I am
Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’

Key takeaways

Sudden cardiac arrest can, believe or not, happen to seemingly healthy people. At 26, Tom was the fittest he'd ever been, but a near-fatal cardiac arrest turned his life upside down.
3 min read

At the age of 26, Tom Pickersgill had never been fitter. 

Diagnosed with an enlarged heart as a baby that was later re-diagnosed as ALCAPA Syndrome at 16, open-heart surgery gave him an extraordinary new lease on life.

“After my surgery at 16, I decided to go for a jog and I kept running. I was amazed that I could do it after years of not being able to run at all.  The surgery opened me up to a whole new world and I became addicted to it."

For the next decade, exercise became a big part of Tom’s life, participating in high-stamina sports such as kickboxing, triathlons and extreme rock climbing all over the world.

But on the morning of 11 May 2013, Tom didn’t feel quite right. He had been feeling unwell, like he had the flu, and hadn’t done any exercise.

“Even though I didn’t feel well, I hadn’t taken any time off work. I told myself to stop being soft and go for a run.” 

That’s all Tom remembers from that day. He woke up five days later in intensive care. He had suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest.

In an amazing twist of fate, two nurses travelling in opposite directions both saw Tom clutch his chest, fall back and hit his head on the footpath.  They immediately ran to his aid, called Triple Zero and alternately performed CPR. 

During this time, another car stopped – it contained four employees from NOVA radio station that had recently trained in CPR.  All four assisted the nurses and performed CPR on Tom until the ambulance arrived.

The ambulance came within 16 minutes and applied 14 shocks – unable to restore a normal rhythm the officers were about to “call it” but decided to try one more time.

Tom’s heart came back to life.

In hospital Tom was put into an induced coma for three days and his family was given a grim prognosis – he may not wake up, he may not be able to speak or walk again and he may have no short-term memory.

Tom woke after five days and had no immediate memory, although over a week his memory did improve.  At this time, he had more heart surgery and had an internal defibrillator inserted to shock his heart back into rhythm if it started failing again.

The next six months were a very dark time for Tom.

“I bottled everything up. I told everyone I was okay but I wasn’t. I didn’t want my family to worry – I just wanted my old self back.”

Tom had to adjust to a completely new ‘normal’.  He had previously been employed as an MRI technician and part-time lecturer – a job he was passionate about. Having an internal defibrillator meant he was no longer able to do the same job.

After a decade of looking after his diet and exercising at very high levels – he lost all motivation. He began drinking and eating unhealthily. In his mind he had done all the right things and his heart had still failed him. What was the use of living a healthy life?

“I couldn’t train anymore and I wasn’t interested in cardiac rehabilitation. In my mind I thought I knew what I had to do but looking back cardiac rehab would have been the best thing for me at that time. It is the first thing I would recommend people to do now.”

After a nine month “bad patch”, Tom finally sought help.  He saw a GP and a psychologist and talked about his anxiety and depression, and after a few months began to feel that things were going to be okay.

“It was great to get things off my chest. I learnt to tell people close to me that I wasn’t okay.  To finally communicate that was brilliant. I had to get used to being a different guy.”

Heart disease isn’t like having a cast on your leg or being in a wheelchair. It’s a silent thing. When you are struggling it’s sometimes hard to get across to someone who can never understand. Seeking help and meeting others in a similar situation definitely helped me.

Tom also got serious about his lifestyle again. He made major changes to his diet, improved his sleep, started exercising and continued to receive help for his mental and emotional wellbeing.

Today Tom is in a “good place”.  He has a new role as a specialist in cardiac CT and MR imaging which takes him all around the world.

Tom also says his cardiac arrest is “the best thing that ever happened to me”.  He is now happier than ever and has a clearer idea on what the “important things in life are”.

“Work-wise, my cardiac arrest has turned into the biggest blessing as now I have a job that is bigger than I ever imagined getting before. Something I enjoy way more.”

He also credits the support and unwavering love of his girlfriend Christina who stuck with him through the very dark times.

“After my cardiac arrest I told my girlfriend that she didn’t have to stay around as she didn’t sign on for this. She has been incredible, without her support, understanding and complete patience I don’t think I would have made the recovery I have made.”

And today, what would Tom say to those who are struggling like he was after a heart event or heart surgery?

“Don’t bottle things up. Let everyone know how you feel. As soon as you try and go it alone the weight of the problem is so much harder to deal with.  It’s an old cliché, but as soon as you share the problem, the problem is halved. Seek advice, get help. There are many people out there who can help you. Getting the right support is huge. You deserve it.”

If you’re a young heart patient (aged 18 - 40 years) and have faced similar emotional challenges, please join us at our free Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing online forum on Saturday, 23 May 2020.

Register now

Discover more heart stories

You might also be interested in

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Emma shares her story and opens up about her emotional struggles....

