Numbness in the left arm and a stabbing pain in the chest. Those symptoms sent a 29-year old Discovery Health Medical Scheme member, (who did not wish to be named) to a hospital emergency unit one evening on his way home from work.
The spectre of cardiac arrest had hung over this young father of a toddler, all his life. Both his father and grandfather had died of heart attacks. He shares his story in his own words.
I spent the past two nights in hospital. But, I am back at work today. I can’t stay away for long. My job requires me to be available, sometimes throughout the day and into the evening. I move from one urgent situation to another, putting out fires and helping people. I always have to be in control and ensure that challenges in the office don’t escalate.
At the start of the week, symptoms that I had been ignoring for a while suddenly took hold of me and shook me to the core. Heart disease runs in my family. Despite my mom and wife’s insistence I see a doctor to examine recurring numbness in my arm and heart palpitations, I stubbornly ignored the symptoms. I guess I am like most men in that way.
They gradually got worse over a two months period until my left arm and hand were regularly going lame. I often felt a stabbing pain in my chest. Some days it was a little like having heart burn. Randomly, my heart would beat faster.
I knew my cholesterol was high as I went for check-ups, but I wasn’t on medication for it. At the start of this week, I came in to work and felt oddly exhausted. I knew something was very wrong. I left at 15:00 and headed home. The lame feeling in my arm - again. A suddenly pounding heart – again. I knew that I would not be going home that night. Would I be going home again?
I quickly rerouted to the hospital. I have always keep aspirin in my car. I had it there for my dad, when he was alive. But, in the moment, didn't think to take any, though it would have been the right thing to do. I spent a couple of nights in hospital. Tests show that one of my coronary arteries has narrowed significantly. My cholesterol is at 7.5 mmol/l which puts me in the high-risk category. Doctors said the amount of processed sugar I consume is adding to the damage in my arteries.
Doctors may put in a stent. They're giving me a month to change my lifestyle first - quit smoking, start eating healthy food, get active. It sounds like a neat and tidy list to follow. But in reality, it represents a shift to another reality for me. Another planet of behavioural choices. The doctor gave my wife a healthy food list and she’s doing all she can to help me to change the way I eat.
As I said, heart disease runs in my family. My grandfather had a heart attack at the age of 30, when my father was only 10-years-old. My father had his first heart attack at the age of 30 and passed away at the age of 60, when I was 20-years-old. My dad had very high cholesterol levels and was a smoker, yet he was an active person. I remember that wherever he had to go, whether to the shops or elsewhere, he loved to walk. I also remember going with my father to the hospital where he would be seen at the aptly named Heart Failure Clinic for check-ups every second month.
When you have heart disease life becomes about percentages and numbers. I guess it’s one way to feel a sense of control over something that can bring so much fear. My dad’s numbers were 50:50. His coronary arteries were severely blocked. There was a 50% chance a coronary bypass would succeed and a 50% chance it would kill him. Doctors told my father to make lifestyle changes but his heart disease was picked up too late in life and much of the damage was done. He didn’t have the surgery and he lost his life anyway.
When my dad passed away I suddenly became the father figure in the family - at the age of 20. I have two older sisters but they were married and living away from us at the time. My life changed dramatically. I had to change jobs in order to move back to Johannesburg to support my mother financially, and in every other way. She had never worked. Now that I am married, she still lives with me.
Being of Indian descent, I can safely say that Indian people know there is a higher risk of heart disease in the population but it's not discussed as there's a sentiment that every culture eats unhealthy food to some extent. Yet, our food is so rich and this contributes to the heart disease that we see in our people. Our curries are made with a plethora of spices and everything is cooked and fried in cooking oil, butter and ghee. They're then eaten with white rice and white-flour based naan breads. Even our samoosas are deep-fried in oil. That said, I admit that I don’t eat healthily even when consuming non-traditional food.
I live very far away from my workplace. I wake up around 04:00 every morning, have a cigarette and get ready for work. I drink a cup of coffee with four teaspoons of sugar and milk - the standard addition to every cup of coffee. I have another cigarette before leaving at 05:00 and two more on the way to work. I pass many major intersections on my way to work where traffic is always a nightmare, so I have no choice but to leave work early. I’m in around 06:45, have another coffee and another cigarette and then my day carries on.
Smoking is the hardest thing to give up. The force of habit compels me to light up when I drive past a certain point in the road on the way to work. Whenever I feel stress or pressure, I smoke. I also associate smoking with having a cup of coffee and breaking through the surface of my day for a moment to grab a breath of air (and cigarette smoke) before diving back down into work. I would, in the past, go through a pack a day but in the past few months I've cut down so I’m on around 14 cigarettes a day.
I don't get hungry until around 13:00 when I eat some crisps or a burger. I drink a lot of Coke at work, at least two 500ml bottles at work and another when I get at home. I love sweets and really enjoy chocolates. I have a slab a day at work – usually a TV-bar. I crave sugar.
It might surprise you to read that, in the past 6 months, I have lost around 10kg simply as a result of all the walking I do at work. I can easily get to around 15 000 steps a day. Looking at my step counter at the moment it’s on 7078 steps, and its only half way through the day.
I usually leave work around 4pm and get home by 5pm - by then I am hungry. Having a meal at night is part of relaxing with my wife and our toddler. My wife cooks anything from dhal to rice, potatoes or spinach or meat and potatoes in a curry, chicken and potato curry. We eat quite early.
If you’re in a situation like mine, please hear me when I say that you need to think about the future and your family. If you know you have a family history of heart disease don’t wait until it’s too late to get it checked. And, know that even though you might have a heart condition, you can prevent it by eating healthily, not smoking and looking after yourself.
I remember reaching the hospital and thinking, 'I just need to get better'. If I could turn back time I would want my dad with me. I can't let my child grow up without me. I know that I am too young for this. But, I could see this coming. My family history of heart disease made me feel like I was fighting the inevitable. Thank God, we caught my heart attack before it happened.
Today my wife sent me off with only four cigarettes in hand. We're weaning me off them. I got a fifth from a colleague at work. I've had five instead of the ten I would have had by now. It's a start.
Be heart smart: know your health with Vitality Health Check
It's important to know your health status. Even if you feel fine, visit your GP or a clinic for a general check-up once a year, or book a Vitality Health Check to track your key health indicators on a regular basis. Taking steps towards prevention and early treatment of hypertension and other factors, will help ensure a healthier heart.
Get trusted Doctor advice on your device with Discovery DrConnect
You can now get trusted Doctor advice on your device with Discovery DrConnect. Through the Discovery app and website, you now have access to a growing library of over 5 billion doctor-created answers to medical questions or you can get a personalised answer from a doctor, at no additional cost to you. Find out more and how you can download the Discovery DrConnect app here
Also, you can find out if you have a family history that suggests you may have a higher than average chance of developing certain health conditions using the MyFamilyHistory assessment.
Spring brings a scurry of activity as the earth bursts into life. Use this season to fall in love with a fitness activity that keeps you coming back for more. Dumisile Mthalane did just that. By finding a sport where she can soak up the sunshine, she's transformed the way she looks, thinks and feels.
Amputee Jaco van Staden's worst nightmare has left him a better man than ever and with a foot that is almost as good as the one he was born with.