“We look after each other”

After having stents, an aortic aneurysm repair and atrial fibrillation, Ralph is no stranger to issues with his heart and blood vessels. He’s found the camaraderie at a local men’s group is a great way to talk about health issues and life in general.

Ralph’s heart journey began back in 2005 when he was working as a builder in Auckland.

“I was walking one day and it started to rain so I sped up. I didn’t break into a trot or anything, but when I got back to the car I couldn’t breathe much. So I went to the doc and he sent me to the cardiologist,” Ralph explains.

Ralph was quickly referred for an angiogram to determine if he had coronary artery disease.

“They did an angiogram. They planned to have a look and then book time later to put stents in if necessary. But when I was on the table, the guy said ‘you stay there we’re going to get the man to put the bits in’. I went in for a look and came out with some stents.”

He found the recovery fairly straightforward and was back at work just a few weeks later.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm detected

Three years later Ralph was back in the hospital, this time because of trouble with his aorta, the large artery which takes oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body. 

“I’d been getting pains in the righthand side under the ribs, so doc sent me in for an ultrasound. The doc rang me that night and said ‘guess what your kidneys are alright, your liver’s alright, your heart’s alright, but guess what?’. It was an abdominal aortic aneurysm.”

“The doc explained how sometimes people die from it without knowing they have it. Mine was at a size where they didn’t want to let it go. So I went back in February 2008 and they repaired it.” 

Again Ralph recovered easily and returned to work as a builder, without a problem. However, a couple of years later he decided to have a career change.

“Before I retired, I wanted a bit of an easier job, so I got a job as a caretaker at a primary school. It wasn’t as physical as a builder,” he explains. 

It was around this time he also started noticing ‘funny feelings’ in his heart. He went to his doctor, but couldn’t get his heart to recreate the feelings while he was at the surgery. 

“I tried to explain it to the doctor, he probably thought I was an idiot. I said it felt to me like I had bubbles in my chest. But, the normal story, it was like with the dentist, you have toothache until you walk into the surgery and then it stops. And that’s what used to happen. After the first couple of GP appointments, I just gave it away.”

Ralph gets an AF diagnosis

A couple of years later, however, he was near the doctor’s surgery when an episode occurred. After being hooked up to an ECG, the doctor referred Ralph straight to the hospital.

It was at this point when he was finally diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF), an abnormal heart rate and rhythm.

“They kept me in overnight and put me on some medication to get my heart rate back to normal. It was going about 135-140 beats per minute. Then next day they came in and said ‘we’re going to have to turn your lights out, give you a paddywhack and bring you back’.

“It didn’t worry me because I’ve always trusted doctors. He said that it should come back to normal, which it did.”

The cardiologist discharged Ralph with a prescription for sotalol and advice to reduce his eight-cup-a-day coffee habit.

“I kicked coffee on the head pretty much. At first, I tried that decaf but that didn’t taste the same so I went back to tea and drank decaffeinated tea. These days, I have a proper cup of coffee three times a week when I go to Menzshed, [a social group for men] and I do now drink a bit of decaf if I want a bit of coffee.”

Other than that, Ralph says he hasn’t had to make too many other lifestyle changes as a result of the AF diagnosis.

“I’ve kept the same wife, so she looks after me and that’s the main thing,” he jokes. “We can’t travel too far overseas, because of insurance but apart from that we do what we always do.”

Coping with AF episodes

Ralph has paroxysmal AF, which comes and goes, and he says he normally experiences around half a dozen episodes per year. 

“You just get fatigued. You’re lethargic, you don’t feel like you want to do anything. And after an attack that will go for around about two days, sometimes you feel like you just don’t want to get out of bed.”

His advice to others experiencing episodic AF is to take it easy and not expect to do too much immediately afterwards. 

“I was still working when I started getting it, and after an attack, you can’t expect to run around straight after it. But there’s nothing really you can say to anyone, not much you can do. It’s just one of those things.”Ralph has found it helpful in talking to others about his condition. After a move to Upper Hutt some years ago to be closer to family, he now enjoys the camaraderie with guys at the local Menzshed, many of whom he’s discovered also have atrial fibrillation. 

“Menzshed helps take your mind off it. We’re all around the same age. I’m 74, and we’re all retired guys from 55 to 86. We kind of look after each other. We talk about our problems and so forth and that’s really good because if you come out of working, working gangs, there’s nobody there. Because you can’t spend all day pushing supermarket trolleys around behind your wife.”

Shared February 2021

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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