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Heart attack shocks young farmer

At 34 years old, Pete thought he was too young and active to have a heart attack. Thirteen months on, Pete’s using his heart attack experience to warn other farmers to take better care of themselves.

Thirteen months ago, at the age of 34, Pete was busy running his Southland farm. Things were pretty hectic: fresh out of winter, there was barely enough grass to feed the stock; his family was building a brand new calf shed, and he was feeling pretty run down.

“I hadn’t had a day off for probably a couple of months – but that’s just life on the farm though. It’s normal for that time of year.

“We’re used to it but obviously I was getting pretty worn out. We were under pressure to get the calf shed done and you’ve got the rest of your farm to work as well.”

Tight chest – heart attack warning sign

The night of his heart attack, Pete had gone to bed ‘knackered’. The day before, he’d lifted a couple of big calves onto a trailer and so when he woke up with a tight chest at 3am, he thought he’d pulled a muscle. Then he blamed heartburn.

“You don’t think it’s a heart attack – I had none of the symptoms they tell you about. You always hear about the arm thing, and I didn’t have that. I just had a tight chest and felt sick and breathless. Looking back, it seems quite clear but you don’t know that at the time and when you’re young, you don’t think it’s a heart attack.”

A shower didn’t help, and neither did indigestion medication. Two hours later at 5am, Pete had had enough.

“I was like, ‘I’m so not right, something is not right.’”

Driving to hospital

It took Pete until 6.30am to convince himself – and his wife – that something was seriously wrong. A phone call to the healthline indicated a possible chest infection.

With two young children, logistics were a problem but Pete’s parents down the road agreed to come and look after them. It took several hours of tests at hospital before Pete was told he had had a heart attack.

“To be honest, I was actually embarrassed that I could have a heart attack when I was so young.”

A helicopter was sent to take Pete to Dunedin hospital. “It didn’t really hit my wife until I was going in on the chopper, but obviously she went from, ‘Harden up,’ to ‘Are you all right?’”

Having worked as a high-country shepherd, it wasn’t Pete’s first time in a helicopter – but it was his first time lying down in one.

“I always tell everyone that I lost two kilos on the trip up, just worrying that I could have left my family, that I might not be able to see them again...”

Straight in for three stents

Dunedin hospital staff met Pete’s helicopter on the roof, and he was taken straight in for an angioplasty.

“It was just one big blockage, and they put two or three stents in. I’m pretty sure it was three because the cardiologist said he put another one in to be safe.

“I was a bit overweight. I got a bit of a telling-off from the lady who came around the next day to give you a bit of a tune-up. I’d already thought about losing weight, but it helps you do it.”

Breaking old habits

Pete was in Dunedin hospital for two nights. When he first got home, he was nervous about what was safe to eat and drink.

“To be honest, I was nervous about eating anything. I wouldn’t drink anything but water. I was real anxious. I used to drink lots of sugary drinks, juice or coke, never just water.

“I now have probably ten times as much water as I ever did. There’s always cold water in the fridge, and now on hot days on the farm I always take water, but before it used to be juice. So it’s little changes.

“I’ve lost 13 kilos, it’s still not quite enough but it’s a pretty good start. I feel good. Everyone comments to me how good I’m looking.”

Initial recovery

Pete struggled to get his head around the idea he’d had a heart attack, and to follow medical advice to rest up for two weeks. His father and brother picked up his workload on the farm while he recovered.

“I was very tired for the first three or four days – obviously I’d had a big event in my life – but after that I was fine.

“Those first few days I didn’t even tell people about my heart attack, I was so embarrassed. But then I was like, ‘Nah, it’s just one of those things.’ And then I started hearing about athletes having heart attacks.

“I probably could have gone back to work that next week but I followed the advice and just recovered. I was bored. Because I’m a keen farmer, I closed the curtains every day so I didn’t look out because we were just starting to lamb and I didn’t want to look out on it.”

Once Pete was back on his feet, the lambing season made it hard to get to cardiac rehabilitation classes in the middle of the day but he says he picked up some good tips from the classes he got to.

“If I had any of the symptoms again, I would ring the ambulance. I wouldn’t hesitate. Speaking to everybody else in these classes, we need to start calling the ambulance. Too many people are too casual about their health.”

Playing rugby for stress relief

After years focused solely on the farm, Pete has re-joined his senior rugby club.

“I think as a farmer we don’t get off the farm enough. That’s what happened the year of my heart attack, I didn’t even go and watch any rugby or anything, I just worked and look what happened to me.

“I always was active but a few months ago I decided to put my rugby boots back on again. I’m playing Division 1 rugby for my club and I’ve just done my 150th game for them this year. So that’s even more special to say, because I never thought I’d ever get to that after the heart attack but then I did. A lot of people haven’t even played 100 games for their senior club.

“Stress is such a big thing, you’re doing long hours and I suppose town people don’t realise the hours we do. We don’t knock off on Friday at 5 o’clock. Some weekdays I’m out there until 8 o’clock at night.

“As a good farmer you want to produce the best stock you can and when things are going against you – weather, feed – you’re just battling. And if you’re not going out – when I’m playing rugby, I’m not thinking about the farm for four or five hours.”

13 months after his heart attack

Looking back on the last year, Pete knows he’s lucky to have recovered so well.

“My wife and kids were worried at the start, but I think because I recovered so fast, that helped. I did everything the doctors said to, and my message is that 13 months on you still can have a life. I’m actually about to join up with a gym next week because I want to lose a little bit more weight.

“I’ve always been full-on. There’s no point going half-assed now because I’ve had a heart attack – I’m fine. Just have to watch myself. If you think your body’s not right get it checked out.”


Shared December 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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