‘I lived on adrenaline, tobacco and caffeine’
Nick spent his younger years living to work and working to live. His lifestyle caught up with him in 2005 when he went to the doctor with breathlessness, only to ultimately discover he’d had two heart attacks.
As a special projects director and part owner of a large design and merchandising manufacturing company in Wellington, Nick devoted himself to his work.
“The job was very, very intense. It was a full on position and it was a job that I absolutely loved, but I did things all the wrong way.
“I didn’t eat properly, I used to work a minimum of 10-14 hours a day and didn’t stop on weekends, and more particularly, I smoked between five and six Panatela cigars each day. When I say smoked, I actually smoked them, which was equal to about 30 cigarettes a day. Oh, and about 15-20 cups of coffee!
“I lived on adrenaline, tobacco and caffeine. I was probably the author of my own demise in many respects.”
When Nick turned 50, he began to have trouble breathing so visited a local doctor. He assumed that he would be told that everything would be fine after some pills and a relaxing holiday, however, an x-ray showed his heart was enlarged and his lungs were full of fluid.
‘I was not a happy chappy!’
Nick was referred to Wakefield Hospital where an echocardiogram identified coronary artery disease and an enlarged heart. Upon seeing the results the cardiologist was surprised that Nick was able to breathe considering the condition his heart was in.
It was about two weeks until Nick was stable enough to have an angiogram. The procedure showed that Nick had suffered two previous heart attacks – episodes he’d thought were bouts of food poisoning. It was also clear that surgery, rather than stents, would be required to manage his condition.
The medical team booked Nick in for stress echocardiography (PDF), to provide further information about the function of his heart and help them determine his treatment. In the interim, he was released from hospital on a strict medication regime and in agreement he wouldn’t return to work.
Echo test doesn’t go according to plan
On the day of the echo, as he was being prepared for the test, the cardiologist mentioned a heart transplant might be on the cards if the results of the tests showed his heart would not respond sufficiently.
“What do you mean heart transplant?”
A shocked Nick told the cardiologist to unplug him from the test so he could leave. The cardiologist explained that due to the extent of the coronary artery disease, there was no guarantee that bypass surgery would be successful.
Hearing this was too much for Nick to cope with. Before the test could be carried out, he walked out.
“I literally picked up my things, walked past the waiting area and told my wife, ‘Come on we’re going home’. It was just a little bit more information than I was expecting. One minute you are sort of thinking well they’ve found there’s a problem and think they can fix it, but heart transplant that’s really out of left field.”
A trip to the psychologist
A sceptical Nick was invited back to Wakefield to see a psychologist. He’d been told by the doctors that if they went ahead with surgery to repair the damage to the heart, there was a 25 to 30% chance he’d die during the operation. A bit of tough love from the psychologist put those figures into perspective for him.
“She turned the whole thing around and said, ‘Well what’s your problem? There’s a 75% chance it’s going to be positive. For goodness sake jack your ideas up!’ She was absolutely brilliant.”
The psychologist gave Nick a CD with daily exercises to prepare his mind for what was coming next, and after about a week Nick plucked up the courage to return to Wakefield for the stress echo.
Following the echo test, Nick had some good news. The surgeon would attempt surgery to repair some of the damage done to his heart, and in the meantime a transplant was off the cards.
“Nick, we can do it. We can fix it.” The cardiologist told Nick and his wife. “And better still we can fix it tomorrow.”
A quadruple bypass
The next morning Nick said goodbye to his family. He remembers wondering if it would be the last time he would see them.
“It was particularly difficult because we took my daughter in to school and as I said goodbye to her thought, ‘Well that might be the end’, sort of thing. You do though because you are living in this terrible, terrible vacuum of fear.”
By that afternoon, he was in surgery. At this point, Nick was still unsure exactly what kind of surgery would be done, with the cardiology team waiting until they opened him up before they could make a final decision. In the end, Nick had a quadruple bypass.
He was kept sedated for 24 hours after the surgery but when he woke up he remembers thinking “God, I feel like shite!”
The next evening, Nick developed an arrhythmia. The ICU staff tried to control this with drugs, but the decision was made that the next day he would need to be put back under anaesthetic to try and remedy the problem with defibrillation.
After Nick was defibrillated he came to and remembers thinking “My God it’s great to be alive… I feel great!” The procedure had worked and his heart was doing what it should be doing.
Nick was determined to get home as soon as possible and by the next morning he was walking the hallways. Four days later, he was allowed home.
