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“Don’t be staunch – go get a checkup”

Just two days before his heart event, 47-year-old Ray had been “running around like a spring lamb” at a weekend rugby game. He had no idea he’d soon need life-saving open heart surgery. Now he’s sharing his story to encourage others to get their hearts checked.

Husband and father of four Ray didn’t have much warning before his life-threatening heart event in 2021.

He’d played rugby over the weekend with mates, and was all set for work early Monday morning when he didn’t feel right. After starting his car, he knew there was something wrong and so rather than drive off, he headed back inside to tell his wife. When he got to the second floor of their Timaru home, Ray collapsed.

“I felt like something really big was happening inside my body, I can’t explain it, but I just knew it wasn’t right. No pain, just a feeling of something wrong happening.”

Ray’s wife called the ambulance, and he was soon hooked up to an ECG.

“From that point on everything was an emergency. Everything was on after that. The senior ambulance officer started shouting out orders, ‘Hurry, Hurry, we need to get him to the hospital.”

At Timaru Hospital doctors quickly realised Ray needed emergency heart surgery at a larger hospital. With Christchurch Hospital already dealing with a similar emergency, they made the call to fly Ray by helicopter to Dunedin hospital. 

“I’ve always wanted to visit Dunedin just never in a helicopter for medical reasons” Ray jokes now. At the time however his condition was life-threatening and the clinical staff told his wife to get their children and family to come and say goodbye.

A period of disbelief

“I woke up three days later in ICU [intensive care unit] in Dunedin. I thought I was in hell because I was on so many drugs when I came out of my induced coma,” says Ray. “I knew it was serious when I saw my dad’s face there, that’s when it sunk in the most, and to see my family members around, that was the big wake up.”

When the family around his bedside asked if he knew what happened to him, he replied: “yeah, I fainted”.

“I tried to walk around and was told I wasn’t allowed. I couldn’t understand why, so my wife and dad had to get the cardiac surgeon to come and explain to me exactly what they had done.”

Even when they opened up his gown to show him, Ray was unable to relate to the scar on his chest.

“I found it quite unbelievable that I had such a big hole sewn up in my chest and didn’t feel any pain.”

Ray now knows the details of his condition. He’d had an aortic dissection – a tear in the main artery that takes blood from the heart to the rest of the body. He also needed a heart valve replaced.

In recovery

Physically, Ray recovered well.

“A week after being in Dunedin hospital I was up walking about, to the doctors, surgeons and nurses’ amazement. One week and three days later I did the stair test and passed that with flying colours, and two weeks and three days later I was sitting back home in Timaru with my family.”

“A month later after getting back to Timaru, I was walking about 10 kilometres a day,” he adds.

Emotionally, however, Ray’s recovery was more challenging, and he found himself in a bad head space after coming out of hospital.

“It got quite bad. I panic a lot. If my heart does anything out of beat, I think it’s the end of the world,” he explains. “You deal with a lot by yourself, which is quite hard. It feels like there’s nobody else that’s been through what I’ve been through that I can talk with.”

He also recognises the trauma his heart event caused his family.

“I never want to leave them alone in this world, without a dad, without a husband, that gets me emotional,” he says. “I was in darkness, and they were on the outside looking down on me. I would never ever want to be in that situation with my wife or my kids. I don’t think I’m strong enough to handle that.”

Talking it through

During his recovery, Ray reached out to the Heart Foundation for support. He was put in touch with someone else who’d suffered an aortic dissection and shared their experience via the Heart Foundation’s Journeys programme.

As well as sharing his experiences with her, he was also able to talk to her about making the decision to get a Covid vaccination.

“I wanted to get my Covid vaccine, but I was scared, and I just needed to meet somebody that had got vaccinated and had gone through a similar process to me,” he explains. “She came to explain to me that she did it and I’m still in touch with her to this day.”

Gifting taonga

After his ordeal, Ray was keen to give back and acknowledge the work of those who helped save his life. 

“My first thought when I got back from Dunedin hospital to Timaru was to show appreciation and love for the people that helped along in the journey,” he says. 

His first gift was to the Wai-iti Road St Johns Ambulance depot. “Big shout out to the St Johns Ambulance people, awesome mahi. Love you guys,” says Ray, who acknowledges that if it wasn’t for the St Johns Ambulance staff, he wouldn’t be here today. 

“I had got a few things done up in one big photo frame for them and it was to show gratitude, love and humbleness; because that’s what I feel for them, I am really humbled by what they do.” 

Three months later Ray visited Dunedin hospital for a checkup. 

“I took the surgeons a greenstone mere and a couple of the people that were involved in my care pounamu necklaces and another big love and gratitude photo frame as a Māori Taonga for the ICU.” 

Ray also took taongas for the staff in the recovery ward, including a young female nurse, who he gave “a big pig tusk necklace.”  

“My wife said, ‘that’s not for a girl’ and I said ‘it’s for a girl because it’s for her strength and compassion and that is not limited to males’. So yeah, it was a big one.” 

Making life changes

Prior to having his aortic dissection, Ray had already made many changes health-wise. He had given up smoking after 32 years and had made a number of other positive lifestyle changes since moving to Timaru from Rotorua four years ago. 

“A lot of it was about slowing down on work because being a roofer and builder all my life you just go and go and go, there’s no set time”.  

Ray says “the biggest kick in the butt”, however, was when his daughter said she never saw him when she woke up or when she went to sleep. 

“That was a big turning point, I worked more than I spent time with my family. So, I made some good changes and I’m still making changes to adjust to my new lifestyle.” 

Advice to others

Since his health scare, Ray has reached out to talk to old friends so that they understand what may lie ahead for them if they don’t make lifestyle changes.

He is passionate about helping others avoid going through what happened to him.

“If you don’t feel right, don’t be stubborn, don’t be tough, don’t be staunch, get your head out of the ground and just go get a checkup. Five minutes could save you a year or whatever time it takes to recoup from something like this.”

Ray feels lucky that he acted on his symptoms, knowing how different things would have been had he ignored the feeling and simply driven off to work that morning.

He also wants people to know that to recover fully you need to surround yourself with people you can talk to.

“Don’t bottle it up. Talk about your fears, talk about scary moments that you’re having. There are so many support groups out there, take every opportunity to get out there and talk, and tell your story to make other people aware.”

His biggest tip is to keep whānau close. “Don’t shut your family out, don’t shut your friends out. It’s not a lonely road. It’s not a road to take on your own, that’s being silly. Just go forth and embrace everything. Embrace everybody that’s going to be a positive influence on your life and pick you up every day.”

Shared September 2022

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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