I never had the pleasure of meeting cricket great Shane Warne, but like a lot of middle-aged blokes who marched themselves off to their cardiologist after his sudden death, I’m forever in his debt.
Around the same time as Warney’s tragic passing from a heart attack in Thailand in March at just 52, I’d began experiencing worrying chest symptoms myself.
Normally I would have shrugged this discomfort off as stress, or something that would pass, but hearing the devastating news about Warney resonated in a way I hadn’t expected. It made me think seriously about how quickly life can change in an instant – I needed to get myself checked out.
I thought I was in reasonable shape for 56; was playing an hour of tennis (singles) at a decent level each week interspersed with 4-5 runs, or walks, of 30-45 minutes duration. Longer if I managed to get out on a golf course for nine holes.
Yet for the first time in life, I’d been experiencing shortness of breath, had a consistent dull ache in the chest and the persistent feeling like there was a 5kg dumbbell strapped to my ribs.
Basically, I was feeling like crap.
With the distressing Warney news inspiring me to take action, I trotted off to the GP in search of some answers.
The frustrating problem was, as I soon found out, that unless an electrocardiogram (ECG) is showing you’ve had a heart attack, you may walk out thinking you may have just been overdoing things at work, as I did that first time.
A routine round of rushed blood tests also showed no obvious heart issue markers.
The GP did get me an appointment to see a cardiologist for a routine ‘stress test’, which would involve first walking, then running on a treadmill while an ECG monitors your heart’s electrical rhythms.
But in the interim, the symptoms got worse, so bad in fact, that for the first time in my life I shuffled myself into the emergency department at my local hospital on the recommendation of my GP.
Seven hours later after more blood tests, a chest x-ray and a well-meaning junior ED doctor prodding and poking my extremities, I was shown the door again.
“We can’t find anything wrong with you. But do come back if the symptoms persist.“
Am I making all these symptoms up? Am I losing my marbles?
I shelved all exercise and soldiered on, figuring the cardiologist I was seeing in a week might have the answers.
Barely five minutes into that appointment, as I was just breaking into a light run on an incline, all hell broke loose with alarms ringing and the horizontal line on the monitor suddenly spiking vertically through the top of the screen.
I was ushered onto a table to lie down while more scans were taken of my chest while I was gasping for breath.
“No need to worry, this could just be a false positive,” the cardiologist said in a reassuring tone.
It didn’t feel like a false alarm, let me tell you.
Still, I was soon shown the door with a form for yet another test, this time a computerised tomography (CT) coronary angiogram.
I was to do this at place of my choosing, and with no sense of urgency around timing, or at least that was the message I got from the cardiologist.
More than a little concerned about the dismal failure at the treadmill ‘stress test’, I fast-tracked the process and a few days later I was lying flat on my back as a powerful X-ray machine took pictures of the heart and its blood vessels.
A dye is pumped through your system via an IV into the hand. It makes you feel like you’re going to piss yourself (you won’t). The dye just helps the blood vessels show up better on the CT images and if you drink plenty of water afterwards will soon flush through the system.
Lying in this tunnel-like machine isn’t for the claustrophobic but by the time you hold your breath a few times, as instructed, it’s all over before the irrational fears have time to kick in.
So, finally some answers?
Or at least, that’s what I thought. But weeks went by without so much as an email from the cardiologist.
I was still experiencing the same worrying symptoms, but clearly I can’t have been in too much strife here, or they would have called, right?
I called the office, just in case, but apparently the doctor had gone on holiday and would be in touch on her return. Righto, there you go, maybe I was just under too much stress. Obviously, whatever is wrong with me can’t be life and death.
Then, just when I really was beginning to question my gut instinct that something was amiss, the cardiologist calls.
“Can you get into hospital within the next two weeks?”
Now she’s back from holiday, there is an issue all of a sudden?
Turns out the CT scan I did a few weeks back showed a narrowing of an artery and higher than normal calcium readings, and I’ll need to undergo a coronary angiogram at Prince of Wales hospital in Sydney to find out more.
Thank heavens for private health insurance.
As I’m prepped for the day procedure a nurse tells me that cardiologists have been inundated with middle-age blokes like me since Warney died. I’m about to find out just how lucky it was that I did take note.
Considered the gold standard in tests of its kind, a catheter is inserted either through the groin or wrist – I had the latter – and carefully threaded to your heart or coronary arteries.
A dye is then injected through so the cardiologist can see if there are any blocked arteries.
Although suitably anaesthetised you’re awake the whole time and can even see glimpses of what’s going on inside you via the giant TV screen just centimetres away.
The only sensation you feel through all this is a slight pressure in the arm. I’m aware of the conversations going on but am away with the fairies for most of it, which is just as well when the cardiologist and his assistant, with surgical gloves soaked in my blood, swing the screen around so he can explain what’s going on.
Turns out that I have a 70 per cent blockage in the right coronary artery, which is cutting it pretty fine. “Good catch,” the cardiologist later tells me.
I need two small balloons inflated in the artery and then two stents implanted to get the blood flowing back to normal. Stents are small mesh tubes designed to keep the artery open, and they are also coated with a slow-release medication to help prevent blood clots.
Back on the ward for a compulsory overnight stay a short time later – the whole procedure takes around an hour – a nurse pops in to check on the feeling in my hand and to loosen the band that’s still there in case the small puncture wound on the wrist doesn’t stop bleeding.
You’re also hooked up with a heart monitor for the duration of your stay so they can keep tabs on your vitals from the nearby nurse’s station.
One night on a cardio ward, with all the incessant alarms and pall of gloom, sets me straight.
I resolve to shuffle out with my overnight back and snap out of my midlife lethargy, and get my own health back on track.
So far, so good, three months later I’m happy to report. I’m offered ‘rehab’ support at my nearest hospital, and I initially go down that path but back out after an initial consult, mainly because I know this stuff already and don’t need my hand held to make meaningful changes.
This isn’t a criticism of this great service and is clearly essential for some. But it’s just not for me to go through light exercise with a bunch of strangers each week in a hospital gym. I can do that myself.
Same for the well-meaning nutritionist I’m assigned by my health insurer, who is clearly keen to avoid another $20k bill from my cardiologist.
Essentially the message elongated out over several weeks over the phone is one we all know, but don’t practise – move more, eat less, and cut out processed foods. It really, doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
Interestingly, during this whole health scare, not one health care professional ever asked me about my mental state, or stress levels, and why I was consuming more sugary and fatty foods to make myself feel better.
If I hadn’t caught myself when I did and insisted on some kind of medical intervention, I was most definitely on a fast-track to a heart attack.
Today, I’m 5-6kg lighter, more active, and more aware than ever that using packaged food and sugary drinks as a stress fix is not the answer.