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‘Am I a legitimate patient?’

Phil was a little embarrassed when ambulance staff wheeled him in to hospital after he started feeling rough with what he thought was just bad heartburn. But he had actually had a heart attack. Now his motto is: ‘If in doubt, check it out.’

As a hospital social worker, Phil is more familiar than most with the heavy workload faced by health professionals. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a Heart Foundation video ad saying that a heart attack isn’t always as dramatic as you might think, he suspects he wouldn’t have sought help for his own.

“We’re always hearing stories about the stressed-out health services, sometimes you feel like you’re going to waste health professionals’ time when they’re very busy and dealing with cases a lot worse than yourself.”

So when Phil felt what he thought was really bad heartburn while jogging back to his car after a gym workout, he tried to jog it off. When it wouldn’t go away, he ended up walking to his car, feeling just a bit ‘off’.

“I have weird food and chemical sensitivities, I can eat something and feel really off straight away, so I’m very used to that. When I got home I was fine, but because I work at the hospital I thought I’d better get it checked out and I booked an appointment with my GP in five days’ time.”

But Phil didn’t make it to his GP appointment. Four days later, the symptoms returned more severely and he sought urgent help. The following is Phil’s story in his own words, as shared with the Heart Foundation.

Heart attack symptoms strike more severely

“I was at home and bending down to put a log of wood on the fire, the heartburn came back again. Also, the insides of my elbows and arms felt a wee bit achy and I had – you can’t really call it pain – but discomfort, in my lower jaw. I had to go and lie down because all of a sudden I started feeling really quite rough.

“I wasn’t feeling any better, and that’s when that television ad really came to mind and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m really going to have to get this checked out.’ I remember talking to my wife on the stairs and she was quite calm about it because I didn’t look bad, I just felt bad. My wife drove me in to the after-hours doctors, and I must’ve been feeling quite lousy because I remember getting quite grumpy at a car going slowly in front.”

Symptoms ease at the after-hours doctors

“They took me in straight away when I said I was having chest problems. After being there for about a minute or so the discomfort dropped from a nine out of ten back down to a one out of ten. But an electrocardiograph found a little anomaly and they told me I’d have to go to the emergency department (ED). 

“I said I’d walk there, since it’s just around the corner. But no, they told me I had to get an ambulance. And all the time I was thinking, ‘Gosh, what a lot of fuss’. The ambulance officers told me I might have pulled a chest muscle or something, and then the ambulance turns up at ED, and I’m sitting there on the stretcher feeling embarrassed, being treated like some sort of king... 

“All the time I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope I’m not wasting their time. They’re all so busy dealing with really sick people and here I am coming in.’ That was one of the barriers I had to get over. It wasn’t a she’ll be right attitude, it was about thinking, ‘Am I a legitimate patient?’ That was a big barrier.

“I could see from the ED nurse’s face that she didn’t think this was going to be a heart attack, but fortunately they were all very professional and went through the protocols.”

Hospital electrocardiograph (ECG) reveals heart attack

“They did an ECG, and five or ten minutes later this man turned up and said, ‘We’re taking him to Resus [the resuscitation unit].’ Next thing I knew, people were almost literally running around and one of the nurses I knew said to me, and I remember this word for word, he said, ‘Has anyone told you what’s happened? You’ve had a heart attack mate.’

“That first ED nurse came in to Resus and she said, ‘I don’t believe it,’ because when I came in I was so full of colour and so alert and bright.

“Just like the ad says, nothing about my heart attack was that stereotypical traditional way that you see people having a heart attack in a movie or TV programme. Honestly, if it wasn’t for that ad, I might’ve just put it down to some sort of food or chemical sensitivity attack that I get or that I had a bit of a bug or something.”

Two large stents clear the blockage

“Things got scary when the registrar made me sign the form for the angiogram and she was talking about possible side effects of stroke, another heart attack or even death. They called in the cardiology team after-hours and they put that dye through my arteries to find the blockages, cleared the blockage and put some stents in.

