His heart attack through her eyes

Jacquey’s husband Andy had a heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery, but his suffering was not his alone. Here, Jacquey recalls the long and frightening ordeal that they shared together, and how it felt from her perspective.

My husband had suffered from chest pain and breathing difficulties for about three years – problems which gradually became worse. After quite a few heart tests and examinations, it was agreed by all the health professionals he’d come into contact with that he did not have a heart problem. At no stage was an angiogram performed: although one was suggested in a letter from a cardiac specialist at Wellington Hospital in 2014, it was never followed up.

In early June 2016, after a particularly bad day for Andy, I took him to the Emergency Department at about 9.30pm and he was immediately admitted. As he had to stay the night, I went home. The next morning he rang me early to say, “Guess what! I have had a heart attack – isn’t that great!” We were both pleased to finally get a diagnosis.

"None of us could believe this was happening. I tried to keep at bay the thought that I might lose my husband of 50 years."

After a few days in Masterton Hospital it was decided that Andy should be transferred to Wellington Hospital for possible stent insertion which ‘would fix all his problems’. But the angiogram was postponed as Andy had a very swollen knee and the doctor was worried about an infection. After a couple of days he had the angiogram, but stents were ruled out as Andy’s arteries were either blocked or too narrow. He would need bypass surgery instead. He’d now been in hospital for seven days.

One morning, while visiting Andy with my daughter and her husband, the cardiac doctor came to talk to us about the operation. It all sounded very serious and frightening. The doctor said this sort of operation was quite risky and that is why he wanted to talk to Andy’s family. Andy was very quiet (not his usual self at all) – which wasn’t surprising really. None of us could believe this was happening. I tried to keep at bay the thought that I might lose my husband of 50 years.

We made some plans that I would stay in a motel opposite the hospital while Andy was there. Our dog went to stay with good friends. How our life was changing…

The motel was very close to the hospital and seemed very quiet despite being on a main road. I could see the hospital from the room I was in – quite reassuring really.

Our other daughter who lives in Sydney came to stay with me for a couple of nights, so I met her at the airport at 11.55 at night! So lovely to see her. Andy was pleased too. Both our daughters came to stay the night with me so the three of us had a good night in the motel. It did me good to spend time with my girls. 

Andy went to have his veins “mapped” and loved having our daughter there with him. Then the nurse came to say his operation had been postponed until next week – news I took badly as I wanted it to happen and for us all to get back to normal as quickly as possible. Andy accepted the change of date with good grace and good sense. What a lovely man he is. I tried pushing thoughts of him never coming home out of my head. 

The days seemed never-ending. I’d visit Andy at 10am and we’d sit and hold hands and then I’d leave for a while over lunchtime for patients to have a rest. I wandered up and down streets in Newtown, still trying to believe that this was happening. The next few days were not good for Andy – he had chest pain which was to be expected, according to the nurse.

My lovely son paid for my long stay in the motel. Andy talked to him when he rang the hospital and was very happy with that. Our children were all wonderful.

On the day before the operation, Andy wasn’t well in the morning – he had chest pain and didn’t want to eat. The nurses sprang into action – ECG and more medication. The nurses were so caring, to me as well as Andy. The anaesthetist spent ages with us explaining what would happen tomorrow. I tried to take it all in. It still all felt like a bad dream. I knew the doctors had to explain everything that could go wrong, but did I really want to hear all this?

The surgeons then arrived (very nice people!) and said Andy would be first up in the morning. They told me if I came about 6.30am I could walk down to the operating theatre with him. So that’s what I did. He didn’t look like my Andy with his operating gear on, but when he said (when he was supposed to be asleep) “I’ll have a coffee thanks,” I thought yes, my Andy is still here.

With my daughter, I wandered up and down Cuba Street while we waited for the surgeon to ring me and say the operation was over. I kept my hand on my phone in my pocket in case I missed the call. Four-and-a-half hours later, the call came from the surgeon to say the operation had gone well. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

We were allowed to visit him about 3pm that afternoon. Couldn’t take it all in really – the scene looked like a medical TV programme. We counted nine different machines that Andy was attached to. My daughter said she was proud of me that I took it so well! The support from our family was amazing. Our three children either visited, rang or texted me every day. I also had many texts from our friends. This contact was so important as I felt like I was in a different world while Andy was in hospital.

We went back to see Andy in ICU but he did not look good. When we saw him later, he was in a lot of pain. Karen instructed him on how to use the morphine pump.

The next day was not good – Andy had to have a blood transfusion. The nurse was concerned at Andy’s low heart rate. A doctor visited and they talked about what to do. More ECGs and blood pressure checks. I found it hard to watch, but had to keep very strong, for Andy’s sake. I talked to the kids on the phone later – they helped me feel better.

The day after that was no better – Andy kept vomiting all day (not good for me, I vomited as well even though I tried not to). His heart rate was very unstable – low yesterday, too fast today.

Andy was also having lots of unusual hallucinations. I found this quite scary but the nurse said it was common at this stage of recovery. He thought I had brought our dog in to see him and he also told me there was a crocodile in the ward!

