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Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time
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Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm didn’t worry too much about his cholesterol problem – until an angiogram revealed he had an 80 per cent blockage in a major heart artery.

Norm is in program delivery with Sydney Trains, an organisation he’s been with for well over three decades. He is husband to Melody and father to Jade, Jasmine and Cody. When he’s not fishing, surfing or at the gym, he plays bass guitar with emerging band Wolf Whistle around Wollongong.  

Norm’s heart story 

Mum was only 30 when she wound up in hospital needing triple-bypass surgery, the first of several major operations over the following two decades relating to cardiovascular disease. She suffered in silence most of the time, sucking on the occasional angina tablet to make the discomfort go away. She was only 50 when her body finally gave out and she passed away.  

So it was no real surprise when at 17 I learned that my LDL-cholesterol levels were high. It seems we were dealing with a genetic condition known as familial hypercholesterolaemia. The first sign was the appearance of tiny yellowish spots above my eyelid – cholesterol deposits – a likely indication of buildup elsewhere in the vascular system.  

A specialist at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney put me straight onto a medicine to reduce the amount of cholesterol that gets absorbed into my blood system, but it made me feel awful. It was hard to swallow, quite literally.  

Medication wasn’t the answer I wanted, least of all one that made me feel sick. I tried different diets and exercise, but my total cholesterol level remained high, often around 12; I’ve since learned that a level of less than 4 is the target if you’re at high risk of heart attack or stroke.  

I must admit that in those young-adult years, my commitment to beating my cholesterol problem wasn’t as great as it should’ve been. I was still taking medication, experimenting with my food intake and keeping one eye on my readings, but the best I ever managed was a total cholesterol level of between 6 and 7, still in the high range.  

In any case, I couldn’t see Mum’s problems in myself. Not only did I feel fine, but I was routinely running eight-kilometre circuits – once completing the City2Surf. I believed that if my heart was bad my body would tell me.  
Much later I found out that not having symptoms doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart problem.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was 49 that I asked my GP for a more thorough heart health check and gained a referral to a cardiologist. First was a ‘stress test’, which came back fine. But a cardiac CT scan found some abnormal calcium deposits in the blood vessels around my heart.  

Next was angiography – using a contrasting dye to visualise in detail the condition of the vessels – to get a clearer picture. The angiogram revealed that I had an 80 per cent blockage in my left anterior descending artery, the one they call the widow-maker.  

As luck would have it, they could fix the problem with a simple procedure to implant a stent and I was spared open heart surgery. This had been my biggest nightmare after seeing what Mum had gone through.  

The procedure was uneventful. I recovered quickly and was soon able to reset my lifestyle, getting my diet in check and exercising again, thanks in no small part to the excellent cardiac rehabilitation program run by the hospital. The advice and support I received along the way from the rehab team, GPs, cardiologists and nutritionists, and the Heart Foundation, has seen my total cholesterol reading settling in at only 3.5. I’m committed to maintaining my newfound healthy lifestyle.  

The really interesting thing I came to realise was that even after I’d fully recovered, I didn’t feel much different to before. There were subtle improvements, for sure. I didn’t get quite as tired and I recovered from exercise a little better. But it again made me realise how foolish I’d been to assume I wasn’t at risk of heart attack merely because I had no symptoms.  

My mental state is a different story. Since the procedure I’ve felt much happier. More positive. I’m sticking with my healthy diet and proud to say I’m 19 kilo’s lighter than I was at my heaviest.  

Looking back, I wish I’d taken my high cholesterol readings more seriously when I was young, particularly given what happened to Mum. It frightens me to think how close I got to a major heart attack.  

This year marks my fiftieth birthday – the same age Mum was when she passed away. For my birthday party I asked my friends not to bring gifts, but instead to make a donation to the Heart Foundation through my fundraising page. Last I looked we were at more than $1,000 and counting. Hopefully the money and my story will help more people gain an understanding of how important it is to get a heart health check before it’s too late.   

Norm’s advice  

Have a heart health check, whether you have symptoms or not. Especially if you have a family history of heart problems. If you do find a problem, you’ll find plenty of help out there, from support groups on social media to excellent clinical cardiac rehab programs. 


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