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“I thought when I was younger that I wouldn’t make it to 35.”

Leka had premonitions of his heart giving up in middle age that came true when he suffered a major heart attack at the age of 35. After having two stents fitted, he’s now looking farther into the future.

I was born in Auckland in Middlemore hospital, but my parents decided to take us kids back to Tonga and that’s where I grew up. I came back to New Zealand in 2015 and everything was kind of new. I didn’t know exactly where I was, but it was good to be back home. 

One day I was working in Rangiora digging up concrete on a driveway. We had just finished up the job and I was walking towards the driver’s side of the car and my colleague was doing the paperwork. As I got to the door, I realised something wasn’t right. I just turned around and said to my mate, “I can’t see.” And that’s when I started to black out. 

It was something that I had never experienced before. I felt dizzy, I was seeing stars and my whole body was vibrating and that’s when I realised something was up. Then for a couple of seconds I couldn’t breathe. 

I can barely remember anything after that. All I can remember is that I was fighting to breathe, and I heard this voice. It was the guy that was helping me out in the back of the ambulance. I remember him telling me to try and breathe normally but I couldn’t. And I still couldn’t even see anything – I was barely aware of my surroundings. Fighting to breathe is a really difficult thing to do, it was scary.

Christchurch hospital and recovery

After that it was a complete blackout, and I can’t remember anything until I woke up. Then I was in the hospital, and it was hard because I couldn’t do anything. But I was happy to be alive.

As I woke up in Christchurch hospital my wife was there by my side crying and shaking. But at the time I didn’t really understand what a heart attack was, so when I saw her crying and shaking, I was like, “I’m good, right?”

I wasn’t too emotional because I didn’t understand what had happened to me and that made things easier for me, but my wife was freaking out. She was not good that day. I was just working and doing my job and I didn’t even know I’d had a heart attack. It was only when I was fully awake in the hospital when the doctor was telling my wife that he believed I’d had a big heart attack that I found out it was a big deal.

They gave me some stents and then explained to me how they did it. I was in the hospital for a week because they wanted to make sure they could explain everything to me so I could understand how bad a heart attack really was – because for me it was just another day. I felt bad for my wife because she understood, so I was trying to calm her down, but I didn’t understand it. So, for me it was just like, “Oh, everything is alright, I didn’t die.” But now I do understand how bad a heart attack really is and that it can kill you. 

Family history of heart issues

The most interesting part of my heart event is that I found out that my dad also had a heart attack a while ago. So, it really affected us as a family, it wasn’t just me. Next thing the doctors were telling me I needed to contact my brothers and sisters because it obviously runs in the family. This meant they needed to go get heart check-ups

And now me and my dad both take the same medicine. It’s not ideal but at least there is some form of treatment. The worst part is that my family had to hear that I was the second one to have a heart attack, which must have scared them. Especially as I was only 35, it was really rough for all of us.

It was just crazy thinking about it now. I thought I was out – that was it. I was only 35 years old, and the craziest part is that I remember telling some of my friends back in Tonga that I didn’t think I would make it to 35, back when I was about 20 or so. And then at 35 I actually did have a heart attack, but I feel so lucky that I was over here in New Zealand and not in Tonga. I think if I was in Tonga, I would be dead – there’s no way I would have survived. Especially the village that I was in, to be able to go to hospital was almost impossible. 

And it’s the same for my dad. He had his heart attack in 2007 and he was in Hawaii, which was lucky because if he had been in Tonga, he wouldn’t have made it either. They don’t really have the medical tools and expertise we needed. So, from that respect, even though it’s bittersweet, it really does feel like we’ve been blessed.

Future lifestyle and advice

Now I’m back to work and feeling a lot better. This is mostly down to taking on the advice of the doctors and the Heart Foundation, who recommended a healthier diet and regular physical activity

I got a new job in a factory because I couldn’t do construction anymore, but I like it. When I first started, I was in the slaughter board. The doctors had explained to me that I couldn’t do any heavy lifting as a precaution after my heart attack, and I wanted to move around so I changed to working in the freezer. When they pulled up my history and noticed I have heart disease, they were confused about having me in the freezer because it’s all heavy lifting, but it’s good for me and working in the freezer has been helping me a lot. My health feels great, and I feel good coming into work every day. I just really like working here – I feel fit. 

My advice would be that young people should try to eat healthily and exercise. That way they can prevent future problems with their health. And especially after you’ve had a heart attack, the more you take care of yourself the further you’ll go. I didn’t really take care of myself before all of this happened. But now I know that I need to take care of myself because I’ve got family at home who are relying on me. My biggest advice is just to eat well and get out and about – don’t sit too much! And listen to your mum and dad. They always know best!

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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