‘I’ve got to be doing something’
For someone who doesn’t like to sit still, recovering from open heart surgery posed a particular challenge for Graeme: “I just wanted to be up and doing something.”
A fit man all his life, with a self-professed need to keep busy, Graeme was surprised to learn last year that four of his arteries were severely blocked.
What gave it away was a recurring sensation in his throat that came on after working strenuously in the garden for 45 minutes, or running up four or five flights of stairs. It felt like a lump in his throat, which made it hard to swallow.
When he asked his doctor about it one day, he was advised to “take an antacid”, but when indigestion remedies didn’t make a difference, Graeme went back to his doctor again: “And he says, ‘Oh hang on a minute, a lump in your throat – I think you might have angina.’”
Sure enough, three weeks later, a treadmill test at the hospital confirmed his heart was under pressure. Another three weeks later, an angiogram showed just how much pressure: “I was blocked up quite excessively, the arteries were 98% blocked in one, and 92%, 85% and 83% in the others.”
He went on a waiting list for coronary artery bypass graft surgery at Wellington Hospital and after a few months had rolled by, he thought he’d chase up the hospital for his appointment. When he phoned up he was offered an appointment for the following Wednesday – “If I hadn’t rung I might’ve waited quite a while.”
Below, we pick up Graeme’s story from how he felt before his surgery and after, in his own words as told to the Heart Foundation in a phone interview.
Optimistic going into surgery
"Some people I’ve spoken to since, who were waiting like I was to have the operation were a little apprehensive, but it didn’t faze me one bit. I didn’t care if I had the operation or not, because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me.
"I went down there quite cavalier, thinking they’ll open me up and find there’s nothing there, you know. I went down there thinking I was on a busman’s holiday. I don’t know why, I was just so relaxed with that whole thing.
"The whole time I was down there having the operation, I just felt like – not quite under God’s jurisdiction – but that someone was looking after me. Because when I went down there and I stripped off, they saw this vein on the side of my leg which I knew would be the one they chose. It was sticking out like a drainpipe running down the side of a commercial building, it was this big, long vein you could see poking out.
"And they said ‘wow, that’s the vein we’ll take’, and they used that vein in my heart. They didn’t need to use any others, they got it all out of that main one. In fact, if I look at it now I can hardly see any scar whatsoever, it’s completely gone. Amazing.
"I’m very grateful to my surgeon who did a marvellous job..."
Recovery and his time in the ward
"So under recovery, it was okay, the only problem I always have is the recovery from the anaesthetic. I’ve had a few procedures before under anaesthetic and my wife always used to come down and talk in in my ear to get me out of the anaesthetic stupor. Sometimes it would take maybe five or six hours, but I know that after this operation I was supposed to wake up at 9.00 in the morning and my wife couldn’t wake me until about 6.30 that night.
"I must’ve been under the anaesthetic still (throughout that first night) because I was dozing off and waking up, and every time I looked at the clock in the room it only seemed to have moved a quarter of an hour.
"I couldn’t get back to sleep at night because I was in a ward where I could see the night nurse – I could see her working on her paperwork. Time was going very, very slowly, and of course in a hospital they wake you up every four hours to take your blood pressure and all sorts of monitoring so you don’t get a very good night’s sleep.
"I think they gave me a shower probably the second day after my operation, which was a little bit hard to do because I was all strapped up with bandages around me, and tapes and things.
"There were people in the same ward as me, men that were the same ages as me or maybe two or three years younger. When they were walking around post-op, they were walking around on walking frames and I was passing them going down the hallway and I was just walking like normal, you know, and I’d say ‘excuse me for passing you but I’m going for my daily exercise’ and I’d be so embarrassed because they were pushing a walker around and I’m breezing past at a million miles an hour.
"I didn’t feel weak at all, I felt quite good. Maybe it was my size, the other men were a bigger build.
"All the other patients around me – the men I’d talk to during the day – they’d just sit in bed reading. I’d get out of my bed and walk up and down the corridors – I found all sorts of different parts of the hospital that I didn’t even know existed and after a while it got a bit boring because I was going up and down the same corridors, but I’d look at pictures on the wall, oh and I’d talk to strangers. I’d do anything rather than lie in that little bed
"So anyway I was in there for maybe another three or four days, then they signed me off and I went home."
Back at home – not the most patient of patients
"I must admit, I wasn’t as strong as I thought I’d be. I thought I’d be coming home and back in the garden but I had to sit around for six months. It was quite boring really.
"If my wife had still been working and left me at home, I’d probably be out in the garage doing all sorts of things – so probably in my recovery I should actually give credit to my wife because she watched everything I did.
"Oh yes, I used to do things when my wife wasn’t looking. I have a hobby with old cars and sort folk out with second-hand parts. It entails lifting heavy boxes down from a loft which can weigh up to 25 to 35 kilograms. When my wife wasn’t watching I’d slide boxes around, balancing on the top of my step ladder until I retrieved required item. Bit naughty, but I want to be useful and other people rely on me for help that they can’t find anywhere else.
