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Running for his life

Before his heart attack, Sunny had never set foot in a gym or pulled on a pair of running shoes. Now, a decade later, he has more than 200 10km runs under his belt and even competed in the World Master’s Games.

In 2008, career-orientated, father-of-two, Sunny landed what he thought was his “dream job” with a telecommunications company.

Unfortunately, the job came with a lot of stress and when the company restructured eight months later that stress only increased.

“We all had to reapply for our jobs. I was getting palpitations, shortness of breath and shallow breathing. I was agitated all the time and I couldn’t sleep. It had a huge impact on me.”

One day, when driving to work, he started getting pins and needles throughout his body. His heart was racing and he could feel pressure in the artery in his neck. When he arrived at work, colleagues recognised his symptoms and immediately called an ambulance to take him to hospital.

“The symptoms were getting worse and worse, I felt like my body was shutting down and I had no control over it.”

Heart attack and bypass surgery

It wasn’t long before doctors diagnosed a heart attack and five days later Sunny had coronary artery bypass surgery.

The heart attack and surgery had a big emotional effect on Sunny.

“I felt like my world had come to an end and it was never going to be the same again. I thought I wouldn’t be able to do the things I’d done before. I’d messed my life up.

“I realised that my life could have been taken in milliseconds. You don’t have minutes but seconds. I could have been doing other things with my family, getting out enjoying things, but I was caught up with work, trying to support the family.”

Two more hospital admissions

Once released from hospital, Sunny had a worrying two weeks before his follow-up GP appointment. He often felt very breathless and had tightness in his chest.

“I thought that was normal because I’d had a major operation. I thought it would subside but it carried on and on. Every night I was getting night sweats and nightmares and I just couldn’t sleep well”.

When he finally saw his GP, she immediately organised an x-ray at his local health centre. By the time he got home from the x-ray, the GP had seen the film and organised an ambulance to take Sunny back to hospital.

Sunny underwent further blood tests and an ultrasound, which revealed a large fluid build-up round his heart and lungs.

“I was immediately taken into surgery to drain the water. They took out 1.5 litres.”    

Sunny was then told he had Dressler Syndrome, an inflammation of the sac around the heart that sometimes occurs following a heart attack or heart surgery. He stayed a few days in hospital before being discharged for a second time.

However, one night a few weeks later, Sunny again began having breathing difficulties. He called an ambulance and was once again admitted to hospital with fluids in the chest cavity.

This time he was treated with powerful steroids, which cleared up the problem.

Heart attack leads to panic attacks

Unfortunately, during this time, Sunny was made redundant. Then his insurance company declined his income protection claim. It was at this point that he began to suffer from anxiety and depression.

“It was a very, very difficult time. I thought I was going to be in financial ruin because I was dependent on the job and I was dependent on the insurance company to pay the income protection. I was having these non-stop panic attacks.”

Not long after hearing from the insurance company, Sunny once again collapsed with breathing difficulties.

“The ambulance guys thought maybe I was having another heart attack, but in hospital the doctors treating me said I was having a severe panic attack.”

Counselling the best thing that happened

This time, the medical team arranged for Sunny to get some counselling.

“I never thought I’d see a psychiatrist or psychologist because I thought I knew everything in life. But I think it was the best thing that ever happened. They showed me a different side of life, about understanding depression and panic attacks. I learnt deep breathing exercises, about nature and meditation – all these things I had to learn.”

Even so, without a job, life was tough. “I was very fortunate that my wife was working and we managed with that,” Sunny adds. He also felt the pressure to find another job immediately. However, his daughter gave him some sound advice.

“She said, ‘Dad, what do you really want in life? Do you want a second chance in life, or do you want to pursue the money?’ I said, ‘I want a second chance in life’.”

In the end, Sunny decided to set up his own business, giving himself a little more control over his own life and his stress levels.

Cardiac rehabilitation opens new doors

The heart attack also introduced Sunny to exercise – something he’d never tried before.

“The cardiac rehabilitation at Middlemore really helped me. And I was also referred to Green Prescription, so they organised a discounted fee at the local gym. With the instructors’ help, I started very slowly exercising, without jeopardising my health.

“As time went on, I could feel this new energy level. I’d never felt like this in all my life. It was a total renewed energy.”

Sunny progressed from the gym and long distance walks, to jogging in the local park. Before long he was doing 10 laps of the football field and from there he started running on the road.

“I never ran in my life before, I never exercised, but here I was feeling great.”

One year after the heart attack

In 2010, one year after having his heart attack, Sunny entered the 8km Auckland Round the Bays race. Initially he wasn’t even sure if he could complete it.

“As I was running, I could see an ambulance every 1km, so I felt safe. And I told myself they are not going to pick me up today. Definitely I am going to be running the full race.”

Since then Sunny has completed 10 Round the Bays events and more than 200 10km runs in total. He’s competed at the World Master’s Games and completed the 2016 Tough Guy n Girl Challenge, an extreme off-road event that includes swamp crossings, hurdles fences and an awful lot of mud.

He’s also a proud member of the Heart Foundation’s Heart Racer Team for the ASB Auckland Marathon.

Important lessons

Sunny has made other changes to his lifestyle as well. He’s learned about good nutrition and his wife has changed the way she cooks.

“I’ve also learned about other aspects of life: kindness, happiness and compassion and those are the ingredients of my life today.”

As well as the wonderful support of his family, Sunny is also grateful for the help he received from St John and the cardiac teams at Auckland and Middlemore Hospitals. He encourages others to get the support from relevant health services when they need it.

“Go and see your doctor and have a thorough check up. Initially I was afraid to see a cardiologist, but they are there to fix your problem, so go and see your doctor. Discuss what you should be eating. And if you’re in a toxic environment, especially a work environment, start to think about your life, get out because it’s not the end of your life. Your life is so precious, it’s a gift.”


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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1 Comment

  • Jeet 10 July 2019

    I feel a lot better that I can increase my level of my excercise.
    I still have fear that I may cause damage to my already damaged heart but reading your story helps a lot.