“It was life-changing”

After a heart attack and cardiac arrest, Steve knows he's lucky to be here. Since then he's lost 20 kgs, taken up exercise, and - armed with his heart medication - is optimistically looking forward to the future.

Looking back, my journey probably started 15-20 years ago. My doctor prescribed statin pills for high cholesterol. These I took daily, along with a high blood pressure pill.

One day my uncle visited and we got talking health. When the statin subject came up, he assured me that was the worst thing I could take. He dropped off an Atkins Diet DVD and a book, which I watched and read, and decided that maybe statins weren't for me.

I asked my doctor, who said it was entirely my decision to stop or continue. It became very simple for me to stop the medication and eat the fat off the meat etc., as my uncle told me that's what we should be doing. This freedom lasted but I was a bit sceptical and I tried not to consume too much.

The years went by and I changed my drinking habits, moving from beer to pre-mixed bourbon cans. These contained too much sugar, but I thought, 'OK, I don't smoke so yes, I've got one vice' – but I always wished they could be made with sugar free cola.

My weight went upwards. My clothes were always too small, too tight. My wife and doctor were always telling me to lose weight, but it never happened.

Work stress

For 30 years we owned our own business – serving and repairing fishing vessels at Port Nelson – and we employed around 15+ staff. It was always quite stressful. Things came to a head in May 2017 when I had to have a full knee replacement. I ended up transferring the large majority of staff to another company. We kept two workers and they continued on while I slowly got back on board.

We got smaller jobs, which seemed less stressful, and I felt a lot better. We downsized the workshop, rented a smaller place and life became a lot less stressful. I was back on the tools but my exercise, eating and drinking habits did not change.

Things cruised along for a year until the following May, the day the shit hit the fan – May 7, 2018.

Warning signs begin

I was working all day at Nelson Hospital above the theatres, measuring up the pipe-work to install a new steriliser. I was struggling to walk from down in the visitors' car park to up above the theatres in the roof space. I also wondered what I had eaten as I had continuous heartburn which I could not get rid of. But I continued on.

I completed my day and had a 25-kilometre drive home. I needed diesel so I stopped in Richmond and noticed my left arm had some pain, which was not unusual – I'd had that for maybe 20 years. I filled up and carried on home, but on the way my arm was so numb I had to nurse it on my left knee. As the ute is automatic, this wasn't a problem. 

I got home and changed into my chainsaw and wood-collecting clothes and made a honey sandwich to see if that would sort the heartburn. The heartburn was the same as it had been all day and my left arm was still sore. 

I walked out and looked at the tractor, which I was going to use to get the wood, but I felt like crap, so I rang Leanne, my wife, who was visiting a sick friend at Nelson Hospital.

She didn't answer so I sat on the couch for a while. My wife texted to say she was heading home so I rang her and told her my symptoms. 

She said, "Ring an ambulance or you ring the doctor immediately and he'll ring for one for you!" I rang the doctor and reception put me through to a nurse who advised me to ring 111 and get an ambulance, which I did. The person at 111 asked me exactly where I lived. Did I have anything on the stove cooking? Did I have any pets that needed tying up or putting in a pound? Was I on any medication and could I have that with me? 

Ambulance on its way

While I was talking to the 111 person, I could hear a siren coming along the highway but never thought it was the one I rang for. Moments later, there was a knock at the door, which I had left open, and two St John people came in. The medics asked if I needed a stretcher and I said, "No, I'm all right. I can walk, and I'm sorry, I really think this is a waste of your time."

They said, "Now we're here we better check you, so lie down on the bed in the ambulance."

On the way out to the ambulance, I remember looking around and hoping that none of the neighbours were looking as I felt embarrassed that this should be happening to me. Thank God no one was watching. Getting into the ambulance I was thinking all the time, 'This is way over the top, there's nothing wrong with me, what a waste of time.'

The ambo lady got a razor and shaved some hair off my chest and stuck sticky patches on here and there. Then she plugged wires from a machine onto connections on the patches and turned on the machine.

They told me I was OK and this reassured me that I was wasting their time. 

My wife Leanne arrived home. They told her that nothing was showing on the ECG, but as a precaution they'd take me in for a check up. They told Leanne to grab a sweater for me and pick me up at the emergency department (ED).  

