A bolt from the blue

“That’s it,” he thought. “I’m done for. I’m seeing myself die.”

Chris had atherosclerosis – the single biggest cause of heart attack in Australia. Fats and cholesterol had built up inside his arteries, causing blockages in the blood vessels in and around his heart.

He didn’t know this when he died the first time.

That happened on his 60th birthday, back in 2015, when he was thrown from his surfboard and knocked unconscious. He woke up under water, being tossed about by the breaking surf. He thought he was going to die. He was dying; Chris was having a heart attack.

“It literally hit me like a force of 20 tonnes of concrete to the arm,” he says.

It took him 15 minutes to struggle to shore. Then he crawled up the beach toward to the Surf Lifesaving Club, intermittently passing out, until he got close enough to be noticed.

The next day, while in hospital, Chris had a massive cardiac arrest. His heart just stopped.

“The nurse jumped on the bed and gave me a right punch to the chest that was just as good as a Mike Tyson punch! And I was back. But I knew in a nanosecond that this particular thing had changed me. I was completely different.”

Chris was struck by depression and for the next 12 months he barely made it out the front door.

“I had to give up my work, my surfing and even an outdoor life. I had a damaged heart that beat irregularly, occasionally stopping, leaving me breathless and constantly ill.”

“I was never sick. I thought I was bloody bulletproof. How could this happen to me?”

That’s the thing with atherosclerosis – it’s called “the silent killer” because people who have it don’t feel a thing.

How do you stop a silent killer?

Atherosclerosis is caused when plaque, the build up of cholesterol on the inside of the arteries, suddenly breaks off the wall of the artery. This can cause a massive blood clot that blocks the flow of blood to the heart, resulting in a heart attack.

Currently there are no routine procedures available to determine which atherosclerotic plaques are unstable and, therefore, likely to cause a heart attack.

But the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute’s Professor Roland Stocker and his team of 15 researchers are fighting to change that. They’re working on developing a technique to find which plaque might be unstable through the use of MRI and microscopic probes.

It’s groundbreaking research that will take many, many years. But if successful, we will be able to detect unstable plaques early, and treat people before they suffer a heart attack. Imagine how many lives we will be able to save! In Australia alone 54,000 people suffer a heart attack every year – that is one every 10 minutes.