“It pays to talk about the little aches and pains”
When Antz first felt minor chest pain he ignored it, but his boss insisted he see the GP. Now he knows she potentially saved his life.
Antz’s story starts a couple of years back, when he was splitting firewood one weekend on his rural property in the lower North Island.
“I was getting a bit of a sore chest and out of breath. I stopped for a couple of minutes to get my breath back. But when I started splitting wood again, it happened again. I was so tired so I thought I’d stop and have a rest anyway and just leave it for the day.”
As someone living alone in a relatively isolated spot, Antz didn’t mention it to anyone at the time. And he probably would have left it at that, if the incident hadn’t cropped up in conversation with his employer a few days later. When she heard his symptoms, she immediately insisted he call the doctor.
“I said, ‘I’ll do it after work.’ But she told me, ‘No. Straight away.’ So I did.”
An electrocardiogram (ECG) at the GP revealed the need for further testing. Antz underwent a treadmill test at the hospital two weeks later and was then told he’d need to have some stents inserted.
He was referred to Wakefield Hospital in Wellington to have the angioplasty but the procedure didn’t go as planned. The clinical team returned the news that his condition was more advanced than they had thought. They were unable to insert the stents and Antz was told he’d need triple bypass surgery.
“I was blown away by that, really really shocked actually,” he admits.
“I was just so tired”
Antz was on a waiting list for a couple of months until a space became available for bypass surgery. During that time the tiredness he felt was overwhelming. Even the worry that he might die on the operating table was numbed by sheer exhaustion.
“Leading up to the surgery I was so tired it didn’t even worry me. I didn’t even think I was going to come through actually. I thought I was going to die, but it didn’t even bother me in the slightest, didn’t even care about it because I was just so tired. I was in bed all the time.”
Once admitted to hospital in the lead up to the surgery, he received more confronting news. His triple bypass surgery was to be upgraded to quintuple bypass surgery.
“I went into hospital on the Monday. On the Monday night the surgeon came and saw me and says, ‘We’re going to do five.’ I couldn’t believe that. I had never heard of anyone having five done. But I was just so tired that nothing worried me.”
Reality kicks in
Back on the ward, post-surgery, the reality of Antz’s condition really kicked in. “After the operation it was a bit daunting actually having a look at all the things I had, all the tubes and everything coming out and everything. It was like, wow...”
Antz was in hospital for seven days and then discharged to his mother’s house where he stayed for six weeks. For someone who lives alone this kind of family support was crucial – not just from a practical point of view, but also an emotional one.
“Mum was really good. After I got back to her place I went to have a shower and I was looking in the mirror and I was like, ‘Wow all these bandages everywhere and stuff.’ It was so horrible actually.”
He also found the new medication regime a bit of an adjustment. “It was ten different lots of medication and I was like, ‘Oh this is just a nightmare because I’m just not used to it.’ But I got through it.
“My family was really supportive. They still are. They come up and chop firewood for me, help me roof the house, and a few other bits and pieces round the place which has been really, really good. Friends have been supportive too.”
A slow path to recovery
Despite the great support, Antz says the path to recovery has had to be a slow and gradual one.
“After six weeks I started walking around and building up my stamina. I started walks every day. At first for five minutes then to ten minutes, then to twenty minutes, then getting up to half an hour. By then I was starting to feel a lot better. But I was still getting quite tired and it did take a long time. Even now, I still get tired quite often.
“I’ve heard of other people having triple bypasses and feeling fine a few weeks later and I’m like, ‘Wow! I just wish that was me.’ But it’s not, so I’ve just got to take each day as it comes. And if I do get tired I know I’ve got to sit down and rest or lie down and rest.”
In fact, Antz says the exhaustion that accompanies his condition has been the hardest thing to adjust to. “I don’t have late nights like I used to, I can’t. I find it quite difficult now, especially if I’m going to a party or going out for tea or something. I do push myself but I know my limits. I know I can’t do it like I used to.”
As well as getting more sleep and learning to take things easy, Antz has also made a number of lifestyle changes.
“I don’t smoke anymore. I don’t drink like I used to and my eating habits have changed a little bit. I was always reasonably healthy before but now I try and stay away from pies and sausage rolls. I don’t really eat sausages much anymore and things like that. I have a salad most days and fruit every morning for breakfast and some plain yoghurt.”
As a cook for a number of different organisations, Antz has been able to share his new healthy eating habits in his workplaces as well, reducing salt intake and cutting back on saturated fats where he can.
The benefits of talking
He’s also found talking about his condition helpful, even though the process could also be exhausting at times. “Talking about it helps – it helped a lot actually – and getting out with people. When I first came back I didn’t really want to see anyone. I went back to my mum’s and family and friends were coming round and popping in and out. At the time it was quite hard actually but helpful.”
Once back home he looked for support groups in his local area. He did six weeks of cardiac rehabilitation and more recently he’s helped establish the Heart Foundation’s Wairarapa HeartHelp Group that meets up once a month.
“It is really, really great because we talk about it and you’re with other people that have had similar things going on in their life. You can relate to everybody and it’s good knowing what other people do far as exercise and relaxing.
“We’ve gone from three or four people to between eight and fifteen. And everyone says there’s a great need for it anyway - a big, big need for it.”
Get chest pains checked out
If there’s one thing Antz has learned from his journey, it’s to listen to his body and get anything unusual checked out – no matter how minor it seems. In hindsight he can see he’d had little warning signs for a couple of years before he was diagnosed with heart disease.
“I look back and think of all the times I was getting tired a few years before. I was having strong coffees to try and keep me awake and keep me going. Then I was having chocolate as well just trying to boost some energy to keep going. It was just terrible, it was awful.”
These days Antz is much more conscientious. “I get the odd pain and I’ve been to A&E a couple of times - just because when you’ve had your chest or your ribcage open and it’s still healing up it does get a bit sore at times. But everything’s been ok. I’ve been to the doctors a few times too, cause I’ve had a sore arm or something but that may have been things I’ve been doing at home like water blasting or something like that.”
He recognises now that his employer could have been, quite literally, a lifesaver when she insisted he go to the doctor. “It pays to talk about the little pains and aches. Because other people see things differently and they’ll tell you to go and do something about it. Because it could have been worse. The surgeon said my arteries were like 95% blocked. That’s getting close to 100% blocked!”
Accordingly he’d encourage anyone to check chest pains checked out straight away – even if they feel very minor.
“Do something about it and get it checked out because you just don’t know what it’s going be. My minor little pain that I had, I was not even going to worry about it until my employer said to ring the doctor. I wouldn’t have done it, I would have just left it.”
Shared September 2017
Picture credit: Wairarapa Times-Age.