“Carers need care too”
Pirjo’s husband Rick was hit by influenza which caused inflammation and damage to his heart. She talks about her experience of caring for him while he was critically ill in hospital and during his long recovery.
As a massage therapist, volunteer in the local community, mum to five children and grandma to eight, caring for others is in Pirjo’s blood. But when husband Rick developed heart problems as a result of influenza, she learnt that sometimes carers need to be cared for too.
Rick, now 56, had always been fit and healthy, so he had little reason to be concerned about his heart. When he felt very tired one Sunday evening last August, he and Pirjo put it down to a busy weekend in their garden at home in Timaru.
“It all came like a lightning strike, everything happened so quickly,” Pirjo recalls. “It was early August, so we’d been getting compost for the gardens and he would’ve probably mowed the lawns and I think we even went to cut some firewood.”
Early the next morning Rick caught a flight to Hamilton for work. He felt well enough in the morning, but by lunchtime went back to his hotel for a rest.
“He laid down on the bed, but he didn’t go to sleep because he could feel his arm and this tightness in his chest,” says Pirjo. “Then he drove his rental car himself to the Waikato Hospital. They took him in straight away, they suspected that he’d had a heart attack.
“That gave me a real fright, but he told me, ‘Don’t worry you know I’m in the best place’ and all that.”
Emotional support from family and friends
Pirjo caught an early morning flight to Hamilton to support Rick at the hospital. Meanwhile, Rick had undergone an angiogram which revealed clear arteries, ruling out a heart attack.
Rick’s doctors then looked for other causes of his heart irregularities. Further tests showed that Rick had influenza, which had then caused myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle).
Rick was moved to the Intensive Care Unit. However, his condition continued to deteriorate. His heart’s ejection fraction (a measure of its ability to pump) had fallen significantly.
The children flew to Waikato to be with Pirjo, while she also received support from good friends.
“I was going on adrenaline, I think. I had good friends back home that I was able to contact and ask them to do the things I needed done. And we had my husband’s lovely workmate and his wife from Hamilton. I couldn’t have done without their support and help.
“There was a moment when the doctor said to us, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, he might not make it.’ You don’t want that sort of moment, you don’t wish it for anybody. But I had some of the family there, the boys were there and my husband’s workmate and his wife and they shared that very intimate moment. We shared it with prayer and words of Psalm 23, ‘I walked through the valley of the shadow of death’, and it just gave the comfort I needed.”
Transferred to Auckland
The doctors flew Rick to Auckland DHB for further care and Pirjo and the children travelled up the country to be with him.
Finally Rick’s condition started to improve. “After two weeks in ICU in Auckland Hospital, he was moved to the cardiac ward. When he first started to stand up with a walking frame that was a big thing. He was determined to get back on his feet as soon as possible.”
After three weeks in Auckland, Rick was transferred to Christchurch Hospital, where he stayed for further scans and recovery, before finally heading home to Pleasant Point, just outside of Timaru.
Unfortunately after a couple of nights at home, Rick suffered further complications. He went to Timaru Hospital, where doctors told him he’d developed pericarditis (inflammation of the heart sac).
It was another week before Rick was discharged for a final time to begin the long slow recovery.
“He was off work a long, long time, slowly getting back into it. I found it very hard because he has always been the strong one who remembers everything, does everything. But he would be doing some really silly things, forgetting things, but that was part of the recovery. He’s more or less normal now. It’s been about a year and his heart function is now back to near normal.”
Getting support and information
Talking with friends, family, and others in a similar situation, gave Pirjo the support she needed during this very stressful time.
“The main things were faith, family and friends. I couldn’t have done it without any of them, but also, for example, I stayed at Te Whare Awhina, [the whānau accommodation on the Auckland DHB site] and it was a home away from home. You can do your normal everyday things there and have some sanity. You can have a talk with other people who are supporting their family members who are in crisis. Then you don’t feel like you’re the only one in that situation, so then you actually start to care for others.”
As Rick’s main carer, Pirjo found she wanted to learn as much as possible about his condition.
“I wanted to find out more about things, about what we could do in the future. While we were at the hospital, I had those Heart Foundation pamphlets and the stories – I was reading the personal stories. There was quite a bit of time to read things.”
She also found it helpful talking to one of the Heart Foundations Heart Healthcare Advocates.
“Women need to talk about things, get them out. You have to have somebody who will listen and give a hug and say ‘You’ll be OK’. It was good just to know that somebody was there, just for me, to be given the support and confidence if I needed it.”