Every day I sat by his bed and watched the machines, held his head while he vomited, watched him sleep, tried to get him to eat something, tried not to look while dressings were changed and helped with bed-changing after ‘accidents’. I thought time would go slowly but it didn’t. Andy was the whole focus of my life at this time.

A lovely lady who brought the food trolley around kept giving me food and hugs – just what I needed.

The next day some wires and tubes were removed from Andy’s body, which seemed like a good sign. I managed to watch dressings being changed on the huge wound in his chest and from the top of one leg right down to his ankle.

He still wouldn’t eat. But I helped him walk to the bathroom across the corridor so that was progress. He looked so frail and thin and in pain. I called him ‘stick man’ as he’d lost so much weight – I just needed my Andy back.

I sat for a long time watching the monitors attached to Andy’s heart. Scary that his heart rate was so erratic. Doctors came and said he would probably need a permanent pacemaker – he’d already been attached to one for a few days. He was still feeling nauseous and in a lot of pain, and it was now his 23rd day in hospital.

Andy was still incredibly confused and having hallucinations. I found this very frightening – would he ever get back to normal? My girls ‘googled’ it and said this could either last a week or it could be forever! I didn’t sleep much that night.

I was just thankful he had a nurse at his side 24 hours a day to watch over him. Great care! The next day my phone in the motel rang and it was Andy!! He sounded normal. Thank goodness, oh, thank goodness.

I spent a couple of hours at the zoo – I needed some time away from the hospital. While I was at the zoo, Andy rang me and said he’d be coming home tomorrow and no pacemaker was required! Great news. I was a bit worried about how I would manage to care for him.

The next day was a bad day – Andy was no longer coming home as doctors decided he did need a pacemaker. Lots of activity around Andy’s bed that day. He had a chest x-ray and then a blood transfusion. Having diarrhoea all day was upsetting for Andy, but the nurses were great and tried to make it less embarrassing for him. He was vomiting as well! It was hard to watch and very hard to leave him to go back to the motel, but he needed to sleep.

The next day, Andy went to have a pacemaker inserted. It seemed a long time and I misunderstood the time he went in and got more and more worried and upset. Finally he came back and I was very pleased to see him. For some reason, I cried and cried and couldn’t stop. He was in good spirits and making the nurses laugh.

Then came Andy’s birthday – while in hospital still – not what I had planned for his milestone birthday at all. Still, the pacemaker doctors brought him a birthday cake – how lovely of them even if he couldn’t eat it.

He was due to come home in just two days! In amongst the relief and disbelief, I just hoped I’d manage okay.

The cardiac nurses in Masterton were great, throughout Andy’s hospital stay and long after. June came to visit us each week at home and I learnt some really sensible things about Andy’s wellbeing from her. We also attended the Heart Foundation rehab classes which were excellent – such a shame there weren’t more people attending. We learnt a great deal and met some lovely people.

During the first three months at home, post-operation, there were plenty of days when Andy felt pretty sore and tired and had to lie down, which usually helped. I tried not to ‘nag’ him too much about overdoing it, but I wasn’t sure how much he should be doing. If he spent half a day in bed it usually meant he’d done too much the day before.

He’d have a reasonably good day, and then a bad day. The rest of the family did plenty of phoning and checking that he was ‘behaving’ and not doing the wrong things. It’s a good job Andy loves reading!

There were still some setbacks. In the middle of September he had a very sore chest, so the doctor sent Andy for an x-ray. There was a lot of time lying down in pain. It seemed to be never-ending but we tried to keep positive.

We were given a lot of written information about heart operations, recovery times and general ‘what to do when this or that happens’. We found the material from the Heart Foundation was the most sensible!

Finally, here are some milestones that were, and still are, very important to me:

While still in hospital, Andy asked for his Louis L’Amour books (his favourite author) – the whole family agreed that this was a sign of recovery. After a few weeks of being a ’couch potato’ with his Louis books came some great progress:

  • First walk to the front gate (I went with him)
  • First walk past the neighbour’s house
  • Walks extended up to corner of street
  • First meal Andy wanted to cook (he is normally a good, keen cook)
  • Andy ventured into his workshop to have a look around
  • Andy renewed his driving licence but wasn’t keen to drive yet
  • We went out for lunch
  • Have dog back for weekend (Andy very pleased)
  • First attempt at guitar playing but hurt his chest
  • Andy drove a short way
  • Andy did some chisel sharpening in his workshop (great!).

Some of these milestones were very small, but all are important and show how slow the steps to recovery will be. We still find it hard to believe that Andy has survived a heart attack and a quadruple bypass operation. Andy told me it was “quite a good experience” which I found strange but then I think it’s because he cannot remember most of his time in hospital.

At this moment he is singing and playing his guitar and has just been making lemon drink in the kitchen, so I know that we are getting back to normal again.

So many people have helped us along the way; our family and friends (particularly our Book Sort friends), our lovely dog-carer friends Margaret and Leo, the cardiac nurses, the pacemaker nurses, our doctor. Our son-in-law undertook many trips to Wellington Hospital and was always happy to do so. All these people have been willing to spend time with us and the medical staff have answered lots and lots of questions. We have a lot to be thankful for.

 

Written November 2016

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

  • KMBH 22 December 2016

    Lovely well written account. Thank you for sharing.