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From great heights to heart attack

An active man with a love of outdoor pursuits, Colin happened to be on a trek – up in the mountains – when an intense pain took grip of his body.

Colin’s story starts in September 2006, when he went with a pal of his from Motueka to north-west China and Pakistan.

They went “sort of back-packing” making their way by train and bus right the way across north-west China. They crossed the border into Pakistan, went camping in the Himalayas and ended up in Lahore where Colin’s sister-in-law lives.

“I tell you this because it’s an example of the life I sort of lived at that time.” Colin was 69, and keeping active. He went to aerobics classes, cycled a bit, and was a member of a walking group.

Just one year later, in July 2007, Colin made his way – with his walking group – up Mount Melita in Nelson’s Richmond Ranges. They got to the top – around 980 metres – where it wasn’t snowing but was frosty and cold.

“We had our lunch up there and then we started coming down and I thought ‘oh, I don’t feel very well’. Walked a little way down and then called out to one of my mates: ‘I don’t really feel well, I think I’ll sit down for a bit.’ So we sat down together for a bit and then it sort of got a bit worse and I just felt unwell in myself, you know.”

After a while his friend suggested they get him down. “It was a steep path. It wasn’t a road, it was just a footpath and I walked down probably about quarter-of-an-hour to a place where they could bring a vehicle up. In the meanwhile someone had run down, right down to the carpark, got his car and come back up.”

While waiting for the car, the pain started to intensify. “And I said to a nurse, who happened to be there luckily, ‘Am I having a heart attack?’ She said, ‘Yes, I think so.’”

She suggested he “have a squirt of this” – some nitro-lingual spray to put under the tongue – but as Colin wasn’t sure what to do it didn’t seem to have much effect. “I’d never seen one before.”

Help arrives

When the car arrived – a 4WD station wagon – Colin was slid into the backseat and driven down the rest of the mountain. On Aniseed Valley Road he was met by an ambulance, transferred into it, and taken to hospital.

“On the way, the pain got worse and worse and worse and it really was agonising, but I was pumped full of morphine, more than once, because I kept saying I’m hurting...”

Colin’s pain was all over his body. “I felt so uncomfortable everywhere. It was so intense that I couldn’t say it was here or here or wherever – it was all over but mostly in the chest.”

At hospital he was rushed into the emergency room where everyone “started fussing” around him.

“I don’t know whether it was the morphine that has that effect but I was nearly unconscious by then and they were all milling around me, putting tubes in and all sorts of things. And then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, they were wheeling over this great big defibrillator machine with all these things coming off it and I thought ‘oh, I’m going to die’ – that’s what my thought was – ‘oh, I’m going to die.’”

He wasn’t afraid though. “I didn’t care. I didn’t have a care in the world. I thought I’ve had a good life, that’s it. Fine.”

As it was, he was stabilised without the use of the defibrillator after all.

Seeing the bright side

Staying in a private room helped take the sting out of Colin’s experience. “When they got me going again, they put me into a special single room, and it was very luxurious, it was like a little hotel room and I thought ‘this is rather nice’.

As a scientist, Colin was intrigued by the numbers flashing on screens and heart pulses, he says. “And I – it’s silly – but I quite enjoyed being in there.” Colin even enjoyed the experience of having an angiogram – due mostly to his professional curiosity.

“I heard that they’re going to put a tube up inside and I thought ‘oh, that doesn’t sound very nice, I don’t know at all’. While waiting for his angiogram Colin was given a sedative to help him relax and once taken into the room there were more “television screens with lights as well as doctors and nurses all milling around”.

“So I lay on this bed and they set me up my own television screen and I thought ‘this is wonderful’. I could see the tube going in through the arteries… into the heart and they’re saying ‘oh, there’s a blockage here and there and there’, and being a physicist I thought this is absolutely wonderful to experience this.”

In fact, when Colin was wheeled out of theatre past another patient nervously waiting for his angiogram, he assured him, “Oh you’ll enjoy that, it’s got these television screens.”

The outcome of the angiogram was less than pleasant however. Colin needed a quadruple bypass, which was done in September that year.

One of the downsides of recovery, says Colin, was that despite being hungry he wasn’t able to eat for most of his hospital stay. Though everything on the menu sounded delicious and came beautifully presented, he could not tolerate the smell of any foods.

“I hardly ate for all the time I was there – it was such an annoying thing – I like food and it was a lovely menu! And I was there for I guess about 10 days.”

Starting to walk again

When returning home, Colin had to face the reality that follows open heart surgery – the need to take things one step at a time.

“It was the usual thing of getting on your feet again and starting to walk again then walking a bit further – a bit frustrating for me because I was very active really.”

But gradually, improvement came. “I’d come in one day and say to my wife, ‘Oh I walked all the way to the corner and back again today.’ Yes, milestones.”

Colin also joined a fitness class for cardiac patients “where we sat in a circle and did little exercises with our hands and feet”.

“Having been used to going to an aerobics class and that, I found it so frustrating. I just didn’t like it. However, I had to do it and it helped, and eventually everything came right and now I’m back to my usual self.”

Now, 10 years on from that experience, Colin doesn’t do much walking any more – “because I don’t find it interesting,” he says. And he’s replaced his aerobics class for a very energetic Zumba class which keeps him fit and feeling back to normal.

Lucky to be here

So, going back to the start, and why Colin says his story began a year before his heart attack – with his trip to China and Pakistan: Well it’s simply this, he explains:

“There’s a road which goes from the border with China down to Lahore, more or less,” says Colin. “And it passes through the Himalayas – and the Himalayas are just magnificent. We went camping in the Himalayas. We walked up to 3800 metres which is higher than Mt Cook and, of course, it went on after that.

“Now, we were far away from any towns, there was no cell phone coverage, no computers of course, we were just in tents in the mountains.

“Wonderful, wonderful experience – we’ll remember it forever. But gosh, if it had happened there, it would have been the end.”

As fate had it, his heart attack would wait another year, where help was accessible, and surgeons and nurses would pull him through. He considers it good fortune and now, aged 79, “still active and pretty healthy”, Colin feels grateful to be here.


Shared April 2017

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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