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“But I’m super fit!”

Life-long athlete Michael has completed Coast-to-Coasts and marathons and always placed a high priority on good nutrition. So, when he experienced jaw pain and chest discomfort, he never imagined a heart attack could be the cause.

I first joined a running club at age seven. Ran a marathon at age 14, biked around the South Island at age 15, raced the Coast to Coast at 17 and haven’t ever really stopped since. I’m 54 now and since age seven, the longest I’ve ever been without meaningful exercise is six weeks for the odd broken bone (mountain biking!). My blood pressure is low, my cholesterol is within the supposedly ok range, I’d never had any sort of hint that I had heart issues.

So, imagine my surprise when a few days after I vaguely mumbled something to my doctor about chest burn and an aching jaw, I found myself being prepped for a stent!

If you take only one thing away from these words, let it be that regular check-ups can save your life. Actually, if you take away a second thing make sure it’s the importance of knowing your family history because that has just as much to do with your likelihood of heart disease as your lifestyle. Both those things may have saved my life.

That sounds alarmist, I know. But as a life-long athlete even my doctor had never been overly concerned with my heart health. Outside of blood pressure and cholesterol tests, we’d never even discussed heart disease. But because I read a lot about training, fitness, health and nutrition, I knew that your gene pool has as much to do with medical issues as lifestyle.

Both my maternal grandparents had died in their early 60s from heart disease, so I was aware enough of the risk to make sure I got annual check-ups. But even then, I wasn’t ever expecting them to show anything.

GP appointment for sore back delivers surprise diagnosis

True to male type (and athlete type), I only went to the doctor because I had a persistent sore back and knee from a mountain bike crash a few years previously. While there I mentioned a bit of chest burn and aching jaw while training lately. It had come out of nowhere, but I’d had a bad cold a month prior, and I sometimes get wisdom teeth soreness, so I really only mentioned it in passing.

Like a good GP, he grilled me for more info and I mentioned being tired the last few weeks, but as an athlete in training this was just life. But, again, like a good GP he persisted by sending me for blood tests and an ECG. A few days later I had a stent.

Turns out I’d had a minor heart attack, most likely in my sleep. Outside of those minor symptoms I hadn’t noticed anything. I’d even been cycle racing (quite successfully) just a few weeks prior.

The angiogram showed a long section of the coronary artery in the left side of my heart was 80% blocked, and they performed the angioplasty to insert the stent at the same time. It took 45 min and I watched the entire affair and was home the next day wondering what all the fuss was about.

Back up and running

Two months later I’m back riding and running with the surgeon’s assurance that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to train and race as hard as previously. And so far, it feels like they know what they’re talking about.

Nothing, of course, is ever that simple. I have a handful of tablets to take every day for the rest of my life. But they are preventative measures, such as blood thinners and blood pressure controllers, and all things going well I’ll be able to drop half of them after 12 months or so. And I have to watch my diet a bit closer (apparently being super fit doesn’t mean you can eat whatever the hell you want). And you can be sure I’ll keep having those regular check-ups.

My story, you see, is one of “what might have been”. If not for regular check-ups and knowing my family history, I might not be here to share it. Get a check-up… Now!

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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  • Natalie 3 February 2023

    Thank you for sharing your story. It does help

  • Shane 2 November 2022

    I am on heart tablet can I take them to help me with my diet ?

  • Ian 1 August 2022

    I too come from an endurance sport background.  I have completed 8 Ironman races, 50 half Ironman, marathons and anything else I could compete in. I have no family history but started yearly medical when I turned 40. These tests picked up elevated cholesterol which led to high blood pressure. My medication kept the numbers where they should be and I continued to train as I have always done without any symptoms. I visited my doctor last week for what I thought was. Shoulder strain and casually mentioned some indigestion too! I had an ECG in his surgery and shortly afterwards I was in the back of an ambulance heading to hospital. After a week in hospital I am back home now with 2 stents fitted and my handful of pills for the rest of my life. Even without family history and a lifetime of fitness this can happen. Have regular checks at your doctor’s and do mention even those little changes that occur in your body.

  • Peter 13 December 2021

    His comments are right bang on. I have similar background, now have a stent somewhere and on all the tablets. It all came as a surprise as had a very active background.  I agree with his comment about taking care of your diet especially as you age as all the goodies you may like to eat will start to build up in your system and if not careful may cause further blockages. Enjoy food, but sensibly and in moderation.

  • peter 20 October 2021

    I could tell virtually the same story as Michael 57 years old, kept fit, healthy diet, didn’t smoke, normal cholesterol and BP pressure for my age, not over weight but after a cycle race had a heart event and stents, the only thing I could not control was my family history which I was well aware of but it still caught up with me.
    Now well again and had no further problems although on life long pills which is only a small sacrifice to make to stay heart healthy, I call them my good lollies.