Chis and the ocean

Chris' story: Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis - this silent killer can strike without warning

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

It started out as a special day. Chris was celebrating his 60th birthday by driving from his home in Nambucca Heads to the NSW Central Coast for a day of surfing with a mate.

Chris had followed the waves well down the beach away from his mate when he was 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.

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

Chris was tossed around in the waves as he struggled back 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 the 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”.

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

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

Chris was lucky to survive his heart attack

What is atherosclerosis and how does it cause heart attacks?

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

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.

Chris’ life post-heart attack

Chris survived his heart attack, but what followed was two years of intense physical and emotional recovery, along with a complete lifestyle change.

“I had to give up work, surfing and even an outdoor life. I had a damaged heart that beat irregularly and would occasionally stop beating altogether. It left me breathless and constantly ill. For 12 months, I could barely walk out the front door.

“Depression was probably the worst thing of the lot. It hit me like a truck.” says Chris.

Since his heart attack, Chris’ life has changed dramatically, but he’s learned to accept his limits and manage his risk factors.

Chris has swapped hard, physical exercise for Qigong, Tai Chi and meditation. He is surfing again – but he’s a lot more cautious now and no longer chases the big waves.

Chris has also discovered a new passion for surf photography and has had his work shown in galleries.

But more than anything Chris is grateful to still be here for his loved ones. He recognises that the heart attack forced him to slow down and be present – including in his new role of proud grandpa.

Chris loves his new role of grandpa, pictured with his daughter and granddaughter

Research can save the lives of people like Chris

Chris’ heart attack and diagnosis of atherosclerosis have shown him that heart disease can strike anyone at any time. It has also highlighted the importance of research to help prevent others from going through what he and his family have been through.

Chris says: “It is not until you experience a near-death heart event that your eyes are opened to the number of people that die an early, preventable death.

“My family supports Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute as it is personal for them - as I’m sure it would be for most Australians.”

You can help us understand more about atherosclerosis and how to prevent deadly heart attacks by supporting heart research at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years