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Second opinion pays off

When diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, Murray wasn’t sure that medication and dietary changes were all he needed. So he pushed for a second opinion.

It was December 2009 and Murray was off to give blood as he’d done for the past 40 years. But this time he said to his wife, Carolyn, “I don’t feel so well, I don’t know if I should give blood.” And she said, “Don’t be so silly – if there’s something wrong with you they’ll tell you.” 

And so he went, as usual, but when the nurse took his pulse, she looked worried and asked him for his other hand. “And I said to her ‘You’re going to tell me now I’ve got no pulse so I’m lying here and going to die.’ And she said ‘This is no laughing matter, no we’re not taking blood off you, you need to go and see your doctor now.’”

This happened two days before Murray and his wife were due to go on holiday for a week. Murray thought there was no use in trying to make an appointment before then, so they went away as planned. But while away, the NZ Blood Service left Murray a phone message to check if he’d been to his doctor – ‘it’s urgent’ they said.  

“So mother panics – we’re in Ashburton (400 kms from home) so she rang the doctor and made an appointment for when we got home – 5 o’clock that night.” At that appointment his doctor diagnosed him with having atrial fibrillation. He was prescribed some medication and life went on.

By 2010, Murray wasn’t feeling 100% – not “firing on all cylinders”. He was referred to a specialist who gave him a treadmill test before instructing him to “get off there before you have a heart attack”.

“But that was all he said. Then he said, ‘Yeah, well I think we can treat you with medication.’ So he ups my pills and such like. ‘Need to lose weight,’ he said. Told me that two or three times, but how serious was losing weight!”

"He said, ‘if you love this man you’re going to have to starve him – starve him to life. It’s critical.’”

By 2011, Murray was feeling short of breath – “I had no pains, no pain whatsoever, but I wasn’t on top of the world as you’d say.” He went back to the same specialist and was diagnosed with sleep apnoea, which could’ve caused his atrial fibrillation, he was told. Again it was suggested a reduction in weight would help. A CPAP machine was organised, but Murray often still struggled for breath.

Think I need something else…

Murray did as his doctor told him, but it was only when his older brother, living in Ashburton, started getting similar symptoms – along with very different answers – that Murray got worried. His brother was referred to a specialist in Christchurch and promptly booked for triple bypass surgery.

He was “a different man” after that, says Murray. It was, in fact, at his brother’s insistence that Murray decided to dig further into his own treatment options. “Get another opinion – it may be that you need a heart bypass,” his brother told him. So Murray asked his GP to refer him to a different specialist, which he did.

The new specialist asked Murray to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours. He did that and once the results were analysed, he was advised to gradually build up his medication to double the amount he was taking...

Murray quickly felt better on the new medication regime, but before his six-week follow-up the benefit started wearing off. The specialist put him on a monitor again, and though he didn’t learn the results of the testing this time around, he did receive a letter for a pre-admission check-up at the local hospital followed by an appointment at the Nelson Cardiac Unit for an angiogram.

So that’s how he ended up in Nelson, on a table, conscious for his angiogram. “They had one look at the angiogram – ‘this man needs a stent and he needs it NOW!’ So while I’m there they put two stents in to open up a critical blockage,” he says.

What followed was particularly unexpected, though. Murray’s wife, Carolyn, was called into the specialist’s office and told, “He’s very lucky – I doubt this man would have seen his 80th birthday – he may not have seen his 70th” – and that was only six weeks away.

Not the obvious improvement he expected

On first coming home, Murray didn’t feel as good as he thought he should. The stents hadn’t quite returned him to form, however he soon figured out that one of his statins may have been partly responsible for that. He told his doctor that he was “losing it” and “finding it hard to remember people’s names”. As a result, he was switched to a different statin which made a notable difference.

“And now I feel quite well. People say you must feel a lot better – I do now. Carolyn says perhaps I am a better colour but as far as having stents put in, you know, I didn’t go bounding out of the hospital thinking I’m a changed man.” 

The atrial fibrillation was still there – the stents did not make a difference to that, he says. And it turns out that on both fronts, concerning the atrial fibrillation and artery blockages, losing weight really was a serious part of the solution.

His wife Carolyn can attest to that. While Murray was getting his stents put in, the cardiologist called Carolyn into his office, where an image of Murray’s heart was on the screen.

“He said ‘see this?’ recalls Carolyn. “He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘You’ve been together a while?’ I guess they don’t know who you are – sister, partner, mother, whatever. I said yeah, about 46-47 years. ‘Well’ he said, ‘if you love this man you’re going to have to starve him – starve him to life. It’s critical.’”

He told Carolyn that Murray needed a complete lifestyle change to help the parts of his heart that were of concern.

“So we came home and our daughter here, who's a cardiac nurse, said to me ‘Mum – go cold turkey’. So I haven’t baked since then. I have – I tell a lie – I occasionally make Anzac biscuits but I’ve altered the recipe. I use oil now instead of butter, and have cut the sugar back by half.”

But otherwise it’s been a “complete lifestyle change”.

“We eat fruit and veg until it’s going out of fashion. I don’t bake so therefore I don’t think I’ve bought sugar since the 3rd May,” she says. "We also make our own bread now, mixed grain with no sugar or salt."

As a result, both Carolyn and Murray have lost weight – “he’s losing lots, I’m losing a little,” she says. Murray was 105 kilograms when he was diagnosed with heart issues and is working towards the 80 kilograms that his GP recommended six years ago. The one thing that he still needs to work on is the 30 minutes of exercise a day – the weather can be off-putting, he says.

But he does now appreciate the importance of lifestyle changes as part of his ongoing heart health management. That, combined with the stents and medication, seems to be the tonic that’s holding him in good stead for now.     


Shared April 2017         

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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  • Connie 11 June 2019

    Wonderful to hear of the lifestyle change that led to this happy outcome.

  • 23195 19 April 2017

    Murray thank u so much for your story its inspiring for myself that is at the start of the same health issue u have now I see the importance of losing the weight and eating healthy .