“We’ve got young guys gone before their time”

Soane hoped his active lifestyle would balance out the negative effects of smoking and drinking. But a heart attack at 39 changed all that. Supported by his family and faith, he's now living a healthier life and encouraging others to do the same.

Soane talks about his experience

As the oldest of four brothers and a sister, Soane’s good-natured sibling rivalry always kept him fit.

"Us boys are quite competitive in our fitness challenges," he explains. "When we were kids it was climbing the trees the fastest, running the fastest. Now, it's maybe not trees, but we're still doing it. Even as adults we're quite competitive."

Soane was born in Wellington but moved to Auckland as a child, where he became passionate about outdoor activities such as tramping and abseiling. A proud supporter of both the Hurricanes and the Warriors, he also played a lot of rugby and touch.

Even once he had a busy career as a social worker and became a Dad himself, Soane kept up his excellent fitness regime. He hoped that all the exercise would outweigh other looming health risks.

"I was a heavy smoker and a big drinker, so having a heart attack was always in the back of my mind. But I guess I just thought I was invincible with all the training. I hoped that with all the fitness I should be ok," he says. "But then it finally happened."

Heart attack happens

It was February 2014 and Soane, at the time 39, had enjoyed a very active day. He'd trained twice and finished up with a game of touch. Immediately after the game, however, he began to have chest pain.

"I went to the car after the game, and I had a pain right in the middle of my chest. I thought I'd pulled a chest muscle. I thought, 'I'll get rid of it by up lighting a cigarette.' But it got worse."

Once back at his house, the pain continued to strengthen. Soane feared the worst, but with only his teenage daughter at home, he tried to stay as calm as possible.

"I just calmly said to her, 'I think you might need to call the ambulance. I'm not feeling well.' I didn't want to freak her out. I was really softly spoken. I didn’t want to tell her I had chest pain. Luckily my wife arrived home shortly afterwards."

When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics confirmed Soane's fears. He was having a heart attack.

"The pain was about 8 out of 10. They gave me aspirin and they gave me all this morphine and I felt a lot better after that," he laughs.

Soane was taken to Middlemore and then on to Auckland Hospital for an angioplasty procedure, to open up the blocked artery.

"I could see everything on the massive TV screen. They put a stent in to open up the artery and they did that through the wrist. I was in and out because of all the morphine, but wow it was amazing technology."

The next day Soane went back to Middlemore where he spent some time recovering on the cardiology ward.

Time for recovery and lifestyle changes

While in hospital, Soane had time to reflect on the heart attack and what it meant for his life going forwards.

"I thought about all those years of smoking and it was on my conscience. I thought I’d better quit, which I did. I was sitting in the ward thinking, 'I've just been through this. Now I can be healthy, 100 per cent healthy'."

As well as quitting smoking, Soane cut back on his drinking. He also eats a more heart healthy diet, has cut out caffeine, and takes pills to help his heart function better.

"I have some tablets that I have to take for life now. Doctor says I've got to take them. I'm living on those pills now," he explains.

With his heart functioning less well than normal, he also made the tough decision to switch rugby for less intense activities.

"It was hard. I couldn't do those things I loved to do, like rugby. But then I thought at least I'm still mobile. That's a good thing."

Emotional recovery

Soane discovered that getting well after a heart attack isn't just about the physical recovery. You have to recover emotionally too. 

"A heart attack really affects you mentally. You look at the negatives rather than the positives," he explains. "I think the challenge was getting into the new routine after the heart attack and getting above and beyond the 'monsters' – those things that I couldn't do any more, like not playing rugby." 

All up, it took about a year to get back to his old self.

"It took a while, because your mind can play tricks on you. You've got to really look yourself in the mirror and say to yourself, 'My heart's still functioning, and that’s a good thing.' I had to come to a realisation that I needed to move on.

"I also realised I'm actually quite lucky. I still have time. I've got a friend who died of cancer. So I'm lucky this is not a death warrant. I still have time to manage and control things in order to live a healthy lifestyle."

Family and faith helped him through

Soane's family and faith were key to helping him in the emotional recovery. 

"My in-laws are both ministers, so going to church was really important for me. That helped a lot. Through my faith, spending time with family, and spending time at work with my peers and also getting back to the young people I was working with. That really helped."

And, with most of his wife's family living on the same street, support was always close at hand.   

"It's always good to have family support. We're always going for walks as a family, that's pretty encouraging. There have been times when I've been stressed out with my condition, but I've always talked about it with other people."

Encouraging others to look after their heart health

Soane says it's important to know that fitness alone can't protect you from heart disease, and to be aware of the other risk factors, such as a family history of heart disease. 

"My old man was a retired fireman, he was healthy. He used to walk everywhere. But he had to have a triple bypass in his early 50s, that was in 2003," Soane says. 

Meanwhile, one of Soane's brothers found out he also has heart disease. "His artery is 50 per cent blocked. He's taking medication now. He was in disbelief. He's fit as a fox. He couldn't believe this could happen to him as well." 

Soane has also shared his own story in the wider community to encourage others to look after their health.

"I've got a good friend here in South Auckland who runs a men's wellness programme – a group of guys who get together to talk about health. There's a lot of young guys. I go and talk to some of the young fellas there about their diet, encourage them to get a check-up. Because we've got young guys dying at the age of late 30s. We've got these young men who are gone before their time."

Looking to the future

Last year, Soane had an implanted cardioverter defibrillator put in to assist his heart, because it was functioning less well than it should.

"It was a pretty straight forward procedure. It’s a device to look after my heart and it gives me a sense of security knowing that it’s there. The cardiologist always tells me I've got the best technology from America," Soane laughs.

Other than that, he continues to take his heart medication and live a healthy life. He says heart disease has encouraged him to be both prepared for death and to live life to the fullest. 

"Not many people talk about death, but you’ve got to be sure about where you're going to. I said to myself and my wife, 'we all die and that day will come', but in the meantime I’m always positive about living life to the fullest. I want to leave a legacy. I'm thankful my condition is not a death warrant. I'm blessed and I’m very lucky to be alive.

"I want to see my daughter get married and meet her children. I want to see my young nieces and nephews grow up, I want to see them celebrate 21. I don't want them to come back home from school and find me gone. It would really break their hearts."
 

Shared October 2020

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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