Life after two cardiac arrests

There's no doubt Ash's two cardiac arrests were life-changing events. But it was the anxiety that followed them, that prompted the 31-year-old to find a new way to live.

Last year I suffered two cardiac arrests. The first happened last May during a football game. Without warning my heart went into arrhythmia and stopped beating for roughly 10mins. My team mate Dan performed CPR which kept me alive and prevented brain damage. Fortunately the club had an automatic external defibrillator (AED) and after a couple of shocks to my chest I regained heart rhythm.

I was diagnosed with severe dilated cardiomyopathy, myocarditis (scarring of the heart muscle tissue) and scarring of the left ventricle. It basically means I have an enlarged heart, so it can struggle to pump blood around the body, which can sometimes cause the heart to beat out of rhythm and stop.

There wasn’t anything doctors could do to reverse the damage, but I was put on medication to lower my heart rate and had an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) installed in my chest. The ICD detects dodgy heart rhythms and will shock me if my heart’s at risk of stopping.

About seven months later, in December, I had another cardiac arrest. I was at the beach and just about to jump off a foot bridge into the sea when I lost consciousness. My ICD then kicked in. I was recently told that only one per cent of people survive this sort of thing twice.

Anxiety after cardiac arrests

After being discharged from hospital the first time I noticed I wasn’t mentally the same as before. I would get triggered with anxiety over the smallest things – loud music, driving, exercise, watching sport, locking the door, having a shower, sleeping, talking to people, eating, taking my medicine.

One night I was taken to hospital by ambulance as I was convinced I was dying. I was shaking, having trouble breathing, and my body had gone into panic. I also had a similar experience while driving but I managed to pull into someone's driveway before it got bad. There’s also been times at social events where I’ve just got up and left without saying goodbye because I could feel panic coming on. I didn’t realize my mind and thoughts had so much control over my physical body. I would often feel sick because of it.

For some reason I never wanted anyone to know when I was anxious, I didn’t want to embarrass myself or make a scene. I would find myself battling through various situations trying to keep focused. I would often keep conversations short or make the other person do all the talking. In group situations I would find myself sneaking off to the bathroom to try control my breathing and thoughts.

I once was caught hiding in the back of my work ute trying to avoid a meeting. I also remember a panicky moment on the construction site when I thought my heart was playing up, so the guys chucked me in the ute, put it in 4WD and flew down the hill. We had the flashing lights and horns going, and all the diggers and machinery made way for us, it was full on. And as soon as I got back to the first aid office, I felt safe, I was completely fine.

It’s pretty funny to look back at some of the situations I ended up in, but it was scary at the time.

Lifestyle changes to remove anxiety

I was hoping the anxiety would slowly go away, but after 10 months I had only felt small changes. At times I thought I was coming right but then something else would happen. I realised I was just hiding from my fears and not really dealing with them. So a few months ago in May I began removing as much stress from my life as possible. I loved my job and workmates, but felt stressed out and overworked. So I resigned.

I moved to Bali and quickly found myself embracing the culture of Canggu. I enjoyed learning the language, riding mopeds, hitting the beach, playing guitar, eating new foods.

I started to meet new people and was able to engage in deeper conversation, I joined health groups and meditation groups and realised it was normal to talk about anxiety. I joined the gym, began stretching and quickly found myself doing downward dog in yoga. I started learning more about nutrition and the direct effects on the body. I now choose to eat natural foods that make me feel good and don't aid in disease.

I looked at what drinks I was consuming; I stayed away from energy drinks, fizzy, coffee, anything that didn’t react well with me. I also knew I had to take a break from alcohol. It’s been a big part of my life and provided some great moments. But it contributed to anxiety and would leave me feeling depressed and crap for days. I learned it can be toxic on the heart so I gave it up. I’ve now been alcohol free for 10 months.

Building a new life

I completed a six-week personal development course which helped change my mindset and release a lot of my fears. I released fears around money, fears of being in a foreign country, fears of being away from a decent hospital, fears of throwing away my career, fears of my health, and fears of dying.

I hadn't run for a whole year out of fear, but now I’ve slowly built up to playing touch rugby again. I've recently spent a month backpacking around Vietnam, doing hikes and riding motorbikes. Something I thought I wasn't capable of four months ago.

I must say that none of these changes have been easy. I've had to work through each one of my fears and anxieties individually. Some things have taken a long time and others have been really quick. There are also some things I'm still working on.

Since committing to change, I've improved 100 times more in the last four months than I did the whole year before that. I've found taking action creates new experiences, which creates new thoughts, which creates new emotions, which creates behavioural changes.

Sorry for the long spiel but I think it’s important that anxiety, mental health and self-care is more openly talked about. So if you're still reading this and you wanna chat, put a message in the comment box below. I'd be more than keen to hear from ya.


Shared November 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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