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‘A fax sent from God’

Pita says the atrial fibrillation (AF) and heart attack he suffered in 2015 were a ‘fax sent from God.’ Now he’s making lifestyle changes and taking his medication. This is his story in his own words.

Pita talks about his heart conditions

When one gets the opportunity to narrate a medical history of oneself, one is often left wondering, and have serious cause to reflect on one’s personal health status - considering the highs and lows encountered throughout one’s life. 

I’d like to begin my story by providing an assessment of why I have arrived at the condition I am in, with cardiac and other medical problems I continue to sustain.

Early life

I was born prematurely and my aunties, when I was a child, called me ‘a pound of butter’. But growing up, I understood well the meaning of nourishment and of being cared for by all my extended whānau.

Life in the 50s and early 60s we weren’t rich, not affluent-wise that is. Dad was a farmer, a hard worker of the land, and diligent in wanting to provide the fruits of labour for his family, as best as he possibly could. For him, with hard work, came rewards in his own little way – so as the old cliché goes, ‘work hard, play hard, live hard.'

Mum was similar, though more of the passive nature. She was, kind, humble, a devout Catholic at heart, and in many instances, I realised she was loyal to the fact that her baby boy was the crown jewel in her life. Mum was 38 when she had me.

During my school days and well into my years of growing to maturity, I found myself to be accident prone – some incidents where I got injured seriously, others minor, such as being tossed off the horse a couple of times, or maybe a twisted ankle while playing rugby. 

I have spent time in hospital on a few occasions: when I swallowed a marble at the age of four; for a fractured leg resulting from a hit and run road incident; and for fracturing my nose when I fell overboard into the Indian Ocean in Western Australia while working on a cray boat. I’ve also had three consecutive orthopaedic surgeries, including on my right hip and to both my knees.

But these were, in my view, injuries sustained to my exterior self, rather than an inward injury to any of my major inner anatomy.

First sign of ‘inner malfunctions’

I suppose, the first sign of a malfunction was when I went to see my doctor a day after a game of rugby. I had a swollen ankle and, none the wiser, thought I’d received an injury on the rugby field. To my disbelief, I was told that I had gout! I thought only old people got gout because I was perhaps 19 or 20 at the time. 

So, at that age, I was eligible to register with the ‘rich man’s club’, a name given to gout victims, apparently because of the supposedly rich foods they consumed which triggered this disease.

It was later that I learned that gout was caused by a high concentration of uric acid in the blood. Whenever I got these periodic attacks I would troop off to see the doctor who would then administer the tablets to suppress the pain.

A ‘she’ll be right’ attitude

My visits to the doctor, were, at first, infrequent, and at that time, I was living in a town that provided all the social amenities of life, so I assume I made myself a prime candidate for further ailments which were to follow. I think back when I was 39 when my GP diagnosed high blood pressure. Because I was already on continuous medication for my gout ailment, I was then confronted with further medication to control my blood pressure levels. 

When I moved to Auckland in 1999, I put on weight – although not to the extent that I found myself obesely overweight. My GP there put me on a health plan to prevent the future problems I was leading myself into. However, my problems were incurred because I wasn’t dedicated to taking the prescribed medication. So, really, I had this sense of ‘nah, she’ll be right! I’ll get over it shortly!

Changes to sleep patterns

In early July 2015, I found further changes happening. I began to experience respiratory problems when sleeping. I confided in my wife about this, as I could not sleep normally. I had to sit up with stacks of pillows to prop me up because I couldn’t breathe properly lying prone in the bed.  

Sometimes I had to sleep sitting in the lounge to get some respite, as my chest got tight and sore. I got this urge to pee, and had no control over, when to pass it. 

The breathing problem got so intense that eventually, after a month of enduring it, my wife recommended that I should go to see my GP, or go to Gisborne Hospital Emergency Department (ED) to get it checked out.

Atrial fibrillation attack

My wife drove me to the ED, arriving at 11pm. Fortunately, we did not have to wait long before I was seen to, first by a nurse who administered blood tests, temperature reading, heart rate, and so forth to get a proper analysis of the symptoms I was presenting with. Eventually, the doctor came in and saw me, and thought, under the circumstances, I was fine to go home. 

It was when we were about to make our departure that I felt the heavy urge to want to pass urine, and that my chest was tightening up, it was I thought that I was being squashed by a very large boa constrictor. I couldn’t breathe and it felt like I was going to drown and there was no more oxygen left in the tank. I gasped to my wife to take me back into ED.

I was placed on one of the ED beds in a sitting position and immediately given an ECG. I think I was given a tablet to reduce the tightness in my chest, and then had to wait into the night for the test results to come back. I then thanked the ED duty doctor who diagnosed me and then assured my wife that I’d be okay, as she had work the next day.

