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Kōrero is an important medicine

When Cliff had a cardiac arrest, the paramedic who revived him was a long-lost childhood friend. He reflects on fate, friendship and the need for kōrero after life-changing events

Cliff remembers nothing of the morning of 18 August 2014, but for his partner it was terrifying.

“My partner woke up to me shaking in bed. My hands were in the air, sort of rigid, and she thought maybe I was choking on the snoring mouthguard that I sleep with. But she pulled the mouthguard out and realised my tongue was swollen and that something clearly wasn’t right. She jumped straight on the phone and dialed 111.”

As Cliff lives very close to the hospital, the paramedics arrived in minutes and began defibrillation immediately. But after 20 minutes with no success, time was running out and the paramedics began to debate when to make the call.

“There was one paramedic who’d come separately and had just arrived. His suggestion was to try one last time, and then call it if nothing came of that,” Cliff says. “So, they did that – and got a very very faint heartbeat. So, it was a miracle that day, him walking in at that late stage, otherwise that would’ve been it. I would not be here today.” 

What’s more, it soon became clear that the lives of Cliff and his miracle worker had been intertwined many years before.

Friends reunited

“This is the cool part of the story,” says Cliff. “On the drive to ICU, the paramedic, Steve, was going through my notes. When he saw my full name, he asked my partner if I went to school in Upper Hutt. When my partner said I did, he goes, ‘oh I can’t believe it – we were best mates 30 years ago!’ And this is the guy that asked his colleagues to give me one more shock. Wow!”  

What’s more, Cliff learnt later that Steve almost didn’t attend his cardiac arrest.

“He was on his way home, almost back to Johnsonville, after a long, long shift. When he heard the call go out about my cardiac arrest he was thinking please don’t call me I want to go home. But then they asked him to respond and of course he came along.”

Once reunited by fate, the old friends have since kept in touch. “We probably catch up a couple of times a year, have a beer and a bit of chat.”

Emotional confusion after cardiac arrest

The ambulance took Cliff to Wellington Hospital, where he spent about a day on the intensive care unit, before he slowly started to come out of the coma.

“All I remember is waking up in a dark room with the little pulse monitor on the end of my finger, and it was glowing. I really freaked out. I was wondering why my finger was glowing and the room was dark. It was a bit surreal and I had a tube down my throat and that’s when I started panicking a bit. But then I was just in and out of consciousness for hours.”

Later he was moved from ICU to a private room on the ward, where the presence of family members from overseas also confused him.

“By the time I got up lots of my family members were there. My brothers had flown in from Australia, because they’d had a whole day to get there, whereas I was thinking it was still the morning. I had no idea what had happened really.”

It took a while for Cliff to really understand what had happened to him.

It was like Groundhog Day. Every five minutes I’d see people, and I’d ask them the same questions: What are you doing here? How’ve you been? The lack of oxygen for those nearly 20 minutes really affected my memory at that time.”

Finding the cause of the problem

Cliff was told that his cardiac arrest had been caused by a very fast and irregular heart rate, a condition called tachyarrhythmia. On the third day in hospital he had an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) inserted to reduce his risk of further cardiac arrests.

The doctors also tried to identify whether his condition might have had a genetic link.

“They did some tests to find out whether it was heart disease or whether there’s anything that runs in the family. So, a lot of my siblings and my mother got tested too, but we didn’t find anything,” Cliff explains.

“The only thing we really thought of was that my grandfather on my father’s side passed away in very similar circumstances and he was only 49 at the time. But there’s not really a family history of heart disease. So, it’s a bit of a unique one, just one of those things that just happened.”

Recovering after discharge from hospital

Cliff returned to work after about three weeks, which, in hindsight, was probably too soon.

“I went back to work thinking I was fine, physically and mentally, and then falling asleep at lunchtime. By that time I was zonked, and I’d only been at work three hours,” he recalls. “In hindsight I probably should’ve only worked a couple of days a week and eased myself back into it, instead of being a typical Kiwi bloke and thinking ‘she’ll be right’, which wasn’t the case at all.”

One of the biggest impacts of the cardiac arrest was on Cliff’s memory, which he found particularly tricky at work.

“I’d take a phone call and I’d get off the phone and then I’d think what was that about? I’d have literally forgotten and it would take me a good 10-15 minutes before I’d remember! Even now with customers, I have to say, ‘Please don’t think I’m being rude but I just need to write a few notes down otherwise I won’t remember.’ That’s my biggest side effect, the fact that my memory took a beating.”  

The emotional impact of cardiac arrest

The other big side effect was the emotional fallout that followed his close brush with death. Cliff soon discovered that not dealing with this came at a price – particularly for those closest to him.

“When you don’t talk about stuff like that it really can affect how you treat others, especially your close-knit whānau and friends,” he explains. “I was not being a very nice person for a while, but I didn’t realise I was behaving that way.”

While he got good support from the local cardiac nurse, Cliff wishes he’d attended all the cardiac rehabilitation sessions as well.

“I should’ve attended more of those sessions. It would have been good to have a kōrero with other people and share that experience and to know you’re not the only one.”

Kōrero is an important medicine

Cliff’s most important advice to others who’ve had a heart event is to make sure they allow enough time for recovery.

“I think the most important thing is making time. It’s really important, especially in recovery. Don’t be like me and just go through it and think it’s all OK. That’s never the case. There are side effects when you go through something like this. It’s not just that physical toll, it’s the mental toll it has as well.”

Kōrero with others who’ve been through the same kind of thing is a great way to deal with the emotions that come with a life-changing event, Cliff says. 

“Having a kōrero about it with people is a real benefit. You don’t necessarily have to tell your story, even just listening to other people’s stories is as good as having some magic medicine to take. It’s so therapeutic.”

He also encourages people to put a plan in place to get them through the recovery period. “You need that plan because it’s easy to think everything’s going to be OK. But you’ve got to realise this is a life-changing event.”

Look after your physical wellbeing too

Cliff has also made an effort to get fitter and stronger and take a healthier approach towards nutrition.

“For me it wasn’t about losing weight, it was more about becoming stronger and fitter, which helps your brain. Any exercise helps your brain and keeps you motivated,” he explains. “It’s about all around health and well-being. At the end of the day, if your body’s as healthy as possible and you’re putting good things in to it, then that can really change your life.”

He’s also trying to stress less about the little things in life and make more time for those things that are really important.

“There’s always little things that bug you in life, but I’ve found that sometimes you have to take a step back and go, this isn’t really a big deal in the broader scheme of things,” he says. “So, I’ve learned not to stress too much on those smaller things and I’ve learned to make time for people. We all say we’re busy in life, and we are, but it’s important to make the time, whether it be five minutes or half an hour. I think that’s really important.”


Shared June 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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