Knowing a heart attack when she sees one…

Dot was with her friend, Neil, when he suffered a heart attack. Three months later she was with her husband, Joe, when he had his. She’s watched both men’s experiences and seen how different they can be.

Dot’s had more experience than most in recognising a heart attack. Her dad had his first one when he was 48, and in the years that followed, the family became astute to the symptoms: “We would recognise when he was building up to a heart attack,” says Dot.

Dot remembers bringing her mum home from hospital one day when they passed an ambulance taking her dad in, after another heart attack. Those were challenging times, she says, but it was largely due to her dad’s experiences, as well as the recent Heart Foundation TV ad, that she knew the symptoms when she recognised them in her friend, Neil.

“The day Neil came over, he was just in such a stressed state…  I was sure it was a heart issue.”

Dot started questioning him: Did he have a sore throat? Was he nauseous? Did he have a pain in his chest? Did he have pain going down either arm? When he answered yes to all her questions, Dot immediately drove him to hospital where he went on to have a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Thanks to Dot, he was in the right place at the right time and able to be treated promptly.

With her husband Joe, however, the symptoms were quite different.

Joe’s heart attack

Joe had not been feeling himself for about 12 months prior. One of Dot and Joe’s children, Leanne, a homeopath, had been saying for a while that “dad doesn’t seem well”.

“He was breathless, but he is a smoker so we put it down to the fact that maybe his lungs weren’t as good as they should be,” says Dot. His colour was not great either, she says.

Then one day, while mowing the lawns at home, he came in sweating profusely. “He did not feel well and just could not get his breath.”

He admitted he needed to see a doctor, so Dot knew it was serious as he had only been to the doctor three times in 48 years.

Dot quickly got a nurse on the phone who advised them to call an ambulance, but – instead – Dot decided to drive him to hospital as they “live literally around the corner” from it, and she thought it would be quicker.

Joe went into ED while Dot tried to park the car. Originally he was told to stand in the queue, but once Dot arrived and explained the situation to the triage nurse, he was put in a wheelchair and taken in.

Comparing her husband’s heart attack with her friend’s, Dot says “the two scenarios could not have been more different...” 

At the time, Dot thought to herself, “Joe is coherent, he is not writhing around in pain like Neil had been. When she mentioned to a nurse that Neil’s heart attack was much more severe, she was told, “There is no such thing as a mild heart attack – a heart attack is a heart attack.”

Joe went on to have a second heart attack while in hospital – the day after his first one. But again, his experience in hospital was relatively relaxed, says Dot.

He even marvelled at the angioplasty procedure, where he had a stent placed in an artery that was 80% blocked, saying afterwards that he felt wonderful. “What a fantastic experience, it was so interesting.”

Three or four days later when Joe came home, he was actually excited, says Dot. “He said it was the best he had felt in ages.”

Life post treatment

Joe used to get out of breath, which gave the impression he was lazy, says Dot. He now sleeps a lot better and isn’t anxious about going to bed because of his breathing.

“He feels so much better he doesn’t feel he has to give up smoking!” adds Dot, who along with her daughter has been urging Joe to quit.

Joe’s cardiologist told him, “Carry on smoking, you will die.” But Joe’s reply to him was: “You may as well put a string around that file and send it to archives because I won’t be back. I have spoken to the people upstairs and they are not ready for me yet.” The cardiologist replied, “Oh is that right? You’ll be back if you don’t stop smoking!”

Dot has accepted she can’t make Joe quit – “everyone has to take responsibility for themselves”. He has, however, limited the number he smokes each day.

Joe hasn’t mowed the lawns since his heart attack (as that’s what he was doing when it happened) and he doesn’t want to. But he gets some exercise by taking occasional walks and being involved with bowls, and he’s now eating healthier, thanks to Dot’s extra-vigilance in the kitchen.

“I think it’s happened, almost unwittingly, but he has actually made quite a few adjustments,” says Dot. “We’ve just tried to get him away from things that stress him… but the main thing is just offering support and understanding.”

A common bond

Joe and Neil, having both experienced a heart attack, have developed a closer bond since their events, says Dot.

“Neil has been mentoring Joe. I think it has helped them both, to be honest. They ring up and they talk. When they are together they chat about things: ‘How do you feel about that? What did you do about this?’

“Rehabilitation for both of them has been very different. Neil has followed everything to the letter. Joe came home and the next day went to bowls with Neil, initially to watch, and ended up marking three games of singles. Neil could not have done that when he first came home.”

Joe’s heart attack hasn’t greatly impacted on family life, says Dot, except it has made everyone more aware of heart disease and the symptoms. “Neil and Joe are now sitting and waiting for me to have a heart attack because I carry extra weight, but maybe I am healthier than they think!!”

Humour aside, Dot’s advice to anyone affected by heart disease is to “ask for help if you need it” as that can see you through the rough times. “The amount of support that came through – phone calls, emails, people checking on Joe – that was a huge boost to Joe’s self-esteem, that people cared enough to do that.”   

 

Shared March 2017

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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