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“I’m very lucky to be alive”

Pete had emergency surgery for an aortic dissection in 2015, and two years later bypass surgery to insert four stents. Looking back, he says there were some warning signs he should have heeded.

Pete shares his heart story

It was April 2015, and a workday morning just like any other – but immediately after getting out of bed Pete knew something was wrong.

“I walked into the bathroom feeling very strange and literally just fell over,” the then 44-year-old remembers.   

Still conscious, but feeling very unwell, Pete got his wife to call the ambulance. The paramedics gave him an echocardiogram (ECG), but it showed nothing unusual.

“They said it was possibly a bit of indigestion or a bit of something else. They weren’t too sure what it was, but I was feeling far from fine.”

The paramedics offered to drive him to hospital but didn’t feel it was urgent enough to warrant a blue light. However, when he collapsed again in the ambulance, things got a lot more serious.

“I passed out in the ambulance,” says Pete. “Then a guy woke me up with a clipboard, and basically said you need to sign here or you’re going to die.”

The next thing Pete remembers is waking up in hospital with a row of stitches down his chest. He’d had emergency surgery for an aortic dissection which included an aortic valve replacement and graft to his ascending aorta.

“I was extremely lucky to survive that operation. My wife was told I had about 15-20% chance of survival. I’m very, very lucky to be alive.”

Recovery in hospital

Like many heart event survivors, one of the biggest challenges was the emotional shock he faced afterwards.

“I was bewildered, confused and I didn’t know what had happened. I really struggled to come to terms with the situation I was in because I didn’t understand what was going on.”

He said the medical staff gave great him care but didn’t have enough time to provide the emotional support he needed.

“I was in very good hands and being looked after very well, but there was not a lot of resource to sit down and explain to me what was going on, what had happened to me and why. I was craving facts and information, whilst also being in immense pain and my senses were dulled by the medication I was on.”

Pete was in intensive care for about nine days and then on a ward for a further week, before he was discharged.

Discharge process

“They discharged me because I begged to go home,” he says. “I just wanted to go back to what I thought was normality. In hindsight I probably should have taken a little more time to recover, but I was so keen to get out of hospital. I may have been told things that I should have listened to more carefully, but I don’t remember coming home that well.”

Determined that his life should once again be ‘normal’, Pete returned to work after about six weeks.

“My wife often discusses the fact that I was very keen to get from being not particularly well to going back to work as quickly as I could. I should have possibly taken more time, but when I was sitting at home I felt it was alien to me, because I’m a bit of a worker. I didn’t like being sick at all.”

Follow up surgery

Although the emergency surgery for the aortic dissection was successful, Pete still had an aortic aneurysm (a bulge in the aorta as a result of the tear) which his cardiac team continued to monitor.

Two years after the emergency surgery for the aortic dissection, Pete had further surgery to repair his aortic aneurysm. Four stents were placed in his aortic artery and his blood supply was rerouted at the arch of his aorta (the large blood vessel that enters the heart).

Warning signs

Looking back now, Pete admits he had a couple of warning signs in the lead-up to the aortic dissection.

“I wasn’t feeling generally unwell, but now looking back on it, there were definitely a few tell tale signs that I should have taken heed of.

“I was in Australia and I was walking up a hill with a couple of our sales reps and I suddenly became very breathless and had to sit down. And then flying home, I found myself breathless sitting in a resting position on an aeroplane.”

There was another red flag when he had a blood pressure check at a Men’s Health event at Pukekohe Raceway. Pete’s reading showed very high blood pressure (a risk factor for aortic dissection). The nurse said it might be a one-off high reading and suggested a second, because he’d just completed a high-speed lap of the track in a race car.

“She said, ‘If you’re still around in 10 minutes, come back and we’ll take your blood pressure again.’ I made a big joke and said, ‘If I’ve only got ten minutes to go, I’m going to go off and enjoy myself.’ So I wandered off and I didn’t think twice about it. Basically, I had the biggest warning sign that anyone could ask for and I decided to effectively ignore it.”

Lifestyle changes after aortic dissection

Pete has had to make some significant changes to his lifestyle since the aortic dissection.

“Physically it’s been difficult to adjust to the fact that I can’t do some of the things I used to. I used to go to the gym a lot, run a lot, play in touch rugby teams and netball teams. I just simply can’t do that anymore.”

These days he walks every night with his wife and has returned to the gym. He also makes other small changes to ensure he’s getting enough activity, like taking the stairs instead of lift.

He’s almost completely given up alcohol and reduced his stress levels at work.

