Men's Health Week encourages men to get themselves checked. Illawarra Mercury editor JULIAN O'BRIEN almost paid the ultimate price for ignoring the signs and hopes his story can be a warning to others.
Imagine this scenario.
You are a 42-year-old bloke in an acute medical ward hooked up to a high-tech heart monitor.
Joining you in the ward are three other patients all twice your age and they are all hooked up to high-tech heart monitors too. They look like death warmed up.
Yet, out of that entire room, the critical care nurse is looking at you with a fear in her eyes which tells you clearly she thinks you are the one in the room not long for this earth.
“I’ve already had one (patient) retrieval today, I don’t want another one,” you hear her say to a colleague.
Your blood pressure has been high all day and uncontrolled, but has now moved into the realm of what is medically termed “hypertensive crisis”.
Hypertensive crisis is generally upwards of when your systolic blood pressure reading reaches over 180 and diastolic above 120.
The machine beeping alarmingly on my right tells me mine is currently pushing over 220 over 140. It’s a crisis alright.
“Holy flipping heck,” the nurse exclaims as she watches the part of the monitor displaying the blood pressure reading.
Soon the bed is surrounded by a medical team waiting to see if that “crisis” turns into either a stroke or a cardiac arrest.
Laying in the bed, you watch the staff waiting and watching. They wait and watch like you do each morning for the kettle to boil …. except you are the one in the hot water.
How did it come to this? How did I let this happen?
They run you through a set of tests and ask questions to determine which way you are headed, stroke or arrest, like some cruel medical game show where no player wants to win the prize.
Thankfully, on this occasion, there is no “prize”. The new drugs the doctor prescribed finally kick in and take hold. The blood no longer boils and the pressure reading on the monitor eases.
You learn later during the night nurse changeover the level needed to get you back from the brink.
“The doctor prescribed one hundred milligrams, plus another three hundred milligrams,” the tired acute care nurse says to her fresh-faced colleague.
“OK, so he’s had three hundred milligrams …..,” the new nurse repeats back.
“No, you’re not listening. He’s had four hundred milligrams in total,” the nurse finishing her shift cuts in.
“What? Seriously?,” the new nurse says with a look of shock across her face.
All this is happening around me as I lay on the bed thinking of my beautiful wife and two gorgeous young children who remain unaware - thankfully - of the drama that just unfolded.
How did it come to this? How did I let this happen?
Lying prone in a hospital ward surrounded by patients twice my age who were nothing but a constant reminder to the parents I’d lost in the two years previously.
In the confines of the hospital bed I could do nothing but think of my girls at home.
Seriously, how did it get to this?
The morning after that night, another emergency nurse sat beside me when no-one else was around.
“My husband dropped dead in front of me when he was 46 last November,’’ she said.
“We have four kids. You need to get this sorted.”
The words hit like a freight train.
“Yep. Agreed,” is all I have to offer.
The day before had started out perfectly normally.
I rose as the family slept, got dressed into my work clothes and drove the 30 minutes from our home to Wollongong for a Rotary meeting.
At the meeting’s conclusion I walked to the car park with a mate from the club who tactfully pulled me aside as we neared our vehicles.
“Mate, how’s your health?,” he said looking straight into my eyes.
It wasn’t the first time someone had enquired about my health.
In fact for months my wife had been persisting I needed a check up, having seen a friend’s husband drop dead suddenly and leave his wife and family behind to clean up the mess.
I’d just nod my head and say I would ……….. But I never did.
Others had said politely “how are you going?” without wanting to be impolite or intrude.
This time though the query, from the man who saved my life, was very specific.
“Mate, how’s your health?,” he said.
“Yeah, good mate. Why do you ask?,” I replied laughing it off.
In truth, I had no idea how my health was, but I suspected it wasn’t good.
I hadn’t seen a doctor in over two years and in those two years, we’d relocated the family 1200km to take on a new work challenge, I’d lost both my parents, stopped doing any exercise at all, was living unhealthily and put back on a lot of weight I’d worked hard to lose several years before.
“It’s just I’ve noticed a couple of things,” my mate persisted.
“Your hand was shaking this morning and I’ve noticed you sweat at odd times, even when it’s not hot. I watched you when you spoke at the last board meeting,” he continued.
He shared with me quickly a couple of his own personal experiences, but I reassured him I was fine and we parted ways.
What he didn’t know was, his words went straight to my heart - literally.
I got in the car, turned the ignition and called my wife to book me in for medical appointment while I rang work colleagues to let them know I needed to go see a medical professional.
What no-one knew was the day before I spent much of the afternoon feeling ill with nagging chest pains. I told no-one.
I also didn’t tell anyone I’d had similar pains, perhaps not quite as bad, for some eight to 10 months. Deep down I knew I had serious problems, but was too scared or stupid to admit it.
It almost cost me my life.
Later that night when the medical emergency subsided and a normal heart was restored, I texted my friend.
“Are you free?,” the text read.
Moments later my mobile rang.
“What’s up,” he said.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” I replied.
“For what?” he enquired.
“For saving my life,” I said.
On hearing about my situation, so many of my closest friends and family have said things like “I almost said something myself” or “I wish I’d said something” or “I didn’t want to be rude”.
I don’t blame them. I’m the same. Never again though.
For me a few well chosen words were the tonic I needed in my fight against hypertension - commonly known as “the silent killer”.
To all the Australian men out there, do not let the silence take you. Get checked and be man enough to seek help.
From June 12-18, communities from across Australia come together to celebrate Men’s Health Week. This year’s theme is “Healthy Body-Healthy Mind: Keeping the Balance”.
- By Julian O’Brien, editor of the Illawarra Mercury.