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“It’s a real shame that people can’t have an epiphany about their life and their relationships until they’ve been to the edge of the abyss,“ says Stephen Blakey – a changed man since his heart attack.

After a major heart attack where he sensed his life ending, Stephen Blakey says he’s emerged a nicer, lighter, better person, who now has his priorities right: family first, work second.

“What’s important in life is quite simple – it’s how we care for each other. Everything else is just stuff,” he says. But it took a near-death experience to drive that point home.

Stephen says, up until his heart attack, he’d been “somewhat self-indulgent” – his career meant he travelled a lot for business and spent nights on end entertaining clients. “But there were consequences.” The first warning signs came 12 years ago when chest pains led him to an Auckland cardiologist.

“To cut a long story short, he said to me, ‘if you don’t lose your weight, don’t get yourself fit and don’t change your diet, in 10 years you’ll have a serious heart attack and you’ll be dead’.” In the meantime, Stephen was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and put on medication.

“Probably one of the challenges is, when you take medication and it makes you feel great, you forget what brought you to that point. And to some extent I went back to my previous lifestyle of entertaining and pleasing myself” he says.

But, 10 years later while scrubbing the underneath of his boat, Stephen had what he describes as “a massive heart attack”.

“People there revived me until the ambulance arrived. So the cardiologist was right – 10 years later, it did in fact happen.”

The heart attack

Stephen was at the marina, cleaning his boat, when he started to feel nauseous. A friend on the marina, Jim, said to him, “Stephen, you’re not looking well mate.”

“Then I started to get, I suppose the best way to describe it, is a cramp across my chest, which caused me to grab my chest. Then I sat down on this bench, and I said ‘oh I’m not feeling too good Jim’ and the pain got worse. Then I suddenly got a sharper pain and I fell off the bench onto the grass.

“Jim was trying to get me in the recovery position, then I got this tremendous pain and everything just went black.

“The next thing I remember from a meta-physical perspective, I was in a very dark and frightening place but in fact I was in an ambulance being worked on.”

The paramedics had to give Stephen CPR at the marina, and once again had to stabilise him on route to hospital.

“They got me to Middlemore, evaluated me and told me that I’d had a rather large heart attack and that there were more clots forming in my heart and another heart attack was Imminent.”

Stephen needed an emergency angioplasty to open up the arteries, but had to be transferred to Auckland Hospital for it.

“A surgeon all dressed in black told me I have to get you to sign this form – and written on it was ‘Death is imminent’. He said you’re in a bad way, we need to get you into theatre and open up those arteries to get some blood into your muscles, otherwise you’re going to die.”

On the way to hospital, Stephen deteriorated in the ambulance. But on arrival to the ward, luck had it that a childhood friend of his daughter’s – a nurse – saw him and asked the medical team if they would like her to stay with him, holding his hand, before the surgery. That’s just one of the moments he and the family were grateful for that day.

First attempt at surgery

The angioplasty didn’t proceed as planned, however, Stephen remembers having morphine for the pain and a needle going into his wrist to reach his heart. But the surgeon had to stop the procedure, because his arteries wouldn’t open up.

It turned out, a couple of his arteries were 93% blocked. “Another surgeon told me, ‘You’ve sustained about 15% heart damage, you’ve got clots in your heart, we can’t operate, if we operate those clots will dislodge and you will die.’” Instead, Stephen was given blood thinners to reduce the blood clots, and surgery was postponed a few more days.

An emotional recovery

The rescheduled surgery went well, and still now, Stephen can’t thank enough the doctors and nurses who saved him. But there was another element to Stephen’s recovery that his doctor picked up on.

“I just lay there and I was upset, and he just took my hand in one of his hands. He said, ‘Come on Stephen, it’s all fine now.’ He said, ‘You know last night, we were having some difficulty with you: your respiration was high, your pulse was high, and no matter how many bits and pieces we gave you, we couldn’t stabilise you.’

“And he said, ‘Within two minutes of your wife and daughter coming in at midnight, your pulse and respiration had stabilised. So we know that there’s a compassionate, emotional element that helps your recovery.’”

Stephen adds that he cried a lot during his hospital stay, “which is not really me – my wife used to call me the Ice Man, because I never showed any emotion”.

“And here I was in hospital, holding my daughter’s hands. And as a father I felt disappointed that I’d been so self-indulgent in my life that it had brought about this pain and suffering for my girls and my wife.

“I thought, if a man’s supposed to protect his wife and daughters and I’m watching them crying now, then I haven’t done a very good job. And all I had to do, in this particular case to protect them, was eat properly and exercise.”

It was a wake-up call for Stephen. “I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t as good a person as I could be.” He says he used to tell himself he was working hard for the sake of his family – to keep them in a certain lifestyle. But now he realised, all his family really wanted was just to spend time with him.

“Certainly what comes out of this experience is the anguish that a heart attack puts your family and friends through, and how much you will need them in recovery – something my dear wife Alison can testify to as she was my rock during all of this experience and instrumental in keeping me together.”

Life post-surgery

Since leaving hospital, Stephen has significantly cut back his workload; he’s also eating better and exercising more. His weight is down from 133 kg to 113 kg, his diabetes has improved, and his overall health is better.

“An interesting metamorphosis is happening with my body. As I’m getting healthier, as I’m losing the weight, as I’m eating better and exercising daily, my body’s getting better because they’re taking me off the various medications.”

He is no longer on the beta-blocker, and both his blood pressure and diabetes medications have been halved. Even his eyesight is better because the capillaries at the back of his eye are actually receiving blood, he says.

“And right now, I’m here on my La-Z-Boy and I can see all of these veins in my feet – I’ve not seen veins in my feet for the best part of 10 years! So it’s interesting how having the surgery got my heart pumping somehow differently. My legs were always puffy, and now they’re not.

“There are lots of benefits but probably the most important one is everyday getting to see my family and enjoying both my daughters Sarah and Amy taking me walking and my wife Alison keeping me healthy.  Even my grandchildren Lucy, Johnny and Maia take care of me, rushing towards me with the Red Heart Foundation cushion when I have a couching spurt.”

He says his son-in-law, Ben, probably summed it all up while he was recovering: He said, ‘Well, Steve’s in hospital now, he’s survived this, this will give him time to decide what’s important and what he wants to do with his life.’

“And guess what, Ben was right.”