“Since the operation I’ve changed my work hours, so I start a bit later and finish a bit later because it makes life a little bit easier with the traffic and the commute. And I’m just working a little bit more carefully. I do try to stop for a lunch break now, whereas before I didn’t.”

Emotional changes

Pete finds he’s much more emotional since the aortic dissection.

“I’m extremely empathetic to hardship, or people in trouble or anything like that – if I see that I tend to get quite upset. I’m a lot more sensitive.

He’s also noticed that he’s much more short-tempered than he was before the heart event.

“Here’s an example of how ridiculous it can be,” he says. “I’d just driven home from work and my son came outside with a big smile on his face to say hello and I had a go at him for wearing his socks in the wet driveway. It was just absolutely ridiculous. That’s just an example of the red mist, if you like, of the temper that has come since the heart operation. You get wound up about something that is so insignificant.

“I sometimes have to take a very big breath and smell the roses and realise that I’m just lucky to be here.”

It goes without saying that the impact on Pete’s family has been huge.

“It was a nightmare for them I imagine,” he says. “One minute I’m jumping around the house and carrying on like normal and the next minute I’m in a hospital bed and they’re not sure what’s going on.

“I pay great tribute to my immediate family – my wife and son – because they were incredible. My wife is an absolute trooper putting up with this miserable old so-and-so for the last four years.”

Help for people with an aortic dissection

Pete encourages people who’ve had an aortic dissection to connect with others who’ve experienced the same thing.

“Quite often people don’t realise how valuable it is until they meet a group of similar people and start to discuss their problems openly in a comfortable environment,” he explains. “Then you can see them nodding and thinking ‘oh yes I’ve walked in your shoes, I understand, and I can empathise.’”

For Pete, that support came from a friendship formed with two other men who’d had aortic repair surgery. He met Dave at cardiac rehabilitation classes and the pair started catching up on a regular basis. Not long after that they connected with John, another aortic dissection survivor. The three formed a close friendship, and Pete says that friendship has been a huge part of the trio’s recovery.

“It’s been probably the most valuable thing through this whole process. It’s fantastic,” he says.

Pete also encourages people to find out as much information as they can about their condition and the situation that they’re in.

“You really have to own the situation that you find yourself in. You have to get your medication correct. You have to understand what the condition is you have. You have to understand your limitations. And emotionally you need to reach out. You need to find people with a common understanding and empathy of what you’re going through.”


Shared May 2019

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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  • Susan 6 March 2024

    I have read many of these stories beginning with the first one about our dear friend, Doug Barker, a real miracle man. Our very own Mr. Fantastic.

    Each story touching me in such a profound way. The horrific details of how close you all came to losing your life; and the harrowing moments, hours, days and months that loved ones waited and prayed that all things would turn out ok.

    I am deeply touched that you all, all of you survivors, patients and families learned the hardest lesson for any of us to learn when our lives are busily moving forward at a nano second pace; tomorrow is not guaranteed!!! Think about balance and how you’re living your most precious moments; the present. It is all we have. Tomorrow is not promised. I hope you all let go of your regrets from symptoms you didn’t listen to and learn to forgive yourselves. You have paid your debt already. Remember your past mistakes are lessons and not meant to be a life sentence.

    You all are awe-inspiring!!! I wish you continued good health, joy in your heart and days that you appreciate and people that you love more than you could ever have imagined. ❤️

  • Darryl 26 April 2023

    Glad I came across this site,I don’t feel so alone now

  • Gary 4 April 2023

    4/3/2023 Hi everyone I am 77 year old male who had a dissection of my Aorta in the Arch very near the heart. This happened July 8th of 2022. Due to the place it happened. I am not able to to have surgery. My hospital has sent me home under medical recovery. Due to it’s being a rare survival I have not had much luck in finding any real life expectancy time frame. My doctor is following a watchful waiting stance. I have been told to live day to day. I check in every 3 months watch my BP. take my beta blocker and pray.

  • Li 5 January 2023

    My friend got a dacron graft after his aorta tore due to high blood pressure/hypertension. Pete mentioned his short temper, my friend has this too. Within seconds he gets disgruntled about trivial things or when something annoys him he immediately jumps at the chance to castigate or whatever it is he needs to blow up on. I’m sad Pete had to go back for surgery a few years later. But he’s alive, so glad to see.

