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Eugene Tuhaka

Cardiac arrest

Resilience after heart issues

Eugene’s ambitions of keeping active and playing sports took a turn when he had a cardiac arrest during a casual game of social touch. Swift actions from teammates and friends, including life-saving CPR and defibrillation, played a vital role in ensuring his survival.

Eugene had always played team sports, such as rugby and rugby league, throughout his life. He was also an avid visitor to the gym and considered himself fit and healthy.

"I never had any heart issues until around five years ago,” Eugene says. “I presented at the ED in Middlemore with elevated troponin levels, and was told to manage my health with blood thinners and blood pressure tablets,” he says. “I had blood tests every three months, but everything seemed to be under control until December 2022.”

Breathing problems cause wellbeing scare

"I started my rugby season that year, and I'm a player that normally doesn't come off the field, but I was coming off the field every five minutes and having to take an inhaler. My rugby team, which is a very social team, also started up a touch team that was even worse because the game was a lot quicker," Eugene recalls.

The breathlessness gradually escalated, impacting his ability to play sports or do anything active at all.

“I thought it was asthma but now I know it wasn’t,” he says. “The problem was actually angina.”

The turning point arrived on a rugby field on 9 December 2022; a day Eugene vividly remembers.

“I was at home, I didn't want to come down and play the game this particular Friday, but I could see that on our messenger page, a lot of my teammates couldn't make it. So I told my wife Paula, listen, I'll toddle off down.”

Eugene was mainly on the side of the pitch but as halftime approached he was taking his inhaler a lot.

"I remember saying to someone's mother on the sideline that day just as I was going onto the pitch, ‘I think I’m getting too old for this,’ because I kept having to breathe on my inhaler, but it wasn’t having any effect. I virtually ran back on the field in defence and then collapsed. A short time later, I just woke up. And as I turned and looked over my shoulder, a paramedic was talking to me."

Eugene had experienced a cardiac arrest, where the heart stops suddenly, leaving his friends, family and teammates in shock. The quick response and a defibrillator on hand saved his life.

“I was lucky to have two friends and someone from the rugby club start CPR and operate the defibrillator, they were just fantastic. They saw when I hit the ground – it was an almighty thump. When I didn't move, they ran over started CPR and shocked me three times. My 12-year-old at the time was watching. He was really calm and collected and he messaged my niece who contacted my wife who then came down.”

Recounting those critical moments, Eugene expresses his appreciation for the teammates who responded quickest.

"I was very lucky that the rugby club had a defib. I was only the second person to use it, and they brought me back after a couple more jolts by the ambos,” he says.

Recovery and transformation

"I remember everything going into the hospital,” he says. “I remember them talking to me and telling me that we would have surgery straight away. And I was actually quite lucky because the team inside the hospital had already gone home.

“But the cardiologist said that if I waited for them to come back the next day, I'd probably have more heart damage. And so I was very lucky for them to come back and perform the operation, which was an angioplasty,” he says, a procedure that opens up blockages in the arteries with a metal mesh stent, that went into his arm.

“In the image that the doctor showed me, my LAD artery was in a bad condition. And he said to me that I would need to have another operation in a couple of days, two more stents. And then said, ‘Don't be surprised if your breathing comes right again.’

"After getting the stents put in over December and over Christmas, my body was in a bit of shock, and I was worn out," he reflects.

“When I was in the hospital, I felt a bit funny. I just shut off. I just didn't want anyone to know. I was very lucky that at the time there was a patient who was walking around, and he saw me and I must have looked really down. He came over and he started talking to me straight away about what he was going through, and then just within a minute, it all changed. I knew I had to let my wider family know.”

Eugene faced the challenges of rebuilding not only his physical health but also his mental wellbeing, including a newfound appreciation for life, family and friends.

“My family's been good about it,” he says. “I was very lucky that we had a family reunion over Christmas and got to reconnect and I got a lot out of it. My friends and family, co-workers, they were really supportive. So that really helped me get through such a difficult time.”

The insertion of stents brought about a remarkable change in his life.

“I remember going for my first walk because they wanted me to walk straight away. And I was really relieved because I could breathe without any problems.

"Straight away I could do pretty much anything. I was able to get back into exercise and breathe properly," he says. “I don’t play sports anymore as the doctors don’t want me running hard out, but I’ve started calisthenics at home and I’ve moved into coaching younger rugby teams, which has been really good.”

Attending a support group vital

Eugene also found solace in a cardiac support group, which he credits with helping him onto the right path.

"I would go to a cardiac group where I was the youngest by probably about 30 years," he says.

Connecting with others who shared similar experiences became a part of his healing process. Eugene also acknowledges the support of his family and friends during this period. Despite their concerns, he was determined to return to normality.

"My wife was really concerned at the time, she really struggled when the incident happened and I think she just wanted me to stop doing everything and be safe. But I’m not the kind of person that can do that. I like to keep busy, and I’ve got into a good routine again now."

A lot of luck and good timing

"I think I've just been very, very lucky. Especially with the right people at the right time,” Eugene says, noting the importance of community support from his mates and rugby club in overcoming his heart event.

“My body just didn’t want to give in,” he says. “I don’t remember fully but people have told me how I was fighting for my life when I fainted. I’m just so glad that I’ve got another chance.”

Eugene looks ahead with hope and has become more cautious and aware of his situation.

“Heart disease is in my family. And so I always knew that something was going to arise. I lost my mother to a heart attack.

“I've also got an older brother who's got a pacemaker. So in my family, on my mum's side, heart disease is quite prominent. So there's that side of things that I need to be mindful of and really mindful of my kids as well.”

He has also had to make some lifestyle changes to look after his heart health.

“I need to make sure that we are eating healthily so that I’m around longer for my kids. It’s been tough, having to quit competitive rugby and doing things differently, but I’m coming out the other side now at 52 years old.”

Throughout this transformative journey, Eugene has been making the most of his second chance at life. As he contemplates the future, he offers advice to those facing similar challenges: "I would definitely go to a cardiac group, it really helped me to hear about others in the same boat.

“I feel like part of their group, even though they're a lot older. We have some really good conversations. We meet every Friday and I try to go every week. My best advice is definitely go out there and talk to people. It's the best thing mentally for you.”

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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