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The day I turned purple

After driving himself to hospital, Te Aturangi suffered both a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Being in the right place, in the nick of time, is what saved his life. This is his story in his words.

It's not an easy thing to survive a cardiac arrest, my dad would testify to that had he survived his almost five years ago now. He was home alone with no hope of answering the challenge that stopped his heart beating. 
I came so close to the same fate: the compressed weight in my chest, how easy it would have been to just take a painkiller and go to bed, welcoming whatever came, thinking it'll be alright mate, the pain will go once the painkillers kick in. I might’ve willed myself to believe this, but knew in my heart of hearts I had to get up and get myself to hospital. 
Almost crippled with mounting pain and anxiety I drove myself to the Emergency Department of Gisborne Hospital, presenting myself to reception while announcing my rheumatic fever heart problems with a leaky valve and now crushing chest pain.
"I didn’t know what I was experiencing... but I knew I needed help, so I made a calculated risk that I could drive safely to the hospital."

The response was immediate, there was no sitting in the waiting room for the next available physician. I was ushered through to a consultation cubicle where a doctor and two nurses popped aspirins and GTN sprays under my tongue while getting an intravenous line into my arm to administer morphine. That seductive pain-reliever was a welcome friend, easing the pain from my chest and calming my mind.

The doctor asked me what pain level I was experiencing – between zero at the low end of the scale and 10 at the extreme. The doctor comforted me with his soothing words telling me that I’d made the right choice to come to hospital and that I would probably be kept in overnight for observation. I did my best to relay my pain levels to him and assist him in administering the required dosages to bring my condition under control...

I started feeling less anxious and the pain appeared to be less intense. 

Then, all of a sudden, I felt an explosion of pain in my chest that burst through my pain barriers, sending my arms flaying around and then… like in the changing scene of a film… my senses were affronted when I awoke to a completely different room and a completely different medical team. 

It was like waking from a deep sleep, not knowing or remembering where or when I’d fell asleep, and waking up in an unfamiliar environment. 

One of the first people I recognised was the doctor, who not so long ago was a work colleague at a medical centre I was managing. I was confused as the immediate past didn't come flooding back to me. On the contrary, I was wondering what the doctor was doing in my bedroom. 

The doctor was saying "it's a miracle, had you not got yourself to the hospital you would be at home dead." Now reality was kicking in with this sobering thought, and bringing my memory into sharp focus. I now remembered driving myself to hospital and presenting to the ED reception. I remembered the first team working to reduce my pain to zero and attempting to increase blood circulation with GTN sprays and aspirins administered under my tongue. But there were a couple of missing pieces in this puzzle.

My chest now ached with a different pain and the ED team that included the doctor had left the room, leaving me alone with the ED nurse who explained that I had had a heart attack and also suffered a cardiac arrest. 

Not only had I died, but from her account, I had turned purple. It was recorded in my medical notes that one shock of the defibrillator and one minute of CPR brought me back to life, which explained the new pain in my chest from CPR compressions.

I will always be grateful to the Gisborne Hospital ED team for saving my life, allowing me to avoid an appointment with Evans Funeral Services, the only funeral service in Gisborne. I am absolutely ecstatic about denying them my business on what turned out to be a very auspicious day in my life.

My newfound life-saving nurse now explained that I’d be placed in the coronary care unit of Gisborne Hospital overnight, then would most likely be transferred to Waikato Hospital the following day. Waikato Hospital is the base hospital for Gisborne and has a specialist heart unit.

She and I were now joined by a doctor from the coronary care unit who paused to read my notes before addressing me. I was still absorbing the news of my near-death experience and silently thanking the powers that be for my survival. 

In retrospect, had I gone on the bike ride I’d planned for earlier that day with my mate Pete, I would most certainly be dead. Taking into consideration all that had happened to me in the last two hours, I was surprised when the doctor before me started berating me for driving to the hospital. I couldn’t believe this guy. Had I not taken the action I had, there’s a definite possibility I wouldn't have been having this conversation with him. I would have been dead.

I don't know what the statistics are for people dying of heart attacks while driving themselves to hospital, or of injuring or killing others in the process. All I know is that I didn’t know what I was experiencing in terms of the chest pain but I knew I needed help, so I made a calculated risk that I could drive safely to the hospital which was 1.4 kilometres from my home.

I’m guessing it took half the amount of time to get myself to hospital than it would’ve had I waited for an ambulance to get me there. That’s if an ambulance was immediately available to answer my call. Given that I’d had a heart attack and a cardiac arrest within a short time of arriving at the hospital, I believe I made the right choice. By comparison, when waiting for an ambulance the next morning to take me and the paramedic flight team to the airport, we had to wait for one hour. 

