Windhoek-Nearly five years ago on one September morning, Johan van Zyl woke up at around 02h45 with severe pain in his chest.
Not knowing the cause of the pain, Van Zyl first puffed a cigarette.
As the pain intensified, he took a shower. Not finding relief for his pain, Van Zyl started crawling on the floors while consistently banging his chest. He eventually decided to Google his symptoms.
That is when he learned that he was suffering from angina, a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.
“I realised that I was in trouble,” he related. An hour of this traumatic experience, Van Zyl woke his wife and asked her to take him to the Roman Catholic Hospital. They arrived there at approximately 04h00 that morning.
The nurse on duty took his vitals and his doctor was called in and while this was happening Van Zyl lay down, hoping the pain would get mild.
His doctor only arrived at 11h00 that morning. “And suddenly every started happening at high speed. By now, the heart attack kept me busy for almost eight hours,” said Van Zyl.
He went into intensive care unit (ICU). “I remember about 10 medical people were attending to me. After about 20 minutes, I was rushed to theatre for an angiogram. Everyone was amazed that I did not lose my consciousness,” said Van Zyl.
An angiogram is an x-ray image of the blood vessels.
“What an experience…looking on the monitor screens to the inside of my own body. Still conscious, I suddenly felt relief when the cardiologist inserted a stent to the blocked artery,” said Van Zyl.
After four days, Van Zyl was discharged from hospital.
A few days later, he started experiencing severe discomfort and went back to the cardiologist. Another angiogram was performed and while in theatre, he had a choice to get a triple bypass or get more stents.
Triple bypass heart surgery is an open heart surgery that is done when the blood vessels that feed the heart are too clogged to function properly.
This type of heart surgery is usually performed as an open heart procedure, meaning the surgeon opens the chest in order to see the heart and perform surgery.
The surgery can be performed as a minimally invasive procedure where the chest is not opened.
That procedure is less common than the more standard open heart surgery, as far fewer patients are physically appropriate for that technique.
Meanwhile, a stent is a tube-shaped device that can be inserted into a narrowed passageway or vessel to hold it open. A stent, therefore, acts as a scaffold that holds bodily tubes open.
“Getting a stent makes an artery unfit for future crafting or bypass surgery so I decided to go for the Coronary Artery Bypass Graft surgery (bypass),” explained Van Zyl.
Two weeks after the second angiogram, Van Zyl was admitted for a triple bypass.
“From that moment on my life changed drastically,” he says.
However, he maintained a positive attitude. Nevertheless, it was hard that he “suddenly” could not do ordinary things such as dressing by himself or even taking a bath by himself.
“I would faint each time I coughed. I would sleep while sitting up and for the next three months I could not do the simplest of tasks. Luckily, my wife took care of me and she still does,” said Van Zyl.
Before the heart attack, Van Zyl thought “things like this only happen to other people”, he said, adding that as a child, he remembers his father suffering from a similar condition.
“Because of the heart attack, I lost 50 percent of the function of my heart,” says the 58-year-old father of two. This means that he gets 50 percent less oxygen to his body.
“An older gentleman advised me to do everything at a slower pace compared to what I am used to,” he said.
During this time, he had to slow down on everything. He had to sell his business. “I was not allowed to carry my own guitar. I felt very incapable of protecting my family when the need arose,” said Van Zyl.
He had to sell his business. As time passed, Van Zyl started gaining his strength and doing the things but at a slower pace.
“I am always aware of the uneasiness in my upper body. Obviously, my body got kind of used to the constant reminder of discomfort. It is a never ending mind game to stay motivated to want to live,” said Van Zyl.
Today, Van Zyl is a member of the Open Heart Surgery support group, an initiative of the Catholic Hospital Heart Center.
Being part of the Open Surgery Heart Support group, I realised that the condition of faulty artery is quite common in Namibia. The good news is that the facilities in Namibia to address the problem is one of the best in Southern Africa with very capable medical staff,” said Van Zyl.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 17.7 million people die from cardiovascular diseases every year. This is 31 percent of all global deaths, according to WHO.
“Many of these people have been exposed to unhealthy behaviours, including tobacco use, eating foods containing too much salt and inadequate physical activity,” according to information obtained from the WHO website.
And, many could be saved by better access to medical care for high blood pressure (which is responsible for the bulk of heart disease-related deaths annually), high blood cholesterol and other conditions that raise the risk for heart disease and stroke, according to WHO.
Through his experience and volunteering for the open surgery support group, Van Zyl noted, “Everyone focuses on the patient and forgets about the partners and family of the patient.”
He says his needed as much support as he did.
“She was and still is my first line of support if I need care out of hospital. The fear of losing a loved one is as big as having a heart condition. They carry the burden as much and maybe even more than the patient,” added Van Zyl.
It is this message that Van Zyl shares with heart patients and their families. He also shares on the hard truth of what could happen pre- and post-surgery.
“Since the medical staff normally tell things in strict medical terms, I tell things in laymen’s terms,” said Van Zyl. Despite the challenges, Van Zyl has “a lot to live for. I have a secret motivation that I do not want to die soon”, said Van Zyl.
Heart disease has taught him that the “disease is as uncomfortable as to what we allow it to be. Do not stop living because of something you do not have control over. Love your heart… it is your most precious friend”.