“The cardiologist told me there wasn’t really any heart muscle damage done – it had been strained a bit, but it was able to repair itself. He told me I had some of the biggest arteries he’d ever seen, and my other arteries were pristine.

“So I was sent to the cardiac ward on the Thursday night and they were saying I’d probably be discharged on the Sunday. I thought, I’d better ring my manager because I’ll probably need the Monday off to get myself together. I ended up having two weeks off. I was really, really tired for about the first week. But by the end of the second week I was raring to get back to work.

Regaining confidence with his health

“For the first few weeks afterwards, I noticed I would get these minor sort of heart palpitations, like a strong beat and I’d think, ‘What’s happening here?’

“There was just a period where I guess I had to become confident again with my health.

“I asked in hospital if I’d ever get back to the type of workouts I’d been doing and they told me to give it a couple of months. I listened to them, eased myself back into it gradually and just really made sure I listened to my body and made sure I didn’t over push it.

“The first time I worked out again I had a wee bit of trepidation. It’s a bit like, say you’ve been in a car accident in an intersection. And even though it wasn’t a major car accident, when you go back through the intersection again you know on an intellectual level you are going to be fine. But almost on an emotional, mental level you think, ‘Oh, could it happen again?’ And you just have to climb back in that car, drive through that intersection and give yourself a bit of reassurance.

 “I think I was a bit fortunate. I think sometimes keeping yourself fit and active doesn’t necessarily guarantee that something doesn’t happen to you but it does help with recovery.”

Depression – medication side effect

“What’s interesting about medications is that I had to go off beta blockers. I was supposed to be on beta blockers indefinitely but unfortunately they made me very depressed which is a recognised side effect. I tried a different type of beta blocker through my GP, I tried half strength, but if I’d stayed on it I don’t know what I would have done to myself. I was in a really bad state of mind.

“I could tell my colleagues at work were noticing I just wasn’t right. I knew I was really on a slippery slope. I wouldn’t lie, if I’d stayed on them much longer I would’ve been swinging off the end of a rope. My mood was really going down.

“Where I work, I had access to psychiatrists and I spoke to someone and, with my consent, they spoke to my cardiac consultant. He agreed that even though ideally he would like the beta blocker to continue it was best for me to be off them. So that was a bit of a drama that I had to deal with post-heart attack.”

Life now

“Just because someone’s had a heart attack doesn’t mean that their life’s changed forever or that it’s much worse. It’s a bit easier for me to say because I had a relatively short period of getting back to normal.

“I’m now a bit more mindful about my eating. I remember my youngest daughter for a while was very much policing what I could and couldn’t eat. But I am a bit more mindful. My life is very good now, the only real change is having to carry my spray with me all the time and take regular medications for cholesterol and an aspirin a day.

“I remember a couple of months ago I said to my wife, ‘Do I need to carry this heart spray around? I’ve never had to use it.’ And my youngest daughter abruptly said, ‘Yes!’ so I know they are still a bit concerned. But fortunately because I’ve been able to get back to normal relatively quickly, family life has gone back to normal quickly as well. And you get a lot of reassurance with that normality.

‘If in doubt, check it out’

“I’m really appreciative of the Heart Foundation ad. I think it really struck a chord in saying even if you’re not having that traditional type of heart attack, something could still be happening and please get it checked out.

“I’m also really appreciative of the health professionals. They were very competent and the way I was treated throughout the whole process was really wonderful. I was treated with respect and dignity. Their fast reaction – I think it was one of the reasons why I could get back to normal so quickly. I was told that research has shown that by acting upon heart attacks quickly the outcome for people is much better.

“One of the biggest things I recommend is, ‘if in doubt, check it out’. If you know something’s not quite right then it doesn’t hurt to just go and ask, to get it checked out.”


Shared November 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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