Atrial fibrillation an ‘awakening’

Partway through a home renovation, John had to take several months off after discovering a problem with his heart rhythm. The experience has made him realise that despite being a Kiwi man, he’s not ten-foot-tall and bulletproof.

John describes himself as a family man, ‘an average Kiwi bloke’. Retired after a thirty-odd year career in the building industry, he’s now taken over duties at home and works as a volunteer at his local church.

A few months ago, he was partway through a home renovation when he headed up to church to trim the hedge in advance of a funeral. 

“I did the job good as gold and I was packing up the electric leads and things when I just fell over, I momentarily fainted. When I sat up, my heart was pounding like a bass drum.” 

An electrocardiogram at the GP revealed that John’s heart was consistently beating out of rhythm, a condition called atrial fibrillation

“My heart goes from a low rate of 32 to a fast rate of 180 at times, so it jumps and flies all over the place.

“People have asked if I ever had any prior warning signs and no, I don’t think so. But for years, just from time to time I’ve had light headedness and looking back, it could possibly have been a blood pressure thing. So maybe there were earlier signs that I didn’t recognise.”

First medication, then a pacemaker 

John started taking a medication to help regulate his heartbeat, but says he was a bit naïve. He had thought the medication would bring things back into kilter and the next week he’d be back to normal. Instead, John ended up in hospital after he had a bad reaction to the medication. 

“I ended up in hospital being flushed out to get the medication out of my system, and while I was there they decided that a pacemaker might be better for me.”

Getting a pacemaker is an experience that John likens to visiting the dentist. “You have a local anaesthetic, get comfortable on the table and 30 minutes later it’s over and done with,” he says. And it might have been that simple, except that two weeks after the operation, John tripped up the stairs.

“My natural reaction was to put my arms out to stop my fall and that dislodged the pacemaker wires. I had to have the implant re-done so the wires could be relocated and the second time wasn’t good, it was more painful because the new scar tissue was still pretty raw.”

Expecting to get back to normal 

John found that he tired easily after the procedure. For a man used to juggling several physical jobs at the same time, he found it challenging to have to wait four weeks before being allowed to raise his hands above his shoulder, or lift heavy weights. 

“My wife took my heart problems far more seriously than I did. She’s more relaxed about it now things are under control, but she used to see me doing something and yell ‘You shouldn’t be doing that!’

“I had the mental impression that the pacemaker would be the magic fix-all and I’d be back to the same as I was after the month of letting the pacemaker settle in and do its business, but I’m still not as active as I used to be, and I get tired easily.

“It took me the best part of two months to realise I needed to slow down or I could do some more damage.”

Adjusting to life at a slower pace

John says that his patience level dropped considerably during those first few months of recovery, but he feels he’s moving out of that now that he’s able to do more, even if it is at a slower pace.

“It’s a bit of a relief. I’d noticed that I was more impatient because I couldn’t do things that I knew were easy for me to do and I wanted to get done. That was a big part of the accepting, that I couldn’t fly into them and get them done today or tomorrow.

“It’s taken a long while for me to come to grips with that and actually accept it.”

Pacemaker ‘warrant of fitness’

Recent permission from John’s doctors to continue his half-finished home renovation has been a welcome milestone. 

“I got my warrant of fitness from the pacemaker clinic last Friday, and they’re quite happy with everything. I got the OK to do painting and some power-tool work again, but at a slower pace than before.

“If I feel something isn’t quite right, I have to go to my GP to get it checked out. But at this stage they’re quite happy with things and so am I. So I just keep praying it stays this way.”

Doctors did suggest that John may need some follow-up to stabilise his upper heart rate in the future.

“The pacemaker is controlling the lower heart rate, evidently it doesn’t do both. 

“The last two times I’ve been back to the pacemaker clinic my upper rate has not really got over the 100 much so that’s a big plus. They print out days and days of monitoring from my pacemaker and if the rate gets too high too regularly, they said I might have to start medication for the upper rate, but it’s not necessary at this stage.”

Warning for others – look out for your heart

Reflecting on his journey, John recommends that anyone who thinks they might have a blood pressure problem – or anything at all wrong with their heart – should go to the doctor for a check-up. 

“It’s awakened me that as Kiwi men we’re not ten-foot-tall and bulletproof all the time and we need to be aware to look out for your heart. It’s so, so important.” 

 

Shared May 2018

"As Kiwi men we’re not ten-foot-tall and bulletproof and we need to look out for our hearts"
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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