‘You are back, you are okay. Stay with us.’ He did.

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Gwyn Rees with wife Lisa and their boys, William 2, and Thomas, 4… “I have been angry, frustrated and I have cried more times than I care to admit.”

GWYN REES, well known in political and hospitality circles for his work with ClubsACT, was too young at 44 and too fit to have a heart attack. But he did and this is what happened…

IN a light-drenched room, almost blinding, I lie on a gurney. I am warm, pain-free, at peace and I have the sense that I am speaking with someone I know well, a friend maybe.  

I don’t recall who with, or what the conversation was we were having, we were just shooting the breeze. But as I gather my bearings, the bleached curtains of that reality peel away rudely and I am staring at the men and women of the emergency ward. 

“You are back, you are okay. Stay with us,” a woman says. 

Wide-eyed, confused, my head whips around as I take in the scene of hospital staff moving with urgency in the room. At the end of my bed, is the paramedic who brought me in, her hand raised covering her mouth in a gesture of concern. It isn’t comforting.

It is the evening of March 11, I have had a near-death experience triggered by a singular life-threatening event, a heart attack. Specifically, a critical blockage of the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, less affectionately referred to as a “widowmaker”.

Everything leading up to this point and the hour that followed was critical to my recovery and prognosis. It has meant I have limited and maybe, optimistically, avoided damage to my heart muscle. 

In the recovery ward, my cardiologist later explained what we did right was get an ambulance, it saved my life. 

This is because the LAD artery serves the heart nearly half of the blood it requires and a clot in this artery is particularly dangerous.  

The chances of surviving this type of heart attack outside of hospital without support are very low, particularly if there is not someone on hand to provide cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. Time is, as they say, of the essence. Every minute the heart is not getting blood supply you are sustaining damage.

Fortunately, I understood my body well enough to know something was amiss. The discomfort in my chest and the tingling sensation in my arm, I now know are signs of a heart attack. 

My wife, Lisa, called the ambulance.  

The experience in the ambulance quite possibly could have gone wrong but luck (while being unlucky) was on my side. I was able to get to the hospital and in surgery within those critical stages of a heart attack. An angiogram was performed, the blockage located and a stent relieved the obstruction.   

The rest of this story is one of trepidation. I have been angry, frustrated and I have cried more times than I care to admit.  

Feelings of anxiety, occasionally manifesting the feeling of pain in my chest, feeling elated to be alive and, simultaneously, fearful of recurrent attack have fueled a spectrum of emotion over the weeks that have followed. Cardiac blues are a very common after effect of a heart attack.

At 44, I thought I had had my share of life’s trials – raised by my father because of an absent mother, leaving home at 15, surviving cancer, my wife’s miscarriage and now a heart attack. I have struggled with this experience and unhelpfully, I don’t subscribe to feeling sorry for myself. Nevertheless, I have replayed that night more than once, deliberating over how any change to the order of actions meant disaster.    

The guilt of leaving my two and four-year-old behind, with my 35-year-old wife alone, has weighed on me in the most oppressive way. In fact, the most agonising moments were waiting for my wife to follow me to the emergency ward, following my cardiac event so I could tell her I love her and our boys.

After leaving hospital, I have been frustrated that there has been no check in by a social worker or counsellor, services that were available when I had cancer.  

Similarly, services that claim they are there to support are less equipped to help than otherwise advertised. The experience for the first time in my life of calling a major charity helpline to seek support but being asked to Google another website was frankly demoralising.  

To call local psychology clinics and be told, “…yes, that’s the wait because of covid” is truly troubling for those who are suffering. If services are so stretched, then people must be falling through the cracks.  

Serendipitously, maybe humorously, I am managing by following a great piece of advice from the “Mick Dundee School of Psychiatry”: I have told my mates. In fact, writing this is my version of telling Wally. I’ve told everyone in town and I hope doing so will help me deal with my frustrations.

Every day I am getting better because I have been so lucky. I am accepting that, despite doing everything right like not smoking, not eating badly and keeping fit, I can still make meaningful adjustments to my life to ensure that the chances of this happening again remain minuscule, as my cardiologist has reassured me.

As cliché as it sounds, this was a life-changing event and my focus is shifting to what is most dear, my family. I will admit, I was never a father or husband without faults. 

But I now find myself being focused on the present – I got around to fixing my son’s bike, that plumbing issue, I play a little more and maybe more importantly, there are a few more hugs.  

In June, Gwyn is taking part in “The Pushup Challenge” to support better mental health and raise funds for Lifeline Canberra. Donate to his page via thepushupchallenge.com.au

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