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Three and a half decades with heart disease and ‘still kicking’

Peter has had his share of heart problems: a heart attack at 40, triple bypass surgery in his late 50s and recently the insertion of an implantable defibrillator. But he hasn’t let that slow him down.

Peter’s long journey with heart disease began 35 years ago when he was just 40-years-old. An electrical engineer who worked in the heavy power industry, Peter had rarely taken a sick day in his life. So when the heart attack arrived it was something of a shock.

“It gave me a bit of a shake-up. At that stage I had two young daughters. So it was a bit of a set-back for a start.

“I finished up in hospital. I was there for a couple of weeks and then sent home to get myself sorted out. I had to get myself into shape so I could get back to work. That took me getting on for three months and I was pretty fortunate in that I had family and friends’ support and a lot of sick leave up my sleeve – I’d never been crook.”

In those days the care after a heart attack was quite different from today.

“They gave me the usual medications at the hospital, they gave me a cycle-type stress test and I did pretty well on that. The next thing was to make sure I could walk up some stairs. Then they said, ‘Ok you’re alright mate, see you later.’ At that time there wasn’t too much in the way of angiograms and that sort of thing.”

Bypass surgery

After making a good recovery, Peter worked hard to maintain a healthy diet and a good exercise regime. It was 17 years before he needed the cardiologist again.

“My doctor decided that I should see a cardiologist as a routine check prior to prescribing new medication for an unrelated condition.”

Peter was given a treadmill test by his cardiologist in Hamilton but was unable to complete it. He was then referred to Mercy Hospital where an angiogram revealed a number of blockages in his arteries and the need for triple bypass surgery.

Again Peter says his recovery was straight forward. “I was good for a good long time after that as well. And I always have the attitude not to stand back from anything. If I wanted to do something I did it. I didn’t pamper myself too much as far as physical activity goes – if I wanted to dig a hole, I’d go and dig a hole or whatever.”

Ventricular tachycardia

It was more than a decade before Peter had another heart event. In 2012, while digging the garden at the top of his steep Whitianga section, he suddenly suffered tachycardia – a rapidly beating heart...

“I didn’t know what was happening so I sat up there on a retaining wall for a while to see what was going on. And I thought, ‘There’s something funny going on here.’”

He walked the fifty metres down to the house but by the time he got there he was “feeling pretty flogged”.

Peter immediately called the St John ambulance. “I generally do the 111 call myself if possible as I am able to tell the emergency operator exactly what my symptoms are and can portray the situation better than someone else making the call.”

He soon found himself being flown to Waikato Hospital in Hamilton by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter. Arriving at the hospital he was told that he was still in ventricular tachycardia (VT).

“The emergency staff shocked me with a defibrillator and I came right just like that. But then of course I was in the hospital and they weren’t going to let me out of there straight away.”

After a series of tests, it was decided that Peter should have an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) inserted – a unit that can shock his heart back to a normal rhythm when VT is detected.

“ICDs are similar in size to a pacemaker, but feature a lot of intelligence in order to detect and rectify VT,” explains Peter. “Their ability to provide actual data logging of any events is amazing. I also have a remote monitor that alerts the pacing clinic at Waikato Hospital of any events that take place.”

“I’m happy I’ve got it because I know that if I have a VT event that needs a shock, I’ll get one. It’s a solid shock when you get one, but that’s alright. I’m a sparky so I know what they feel like.”

Life with an ICD

Peter says he hasn’t had to make too many lifestyle changes since the ICD was inserted.

“I am conscious that I have it in my chest and notice it mostly when travelling in vehicles because the seatbelt passes right over it.

“The biggest difficulty I’ve had is the medication that goes along with it – that sometimes makes you a bit fuzzy in the head. And of course the medication slows you down. When you start to do a bit of hill work or something you feel like you can’t just rip up the hill like you used to. But the medication is probably the thing that has changed my life the most – it’s a bit of a struggle coping with it”

On one occasion he also felt himself go into VT but noticed the device hadn’t shocked him.