  • Joey 25 August 2022

    I am 44 years old just had aortic dissection 10/10/2021 so scary and have lots of questions

  • Carol 30 July 2022

    I had a thoracic aorta dissection last June. I went into cardiac arrest for 4mins, also had complications and was in a coma 2 weeks. Spent 3 months in hospital. I am so grateful for all their hard work saving my life. I have trouble walking, I can’t walk unaided, hoping it wears off, I get tired easily, but I am 74 so expected. My memory has been affected. Well I wish you all a better future. Take care all. Carol

  • Eva 28 June 2022

    Hi, my husband Alex had a Aortic Aneurysm on Saturday. Operation went well but had kidney complications so they have him on dialysis. He is also in a ventilator. They found a clot on his right leg and said they needed to do another surgery. Then the nurse said that they gave him blood thinner meds. Thankfully it helped and doesn’t need surgery for now. Today is Monday. He hasn’t woken up yet. How long did it take for you to wake up? Because of Covid I can’t be with him in the ICU. I visited him last night for a short period of time. Just praying and waiting for him to wake up.

  • Donna 21 May 2022

    My husband had a aortic dissection April 2022 and has developed a chronic cough and throat clearing since his surgery that none of the doctors can figure out. Saw a pulmonologist, ENT, cardiologist and no one knows what it is but all chest X-rays are clear . Anyone have this problem


  • Marietta 25 April 2022

    My 52 yr old husband had Aortic Dissection in September 2021. A sudden backpain whilst driving at a 100 km/hr. We were told the only help he needed was emergency open heart surgery. He was alert, signed the consent for the surgery and told me to stay strong. He stayed in ICU for 16 days and 10 more days in the ward. He doesn’t remember anything that happened on that day. He is doing well now, had 6 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation. The doctors are still monitoring a dissection in his descending aorta, lots of antihypertensives. He was told to have normal life as usual, it is never the same but we are very grateful still.

  • Teresa 4 March 2022

    Hi Pete, my husband had an aortic dissection 5 years ago and still has weird sensations, light heaviness, pins and needles, comes and goes since the operation - yearly checks have all been fine - has this happened to you at all?

  • Gary 22 October 2021

    I had an aortic dissection in March of 2014. The disssection was in the assending aorta and required emergency surgery with a 3 inch graft to repair. I was off work four months after surgery but returned to full duty with no problem. I was 56 at the time and just retired in september of 2021. I have annual checks and so far every thing still looks good according to the Doctor. I have always been an exerciser and still am, I just can’t lift heavy weights. I know someday I might require more surgery but the Doctor tells me to keep doing what I have been doing.

  • Steven 9 April 2021

    Had aortic replacement in October. Been back at work 6 weeks. Since starting back been getting really tired wanting to sleep all the time. Could this be medication?

  • Jason 6 April 2021

    I had a type A aortic dissection around 5 or 6 weeks ago, the operation was a success but now I’ve been told I have two more tears, one of which is near my heart, I am only 30 years old and this has messed me up emotionally and mentally

  • Tracy 5 March 2021

    Hi. I am a 54 year old young lady. I had my first SCAD episode in October 2001. I was only 34. I was directing the choir at church and noticed a heavy feeling in my left arm. Broke out in a cold sweat and out of breath and felt like an elephant on my chest. I thought to myself ... “I’m to young to have a heart attack. Well the pain stopped so I thought I’d go home and lay down. Before I got home I had to turn around and drive myself to the ER. They told me I had had two heart attacks. So I got transferred to a more trained hospital with SCAD experience. I had to have open heart surgery because of a dissection of 4 inches. They put me on an IV drip of nitroglycerin for a week. Did another heart clath and it had split another 4 inches. All in all the artery had split 8 inches. The surgeon did surgery of a bypass. I never had any blockages. I was healthy. They thought maybe I had been on cocaine which dissections cause SCAD. So all in all I’ve had five heart attacks and five dissections. Last one happened in July 2016. I’m on a lot of meds ranging from cholesterol, several blood pressure meds and potassium. So it’s been 5 years now since I’ve had one so the doctors got it right. I agree with depression. I was really bad after all that happened to me. So hang in there and if you have ANY pain don’t dismiss it. Be safe and get it checked out.

  • patty 26 January 2021

    ... I sure feel alone.  Feb. 18, 2020 I had an aortic dissection, same day the W.H.O. declared the Corona pandemic.  I am on a roller coaster of emotion.  I came across this site by accident.

  • David 29 October 2020

    Good story mate I had one 4yrs ago in America had less than 1hr to live
    Great now tho although I had a stent too 11 months after operation!

  • Lorna 14 July 2019

    Hi Pete.
    I read and listened to your story. I found the information very informing to which we can all learn from.
    Beat wishes for the future.

  • Janine 31 May 2019

    I have survived 3 aortic Dissections and have a mechanical valve and mostly repaired aorta. Still a triple lumen to possibly sort out.
    We have a support group FB page at