Atholl Hay shares his scary, but ultimately life-affirming, experience of surviving a near-fatal heart attack.

On a cold night last year, I was lying on the couch in front of the fire watching a movie with my cat, Madam, curled up in my lap. I took a conscious moment to acknowledge the picture of pure contentment before me. I had finally completed extensive renovations on my house in the Western Cape village of McGregor and having lived on a building site for over two years, I was relieved the project was now finished.

An angiogram confirmed that Atholl Hay had suffered a massive heart attack, but compassionate staff at Mediclinic Worcester and Mediclinic Panorama kept him in good spirits.

When I suddenly felt a slight tightening in my chest, I reminded myself to mention it to my GP the next time I saw him. It had been bugging me occasionally and I’d put it down to the stress of the renovations. After all, I’m extremely fit, eat a plant-based diet and don’t smoke. I work in the wellness industry and at age 63 I’m an avid hiker, yogi and runner. What else could it be?

Crushing pain

This time however, the tightness didn’t pass. It rapidly became more intense; the cramp-like pain spreading down my arms, into my jaw and across the top of my back. I felt a freezing-cold stab of pain between my shoulder blades. Instinctively, I knew I was in trouble. As a trained air steward, I was aware of the symptoms of a heart attack.

I was surprised by how accepting I was of the situation. As I considered the very real possibility that I might die that night, I reminded myself that all I could do was breathe slowly and deeply. My main concern was for my cat, as I live alone and was worried who would feed her. It’s strange what goes through your head at times like this – mindfulness practice came easily to me.

Although friends and family were later angry with me for not calling for help, I didn’t want to waste precious energy frantically trying to get to the nearest hospital 20km away, Instead I chose to remain still and to keep breathing – slowly and deeply. I firmly believe that decision helped saved my life. After more than an hour, the crushing pain began to ease, and I eventually dozed off.

First thing in the morning, I made an appointment to see my GP. I told him I’d experienced chest pains, and he immediately conducted an ECG. As he knows I generally enjoy robust good health, he started asking me about what I’d had for supper, suggesting it could have been severe indigestion. Then he suddenly looked up from the ECG printout. “Lie down immediately!” he ordered. “I’m calling an ambulance. You’ve had a massive heart attack.”

Finding inspiration: the heart attack has given Atholl new perspective on how precious life is.

Treatment and recovery

On arrival at Mediclinic Worcester, things happened with impressive speed. With a squad of nursing staff around my bed, my system was flooded with anticoagulants. I was feeling quite cheerful, all things considered, but it was beginning to dawn on me that I had literally been knocking on death’s door. For three nights in ICU, I was restrained by a spaghetti of wires connecting me to beeping machines, surrounded by cheerful, efficient, compassionate nurses. WhatsApp and Facebook delivered a steady flow of good wishes. The food was better than expected.

On day three I was transferred to the cardiac unit at Mediclinic Panorama, where I was given an angiogram. I then experienced the 25-minute medical miracle of having two lifesaving stents inserted via my wrist into my severely constricted cardiac artery. All the preceding trauma was almost worth it just to feel that warm lifeblood flowing back into my limbs. It was such an immense and memorable relief. I was discharged on day four. I joked that it was unfair a heart attack was my reward for living such a healthy life – and my doctor’s response was that surviving the heart attack was my reward. The words hit home.

After a few weeks rest, I returned to work and normal daily life. But my recovery has not been without a few knocks. Five months after my heart attack, I felt nauseous, stumbled out of bed and woke up on the bathroom floor with a smashed face, surrounded by blood. A doctor friend of mine cleaned me up and took me back to Mediclinic Worcester for observation. My cardiologist then gave me a heart monitor for four days and the results showed my fainting was due to arrhythmia. I was prescribed medication, and since then, things have been fine.

In fact, life now has a richer and more precious texture and I feel better than I’ve felt for years. My tolerance for drama is lower and I seem to have more courage. I am deeply grateful for the love of friends and family and for access to world-class medical treatment. I wish I could bottle the feeling I had the first week after having the stents inserted – it truly felt like I had been given a new lease on life.

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