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Common conditions

My story: experiencing a heart attack

Healthy 56-year-old heart researcher Scott Kesteven recently suffered a heart attack. These are the warning signs he wished he’d paid attention to.

Health Agenda magazine
August 2017

As Scott Kesteven sat at the breakfast table one morning, little did he know that of the thousands of hearts he’d analysed in his career, the one he should have scrutinised more closely was his own.

It was late September 2016 and Kesteven, a senior researcher at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, had woken up earlier than usual, feeling worse for wear. His hangover-like symptoms – nausea and heartburn – prevented him from eating breakfast, so he took a pill to relieve the acid rising from his gut. When the burning sensation progressed to the back of his left arm, he knew he was in trouble.

Kesteven remained calm, not wanting to alarm his family. His wife Susan drove him to Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Hospital where the nurses immediately called an ambulance to rush him to the nearest major hospital, Royal North Shore, about 18km away. There, while doctors tried to open up the blockage causing his heart attack, Kesteven’s heart seized, leading to cardiac arrest.

Looking for the warning signs

As a fit, healthy, non-smoker and non-drinker, with no family history of cardiovascular disease, normal cholesterol, normal blood pressure, Kesteven was not a stereotypical candidate for a heart attack.

But in hindsight, the warning bells had sounded earlier in the year – Kesteven just didn’t decipher them. Used to cycling the 30km to work every day, he started to suffer shortness of breath and wasn’t able to ride as hard, fast or long as he once could – and experienced a very mild burning sensation in the chest. “It could’ve been a loss of condition, some extra body weight, reflux, or a torn muscle. It could’ve been anything,” he says.

Deciphering the disease

“If you suffer unexpected shortness of breath on exertion, doing something you routinely do, see your GP – even if you have no family history, or low cholesterol. Don’t be afraid to go to the doctor, says Kesteven.” He emphasises asking questions about heart health even if your doctor thinks you’re unlikely to be at risk.

Some risk factors you can’t do anything about, including your age, ethnicity, gender and family history. But you can be proactive about having a healthy diet, not smoking, being active and maintaining a healthy weight. Diabetes, high blood pressure and/or cholesterol are also risk factors you can manage.

The beauty of hindsight

Kesteven had none of the above. He says 20% of heart attack patients today have one or no risk factors. But that doesn’t mean you should dismiss concerns if you have them. If he could change one thing about that morning, Kesteven wishes he’d called an ambulance in the first place.

“I fibrillated as I was being pulled off the trolley onto the table, which means no blood flow from the heart at all,” says Kesteven.

“That could’ve been avoided – it was only seconds, but when you have a cramp, every second is excruciating. It’s the same but worse for the heart as it does more damage. The long-term ramifications would’ve been much more serious if I’d fibrillated earlier, say in the ambulance.”

Signs you might be having a heart attack

  • discomfort or pain in your chest, often spreading to your arm/s, shoulder/s, neck, jaw or back
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • cold sweat and/or a feeling of unwellness or dread.

What to do:

If you experience any combination of these, follow these steps:

  1. take aspirin
  2. lie down
  3. let someone know how you feel in case you pass out
  4. call 000, ask for an ambulance and don’t hang up. The ambulance will be on its way, but the more information you can personally give the operator, the better.

Source: The Heart Foundation

Free heart health checks

If you’re an HCF member with extras cover aged 18 and over, you can access free checks at selected HCF branches thanks to the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

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