Chest Pain: Don’t Second-Guess This Warning Sign
In the Autumn of 2009 I started to feel slightly unwell – lack of energy, intermittent mild aches in my joints and generally not feeling quite right. I didn’t think too much of it initially. After all, I was only in my mid-fifties, relatively fit and healthy, with no reason to believe there was anything amiss. I had never had cholesterol issues and my blood pressure was always good. I put the lethargy down to getting a bit older and figured it would simply pass, but it didn’t.
In late July of that year I became worried when I got severely short of breath during a casual walk. My GP, wanting to rule out my heart being the issue, ran the usual tests – bloods, X-ray and CT scan. As nothing appeared amiss from those tests, and given my generalised symptoms and previous good health, my GP concluded it was most likely I had a malfunctioning thyroid, and made arrangements for me to see an endocrinologist.
Between these appointments and the preliminary “ok” regarding my heart issues, our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, so we had double reasons to be rejoicing. We went to visit our new granddaughter in hospital one evening, and afterwards I helped push-start a large 4WD in the car park. I remember saying to my wife that I was pleased that my heart was fine, given that my chest hurt like hell. I put it down to having pulled a muscle, or something similar. I didn’t think for one minute that that could have been a heart attack.
The endocrinologist soon burst my bubble. The problem was not my thyroid – yet! He agreed that I had a thyroid problem, but that wasn’t what was causing the current symptoms. To prove his point, he got me back in the next morning to run a stress test, which clearly demonstrated that my heart was the real problem.
So off I trotted to a cardiologist to have an angiogram several weeks later. He provided me with nitrolingual spray to ease symptoms in the interim if necessary.
About a week later I had a bad episode at work, with the nitrolingual spray being initially ineffective to stem my chest pain, and I lost my eyesight for a brief period. I stupidly refused my colleagues’ suggestions of calling an ambulance. After about 15 minutes I started to feel a bit better and decided to drive myself to the doctor. The doctor wasn’t amused, called me a few choice names and sent me to the emergency department. I got my wife drive me.
The cardiologist performing the angiogram informed me that three arteries were severely blocked and, after weighing up options, we decided that triple bypass was my best way forward. He asked when my heart attacks had occurred, as it was obvious by the damage he could see that I had suffered at least one, probably more. At the time I wasn’t aware that the car park incident or the work episode could have constituted heart attacks. I now realise how wrong I was and how lucky I was. Being only 56 years old I was shocked at the findings; I felt as though I’d been kicked in the guts. That thoughtful, caring cardiologist became my treating specialist and I’ve been grateful for his guidance ever since.
Nine had always been one of my lucky numbers. My operation occurred on 9 September, 2009 (09/09/09), having been postponed from the previous day due to a bed shortage in the ICU. I was told that the surgeon waited until 9.09 to make the first cut, simply to line up all the nines. Even if it’s not true, I like the story. The bonus is that it’s an easy date to remember (and it was my father’s birthday). All went very well. The surgeon told me he knew it would, given the auspicious nature of the date.
Having spent six days recovering, and being exceptionally well cared for by wonderful hospital staff, I was discharged on my 57th birthday. It was a lovely birthday present, being able to walk out of hospital, especially looking back at the series of events that lead to my Coronary Artery By-pass Graft or, as some of us prefer, “cabbage” (CABG). I consider myself to be a very lucky man on so many levels.
Recovery was largely uneventful. My lovely wife looked after me superbly and ensured that I followed instructions. The rehabilitation regime at the hospital was a blessing, with the reassurance of being independently monitored regarding progress, knowing what I needed to do for my future, and being able to swap war stories with others who had been on the same journey. I have subsequently been behaving myself and exercising regularly in an effort to ensure that I do not incur a re-run.
Looking back, I understand how fortunate I have been. Whilst I was previously fit and healthy, with no cholesterol or blood pressure issues, I had been ignoring two significant risk factors. The first was the recent family history, with my father and one of his sisters both requiring CABG about ten years earlier. The second major risk factor was being a smoker for forty years. Add to that a significant level of stupidity on my part, in not recognising what were, in hindsight, probable heart attacks and then not allowing an ambulance to be called during the most serious episode. All up, I realise how easily things could have been so much worse and I am grateful for each new day as it comes.