Discovering blocked arteries with only one clue
When he failed his bi-annual physical competence test, Rotorua policeman Charlie wanted some answers. Over the next few months he went from feeling bullet-proof to more and more vulnerable.
Charlie needed a heart bypass when he started experiencing silent angina
Charlie joined the police force in 1992 after spending 11 years as a traffic officer. Physical competence tests just came with the territory, and Charlie was always up for the challenge.
So last year when he turned up for his test, he had every reason to feel confident. For officers over 60, the test includes three-and-a-half minutes of climbing, balancing, hurdling and sprinting while performing tasks such as pushing a trailer 10 metres and dragging a 75-kilogram body the same distance. “Sounds like a lot, but it’s not actually – it’s all contained within a 400-metre course.”
Charlie had done enough training to quite comfortably accommodate that course. However, partway through the test, he “conked out completely”.
“I ran out of breath and couldn’t continue any more, and so the test was discontinued. Naturally I was disappointed because that meant I had to be stood down from frontline police duties.”
When he went to his GP to figure out what had happened, he was advised to try and lose weight and to work on his fitness. “I didn’t go away with my tail between my legs – I went away and I trained quite hard. Very hard in fact, and then fronted up again in Tauranga (for another physical competence test). Same thing happened, at the same stage.”
Alarm bells sound
Failing the test a second time set alarm bells off for Charlie. “I know historically I’ve been a big guy, but what I found is that my fitness through walking, jogging, swimming and mountain-biking compensated for that. So it was quite a shock, I was gutted.”
Again, he went back to his GP, who this time said they should investigate other causes for the drop in performance, and referred him to the DHB. He mentioned ‘silent angina’ but wouldn’t go into further detail until Charlie had been assessed by a specialist.
“The only symptom I had was breathlessness partway through this course. Nothing else. The doctor asked me if I had chest pains – I had none. And at this stage, I was thinking ‘define chest pain’ because my pain threshold is not that low. And he said, ‘You’ll know if it’s a heart chest pain.’”
While waiting to receive an appointment from the DHB, Charlie took the opportunity to get his fitness up. “I think my GP warned me not to, but my ears weren’t working. My thinking was, I’ll get around this with more exercise. But thankfully, I didn’t work out as hard as I could’ve done or else I probably would’ve caused some damage...”
When he learnt that his local DHB couldn’t see him until March, Charlie took steps to get an appointment in Hamilton – it turned out they could see him in January.
Fronting up for the exercise ECG, he felt confident – even “cocky,” he says.
“Then I jumped on the treadmill… and, mate, I was lucky to have lasted two minutes. My heart rate was over 200. They sat me down and said, ‘That’s it, that’s the end of the test.’ I failed dismally.”
Despite the result, Charlie remained optimistic up until his angiogram two weeks later. His mood only changed once he turned up for his appointment.
“I had to remove all my clothes, this nurse starts to shave me, and I said ‘What? What’s this all about?’ Probably about that stage the gravity of the whole situation kicked in. Next minute I was being wheeled out of the room and seeing all these lights.”
Once the angiogram was over, Charlie learnt he had one completely blocked artery; another was 50% blocked and another was 30% blocked.
“The doctor said, ‘It’s pointless me putting stents in you.’” Instead, Charlie was scheduled for triple bypass surgery five weeks later.
Finding strength through tough time
“The closer it got to surgery, the more emotional I became,” he says. “I got my will re-done. I’m a Roman Catholic, I went back to church. I went to mass, I took communion.
“The really good bit was that a week-and-a-half before my operation, we had a family hui. I’m from a family of eight, and every once in a while we have a really good get-together. Sunday we were sitting there and I just burst out crying, like a baby, I couldn’t control myself. I had no words to describe how I felt.” Before long, everyone in the room was crying with him – a moment that lifted his spirits. “That reminded me how important you are as a part of a family unit … I drew a lot of strength from that – and not just from my immediate brothers and sisters, but their partners as well.”
The real surprise was when his local Catholic church did a Māori mass for him. “Wow, I couldn’t believe it.” Through this experience, Charlie says he’s reconnected with his maker: “He knows who I am.”
Facing up to surgery
Charlie’s surgery took place on 6 March 2017.
“They cracked open my chest, sewed me up and I was on the road to recovery, pretty quickly actually. I was in the ICU ward and one of the nurses says, ‘You’re a bit of a superstar, you’re coming out of this really quick.’”
Over the next couple of days, however, his condition deteriorated and there was some concern over neurological pathway damage. One particular meeting with a neurologist seemed to put him on the right track. “He told me, ‘I know what you’ve done. You’ve prepared yourself for death, haven’t you? But did you prepare yourself to live? You got so worked up about the operation, worried about surviving it. Did you have a plan to survive it?’”
It was just what Charlie needed to hear. “That actually was the kick up the arse that I needed, because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.” Charlie soon set himself some achievable goals, knowing that his recuperation depended on the effort he made.
‘I’m really lucky’
Looking back, he believes he was “really lucky”. With a family history of heart disease (his dad died of a heart attack at 52) and diabetes, he was lucky to get a warning from his body when he did.
Despite being conscious of his fitness and wellbeing since his 40s, he says he “ruined” his heart for the first 60 years and isn’t going to do that for the next 60.
His advice is for other men to listen to their bodies, and to talk about their health. Do not assume all is well or ignore warnings. “We live at a time when there’s so much knowledge available. It’s really quite simple, if you don’t look after your own health, you ain’t here, brother.”
Shared June 2017