A waiting game

Pete got to the hospital in the morning and waited with Pam for her turn for surgery. At lunchtime, she was still waiting so the nurses sent Pete to get something to eat. However, while he was away, Pam was taken into theatre. 

At this point he was given all of Pam's belongings and Pete notes how upsetting it was. 

"At the time of picking them up I just thought I'll take them back to the car. I think it was once I was out of the hospital and walking down to the car, that's when it hit me. I thought they have given me all her things as they don’t want me going in there if she doesn't come out the other side to collect her stuff."

While Pam was in surgery, Pete went home and waited for the surgeon to call with the outcome. 

"It was about 7.10 pm when the phone rung. The surgeon was great and he said to me, "We've completed the surgery, they are just finishing off now. Pam will be in ICU this evening so feel free to come down whenever you are ready."."

Pete immediately jumped in the car and headed to the hospital. At this stage he didn't know much about Pam's condition. 

"When I saw her it was a shock as all the tubes were coming out. I was expecting the tubes, but it was just because it was Pam."

For the next few hours Pete waited for Pam to be brought out of sedation, however at about 1.30am the nurse told him they were going to wait until the morning, so he went home and returned the next day.

Waking up

In the morning the couple spoke briefly on the phone, so Pete knew that Pam was awake when he arrived at the hospital. 

"I had to wait outside as they were going to get her up out of bed, which I thought was amazing less than 13 hours after she had a bypass.

One thing Pete didn’t expect, was Pam’s swollen face as a result of the surgery.

"For anyone going to see somebody after they've had bypass or heart surgery the best thing that the nurses can do is warn them about the 'moon face'. When Pam was lying in bed it was fine, but when they sat her up her head just looked out of shape and her eyes were sunken back in her head. It was a real shock to me, and it was frightening, so unexpected.

"That lasted for about three or four days, and it was really really scary. No-one tells you, so you have no idea."

Pam remained in hospital for a few more days while she recovered, and Pete continued to visit her. Unfortunately, Pam had an issue with atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rate) in those few days, so she was kept in ICU until it settled. Thankfully it did, and Pete was able to take Pam home shortly after. 

Pam has published her experience of the heart attack in her book, Getting to the heart of the matter

Shared March 2020

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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  • Joan 13 June 2023

    Last year I had an Aortic Valve replacement through an artery. Yes at 90 years of age my arteries were perfect and recovery was 2 weeks as opposed to open heart surgery with recovery of 3 months. I have been discharged from the Cardiac Unit and as I chose to have a valve that is only approved for commercial use I have gone on a research programme with the hope I may be able to help someone else in the future.

  • Kerry 5 May 2020

    Hi Pete,
    Thank you very much for telling us of your journey and Pam’s.
    Both sides of my parent’s family have had heart conditions.  I was doomed from the start you might say.  My grandfather passing at the age of 64.  Just a blessing with medical intervention I experienced my condition now and not 50 years ago, like he had to. 
    I had a triple bypass 13 months ago in Christchurch which was a real surprise.  I thought a few stents would help, but alas the surgeon advised a bypass would be best due to my young age.  The day of hospital admittance I was told it would be a triple bypass - yes another shock!  An extra day in ICU for me due to my lungs not behaving.  But the operation and recovery went well, thanks very much to a wonderful surgeon and very dedicated nurses.
    Patients have to realise we are all different and I noted Pam’s ‘moon face’.  This didn’t happen to me, thank goodness, or my dear husband would have ‘freaked out’.  It was bad enough with all the tubes etc hanging off my body for him to witness.  It was a big ordeal for me, having been in hospital only once at the age of 2 for an eye operation since my birth.
    All the best to you both and to others who have had a bypass or are about to have one. 
    It’s wonderful to read of your story Pete and thank you to the Heart Foundation for giving us the opportunity to read this and to know we aren’t alone in our journeys.

  • Jestaca 6 April 2020

    Hi Pete
    Thankyou so much for sharing Pam’s and your story,  Im due for a bypass and it helps to hear stories from people who have been through and come out the other end :)