Post-heart attack insomnia leads to new calling in life

John experienced depression and insomnia after his heart attack, so he launched a radio station that specialises in getting people to sleep. Now every month 60,000 slumbering listeners tune in from around the world.

John had mild chest pain for nearly three years before his heart attack. He thought it was chronic indigestion – after all, he'd only just turned 50.

However, in 2007, on his way home from a business trip in Melbourne, John's chest pain became more severe.

"I was sitting at the airport in Melbourne waiting for my flight back and, again, thought I had indigestion, so I went over to the Coke machine, downed a can of Coke, and thought, 'That's the end of that. I’m fine.'"

During a delay at the arrivals hall in New Zealand, the chest discomfort returned, along with a horrible metallic taste in his mouth.

"Deborah (John’s wife) was sitting in the arrivals lounge and I sent her a text saying 'Can you get me a big drink of Coke, I really need to burp', because I just always thought it was indigestion. Then I drove us home!"

It was after midnight when he finally got to bed, but shortly afterwards he experienced a sudden pain down his left arm.

His wife Deborah was concerned enough to get him in the car and drive him to the A&E, rather than wait to see a doctor in the morning. While stopping for petrol on the way, she noticed John's condition was deteriorating rapidly. 

"I looked over at him in the other seat and he was grey and lent over, and there was a bit of drool and I thought, 'Holy shit he's dying!' It was terrifying and then, boy, did my foot go down. In retrospect, I should have dialed 111 and asked for an ambulance."

On arrival at A&E, he was given morphine and an ECG and the doctors quickly confirmed a heart attack.

Angiogram reveals blocked coronary arteries

The following day John had an angiogram.

"The doctor said, 'You've got five blocked coronary arteries and you'll need an operation. And you won't be going home until it's done.'"

A few days later John had coronary artery bypass graft surgery. He remembers it being a frightening time. 

"They'd given me the odds and I pretty much made peace with my God," he admits.

However, he successfully got through surgery and then spent a couple of days in the intensive care unit (ICU) in Auckland Hospital. 

"My daughter took photos of me in the ICU and it's not a pretty sight with all the tubes hanging out. That photo is a great advertisement for not eating pies, getting lots of exercise and having no stress in your life!"

After coming out of the ICU John then spent a week on the cardiac ward.

"It seemed to last a lifetime with all the tests and not being able to get out of bed, peeing into a bottle and all that sort of stuff. They need a sign in hospitals that says 'Abandon all dignity all ye who enter here'. I felt pretty crap. I was coughing up all this muck and it was like the movie Alien, where the Alien comes out of the chest. Every time I coughed that's how it felt because you honestly think that your chest is going to split open."

Recovering at home

Once at home, John was in bed for another week before getting up and about. Then he started setting little walking goals for himself.

"It was a triumph getting out of bed and walking to our letterbox and getting the mail. Every day I thought, 'I've got to keep walking. I've got to keep standing. I've got to get out.' Occasionally I’d get up and walk down to the dairy which was about a 2-kilometre trip there and back."

Despite the physical challenges, John says that initially his emotional state was positive. 

"I was drained but glad to be alive. Every day I'd wake up and I think 'I'm alive, oh great, another day'."

He was lucky to be well supported by his workplace during his recovery period.

"My work were absolutely fabulous. Our CEO visited me in hospital and told me that the company had decided to pay me for the entire time I was off, and I was off for nearly six months. They brought me presents when I was in hospital, they were really, really good – a real example to a lot of employers."

Emotional impact of heart attack takes its toll

After six months' recuperation and feeling fully recovered, John returned to work. However, he still hadn't dealt with the emotional fall-out from the heart event, and a few years down the track it started to take its toll.

"I suppose for an 18-month period I was going to work and I just felt numb. I couldn't concentrate and my sleep patterns were dreadful. I had terrible insomnia and didn't know why. I was doing really weird things. I went to my doctor and she said, ‘John, you've got severe depression.' After talking with her I realised I probably had been (depressed) for a while, but I didn't know what depression was or what the symptoms were. She tied it back to my heart event. I just hadn't dealt with stuff."

