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“I’m not bulletproof”

Jack experienced a heart attack and pericarditis amid the Covid-19 crisis. Here he shares his story of the stress and anxiety it caused and explains how he's got his life back on track.

My heart journey began on 4 June 2020 at 4am on a very stormy night in Upper Hutt, Wellington.

We were in the middle of Covid-19 alert level two lock down, and I had been unwell for a week with what felt like indigestion. I had phoned my medical centre and had an over-the-phone appointment. I was prescribed anti-acid liquid, which I took for a few days. I remember after one really bad day with an elephant on my chest and all sorts of pain in my shoulders and down the left arm, I'd thought, 'they must know what they are doing so I'll just ride it out'.

It has to be said that I rarely went to doctors and in 68 years I had rarely felt unwell. I had never been in hospital and always worked hard. I was employed as a butcher for 26 years (the only job where you get paid for laughing all day helped) and for the last 27 years have worked in the car industry as a salesman, auctioneer, and 18 years on our own car yard in Lower Hutt.

Still feeling unwell, foolishly I'd continued to work and a week went by with some discomfort and lethargy. Then, on 4 June, the elephant came back with a friend and I was in a world of trouble.

A 'Stirling Moss' drive to hospital

My wife drove me to hospital at 4am. Stirling Moss would have been proud and in that weather she did well.

At the ED (emergency department) they told me the pain I had was pericarditis, a swelling and inflammation of the sac-like membrane around the heart. After an ECG and tests, we were told that I had suffered a heart attack, possibly a week before.

The next day an angiogram in Wellington hospital confirmed I'd had a type of heart attack called a STEMI with LAD involvement (ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction due to Left Anterior Descending artery occlusion). The left anterior descending artery was completely blocked.

I had not previously suffered from high blood pressure nor high cholesterol, so it was out of the blue.

That time delay between the heart attack and going to hospital, meant it was too late to repair the damage. I was sent home with five varieties of pills to take which I was told would be of help, if I was careful.

Emotional response to heart attack

A lot of different emotions go through your head especially when you're first told about this serious type of health event. Uncle Google also told me that 23 per cent of patients with this type of heart attack don't get past three months. Wonderful.

That was a sobering thought and, needless to say, I had a few sleepless nights. Every ache and pain was amplified by fear and I was anxious of what was in store for me.

When I came out of hospital, I was stunned by how low my energy levels were. Before I had energy to burn and a very happy carefree disposition (apart from wrestling the never-ending cash flow problems at work). Now I was unable to walk fifty yards without wanting to lay down and have a sleep. The three weeks until I started cardiac rehab wasn't an easy time.

Cardiac rehab informative at every step

I completed the nine-week course of cardiac rehab in Lower Hutt. The course was run by an amazing cardiac rehab nurse and her great team and thanks to their expertise I learned a huge amount about coronary care and what was to be my new life. The importance of the right diet and exercise helped dramatically.

I am totally in awe of our health system and found my foray into coronary care was informative at every step, and also presented in a way which I could understand.

I have great admiration for all those who work in the emergency departments, the wards and the rehab side of this fantastic service. I had no idea about this part of our community and it really needs to be celebrated.

My wife is 'my rock'

Through this, my wife of 49 years, Marguerite, has been my rock and together we have found ourselves in an unfamiliar new world.

Our lives previously centred around our family of three children and five grandchildren, our business where we work together, and a mutual interest in amateur boxing, where, until recently, we'd served as volunteers for over 40 years.

We have always tackled everything together and this will be no different. She encourages me every day to stay on track.

Anxiety has taken its toll on both of us. We have recently made the decision to close our car yard and are working from home part-time with our customer base. Getting up in the morning and not meeting people through work has had a big effect on us. We both enjoyed the car industry and the interaction between customers is something we both miss.

Looking back, Covid-19 lockdown took its toll on our small business and this possibly had a role in my stress levels prior to this event. We still have a way to go and it's hard to adjust when our previous life was so full on.

Advice to others

My advice would be not to underestimate the anxiety side of it and to be patient, as it will also affect those around you.

Keep doing what you learn at rehab most days. I walk three kilometres and, with some tai chi and aerobic exercise, I am feeling a lot better after three months.

I have learned that being confident and carefree does not make you bulletproof, so cherish life's blessings like family and friends and appreciate those who help you along this journey.

The Dalai Lama said, "There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done – yesterday and tomorrow."

Look after today.

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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1 Comment

  • Sandy 30 August 2021

    Thank you for your korero, timely reminder to concentrate on the present, and the things you can change eg lifestyle focus on what’s important to you eg, whanau and making lasting memories.