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“I’m having a heart attack – that’s what!”

Nelson had always thought he was indestructible. But a heart attack changed all that. Here is his story in his words. Or, as he describes it, “The confessions of an obstinate old bugger.”

I was young, fit and indestructible. At age 50, I could still out-hunt and out-tramp many men half my age.

But then I started exercising my jaw more than my legs. 25 years later, while still in rude good health, I was resigned to far more sedate activities. Splitting the firewood became a real chore. Carrying an armful inside made my upper arm ache, an unpleasant tingling. Maybe I needed some more exercise?

One Friday morning 13 years ago, I walked a streamside track then clambered up some steps cut into the embankment. By the top I was seriously out of breath, gasping, unable to get enough air in my lungs. I really must climb this more often to get fit. 

Perhaps I should visit the doctor? The tingling in my arm was worrying. Had I strained a muscle? I’d make an appointment for Monday because I was chairing an important meeting over the weekend.

Symptoms increase

A social Friday evening, then off to my motel. There I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming tiredness. A hot chocolate and bed, but too much bother making it. My arm and shoulder ached. I turned on the fan heater and sat on the floor beside it, letting the warm air wash over my arm. No real relief. I’ll take some painkillers, but too much trouble.

The next morning I forced myself to shower, dress, and drive to the meeting venue for breakfast. What an uncomfortable journey. Slightly nauseous. No breakfast for me, just recline the seat and rest in the car instead. The first part of the day was a tour of our farming properties. I’ll stay here till they return for the meeting proper.

My sister turned up, took one look at me and called an ambulance. I refused to go, there was too many people relying on me. But with half a dozen women bugging me, I finally gave in, handed over to my deputy, and resigned myself to the care of the very patient ambulance staff.

“Talk about a heart attack”

An unpleasant ride to Tokoroa Hospital, a few wires attached, and some talk about a heart attack. From there, an ambulance to Rotorua Hospital, probably because it was closest to home. I was further wired up, feather-bedded and cossetted like the turkeys they prepare for Christmas. This, they said, was to get me in good condition for surgery at Waikato Hospital.

Another ambulance ride to Waikato five days later. As a long-serving trustee of the Waikato Heart Trust, I was proud of the ultra-modern angioplasty suite we set up at the hospital in Hamilton. The Trust is a philanthropic organisation that provides sophisticated cardiac equipment to public hospitals in the central North Island – equipment not normally available through the public health system. It also assists with overseas training opportunities for senior cardiac staff, some research and the like.

Now I found myself watching the screen from a different angle. Surely I should have predicted my own needs earlier, but the staff were too polite to say so.

I was discharged from Waikato Hospital four days after angioplasty. All it took was one stent to get me on the road to recovery. That hospital’s got all the bells and whistles and I was almost sorry to leave there.

Learning I was mortal

My recovery seemed to take so long. I must have been sicker than I thought. My stamina was shot, small exertions took a lot out of me. It took a while but I eventually realized I was older, frailer - and mortal.

What have I learned through this experience?

  • You won’t change the attitude of the young. Macho man rules supreme.
  • Anything unusual should be treated as such. Road warning signs are treated seriously. Health warning signs should be treated the same way.
  • It is not “sissy” to see the doctor. Expensive, maybe, but cheaper in the long run.
  • I exhibited all the classic signs of an impending heart attack. Why didn’t I heed them? I’m not stupid – or am I?
  • Don’t put off a doctor’s visit till it suits you better. It may be too late by then.
  • Those close to you often see little changes in appearance or behaviour. Heed them.
  • Mood changes are sometimes a precursor to a heart attack.
  • A change of attitude is most important. Be a laid back chappie. Don’t get all het up
  • You are not that important, but to your family you are. Think how they will feel if you’re not there anymore.
  • Read this and take note. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. I’m lucky to be here.

I am now aged 88, and sit on a number of local, regional and national organisations. I travel throughout the North Island, much of it by car, travel overseas each year, but think it’s about time to start retiring. I have had no further heart problems but maintain a regular regime of pills and doctor visits.

I hope my story will resonate with someone somewhere and save a bit of early grief. In the words of my favourite song by Fred Dagg, “We don’t know how lucky we are.”


Shared October 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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