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Atherosclerosis - this silent killer can strike without warning

Chris Hewgill from Nambucca,northern NSW, discovered just how dangerous atherosclerosis is when he was hit out of the blue with a heart attack while surfing. 

It was started out as a special day. Chris had just turned 60. He and a mate had driven from their home in Nambucca Heads down to the NSW Central Coast for a day of surfing.

Chris had followed the waves well down the beach away from his mate, when he was suddenly thrown from his board, which came down and struck him on the head and shoulder.

Chris was knocked out.

He woke up underwater, with a pain in his chest that hit him like a freight train.

He thought he was dying – and he was. He was having a heart attack.

Chris was tossed around by the waves as he struggled to shore, blacking out frequently. It took 15 long minutes for him to get there. 

Then he literally crawled up the beach towards the Surf Lifesavers.

The next day in hospital, he watched with horror as the ‘beep, beep, beep’ of his heart monitor turned to one continuous sound, and the regular peaks and troughs on his monitor flatlined.

The world became silent, and the last thing he remembers is thinking, “This is it”.

What is atherosclerosis and how does it cause heart attacks?

Chris had atherosclerosis, a disease that affects the blood vessels and is known as the ‘silent killer’, because there are often no apparent symptoms.

 Atherosclerosis is caused by the build-up of ‘bad’ plaque in arteries. This so-called ‘bad’ plaque is unstable and if it ruptures it can lead to a stroke or heart attack.

 But for the first time, thanks to researchers at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, we are now getting to the core of what causes atherosclerosis, heart attack and other diseases affecting the blood vessels. Indeed, we are now trying to understand which genes play the greatest role in causing these diseases so we can develop better treatments.  

With help from generous supporters, the team at the Institute will be able to continue this critical research that is breaking new ground in how we understand, diagnose and ultimately treat atherosclerosis. 

Chris Hewgill thought he was fit and well. He had no symptoms of pending heart trouble.

Chris with family | Atherosclerosis | Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

He survived, but not without two years of intensive recovery and a complete lifestyle change.

Most people are not so lucky. That’s why research into heart attacks and atherosclerosis is so important.

Learn more about atherosclerosis