John went to see a counsellor, which he describes as the best thing he ever did. As well as helping him deal with the depression, the counsellor suggested he try relaxation music for the insomnia.

"I found some internet radio stations that played relaxation music. That was great 'til about two o’clock in the morning when ads come on and then on came the news and an announcer. That was no good, I couldn't get to sleep. So I started to make my own playlists."

He downloaded music and put mixes together so that he could listen continuously without adverts. 

At the same time, John became aware from internet research of the huge numbers of people worldwide suffering from insomnia. And so his idea was born: an online music station that would play relaxation music for insomniacs – without advertising or announcements. 

"It took me about six months to figure out how to do it all, build the website, get the music, figure out how it was going to broadcast."

The first broadcast from Sleep Radio went out in 2014 from John's home on the North Shore of Auckland to an audience of 10 listeners. However, the numbers soon started to snowball. 

"We got some publicity in the North Shore Times Advertiser but then other media picked up on that and next thing I know I'm giving an interview to the BBC and Radio New Zealand. Other overseas media started picking it up as well.

Now, on an average night, we can have 500 people listening simultaneously. At the moment we've got around 58,000 unique listeners in 198 countries tuned in every month. We've even had a listener in Antarctica."

John also developed a free app to support his station, which is available on all devices and streams ambient music 24/7. 

"The feedback we've received is stunning," John says. Those he has helped range from people with insomnia to people with babies and small children who won't sleep – as well as many who've had both heart attacks and depression. 

Reflecting on what’s important in life

The heart attack and resulting depression made John reflect on what was important in his life. He eventually retired from work, and he and wife Deborah moved from Auckland to the Waikato town of Te Aroha for a quieter lifestyle. 

This allowed him to focus on Sleep Radio, as well as getting involved in the local dramatic society and helping with community transport for people in Te Aroha hospital.

"There’s more to life than work," John reflects. "People put far too much emphasis on their career. I certainly did. I took it too seriously. It was too stressful. But it's important to remember that you don't live forever."

Then in 2017, John had a second heart attack. This time the warning signs were different. Rather than getting indigestion pains, John noticed that he suddenly began sweating profusely, despite the fact he was sitting in a chair watching the TV. He also recalls feeling "a bit strange".

With Deborah away in Taupō, John got a neighbour to drive him to the doctor. From there he was taken by ambulance to Waikato Hospital, where he got a stent put into one of his five bypasses and was back at home a few days later. He says recovery from the second heart attack was much easier than it had been from the first.

"I think it was because I was aware of the issues that can occur after a heart event. I was mentally much more prepared for what happens," he says.

Tips for others

"I had no idea that depression was quite common after people had heart attacks," John says. "But it's not surprising, you know. It's a whole examination of your life, an examination of your own mortality." 

He encourages anyone who has experienced a heart attack to make sure they get the emotional support that they need after the event.

"If you've got any doubt whatsoever, see your doctor or see a counsellor. Often we blokes just don't do that. But if you don't feel right in yourself, if you're thinking about or fearing your own mortality, wondering why you can't concentrate, why you feel so tired, why you don't want to get involved in anything, get some help."

Shared April 2020

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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2 Comments

  • margaret 23 April 2020

    suffered depression about 3 months after heart attack took a good year to feel normal again

  • Barry 22 April 2020

    All too familiar story!
    Yes I had suffered anxiety quite serverely after going into cardiac arrest twice after a rather traumatic Bentalls procedure. Felt like I was about to die every night and was so anxious that I had to sleep upright in a chair. After my wife discussed the issues with a specialist nurse, they came to the realisation that I did qualify for an ICD [Implantable Cardioverter Difibrilator].
    I feel secure now and get on with life like I did pre-operation. Very important to recognise the mental ‘fallout’ of heart failure!