Leanne left the ambulance to put her stuff away. The ambo lady said she would just spray some nitrolingual spray under my tongue and apologized for the terrible taste. I assured her it wasn't too bad.

Situation changes rapidly

It seemed to be that just moments after the spray, I started getting all dizzy. I could see a white box in the corner of the ambulance roof and it was brilliant white. Bricks the size of a smart phones, also brilliant white, were cascading into the box.

I might add that I still had no pain apart from heartburn and a sore left arm was my only discomfort.

I was next aware of the medic saying, "Come back, Steve, come back." I didn't realise that I had just died and they had resuscitated me!

This must have taken a while. All this time Leanne was outside wondering, 'Why are they not moving?' as she had seen them buckle me in and they had closed the door of the ambulance.

She walked up to the side of the ambulance and saw them doing chest compressions and using the defibrillator to get me going again. She got a huge shock! Once my heart was beating again, they told Leanne that I was now in critical condition and to get someone to pick her up and take her to hospital!

Cardiac arrest a shock for my wife

I can only imagine how shocked and terrified Leanne must have been when she looked through the ambulance window and saw the ambos administering CPR. Then she had to follow in her car to hospital – that must have been traumatic for her. But me, I was oblivious to what had happened and what was happening. There was no pain whatsoever and I was in very capable hands.

Things could have been very different had I insisted that Leanne take me in her car instead of using the 111 service. There would have been no way she could have driven and carried out CPR on the side of the road and got me to hospital alive, if in fact I had still been alive by the time she got home!

We pulled up outside the hospital and I was wheeled in. When the doors opened, I couldn't believe how many people were there waiting and buzzing around. It blew me away. I still didn't see what all the fuss was about and thought it was a waste of time and energy.

I felt a bit embarrassed as I was dressed in an old black woolen singlet, ripped shorts and old shoes. Now I was in an area with 12 or more doctors, nurses and a guy shouting out orders who looked like an orderly. Later I found out he was the cardiologist who had been at home painting his house when he got a call to come in.

Exactly what was happening was a blur. They were doing so many tests and had inserted a needle which allowed them to administer whatever they needed to.

I was gutted when a nurse came with a huge pair of scissors and cut my singlet off me.

Another cardiac arrest during angiogram

After more tests I was wheeled off to a room for an angiogram. The cardiologist was pushing a wire thing into my right wrist and into an artery. I could see it going in and it hurt like mad. Before he got to my elbow, I said "Oh my God, that hurts."

He said, "Can you handle morphine?" I said yes, and he yelled out "Give him some giggle juice right now." That must have worked because I didn't feel a thing after that.

From here on, this is from what I was told.

When the wire reached my aorta, my heart said 'I can't handle any more of this' and stopped for a third time. With the wire sitting in a critical position in my heart, they could not preform CPR. Luckily they were able to inject adrenaline to get the heart going again.

All this must have worked and the cardiologist was able to carry on but the pictures he was looking at on the monitor showed no blood on the left side.

He inserted a stent into the blocked artery and restored the blood flow to my heart muscle. Luck was on my side.

All of this was a rushed life or death moment. Had the insertion of a stent not been successful, my other option would have been bypass surgery, which would've needed to be done in Wellington Hospital.

Transfer to intensive care

I was then transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Leanne was there, wondering what on earth had happened as I had blood all around my mouth and my bottom lip was black inside and out, because of the adrenaline. I couldn’t enlighten her, because I knew nothing of the previous events.

In the ICU, I was connected to machines that could monitor everything. Leanne was beside my bed when all of a sudden the team raced in. Apparently I had just had yet another event, for the fourth time. The ICU team expertly bought me back! The anesthetist arrived to put in a lure as it was decided that maybe the next plan of action was to intubate me! The trolley was set up and left at the end of the bed. By this time Leanne was totally freaking out!

The cardiologist was talking to Leanne who was supported by the ICU Charge Nurse and he told her that things weren't looking to good for me. He said most people who have these serious events don't survive! They had no idea how I would recover because of the lack of oxygen and the damage to the heart.

It became too much for Leanne. Having watched me being resuscitated twice, she decided to leave me with my brother watching over me while she went home and get ready for our kids, who were arriving next day – two from Melbourne and one from Invercargill.

