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From Canterbury roots to Mount Rolleston, a hiking expedition Chris would never forget

Chris was born amidst the picturesque backdrop of Canterbury, the youngest of ten siblings, his formative years were in Christchurch and West Melton. His love for the land and going tramping would later prove a trigger for a heart event that was a timely wake-up call.

Chris had always been a keen outdoorsman and kept himself overall very fit. Chris spent time in the army along with two of his brothers and did a lot of tramping over the years. 

An unexpected turn at Mount Rolleston

However, life took an unexpected turn during one of his tramping expeditions three years ago.

“We went on a hike up Mount Rolleston just after I turned 60,” he recalls. Mount Rolleston is a prominent peak in Arthur's Pass National Park in the South Island of New Zealand. The day started like any other trek. 

As Chris describes, “I was with a couple of mates and a dog and it started well. It happened at the top of Mount Rolleston, which is probably 6000 or 7000 feet. I was really fit at the time but started to get out of breath and I think I passed out a couple of times.

“Fortunately, it happened within a couple of hundred metres of the hut we were staying in for the night. I think I passed out and then I woke up and I lay there for about 20 minutes. One mate was starting to come back to find me because they were wondering where I was. I somehow made it to the hut in the end.”

The experience motivated Chris to talk to his doctor about his heart.  

The diagnosis

Post the incident, Chris went to his GP of thirty years and was referred to a specialist for further testing, leading to a chain of discoveries about his health. 

“I went for x-rays and blood tests with my doctor,” he says. “I was referred to a specialist and they said my heart valve wasn’t great. At that stage, they said they were going to have to perform keyhole surgery for a metal heart valve and I was put on the waiting list.”

Lifestyle changes

Chris generally kept himself fit and healthy but acknowledges that smoking since his teens may have had detrimental effects on his heart health.

"I did a lot of tramping over the years and was really fit. My heart issues were probably hereditary, but I think smoking was a big factor too. I think that sort of got me to where I am now with my heart condition.”

As Chris waited, he stayed proactive and positive about the condition of his health.

“I slowly reduced my smoking intake while I was on the waiting list as the doctor told me that it would kill me. He said I had to make a concerted effort to reduce it and eventually stop altogether. I said “Yeah, fair enough.” So, I did. I went from smoking 50 grams of tobacco a week, down to 30 grams a week. And then a year or so after that, I went down to smoking menthol tobacco. Now I’m at a stage where I’m working on giving up vaping. But yeah, getting here wasn’t easy,” he attests


As Chris was on the waitlist for heart valve surgery, another challenge appeared that further compromised the condition of his health.

“Then in the winter of 2023 I was finding one side of my body really sore, my shoulder blade was aching, and it was slowly getting worse, but I just thought it was muscular,” says Chris. “I was having trouble sleeping and being comfortable in bed. I was cold and I was quite unwell and being a bit knuckleheaded I sort of just let it go on for about 5 to 6 weeks. Then it just got to the stage where I was having trouble breathing and I thought “I've had enough”, so I rang the hospital one evening and they sent an ambulance.

“They took me to the Christchurch public hospital, and they said straight away that I had bad pneumonia and then they looked up my file and did what felt like hundreds of tests and lots of needles,” he recalls. “They told me within a couple of days that my heart was really bad. The hospital staff said “Let’s get your pneumonia under control and we'll book you in for surgery within a week.” If I didn't have pneumonia, I would never have got pushed up the waiting list.”

The road to recovery

Following more tests due to his illness, a double bypass surgery and a heart valve replacement were deemed necessary immediately. 

“I was a bit upset; I must admit. Surgery is an extremely scary place to be when you don’t know whether you’ll live or die. I was really unwell,” Chris says. “Then again, I thought, no bugger it, I’m too young and I’m not going to die. I'm in the right place, so hang tough. I eventually let my family know and they started coming to see me regularly. I was 63 at this point. So one week later I went in for double bypass surgery and a new heart valve. Now I have a pig’s heart valve in my chest.” 

Chris had to muster all his strength for the procedure and the subsequent recovery phase. “Post-operation, every day was a challenge. But I was determined. I walked the hospital corridors, sometimes pushing through the pain, but always looking forward,” he says.

This period was not just about physical recovery. Mental and emotional resilience played a huge role. Chris was determined to maintain his spirits. “During those hospital days, I found comfort in conversations. Speaking to others in similar situations, sharing our stories… it gave me hope,” he adds.

The ripple effect: family changes

The implications of Chris's health not only affected him but also his extensive family. The shadow of genetic predisposition loomed large as he had already lost some family members to heart disease. 

“I've lost two sisters. One died at 50 from a massive heart attack and that was from too much alcohol and cigarettes, and another sister died from cancer in her mid-50s. We’ve also got a history of bowel cancer. Both my eldest brother and my father went through bowel cancer operations. My brother is still alive and he's in his early 70s now. And I've had nine polyps removed from my bowel over the years. It's just life, you know.”

Chris's post-recovery phase was marked by significant changes. “I've found a better place to live, given up smoking, and made dietary changes. Every day now includes some form of exercise,” he elaborates.

“I also don't have salt on my meals anymore. I don't drink alcohol. I find giving up tobacco has been harder than giving up alcohol, so I have a vape but hopefully not for long.”

A beacon of hope

For others going through similar challenges, Chris’s story serves as a beacon of hope. His advice to them is not to underestimate the importance of regular health check-ups and conscious lifestyle choices.

“I think the biggest thing is just to stay patient and stay in touch with family and friends regularly,” he says. “Look at your diet. Exercise, even if it's just a 10-minute walk each day, just start small and build it up. If you get some bad news from the doctor, try to stay positive. You should be glad to know that your life could be saved because you’ve been checked. But I know better than most, mentally it's a real battle.”

Chris's journey with its highs and lows underscores his resilience and the importance of talking to those around you. 

“Having my family visit me in hospital really made a huge difference,” he says. “My sisters in particular were great support for me – helping keep me positive.”
Chris is now looking to the future and making the most of his second chance.

“I’m just glad to be alive and my life’s changed quite a bit since I've had this operation. I've found a much better and healthier place to live, and I've got my driving license back and I'm going to think about volunteer work in the future.”

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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1 Comment

  • John 25 January 2024

    Well done Chris.