Facing your fears after a heart attack
Don't be afraid to challenge yourself - it's the only way to know you will be okay, says Alec, a heart attack survivor who's learned to face his fears.
Alec always valued his workouts. He’d go to the gym five or six times a week and push through each session until the endorphins kicked in. But one day, early into his gym routine, he felt a bit uncomfortable and thought “this is definitely not right”. He put the weights down and left the gym.
“I went to the car and thought to myself ‘now do I drive home?’ Never ever felt I was having a heart attack, just that I was feeling funny.”
He started to drive himself home but at the last minute decided to pull into his office instead, where his wife also worked. While seeing his wife, another colleague observed he really didn’t look well and promptly rang for an ambulance.
"There was no pain up my arm that people say that you get or breathlessness or sweatiness or anything like that."
“Well when the guys from the ambulance arrived at the office they put an ECG on me and established I had had a heart attack.” Alec was rushed to Tauranga Hospital where he was “surrounded” by hospital staff and given an anti-thrombolytic agent to dissolve any blood clots.
“I had been talking to the guys the whole time and there was never any great pain. I know it was uncomfortable and I know that when I was in the office I had the blankets over my head and felt like spewing up, but I didn’t feel ghastly,” says Alec.
There was “no pain up my arm that people say that you get or breathlessness or sweatiness or anything like that”.
Fitness - the reason I'm still here
Alec was transferred to the Coronary Care Unit, but as it was a Friday he had to wait until Monday for an angiogram which would locate any blockages in his arteries.
He ended up needing three stents, for a main blockage and two minor ones. “When they blew up the artery so they could get the stents in, I had the exact same feeling I had when I was in the gym. I said to the doctor ‘this is the same feeling I had at the gym’, and he said ‘oh that is good to know, that’s what we want to hear.’ That is the only time that I had the feeling again that I had at the gym...”
Fortunately, there’d been minimal damage to Alec’s heart, which he attributes to his workouts in the gym. With cholesterol and blood pressure readings all within the normal range, Alec believes his heart attack was due to a family history of heart disease: “Both my parents have had heart events and also stress from work and stuff like that.”
That’s the reason he’d always put so much emphasis on exercise. “Yes, I have been aware of my genes. So I have always been conscious of exercise and how it has to be beneficial for you. I think my fitness is part of the reason that I am still here.”
Regaining the confidence to 'work out' again
Getting back into a regular exercise programme was the best thing Alec could have done for his physical and emotional wellbeing – but, at first, he didn’t know if his heart could take it.
What helped him was the six-week cardiac rehab course he attended as well as the Cardiac Clinic that he elected to go to and pay for himself. Joining the clinic’s fitness scheme meant he could restart his exercise programme under close supervision.
“They monitor you and keep an eye on you so you feel secure. It is very different to going to a gym where one person might have gone to a first-aid course, but otherwise doesn’t know anything about you. When you go to the Cardiac Clinic, you have to disclose everything (about your health history).”
The best advice he can give someone who’s had a heart attack is to not let fear hold them back from a regular exercise programme. “You have to keep doing things that you think are going to affect you, because each time you do something and get through it, you feel a lot better for the next time. I think it can sometimes be too easy to sit at home and think that you can never do anything ever again.”
Alec not only got his head around exercising again, but also managed to overcome another post-heart attack fear: flying.
“We host tours (for a living) and we had committed to doing a tour in Europe. So after three months we went off on a 29-day tour of Europe – so facing new challenges, 10 hours in a plane, getting hot and sweaty and those sort of things that put your body through stresses. But each day, overcoming the stresses, you feel better.”
The highs and lows of hospital care
Alec has high praise for the medical system that got him through his heart event – especially the St John ambulance officers who, he says, don’t get the recognition they deserve. “I had about three people attend and what they did to help me prior to getting to the hospital was marvellous.”
However, he also observed some gaps in the system. Waiting three days for an angiogram because of the weekend was less than ideal, he says. “I could potentially have had another event whilst waiting for the angiogram. Whereas if I had been in Waikato I would have had the test right away.” That said, he believes the Coronary Care Unit team did an outstanding job.
He adds that while cardiac rehab was useful, once the six weeks were up people were left to their own devices. “You are given a date in two months to see the cardiologist and then you are left on your own. Maybe we don’t have funding for that, but I believe there is a huge hole there."
“There is no direction, from that point, on what you should be doing. But if you don’t do anything you will end up right back where you started and it will cost the country a whole lot of money again. That is where the Cardiac Clinic has to pick us up, but we have to pay for that,” says Alec.
He believes everyone who’s had a cardiac event should receive guidance in exercise and lifestyle afterwards – not as a choice, but as a given. He also thinks a subsidised gym membership would encourage a return to fitness for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
That could help people move forward instead of come to a standstill after a heart attack. Even Alec, despite all his efforts to return to regular life, still wakes up at night thinking “something is going to happen”.
His best advice for getting around those fears is to “get out and surround yourself with positive people, and not get bogged down with sorrow and the negative”.
Shared November 2016