Action Plans

Action Plans

Action Plans

Recovery is a long journey, so having a plan makes a huge difference. Using an action plan gives you a step-by-step guide to improving your lifestyle....

Alcohol action plan

Alcohol action plan

Heart stories

Heart stories

Heart stories

Stories of hope from Australian men and women fighting heart disease....

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

Cardiac rehab is proven to keep you out of hospital and reduce your risk of death from heart conditions....

Exercising for heart and soul

Exercising for heart and soul

Exercising for heart and soul

Alicia Philipatos was three days old when her heart condition was diagnosed...

Blood pressure action plan

Blood pressure action plan

Key steps that can help you manage your blood pressure....

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Explore our guide for driving and heart attack recovery. ...

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

I’d always thought of myself as fairly fit; I swam a lot, and did ‘soft running’, a combination of running and walking. ...

Find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you

Find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you

This cardiac services directory presents information on cardiac rehab programs offered across Australia....

Tenecteplase versus alteplase for stroke thrombolysis evaluation trial

Tenecteplase versus alteplase for stroke thrombolysis evaluation trial

Professor Mark Parsons, Institution: University of Melbourne...

MyMarathon

MyMarathon

MyMarathon

The fundraising race where you set the pace. Run, jog or walk MyMarathon at your own pace during October....

Heart Health Check Toolkit

Heart Health Check Toolkit

Research Directory

Research Directory

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease means that your heart valve or valves don't open or close properly....

Heart stories

Heart stories

Heart stories

Stories of hope from Australian men and women fighting heart disease....

Being a carer for a heart attack patient

Being a carer for a heart attack patient

Being a carer for a heart attack patient

Your role as a carer for a heart attack patient is an important one – explore some useful things to know....

How can I eat more fruit and vegetables for a healthy heart?

How can I eat more fruit and vegetables for a healthy heart?

How can I eat more fruit and vegetables for a healthy heart?

Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing: An Online Forum for Young Heart Patients

Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing: An Online Forum for Young Heart Patients

Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing: An Online Forum for Young Heart Patients

How to make healthier meals at home

How to make healthier meals at home

How to make healthier meals at home

Cooking at home is often healthier than eating out....

Overcoming uncertainty: Bianca Beetham’s heart story

Overcoming uncertainty: Bianca Beetham’s heart story

Overcoming uncertainty: Bianca Beetham’s heart story

Bianca Beetham is 24 years old and lives in Sydney. She is currently waiting for her first open-heart surgery after being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy five years ago....

Beef recipes

Beef recipes

Beef recipes

Find heart healthy beef recipes....

Christmas recipes

Christmas recipes

Christmas recipes

Find heart healthy festive recipes. ...

GLOBAL CARDIOVASCULAR RESEARCH FUNDERS FORUM

GLOBAL CARDIOVASCULAR RESEARCH FUNDERS FORUM

GLOBAL CARDIOVASCULAR RESEARCH FUNDERS FORUM

FACILITATING INTERNATIONAL CLINICAL TRIALS ...

Physical activity resources

Physical activity resources

Physical activity resources

Resources for health professionals interested in physical activity....

Loaded veggie shepherds pie

Loaded veggie shepherds pie

Loaded veggie shepherds pie

1 hour
Serves Serves 4 (as a main meal)

Exercises to do at home

Exercises to do at home

Exercises to do at home

All you need to know about keeping active during COVID-19....

Dessert recipes

Dessert recipes

Dessert recipes

Find heart healthy dessert recipes....

David’s shock heart failure diagnosis was just the start of a tough journey

David’s shock heart failure diagnosis was just the start of a tough journey

David’s shock heart failure diagnosis was just the start of a tough journey

David's heart failure diagnosis led to significant changes in his life....

Confidential. Personal. Reliable.

Confidential. Personal. Reliable.

Confidential. Personal. Reliable.

Got a question about your heart?...

Resources for healthcare professionals

Resources for healthcare professionals

Resources for healthcare professionals

We have developed a range of resources for you to use as part of routine care. ...

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Explore the Heart Foundation’s guide on what to expect in the first month after your heart attack. ...

Sodium and salt converter

Sodium and salt converter

Convert the sodium listed on food products into grams of salt or vice versa. ...

Tahini tofu dressing

Tahini tofu dressing

Tahini tofu dressing

For professionals: Guidelines for acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

For professionals: Guidelines for acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

Australian  guidelines  for  prevention, diagnosis and  management of  acute  rheumatic  fever and  rheumatic  heart  disease ...

Healthy chicken fajitas

Healthy chicken fajitas

20 minutes
Serves 4

Breakfast recipes

Breakfast recipes

Breakfast recipes

Heart healthy breakfasts to start your day right...

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition where your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should be....

Lamb recipes

Lamb recipes

Lamb recipes

Find heart healthy lamb recipes....

Q&A with Dr Dean Picone

Q&A with Dr Dean Picone

Q&A with Dr Dean Picone