Whangarei resident, Fred van Der Merwe, was making the most of the sunny June Wednesday to mow his lawn and get his weeds under control when his jaw began to go numb.
“It was strange, like a hell of a toothache,” says Fred, his South African accent still strong after living in New Zealand for nearly 20 years.
“Then I started to get a little bit of pain in my chest – as if I had terrible wind.”
Fred finished his work outside, cleaned the lawn mower and put it away in the garage. Then, he noticed that the pain was getting worse. Fred’s wife Barbara encouraged him to go inside and sit down for a while, and gave him a fizzy Eno to ease what he thought was indigestion. But, the pain and discomfort continued and Fred had begun to sweat profusely.
“It was like someone had poured a bucket of water over me,” he describes.
Barbara phoned their doctor, who told them to call an ambulance. They decided to drive to the hospital and they unfortunately caught every red light. Fred’s pain only got worse and he found it hard to breathe.
The Whangarei Hospital staff gave him an ECG and took his blood twice over a four hour period. They determined that he had suffered a heart attack and had to twist his arm to keep him in overnight.
“I’m pleased that I did,” says Fred.
“The next day the doctor told me that I was going to have another heart attack, so they got no argument from me about staying in for another night so that I could be transferred to Auckland the next day for an angiogram.”
Friday morning started early as planned. Fred got up at 5am, had breakfast and showered, but on the way back to his bed he suffered what the doctors termed a “massive heart attack”.
“I remember it was like someone had taken a big log, sharpened it like a pencil and then stabbed me repeatedly with it,” he says. “My jaw went tight – worse this time. I couldn’t breathe and I was doubled over with chest pains. The quicker that I moved, the worse that the pain became. I made it to the buzzer on my bed and rang for help.”
“The last thing that I heard was someone saying ‘get the doctor, quick!’”
Fred recalls coming around, but was only able to see blurry images and could not understand what people were saying. By that time, the doctor had managed to stabilise him and had arranged for the Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter to transfer him to Auckland immediately.
“Like the hospital staff, the rescue helicopter people were lovely and very helpful,” says Barbara, Fred’s wife. “They kept him comfortable and kept talking to me; telling me where we were flying over. It relaxed me, which was needed because the situation was so stressful.”
Barbara remembers being weak when she got into the helicopter.
“I fell on my knees and couldn’t get up.”
Once they arrived at Auckland Hospital, Fred was taken straight into the operating theatre. They opened him up and put a STENI into his main artery. During his recovery, the cardiologist came into the room and he said that Fred had dodged a bullet and that the heart attack had come to take him away.
Fred was discharged five days later on the Tuesday and has recently returned to have a defibrillator pacemaker installed.
“I know that I was lucky to walk away on my own two feet,” says Fred. “I got five star treatment all the way and I am thankful that the helicopter got me to Auckland faster than an ambulance could have.”
Barbara cannot say enough to describe how grateful she is to have her husband with her today.
“They’re awesome and it’s a marvellous chopper,” she says. “Fred could have died, but they are a lifesaver and got him there quickly.”
The Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter runs on donations from the public. Please give generously to keep this service in our community.