The Predisposition to Cardiovascular and Heart Disease
Over the years, Dr Duncan Jefferson has been a permanent fixture at his local beach, surfing the waves and running miles along the soft sand.
“I exercised six days a week,” says the former GP. “I have a BMI of 22, I don’t smoke, my diet’s excellent, my blood pressure’s kept under control and my cholesterol numbers are so good you wouldn’t believe.”
Such impressive figures would make a man half Dr. Duncan’s 60 years proud. So it came as a profound shock to the robust doctor when just a few months ago, he found himself not fighting fis as he’d thought, but fighting for his life.
“I’d just been to Simon and Garfunkel’s final tour concert with my wife, daughter and her husband and we were running for the bus to head home”, he recalls. “Suddenly I thought, ‘what was that?’ There was a sharp pain in my right shoulder.”
Dr. Duncan had experienced pain in his right shoulder previously but had believed it was arthritic pain.
“I just thought it was due to getting older”, he laughs, “but the pain this day was much greater in intensity and I thought I’d better get it cheeked out as I was due to go on a holiday overseas.”
Who knows what would have happened had there been no holiday plans, because Dr. Duncan’s decision to call his doctor that day just may have saved his life. The doctor ordered an angiogram for that afternoon.
“Afterwards, the bloke who did it said ‘you’re not leaving the hospital, I’m afraid. I found out I had a critical lesion of my left main [coronary artery] and I would need bypass surgery.”
I critical lesion of the left main artery is sometimes referred to as a ‘widow-maker lesion’ – if the artery becomes completely blocked, you have no chance of survival. Dr. Duncan had a 90-95% blockage.
After six days of pacing the coronary care unit, surgery went ahead.
“I didn’t feel too scared at this point. I trusted the surgeon and tried not to think about the fact they were going to take a chainsaw to my chest! I was operated on at the Mount Hospital so I reckon I had the best surgeon and the best care that I could have wished for.”
“Afterwards, I woke up and this voice in my ear says: ‘I’m very sorry, Duncan, but we’re going to have to put you to sleep again.’ Apparently I was bleeding into my lung. When I woke up the second time, I had tubes coming out of everywhere… that was probably the worst part.”
Being on the other side of the medical equation and relinquishing control can be notoriously difficult for doctors but Dr. Duncan says he was the exception to the rule. He recalls that this was because the nurses were so gentle, caring and full of common sense, and because his surgeon was so good.
“The surgeon I had was technically brilliant, but unlike a lot of other surgeons, he was also very empathetic. At one point, he puts his hand on my shoulder and said ‘mate, we’ll look after you’ and that was so simple but so necessary, so helpful.”
Such a lesson in the impact of empathy has had a profound impact on Dr. Duncan and he feels grateful that he may understand people’s suffering more now.
“As a doctor, you think you understand pain and suffering because you’ve seen a lot of it but, until you’ve actually experienced profound illness and how isolating it is, it is impossible to completely understand. I think once you do, there is a magical way to look at someone and just simply say ‘I understand’ and they know that you do.”
Taking Care of your Ticker
- Watch your weight – if you are overweight, you’re 80% more at risk of heart disease
- Get some aerobic exercise – particularly beneficial is the kind of activity that increase your heart rate and gets you breathing more deeply
- Give up smoking – you know the drill: smokers younger than 50 are five times more likely than non-smokers to die of coronary heart disease
- Moderate drinking – regular binge drinking puts you at risk of heart problems. Try to eat when drinking and mix it up with non-alcoholic beverages, too
- Watch your diet – reduce saturated fats and salt if your cholesterol levers are high
- Diabetes put extra strain on the heart, so if you are diabetic it is ever more important to keep cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels under control
Following on from his initial treatment, Dr. Duncan undertook extensive rehabilitation with the West Australian Cardiac Rehabilitation Service (WACRS). WACRS includes a low-impact guided fitness program as well as education in its services to help patients rebuilt their strength and stay well in the long term.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the program!” says Dr. Duncan. “It’s a personalised program run by a caring, professional team. Every heart rehab patient should go there to help kick-start the rest of their lives.”
Now on the road to recover, Dr. Duncan still finds that the rehabilitation process requires patience and humility.
“Going from being someone who is pretty fit and feels in charge, to feeling helpless and not able to do anything for yourself is very humbling,” he says, adding that two people in particular have helped him through – “My dear old dad” [who had five bypasses at age 72 but is now going strong at 80] and his wife, who spent each day in the hospital by his side. “I think having someone to travel that journey with you makes an enormous difference.”
In late 2009, Dr. Duncan was able to make another journey – this time on their postponed trip to see family in England, Ireland and America. He decided he was well enough to go when he was back jogging on the soft sand at his local beach.
Dr. Duncan is also planning on taking part in the upcoming HBF Run for a Reason despite his recent health scare. “I would like to take part and, at this stage, there is no reason why I shouldn’t run. It’s all about caring for oneself and caring for the community,” he says.
And how does it feel to be active again?
“It’s a joyous feeling. You give thanks every day for what you can do, because when it’s taken away from you, it’s terrible. I treasure my health because I still have so much I want to do.”