Robert Stewart (NICSHR) listened to his body and he is lucky he did so!

Robert Stewart put the slight tightness in his chest down to stress and being uptight. The reality was far more serious and if he hadn't got himself checked out the situation would have become life-threatening. Tuesday 19th November is International Men's Day. Use this day and Robert's story to nail down that GPs appointment you've been putting off.

In September 2018 I moved to a post in Vacancy Management in NICSHR. I enjoyed the challenge of the new job in an unfamiliar work area and getting to know new colleagues. Looking back, this was quite a demanding time but I wasn’t aware of feeling particularly stressed. Over Christmas, my elderly mother became ill and subsequently admitted to a care home. In the New Year I would admit to feeling more uptight than usual but nothing more.

Warning signs

In early January 2019, I had two instances when I had an uncomfortable tightness in my chest, once in a meeting at work and once when I was out socially. I initially put this down to stress but following the second occasion (and after talking to my wife, Norma, who has much more sense than me) I telephoned my GP. I was told to call at the surgery on my way home from work and, as I had feared, was advised to go immediately to A and E.  After 7 hours and various tests, I was told I hadn’t had a heart attack and was generally healthy. I was, however, referred to the Cardiac Unit in the Ulster Hospital for a “treadmill” test, just to be sure.

A couple of weeks later I received a letter telling me to attend the Cardiac Unit for a CT Scan on 19th February – apparently, the protocol had changed and the CT scan would be more conclusive. I wasn’t particularly perturbed. I was feeling well and had no further symptoms.

Generally fit

At this point, I should say that I felt that my general health was good. I was reasonably fit – I cycled most weekends and to work every day and have completed a number of cycling sportives. I wasn’t overweight, watched what I ate (and drank) and attended my GP regularly. I have always been aware of the need to look after my health as my father died at 60 after suffering a stroke in his early 50s.

As I said, the prospect of having the CT scan was not really worrying me – I was due to go walking in Nepal in April and thought it would provide confirmation that I was fit and healthy. Unfortunately, the scan showed that two of my coronary arteries were severely blocked and I was told that I would probably require bypass surgery. The consultant told me I was to be admitted to Lagan Valley Hospital immediately and would remain there until surgery could be scheduled as there was a high risk that I would have a heart attack. I can’t really describe how I felt at that moment – a mixture of shock and disbelief.

I contacted Norma who came to the hospital immediately and took me to Lagan Valley, calling at Tescos on the way for pyjamas, slippers and a car magazine. I told her that I didn’t want anyone to know but I soon realised just how ridiculous that was. I was in Lagan Valley for just under 4 weeks, during which time it was confirmed that I needed bypass surgery and that this would take place in Blackrock Clinic south of Dublin.

Major surgery

I had surgery on 14th March and woke up to find that I had had 4 bypass grafts. I was discharged one week later and Norma drove us very gently back home to Belfast to begin the recovery. I’m not a “patient” patient as it were and I found the initial few weeks intensely frustrating. Progress felt slow and I was easily tired and generally uncomfortable.

The recovery

My general fitness slowly returned, mainly thanks to friends and family joining me for walks (generally to and from a coffee shop) and providing support and encouragement. The first time back on my bike was momentous and emotional. It really felt like I was on my way back to real life again. I was frequently very tired and had to accept that I needed to rest at some point every day.  I returned to work on a phased return in early August and progressed over a number of weeks back to full-time hours. Over the last few weeks, I have resumed cycling to work which has been very satisfying.

Physically I am getting there and I hope to continue to build on my fitness and cycle regularly again. I wouldn’t pretend to have fully come to terms with what has happened. This last number of months have been very challenging, for me but also for my family. Normal routines were disrupted, holiday plans were put on hold and the stability of our lives shaken. Often, all the attention is focused on you, as the person who has been through surgery, but it is important to acknowledge that close family are affected too. My family have been so supportive over the last number of months, especially Norma. I cannot overstate how much they have contributed to my recovery.

Grateful for the support

I have very much appreciated the support of my friends, some of whom admitted to having been so shocked by my experience that they have visited their GPs to have their own health checked. I am also immensely grateful for the service provided by the NHS and for the care I have received. I know I have been incredibly fortunate.

My work colleagues and line manager have also been very supportive and I appreciated the warm welcome I received on my return. I have often reflected on how well the NICS looked after me, as a member of staff on long term sick leave, allowing me to focus on my recovery.

Don't ignore the symptoms

Obviously, I would encourage everyone to try to live healthily – exercise regularly, watch your weight, eat healthily etc. For me though, as someone who was already living fairly healthily (I thought) the important lesson is don’t ignore symptoms. I am so glad I went to see my GP in February. To be honest, I could have completely disregarded the tightness in my chest which would have had disastrous consequences. So, this International Men’s Day, why not do something positive for your own health and wellbeing? Visit the WELL website for helpful information on exercise, eating well and a healthy lifestyle; book a WELL Health Check; or make that appointment with your GP that you’ve been putting off, to get that niggle or symptom checked out.

Thanks to Robert for sharing his story. The International Men's Day hub(link is external) has been updated for 2019. You can find help and advice as well as other men's stories(link is external).