Leanne must have conveyed to the kids how serious it was because they all got to the airports quickly. My son walked into ICU around 8.30am the next morning all the way from Melbourne, followed by my daughter from Melbourne as well.

Wow, it was amazing and overwhelming to see them, which made me very teary. My other daughter arrived from Invercargill and was very teary as well. I couldn't believe how quick they had all arrived. They ended up staying for a week and it was some of the nicest time I have had with all them — not for a wedding, not for Christmas, and luckily/thankfully not for a funeral.

The thought of them all home for my funeral was very emotional. Everyone was saying I'd come back, but I didn't know I'd left!

Lecture from the cardiologist

Leanne managed to get a couple of hours rest before coming back in to relieve my brother the next morning! I was actually feeling hungry and they bought me some porridge and fruit.

The cardiologist and his team arrived soon after and they were all amazed that I was sitting up eating! He actually said this was not the result he was expecting and what a very lucky chap I was!

He gave me a bit of a lecture about how big I was and how many calories one needs to survive per day. He reckoned that by looking at my weight I could live on water and vitamins for a couple of years. My reality check big time!

I had an echo cardio. The team came back in and the cardiologist said they were amazed at how little damage had been done and with the correct drugs a lot of the damage would be able to be repaired. I was one very lucky man.

I spent another half-day in the ICU before going to the ward. The sore tongue and lip from the adrenaline had left quickly, and so had the rib pain. I was pain-free and had never taken any painkillers at all.

After two days on the ward, I was discharged from hospital and went home with nine different pills to take every day. Having all the family there was incredible. These times were amazing and meant so much to me.

Lifestyle changes

Over the next few months I gave up alcohol, bread, fatty and sugary foods and lost approximately 20 kilos. I joined a gym. I then went for a check-up with the cardiologist three months later and he couldn't believe I was the same person.

I had another echocardiogram and he made the decision to do another angiogram and put in another stent, this time up through an artery in the groin. This time it was a day visit.

At the follow-up appointment a few weeks later, he told me to get out there and start "revving my motor". This I did and have never stopped. He said I was one patient he felt didn’t need to be checked up on all the time. He was confident that with my changes and medication that I was on the right road to recovery. Wow.

It's now a year on and I feel great. The gym and my personal trainer have helped me get movement and strengthen muscles to relieve my sore joints, so everyday tasks can be done effortlessly.

I'm still working five to seven days a week and enjoying life, but I still need to watch my diet – it's easy to slip back into bad habits. Luckily I have a good wife who eats healthy. This helps.

Emotional support

I became very emotional after I got home and after the kids left. I joined a Healthy Heart group that meets once a month. I am 62 now and I am the youngest person in there – and the only one who has died four times after having a heart attack. They asked me to speak to them on my first visit and I could not talk for crying. I couldn't understand why this emotion had such a grip on me.

The whole event did not feel it was about me – even though having lost around 20 kg, I could now use my old wardrobe again!

This initially made me feel happy and good, but I found I wasn't sleeping all right and started questioning why I had been chosen to come back anyway. Life started to get me down and I wondered why was I spared?

I became a bit depressed and anxious – but I also felt bad for feeling that way because I had been spared from death and should be happy and grateful. I went to my GP and he put me on anti-anxiety medication which has made me a lot better now.

Reflecting on a heart journey

This was my journey in 2018. It’s now 2019 and I continue to be forever grateful for all the teams that saved my life! This major event has been life-changing for me! I have been able to reflect on my life and slowly make other changes to my lifestyle so I get to optimistically enjoy my future!!

I wished I had spent more time on my own projects instead of always doing jobs for other people, but I have new changes on the horizon and these personal projects should be achievable before I get too old.

Looking to the future, Leanne and I are now keen to sell our workshop and build a home on our land out in the country. With a new home, the children may wish to come and see us and stay.

There are also the grandchildren we are hoping will soon come. Now I will be ready for them. I'll be healthy and be able to enjoy watching them grow and learn. I'm looking forward to the fun Leanne and I can have together with them.

Looking back, I feel I was way too busy while our kids were growing up and maybe I will have lots more time to be a better grandparent than I was a parent. Leanne was an amazing parent who gave the kids as much time as she could.

And then there is Leanne herself. She is the best reason for a second chance in life.

Steve

Shared October 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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