Before I knew it, a porter was pushing me through the hospital corridors to the coronary care unit. Upon arrival I was greeted by the care staff and instructed to alert them of any pain.

I was placed in a prime observation position right in front of the office and allowed to go to sleep. I closed my eyes to try to sleep but couldn’t quite get there. The best I could manage was spasmodic short bouts of fitful sleep, I just couldn't seem to calm my mind long enough to achieve the deep sleep I was now desperate for; to recharge my batteries and to recover from the trauma my body had just experienced. 

There were more questions than answers floating through my mind, and the constant reminder that I could very easily have another heart attack at any moment. I was hooked up to a monitor where all my vital signs could be observed from the office, so in theory I should have been confident that all was well in my world. 

Slowly but surely a calmness settled over me. I knew that I was in the best place I could possibly be under the circumstances, and fatigue was finally rocking me gently to sleep. Oh the bliss of finally slipping into that sleepy void, that comforting womb of darkness, resigning myself to the greater power, allowing myself to relax and regenerate, to be still in the torrent of uncertainty that had unsettled my mind.

Drifting on a gentle sea, Tangaroa rocking me to and fro, to and fro, to and fro. Come 3.00am I was finally asleep.

I awoke with a start, gasping for air, unable to breathe. Drowning. This wasn’t a bad dream, I couldn’t breathe. Panic set in, now wide awake my eyes darted around my new environment searching for answers. I took note of the time – 4.50am. I saw the nurses in the office and knew I needed help. I pressed my buzzer, my assigned nurse took note and looked at me through the glass panels of the observation office. I pressed the buzzer repeatedly and she moved swiftly to my side, inquiring what the problem was.

Between gasps I informed her that I couldn’t breathe. She reassured me I'd be alright then paged a doctor who appeared quickly on the scene, a quick response but still too slow for me as I struggled to get air into my lungs. 

Through her stethoscope the doctor listened to my chest and announced to the nurse that I was rattling. Hello... I could’ve told her that....if only I could breathe. 

They got an oxygen tube into my nose and soon it seemed I was surrounded by doctors, each offering their diagnosis and remedies. The big thing was to get oxygen into me, but the mask they kept placing over my mouth and nose felt more like it was suffocating me than achieving its aim. I ripped it off as fast as they tried to apply it. My nurse tried to calm me by gently stroking my arm and telling me everything would be okay – I didn’t believe her. 

I still couldn't get sufficient air into my lungs and was now concerned that all this trauma would trigger another heart attack. Quickly they administered some furosemide through the IV in my arm and informed me I had fluid on my lungs and that the furosemide would drain it off through my system, allowing me to pee it out. I was assured that relief would be rapid. 

Still gasping for breath I watched the clock and within 10-15 minutes I was rattling less and breathing more. Phew, what a way to start the day.

A familiar face was now in front of me, I’d met her the previous evening where we’d had a difference of opinion. The night before she’d been most insistent that my next of kin should be informed I'd had a heart attack and that I was at Gisborne Hospital’s coronary care unit. We’d had this discussion late at night and there was no way I was agreeing to wake up those close to me at that late hour, only to stress them out and ruin their sleep. Besides, what could they do with this new knowledge of my current situation? The answer was ‘absolutely nothing but stress out and worry’.

I tried to rationalise with her, but her argument was that something might happen to me overnight – the sub-text being that there was still a real risk of me dying should I experience further heart failure. This line of reasoning helped to strengthen my resolve not to tell anyone until the morning. One way or the other, dead or alive, this news could wait.

Breathing more easily now, albeit with a good deal of rattling echoing from my chest, I watched the time tick away until it was 7.00 am. I considered this a reasonable time to start ringing people to advise them of my situation. I started with my next of kin, my brother Rodger who lives in Auckland, then I moved on to mates Nellie and Ralph who later went to my place, packed a bag for my visit to Waikato, and got me some summer pyjamas.

My friend, Pete, arrived to check out my situation and Mark the Maori liaison Pākeke soon joined us. I shared my story of the previous night's events and there was general consensus that I was a very lucky chap indeed. I requested a karakia (Maori prayer) from Mark who obliged, then I felt set for my next adventure at Waikato Hospital. 

The outcome of my stay in Waikato Hospital was major open heart surgery giving me a triple bypass, a replaced mitral valve and a repaired tricuspid valve. All under the care of a fine surgeon indeed.
24 January 2015: 

Now, two months since my heart attack and cardiac arrest, I am well down the road to recovery and looking forward to the rest of my life.

I have shared this story so that maybe hospital staff can appreciate my perspective as a patient. I hope it is of some use.

Once again I would like to thank the Gisborne Hospital ED staff for saving my life.


Written January 2015.

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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