I was conscious throughout and I was acutely aware of the apparatus and indicators around me that were monitoring my pulse rate and heart functions. I could see that the dials were continuously flicking in a steady flow on the machine above me, meaning that it was a good sign that my heart was still pumping.

But in the main, my mind was focussed on why I had sustained breathing and urinary irregularities, thinking that this was the real cause of the problem.

Doctor delivers diagnosis

I think it was around 2.00am when the night doctor in charge eventually came back with the nurse to deliver the prognosis. 

He told me that the ECG report indicated that I had sustained an attack of atrial fibrillation.

“A what?’’  I said.

He went on to explain that I also had heart failure. The next day, the cardiologist explained that I would not need major surgery, as a scan showed that I had no blocked arteries. However, the tests revealed my heart function was alarmingly weak. One side of my cardiac system had virtually collapsed. Accordingly, I was prescribed multiple new medications.

I also had a family history of heart disease. Both mum and dad, and three of my siblings all succumbed to some form of cardiac arrest. So ultimately I realised I had become another statistic of inherited heart disease.

Monitoring after hospital

Following release from hospital, I was placed under monitoring by my family GP. 

Unfortunately, one of the new medications reacted with a medication that I had been taking for my earlier ailments. Both my upper and lower legs festered, as lesions began to form and break out around the skin. I remember the GP saying to me that in his forty plus years working in the profession never had he seen such an infection. He even got the nurse to photograph the infected areas. I saw the doctor twice weekly for at least two months to have dressings on the lesions changed.

I subsequently also went on to experience sleepiness and the need to rest. This added to the prognosis of my Type II diabetes condition which effectively has an impact on heart disease. I had to again alter or increase my medication to combat these effects. One thing I will always remember the doctor telling me was, should I ever experience a change of circumstances to my health, go to see a GP immediately.

Further problems develop

In November 2015, I was returning from a long road trip from the Bay of Islands when I made a transit stop in Hamilton. I was intent on returning to Gisborne, but my son suggested that I should rest and continue the next day. At 10pm, as I was preparing to bed down for the night, I felt this strange coldness come over me, despite the warm humid weather at that time of year. I started breaking into a cold sweat, and my upper body seemed to weaken in the upper shoulder area, and I began to feel mild chest pains.

My son took me to hospital where I was again prescribed an ECG test, and given the result at 4am the next morning. I was admitted to the cardiology ward of Waikato Hospital. I had suffered a mild heart attack but at least this time I was probably in the best place. A further scan concluded that the artery pathways were still clear and I did not need major surgery, instead I would be prescribed more medication.

Out of hospital support

When I arrived home in Gisborne a week later, and once reunited with the regular family GP, we began in earnest to map out a pathway to try and fix the compounded health problems. I also had the assistance of the Gisborne Hospital cardiology nurse, the radiology team, and when the time came for quarterly checks the cardiologist I was under when in Waikato Hospital, re-examined my condition when he visited Gisborne. 

Having had to spend a period of giving up work, I began to recuperate and to regain my heart functions a little bit at a time.  

Eventually, getting back to physical activity and following a revised diet regime has kept my weight down, and my sugar levels down to a more respectable level than before.

I take prescription insulin daily to assist controlling my blood sugar levels. I try to keep within the 1.5 litre intake of daily fluids I am permitted, and the challenge I have now is adjusting to what I can eat.  So, I am at pains to maintain a dietary pattern that suits.

The cardiologist has assured me that my condition has improved immensely and will continue to, but I will never return to normal. 

I continue to take the medicine prescribed for my condition, and will probably do so for the rest of my life. But I feel much better now.

Heart scare a ‘fax from God’

In hindsight, since my ‘heart scare’, I think the experience was essentially a ‘fax sent from God.’ I have seen many extended whānau of my age die of heart failure, simply because they did not listen to their doctor. 

Although I have had many doctors, I have considered taking to researching rongoā Māori (traditional medicine) as a possible substitute to the generic medication. I have been told, and am acutely conscious of the fact, that rongoā does provide a remedy to certain ailments.  If I do partake in taking rongoā Māori, I will only take it as a supplement to what western science medicine offers, subject to consulting with the GP (as some traditional medicines may be contra-indicated with certain prescription medication).

To keep your health on track, see your doctor. Maintaining your health and wellbeing is essential to living a long and happy life.


Shared October 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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1 Comment

  • Tai 9 April 2018

    Kia ora Pita,
    Thank you for sharing your journey.  It’s been a while since I saw you since you left Auckland.  Best wishes for the rest of your lifestyle journey.  Aroha nui Tai