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Working off weight to benefit the heart

Jason was shocked to learn his symptoms of breathlessness and exhaustion were caused by heart failure. A life-changing stay in hospital has seen him embark on a successful weight loss journey and efforts to get his blood pressure under control.

When Jason began to develop severe breathlessness and tiredness back in 2020, he had no idea the symptoms were caused by his heart. At the time, Jason was worried it was Covid-19. 

“I knew something was wrong when I would go to lie down and had trouble breathing, yet I could fall asleep watching TV on the couch,” he recalls. “I felt a lot more out of shape and was struggling to walk from room to room without feeling breathless.  

“I would go to work and not show anyone that I was struggling. Somehow I managed that for three weeks but it became really hard for my partner to bear because I was up all night as I was too scared to go to sleep.”

Trip to emergency department and hospitalisation

“A week before Anzac Day we went down to the local medical centre in Papakura and I could barely walk because I was so tired,” he says. “My partner dragged me to the emergency clinic and I’m so glad she did because it basically saved my life.” 

“I was hunched over and when they called my name it took all my energy just to walk to the consultation room,” he says.  

That blood pressure reading we took I think was 190/140, and I couldn’t even string a sentence together because I was out of breath. I actually thought it must be Covid but I’m thankful it wasn’t.” 

An electrocardiogram (ECG) followed and it wasn’t long before Jason realised something was seriously wrong. 

“I remember the nurse’s eyes looking like saucepans and she couldn’t believe the reading! So, they took all the wires off and decided to double check – rewiring me back up, and on the second ECG they were on the phone to Middlemore.”

Tests reveal heart failure diagnosis

Jason was in hospital for a week and diagnosed with heart failure and sleep apnoea (a sleep disorder where breathing continuously starts and stops). 

With his heart unable to function properly, fluid was building up in his body and lungs. 

“It felt like I was drowning. This was why I had trouble breathing at night,” he explains.  

While it was a relief to finally know what had caused his symptoms, a heart failure diagnosis was a shock to Jason and his whānau.  

“It scared my partner more than myself because I knew I was sick,” he says. “I’d been sick for a number of years with high cholesterol and high blood pressure so it was just matter of time. Thankfully I’m still alive today but it was quite a journey.”

Fluid restriction and lifelong medication

Once home Jason had to make a number of lifestyle changes. One of the hardest was restricting his fluid intake. 

“I was restricted to no more than 1.5 litres of fluid a day,” he says. “That consisted of any fluid, even fruit. This went on for about a year. I would also take my blood pressure every morning, and my weight to see if I put on any more than 2kg. If so, I had to go straight to Middlemore.  

“I’m on medication for the rest of my life,” says Jason. “I’m on seven different tablets a day and I’m trying to eat healthier. I’ve been allowed to increase my fluid intake, I still have to watch my weight, but I feel a lot better.”  

Jason is also keeping on top of his high blood pressure to improve his health moving forward. 

“My blood pressure is really good and I have to go for blood tests every three months but everything is coming back really well and I’m on the right track so hopefully that will continue. I just don’t want my family to go through that journey again.”

Changing to healthier eating habits

Jason says unhealthy eating habits were a big factor in his heart journey, something that wasn’t helped by his previous job in the concrete industry. 

“It would be a 6am start and we were having fish and chips for breakfast and then we would have a couple of pies and a coke just on the van trip to work. So everything was in the making of this journey.” 

These days he and his partner try to eat a more heart-healthy diet, but it’s hard when time and money are tight. 

“We’re not the healthiest eating couple out there but we try to do the best with what we have. We both work full-time and the struggle is real. And I think health comes last. For me, as a Māori, it’s family first and then the bills and then food and then health. As long as we have a roof over our heads and food in the pantry then we are good to go. I know for a lot of families out there this is not possible, and I really feel for them because I would say their health is deteriorating.”

Weight loss challenge

Losing weight has been a real challenge for Jason too. 

“Being Māori it’s so hard to lose weight. I can’t remember ever being under 100kg. When I left school I was 90kg and then I was 100kg and then 110kg became the new norm. When I got admitted I was 128kg and it was all in my puku. I’ve lost 8kg but I still see that fat bugger in the mirror. So psychologically it plays on your mind. A lot of people have noticed the weight loss but I haven’t. That’s what I struggle with.” 

In order to lose weight, Jason has become much more active, something which can be challenging particularly with his work hours which see him regularly working nights. 

“Mainly I do more walking,” he says. “I’m too old for team sports now, so I took up golf. But it’s hard to get the balance, especially with shift work.” 

And he’s thankful to have his partner to keep him motivated. “Having support from my partner is great, she will wait till I get home from work to eat with me. It’s the extra support that that keeps you going in the right direction.”

Adjusting his worldview

Adjusting his worldview and image of himself has been one of the most difficult things for Jason to overcome. 

Prior to his diagnosis, he’d rarely gone to the doctors, only attending when his partner bullied him into it. 

“I’d never believe I was sick. I would play touch rugby, netball, basketball, tennis, anything with a ball. In my eyes I was quite fit and healthy,” he says. “But to realise I wasn’t invincible is quite hard to take. I’d go to the doctors and they would tell me you’ve got high blood cholesterol and you need to lose weight but I’d walk out with no prescription. 

“The hardest thing for me was that I didn’t know I needed help. And I didn’t want to ask for it because I didn’t want to believe I was sick.”  

These days it’s something he looks out for in others. 

“Now when I see someone struggling I immediately think of what I can do to help,” says Jason. “I don’t want someone else’s family to go through what mine did. I think if you’re in a position to ask for help, then ask for help.”

Emotional wellbeing after diagnosis

Jason is fortunate that he’s had the ongoing support from his partner and family through his experience and grateful for it. 

“There are times you feel like giving up, but you don’t because you look at the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that support, your family. You’ve got to look after yourself first and then your family. You have to do it for yourself. I’m all for myself but it’s the extra resources around me that keep you going.  

“You want people that uplift you and that’s what I did, I surrounded myself with people that could uplift me and then I could uplift them, so it’s paying it forward. And you pay it forward in so many different ways. Get yourself sorted and then surround yourself with people that give off a positive vibe.”   

Jason’s final piece of advice would be to communicate what’s going on in your life to anyone, and not be silent. 

“Please reach out. If there’s someone you can talk to, talk to them. There are resources out there. Get off your backside and do something. And, like I said earlier, surround yourself with good people.  

“It’s ironic, I was one of those people who didn’t reach out and now I’m the one telling people to reach out, but I wish I had. Even if it’s just a good friend, talk to them. If you know something’s wrong, don’t hide it. It’s as simple as asking someone, ‘How are you going mate?’”

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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