“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.
“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).
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.”
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