"Oh, this is another thing: pre-op I used to boil my porridge on the stove, and while it was boiling I’d get down on the floor – I’ve been doing this for years – I’d do 60 push-ups straight up. When I came out of the hospital I tried to do one, which was crazy because I’ve got this big huge cut down my chest, I couldn’t even do one. My wife caught me, she said ‘don’t you try and do anything!’
"They say now my cut is healed and I should be able to do anything, but when I try doing push-ups I get to about 15 and the scar on my chest doesn’t like it, but I still do all the other exercises. I go to the gym once a week and when my trainer isn’t looking I increase my weights. I’m a bit naughty really. But being slight, I want to build muscle and I’m not going to build muscle if I don’t have any resistance.
"I have got a pain at the moment, it’s actually quite aggravating: my right arm, for some reason, as soon as I go to bed, it aches from my wrist to the shoulder and it feels like it’s in my bones actually…. I haven’t been to the doctor, I usually only go when I need more pills.
"I was a bit naughty the other day when I took my grandson to the park, they’ve got exercise equipment that the public can use. I was on this particular piece of equipment, using my arms and a wee boy stopped with his Dad to look and, of course, I kept going and I think I might have overdone it. But I did have the pain before I tried that silly trick."
Check-ups, medication and peace of mind
"I generally go four times a year and have regular check-ups. Prior to my operation I wasn’t on any pills whatsoever. I used to laugh at my friends and say ‘how many pills are you on?’ and they’d show me trays of pills. Now I’m the same.
"Every now and again when I’m doing my exercises, I get a bit puffed and I think ‘what if I’ve overdone it?’ But I do take my spray with me when I go to the gym and I might take it if I’m going for a long, long walk. I’ll pop it in my pocket, just in case, but our walks are usually flat, there’s no steep hills, so I’m not getting exerted.
"Two weeks after my operation I had to use my spray, but I used it incorrectly. When I’d first got out of hospital I was prescribed all these pills, seven I think. I was quite annoyed, and I’d take them all at once. No-one ever told me that some I’d need to take in the morning, others in the evening. So one day, after I’d done that, about an hour later I was on the couch and I said to my wife ‘I don’t feel right, I feel like I’m going to faint’ and she said ‘take your spray, take your spray’.
"Well, I’d never used it before, I didn’t have a clue, I didn’t even know how to raise my tongue. My wife said ‘you haven’t got your tongue up’. Well I finally did and I sprayed the spray under my tongue. I still felt a bit woozy, so I grabbed the spray again and did two more puffs. Well, then I started to feel really bad, I actually passed out.
"My wife rang 111 and the ambulance arrived in due course, but what it was, I shouldn’t have taken those second puffs of spray. I should’ve just done the one, because it takes two or three minutes to work.
"Now I know…. And now I don’t have so many pills and take two in the morning and two at night.
"Pre-op and post-op we went to these Heart Foundation meetings they have here in Palmerston North at the PHO. We did nine different titles each week and we’ve done it about two times over. I’ve even been recently with my sister – she had a heart attack and had a stent put in and now feels a million dollars. So I’m taking her along to these meetings so she knows all about her heart, pills and exercise and different things she has to do. The support’s been fantastic.
"I was (also) nominated to go to this group…. it’s a gym foundation. It’s actually a business, but the hospital board pays for people like myself, post-op, to go through this 12-week course where you have this personal trainer. They really look after you when you do this exercise programme.
"Now I’m on a different programme and I go to the local gym. There’s a pool, I still get a trainer and this is all paid for through the hospital board so I’m very grateful for having those two gym activities that I’ve been given.
"I’m thinking of going full-time at the gym I’m currently going to. I feel good, I feel a lot younger than I really am.
"I’ve got friends much younger than me and they sit around watching TV all day. I couldn’t do it, I said ‘you might as well be in a rest home if you’re going to sit around all day doing nothing’, but of course, they’re bigger people and it’s harder to move around with a walking stick. I’m grateful for being small because I think it’s given me another 20 years of my life."
Diet and cutting back on sugar
"When we went to this Heart Foundation meeting, they explained about plaque and cholesterol and particularly sugars.
"When I was in my teenage years, we had this dairy business that my father had bought – I used to go down in to the shop at night-time and steal the lollies out of the jar. I wasn’t the only one, my sisters used to do the same things.
"They were saying at the Heart Foundation, that all those sugars you’ve had over the years, it’s like a primer for your arteries, then the cholesterol comes along and it clings to your arteries, more so because of that sugary content in your diet. That’s why my arteries were all blocked up, I have a very sweet tooth.
"My wife spoils me rotten with restaurant type meals every night, plus I would say out of the last 42 years together, we have only missed out on desserts one or two days out of every week therein. My wife and myself just don’t put on weight and neither have got over 60 kg in all the time we’ve been married.
"Myself, I eat for two men and pick out of the pantry between meals but alas I’m the same weight I was when 21. Guess we are hyperactive or have a fast metabolism?
"Luckily, our vast vegetable garden provides us with ample produce year-round, including many herbs.
"And though it used to be up in the 5, 6 7s, my cholesterol is now down to about 3.2.
"I’m truly grateful for all the help I’ve received from hospital surgeons and the PHO and Heart Foundation."
Shared November 2016