Fear factor sets in
Once Nick was home, his mental recovery was not as fast as his physical one.
“I healed physically very quickly, and there was no problem at all. I didn’t have any pain, except for a little bit of discomfort when I sneezed for about a month or so. My scar wasn’t too bad, there was no bleeding and there was nothing wrong with my incision on my legs. I healed physically very well but it took about six months mentally.
“You get home and then the fear factor starts because you haven’t got a button to push in case something goes wrong and you’re on your own. You go through the most incredible discomfort and not just physical but mental. You go through this element of horrible, horrible fear.”
Even after 13 years Nick still feels nervous going to see his cardiologist.
“It never leaves you, there’s always something there and I think it’s just something that when you learn to live with it, that’s when your recovery starts.”
Nick attended a cardiac rehab programme which addressed physical aspects of recovery, but he felt it needed to include more information on emotional recovery and how to deal with the anxiety and possible depression.
“That’s the big gap they just don’t prepare you for. They talk about the blues, you know, some people are affected more than others, they talk about some of the side effects and things but when they talk about it in generalised terms they don’t go into any specific detail. I think that’s a big mistake because I’m a mere male and I’ve been to hell and back. It’s a pretty unpleasant thing to go through. I hope I don’t have to go through it again. But you do feel so vulnerable I guess.”
With Nick suffering from anxiety and depression during his recovery, his wife Judy and children found the changes in his behaviour and personality challenging.
“I’ll give you an example, we were in town one Saturday morning in Farmers and a piece of music came over the system and I don’t know why but I burst into tears in the middle of the ladies’ department. I had to go down the escalator and sit outside howling my eyes out for no reason.
“Judy was saying, ‘For God’s sake really? What’s wrong with you?’ It wasn’t that she wasn’t sympathetic, of course she was and I couldn’t have gone through this without her, there’s no question about it. But it was hard for her, and I think I probably irritated and angered her because I was conscious of cotton wool all the time. ‘I best not do that, or best not do that’ in case something was to go wrong.”
The voice of reason
Nick describes Judy as “absolutely amazing” during the time that he was sick. It was her decision to visit her family in Australia for two weeks and leave Nick to look after the children, house and pets that forced Nick out of his state of anxiety.
“All of a sudden, after dropping her off at the airport, I thought ‘My God, how exposed am I?’
“Well I tell you what, I went bounding into that airport when she came back! But she did it for me. She made me realise that you need to get yourself out of the predicament you find yourself in and I’m sure everyone who’s been through this will know exactly what I’m talking about.”
A drastic change of lifestyle
Nick knows that even after his bypass surgery, he still has heart disease and as a result has had to make massive changes in his lifestyle.
“I go walking just about every day to maintain my fitness. I watch very carefully what I eat to maintain my cholesterol levels and weight. I have a reasonably physical lifestyle. I don’t drink 15 cups of coffee a day anymore, I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink alcohol at all.”
Now at 63, Nick lives on a lifestyle block in the Wairarapa, where he is delighted to say that even with a “dicky ticker!” he and Judy rebuilt an 1870s house for them to live in.
He is currently working full-time from home, but works at his own pace and manages stress by taking walks with the dog or enjoying the nature that surrounds his house.
A positive attitude
Thirteen years down the line from Nick’s heart surgery he promotes a positive attitude and tries not to be scared about what might happen with his heart in the future.
“My heart is enlarged and I might have to get an ICD or a pacemaker potentially down the track, who knows. You’ve got to think positively that it’s all going to be ok. The lifestyle, I think it has helped things. I try not to get stressed or wound up anymore, it’s not worth it.”
He has also reflected on his family history of heart disease.
“I guess the sad thing is that I didn’t realise beforehand that this could happen. But I should have because my dad died suddenly at the age of 53 from a major coronary. I also found out that his father, my grandfather, died on the operating table as they were trying to fix a problem with his heart. So there is potential for heart problems genetically.”
In addition, one of Nick’s brothers experienced problems with his heart that resulted in two stents.
For now, Nick works on the philosophy that as long as he looks after himself, there’s no reason that he will have any further problems with his heart.
“Tomorrow is another day and it’s going to be a damned good one whether it’s rain, hail or snow.”
Shared August 2018
Sadly in December 2018, not long after Nick shared his story with us, he passed away from a cardiac arrest. The Heart Foundation sends its condolences to Nick’s family and friends.
Nick’s wife told us he was very proud of telling this story and asked that we keep it on our website so that it may be of support to others.