“How stupid was I?”

John avoided calling an ambulance when he experienced heart attack symptoms. But minutes after driving himself to an A&E clinic, he went into cardiac arrest. Now his advice to others is 'don't delay calling 111'.

I've been told several times lately by paramedics and medical staff that men are less likely to call an ambulance when feeling unwell. I certainly fell into that category.

I awoke very early one morning feeling unwell. No chest or arm pains but a definite feeling that something was wrong. It was a feeling I'd never had before and it wasn't like indigestion, early symptoms of the flu, or anything else. I was a little nauseous and feeling clammy. After a cup of coffee and a shower I waited for a couple of hours with no improvement.

Then I did something really stupid. I decided to drive myself to a small A&E clinic near home. I considered calling an ambulance but didn't want to bother anyone in case it was nothing. That started a chain of events that defies the odds. Within minutes of arriving at the A&E I went into cardiac arrest for the first time. I'd waited three hours and made it with only minutes to spare. My advice, call an ambulance. That is what they are there for and the first few minutes after suffering a heart attack are crucial.

Upon commencing CPR, the medical staff called 111. Within minutes my saviours from St John arrived followed by two back up crews who rotated their roles providing CPR and administering electric shocks. After stabilising me they rushed me to Auckland Hospital A&E.

Immediately on arrival, I arrested again. The St John crew continued working on me while I went up in the lift and into the cath lab where medical staff were waiting. They even kept working on me until the consultant commenced inserting stents. In all, I had in excess of 23 electric shocks and 45 minutes of CPR. I owe my life to these people and will forever be grateful to them. Their skill and persistence was unbelievable.

Prior symptoms

I have had atrial fibrillation (AF) for a couple of years and was taking medication for it. For a few months leading up to my heart attack I had been experiencing aching shoulders. I just put this down to too much time on a computer and bad posture.

Tellingly, the day before I was feeling a bit off colour all day and really cold. It was January and 26˚C outside. I was rugged up under a blanket on my couch with a hot water bottle and the heating on full and nothing I could do seemed to warm me up. I think it was a sign.

Impact on others

It is only after I was discharged from hospital that I began to fully appreciate the impact that my cardiac arrest had on my loved ones and those around me. When I arrived at the first A&E I apparently filled out a form with who I would like them to call. I gave them my then partner Klara's number. She received a call from St John advising her of my situation and assuring her that they were doing everything they could and would provide her with updates. I can only imagine how awful that call must have been for her.

She immediately called my adult sons in Melbourne to tell them what was going on. Again, what an awful call to receive! For the next hour St John staff provided regular updates on my condition and re-iterated that they were on to it and doing their absolute best to save me.

I know Klara and my boys, Matt and Simon, are still immensely grateful for the constant communication in what was for them a devastating situation. On the advice of medical staff along the lines of 'if you want to see your father again, you better get here as soon as you can', they booked the first flight over.

I was in an induced coma for days and it was touch and go. I was obviously oblivious to what was going on but they had to suffer through endless hours and days of not knowing whether I would live or die. On reflection I probably wasn't as grateful to them at the time for their love and support, as I should have been. I was focused on my recovery and trying to put on a brave face but wasn't really thinking of how they were doing. I regret that now and have since apologised and told them how much I loved them and appreciated what a trauma it was for them too.

More people should display their gratefulness

Following 9 weeks in hospital, I emailed St John Ambulance to pass on my heartfelt (pardon the pun) thanks to the individuals who saved my life. I asked if I could meet them personally to thank them, never expecting it would actually be possible.

Lo and behold I heard back that they would love to meet me too and that they were delighted to hear of my survival and recovery. Apparently, they rarely receive any thanks (not that they expect it or want it necessarily) and even more rarely do they learn the outcome of their endeavors.

They arranged a morning recently where I met all six paramedics who saved me. I expected a quick introduction and thank you but spent 90 minutes with them (on their day off I discovered). I think they enjoyed it as much as I did. One of them told me that in 15+ years as a paramedic, I was the first patient she had met! I was gob smacked. They love hearing from people and they universally agreed that it is great for their morale.

Emotional impact of heart attack takes its toll

I never expected that the psychological and emotional recovery from a heart attack would take so long. I'm several months down the track now and coming right. I spoke with a counsellor (which I'd never done before) whilst I was in hospital and she told me about the stages of recovery and what my experiences may be. She was spot on.

I have always been a positive person but that has been tested. Not so much in the early days, I have discovered on reflection, but as time went on. In the early couple of months, I was focused on the physical recovery and was surrounded by medical people, friends and family. Lots of reassuring medical appointments, physio and follow up tests were being done so I was kept busy.

At later stages in the recovery process, when the dust had settled, I found myself having negative thoughts much of the time. That was new for me. I had to then, and still do, force myself to keep positive and to not let my heart attack define me. Sounds corny but I try to keep focused on the fact that I am a survivor, not a victim.

Not a day goes past where I don't think about it. Every time my heart skips a beat or I feel a small chest pain I wonder 'Is it going to happen again?' I find it important in those moments to trust the medical advice that I’m fine now and to live life normally.

What started out as the worst day of my life I now regard as the best day of my life.

I never used to cry or show emotions. I'm a bit of a blokey bloke and thought it wasn't the done thing. I thought people would see it as a weakness and think less of me. I cry now and become more emotional about some things, but you know what? I don't care what anyone thinks. It is what it is.

Tips for others

  • If you're feeling really unwell and it's not something you've experienced before, dial 111. I've been told by my newfound friends at St John that they wish more people rang them early. That's what they are there for. Don't drive yourself anywhere.
  • Try and view yourself as a survivor and focus on how lucky you were to make it through. More people sadly don’t than do.
  • Thank the people who helped you. They appreciate it.
  • Learn how to perform CPR. One day the roles may be reversed.
  • It's alright to be emotional. It is part of the healing process.
  • Talk about your experiences with someone and don’t think twice about getting counselling if you think it may help.
  • Don’t put things off.
  • Lobby the government to fully fund St John's.
  • Support the Heart Foundation.

Shared December 2020

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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