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Swimming for her life

Raewyn had a horrifying experience out on the water when a routine swim became a battle for her life. After gratefully receiving the help of two paddleboarders, her heart event would lead to a hospital stay.

“I love swimming in the ocean and feeling the fresh air and salt on my skin,” says Raewyn, 59, a caregiver from Auckland. She started swimming out a Maraetai a few years ago during the Covid lockdown and has been swimming there ever since. Despite always being out and about Raewyn has managed to avoid Covid. 

“I’d go out into the water at Maraetai beach after having a coffee down at the café, and I’d recently met all of the lovely locals there who did the same, including Jim.” 

On Labour Day in 2023, Raewyn embarked on an ocean swim with her friend Jim that started out like any other but would become one that she’d remember for the rest of her life. 

“I swam out to the buoy and I was counting my strokes,” she recalls. “It took 232 to get out there and then Jim and I had a bit of a chat to catch our breath. I wanted to go to the second buoy but decided against it after seeing some jet skiers around and the sea was a bit rough. Looking back, I’m glad we decided to go back at that point.” 

Trying not to panic

Raewyn also considered that she’d had a virus just a month before the swim, and sensibly set off for the shore. 

“I’d only counted 32 strokes when suddenly I just felt as if I had no energy,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t make it, I can’t go any further.’” 

While Raewyn tried not to panic, she began to lay over her floatie to avoid going under as she became increasingly exhausted. 

“There were two ladies on paddle boards and one in a kayak and so Jim swam over to them to get their attention,” she says. “I was so lucky that they helped me because I was really not in a good way.” 

Raewyn was helped onto one of the paddleboards and paddled back to shore. In a strange twist of fate, the women who helped her were friends of friends. 

“I’m just so grateful that Jim was there and for the awesome people I had helping me out and caring for me that day.” she says.  

“Legs like jelly”

“I managed to walk out of the water but my legs were like jelly so I was being held up by the women who came to my rescue.”  

Raewyn was fortunate that a coastguard was at the beach, who quickly saw the emergency and came over with a tinfoil blanket to wrap around her while she sat on the beach. 

“I told them that it was just breathlessness and at the time I didn’t feel any pain.” 

Luckily, an ambulance was called and Raewyn went inside for a check. 

“They wanted to get the stretcher for me but I said I was fine to walk, so in I went.” 

Once hooked up to an ECG, the paramedics confirmed that she’d had a heart attack. 

“I couldn’t believe it because it really didn’t feel like a heart attack,” she says. “I guess that’s why they call it the ‘silent killer’.” 

Hospital stay and angioplasty

“I then went straight to Middlemore hospital and was there for four days,” says Raewyn. “I had a stent put in as there was a blockage in the arteries around my heart.” 

An angioplasty is a procedure where a metal mesh, or stent, is inserted into the arteries to increase blood flow when a blockage occurs. 

“I could only have one because my main artery was too narrow and damaged,” she recalls. “So I think it was too risky.” 

Raewyn recovered well in hospital and had a month off work to bounce back.  

“My recovery was good and after my stay in hospital I was really glad for the support of my coffee group at Maraetai,” she says. “They were so caring and supportive and I don’t know what I would have done without them, especially Jim.” 

Lifestyle and diet changes

Post surgery, Raewyn has made a few lifestyle changes in order to look after her heart for the future. 

“I’m not allowed to go out into the deep ocean to swim anymore,” she says. “At least, not until they give me the all-clear. I don’t know if they ever will. I really love swimming and I love the ocean so it’s taken a bit of adjusting to. I definitely prefer swimming to walking and hope to get back to it eventually.” 

Raewyn now goes for brisk walks instead of long ocean swims to get her exercise, which is vital for her mental and physical wellbeing.  

“I make sure to get some ‘me time’ out in nature and I still love talking with my friends at the coffee group for support.” 

She has also acknowledged her diet as a possible factor in her heart event. 

“I was probably eating too much cheese,” she admits. “But who doesn’t love cheese, crackers and wine? Well, anyway now I’m eating much healthier and I’ve cut back on things like cheese and dairy. I’m drinking black coffee now instead of cream coffee.” 

Raewyn has had to adapt to taking all her medications too, including blood thinners to prevent clotting and cholesterol meds to help stop the plaque build-up inside the artery walls.  

Signs from the past and advice for the future

“I guess there were some signs in my family history about heart disease,” she says. “My father had a sudden heart attack at Takapuna golf course and died when he was only 41 – so I was very young. My mother also passed away when I was young and so did two of my uncles.” 

Raewyn feels extremely lucky after experiencing her heart event and is keen to make the most of her second chance at life. 

“I was 58 when I had my heart attack out on the water,” she says. “And so much could have gone wrong that day but it didn’t, so there must be a reason for that. Now I’ve got my 60th next year and I’m planning to make it a big party at the Maraetai boat club.” 

When it comes to advice for others, Raewyn believes in the power of healthy eating, exercise and positivity. 

“I think just being out in nature is so important,” she says. “You’ve also got to surround yourself with a good group of people, like I have with my coffee group. I don’t do any heavy lifting or over-exerting at work or in my free time anymore. I just go for walks and take it easy. It’s really vital to regenerate yourself and feel healthy within.” 

Raewyn also wants to stress that heart attacks can be a silent killer. As she personally encountered, the common warning signs are not always present, and everyone’s experience varies. Getting a heart check-up early can save your life.

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

  • Sweikert 8 February 2024

    I LOVE YOU RAE RAE!!! You are our hero!!! ❤️❤️❤️