“I was having a walk along the beach one evening and I felt the VT start. My wife Sylvia came down and picked me up in the car but I didn’t get a shock. So I rang the ambulance people and they came roaring round and they had a look at me. I was actually in VT alright but it wasn’t quite high enough pulse rate for the machine to act.

“I was taken to the airport to the waiting rescue helicopter. On board was a trauma doctor who assessed my condition and decided a shock was necessary prior to flying to Hamilton. That was an interesting experience I can assure you!”

In Hamilton his condition was reviewed and the settings on the ICD were altered accordingly.

Make use of the emergency services

Peter finds living in a more remote area can create a sense of isolation when it comes to medical services.

“Over here, in Whitianga, there’s nothing other than your GP. So you’re on your own basically. You can be in touch with the hospital if you really have to but generally that’s it, you’re off, way out in the big wide world, so you have to try and manage yourself more than anything.”

Accordingly he’s very thankful for the services he’s received from the ambulance service.

“We’ve used the ambulance a few times and I’m a great believer in using them. The thing I like about it is if you get taken to hospital in the ambulance you go straight in the back door – you’re not queuing up out the front. And they’re all over you before you know what’s happened.”

Likewise he sings the praises of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter which is now regularly stationed in Whitianga. Having twice been flown to hospital by the helicopter team has really bought home just how vital their service is to the communities remote from hospital centres.

“The helicopter service is fantastic. It gives people a lot of confidence too. I could be in Hamilton in half an hour whereas before someone would have to come from Auckland or Hamilton pick me up and take me back.”

Peter encourages others not to hesitate about using emergency services. “That’s a really important thing I’ve found. If you feel there’s something wrong, get onto it quick, get onto the right people and they’ll deal to it, no doubt about it.”

He also has praise for the Mercury Bay Community Bus. “They provide a second-to-none transport service to hospital and other medical appointments in Hamilton, Auckland, Thames, and Tauranga. They do door to door and it means so much being able to have volunteers drive you safely when needed.”

Maintaining a positive attitude

He believes his pragmatic approach to life has been a help, particularly at times when his heart events have knocked his confidence.

“You do get a very severe knock in confidence. It’s not like hurting a muscle in your leg, where you can put your leg up and rest it for a while. The old ticker has got to keep going. It doesn’t matter what’s happening. So I just approached it that if something bad happens, so be it. And I’m still here.

“If you’re positive right from the start and get your attitude right, then you get your confidence back. If you haven’t got a positive outlook your confidence is going to be out of whack for a long time.

“The positive thing is you’re still kicking and still living and you’re still doing things – you may not quite be able to do the things you want to be able to, but at least you’re still here.”

Peter’s family have adopted a similar attitude, which he’s found helpful.  “One of my children says I’m a cat, because I’ve got nine lives. They know what my problems are and they seem to have got their heads around that. And we joke about things. My wife has a good attitude towards it too, she doesn’t let it worry her – or if it does she doesn’t show it.”

Staying fit and healthy

These days, at 75, Peter remains fit and healthy and still leads an active lifestyle.

“Generally I seem to keep chugging along. As you get a bit older you can’t do the things you used to do or not quite as quickly anyway. I still do the things I want to do, but I wouldn’t put myself in jeopardy though just to go for a three mile swim or something.”

He still enjoys walking and but is finding it harder to get out fishing on his boat.

“I am not fishing as much as I used to as I mostly go on my own. I have some concerns about being out on the water and having a session of VT. I don't want to burden the Coastguard and others with having to come and get me.”

That said, he’s well aware of the fact it is important to continue to live life fully.

“My attitude generally has been that I’m just going to carry on life as I want to. I’m not going to put myself into a cocoon and say I can’t do that and I can’t do this. What will be will be. If something goes belly up and something happens well so be it. When you’re 75, you’ve done pretty well.”


Shared August 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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1 Comment

  • Angela 2 September 2017

    Brilliant article Dad! Although your cardiac disease is largely due to genetics, not down to bad lifestyle choices, You’ve instilled the importance of eating healthy whole foods preferably homegrown & fitness in us too to maintain a healthy ❤️. Love the picture above!