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Heart attack at 35: Knowing the signs and symptoms
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Heart attack at 35: Knowing the signs and symptoms

David reflects on how his life changed when he had a heart attack at 35 and how he got back on track.

What happened?

When David Oke had a heart attack at 35, his life changed overnight - but in ways quite unlike how an older person might have been affected. His career path, his earnings’ projections - even his initial capacity to be a father - were immediately shifted sideways.   

Now 57, David learned about life and death in October 1995. His mother had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm early in the month, his first child Daniel was born on the day of his mother’s funeral and then, three days after his tiny son came home from hospital, David felt dizzy and nauseous, with a dull pain in the centre of his chest.

These were the classic signs of a heart attack but, at only 35, it was not what he expected. Like many his age, David knew nothing about heart attack causes or even heart attack symptoms.

I was totally shocked. Thirty-five-year olds don’t have heart attacks. I had never been a smoker, and heart disease was not part of my family history.

In hospital, an angiogram revealed minimal damage to David’s heart, but he had to return to hospital a few days later with a deep-vein thrombosis in his leg and blood clots in his lungs. “The verdict was that when under lots of stress, my blood starts clotting unusually. Twenty-three years later I am still on daily Warfarin (blood thinning) tablets.”

Dealing with the challenges

The challenge for David after his heart attack was how to live with the adult responsibilities that come with being a father, husband, son – and teacher - while dealing with heart disease. His time in the cardiac ward had been confronting and depressing. “I was with other men much older than me and I hit rock bottom there.”

When he returned home, he had to take sick leave until the end of the school year but there were other challenges. “My son was a newborn baby and I couldn’t pick him up because we didn’t know for sure initially what had caused the heart attack. That was very sad.” 

David returned to teaching the following February but realised he would always have to watch his health and stress levels so would have to rethink his career ambitions. “I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to be a principal but early on I’d put in for higher duties. After the heart attack, I thought, no way can I be a principal now.”

After advice at cardiac rehabilitation, David did his best to exercise more, eat well and keep his stress levels under control.  

But, in those early years after his heart attack, it was a challenge juggling young children – his second son Liam was born in 2001 – and work. “I taught grades 5 and 6 for 13 years and you’re always bringing work home, correcting assignments, doing planning and paperwork.”

His energy levels also fluctuated and he often found himself exhausted. “Sometimes on a Saturday, I‘d just want to sleep.”

David’s story reflects the reality for many people that the normal demands of life can often get in the way of the best of intentions.  His exercise and health regime went well until the end of 1998 when more family pressures surfaced. 

“At that time, my father had been given a cancer diagnosis and wanted to die at home and not in a hospital. I took leave from work and, along with my two brothers and their partners, we nursed Dad at home, taking turns for the different shifts.”

David and his wife were juggling work, a very active three-year-old, and frequent daily and overnight stays with David’s father, an hour’s drive away. “During this period, I did have another overnight stay in hospital as some of that dizziness came back.”

Rediscovering motivation

Life muddled along and, in 2013, David’s wife Heather saw an ad in the local paper about a 10-week men’s health program beginning in his neighbourhood – Sons of The West.

It was part of a three-year program, since extended and continuing, which aimed to get men together, provide them with a guest speaker on a relevant topic and then get them to exercise together. David joined and rediscovered his motivation through connection with other men going through similar health challenges.

It’s been fantastic for me. I still carry a bit too much weight, but I try to exercise regularly, about 120 minutes a week. I have stopped fizzy drinks and I now love eating lots of vegetables and leafy salads. I am even going to a local gym once a week.

David took early retirement from full-time teaching a few years ago but now works part-time as a music teacher at a local school. “I love it; it’s very hands-on with ukuleles, keyboards, singing, drums and guitars.”  

He doesn’t dwell on his horror month all those years ago but realises his heart attack forced him to contemplate his mortality earlier than he might otherwise have had to.  “I think I was on a fast track to Diabetes 2, like my mother, father and older brother.” 

His sons are now 22 and 17 and David has turned into the sort of bloke who, when he goes to the football, parks far away just so he can get in some extra steps in his daily walk.  “Even at shopping centres now, I will always park a bit further away to get in some extra steps.” 

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