Rob Elliott was a fit 48 year old, regularly running eight kilometers four times a week and surfing year round at Sydney's northern beaches.
"Physically, and mentally, I felt like I was still in my mid-20s so I never really thought about my health. I ate well, was in great shape, didn't smoke, and didn't overdo the alcohol." Then, in late August 2008 Rob was surfing at Queenscliff, North Manly. It was mid-winter, the water was cold and there was a strong swell. In a spring wetsuit, Rob felt the chill but spent close to three hours in big surf. It was only when he was driving home he noticed something wasn't right. Thinking it may have been the onset of hypothermia, he stopped at the Spit Bridge to take a break in the heavy traffic, but decided the best course of action was to get home. He kept driving. From there, Rob doesn't remember anything except staggering up the stairs to his front door and seeing his wife. "I have vague memories of ambulance staff, but that's it. The next thing I knew, I was in hospital and the doctor was telling me he couldn't believe I'd survived."
Rob had suffered a massive heart attack caused by a complete blockage of his coronary artery. Immediate medical attention, followed by the insertion of a stent at the junction of the main artery to his heart saved his life. "The doctors told me their best explanation for my otherwise inexplicable survival was my high level of fitness. They thought that years of cardiovascular exercise had built up auxiliary pathways, or little blood vessels, that had kept some supply of blood and oxygen flowing to my heart muscle."
"As far as why the heart attack happened in the first place, the explanation surprised me as I thought I was doing everything right." Although he had no family history of heart disease and was living the textbook lifestyle for the best cardiovascular health, Rob's blood cholesterol was above the healthy range. His doctor had prescribed medication to reduce it, while it was working, it seems it wasn't getting it down fast enough. Plaque had formed on the walls of his arteries, probably not enough to do major damage in most circumstances, with a blockage of between 1 and 5%. But his thickened blood, caused by exposure to the extreme cold, combined with the exertion of surfing in a big swell pulled up the otherwise flat plaque, causing the full blockage and heart attack.
"It all happened so quickly. In the space of 30 minutes my life changed. That's what scared everyone. It just seemed inconceivable to my family and friends that this could happen to me with no warning signs, no history, nothing." "One of the first things I asked my cardiologist was what could I have done differently? The answer was simple, tackling the high cholesterol more quickly and not to have been sanguine about it just trending down slowly."
Luckily for Rob, almost four years on from the heart attack, his life has returned pretty much to normal. After two years he'd resumed his running and was back in the water, confidently hitting the surf. With outstanding post recovery care, his psychological health, which often suffers in heart attack patients was in good shape too. "I'm back on track eating the way I used to, going on surf trips with my mates, but perhaps taking a little bit of time out when work gets stressful. It's a huge relief for my family."
"The only real difference now is the medication. High cholesterol was the trigger, so the medication to reduce it has been cranked right up. I'm also on a bunch of blood thinners and anticoagulants. They may make me bruise like a peach, but I think that's a very small price to pay for being able to get my life back."
“...It all happened so quickly. In the space of 30 minutes my life changed. That's what scared everyone - it just seemed inconceivable to my family and friends that this could happen to me with no warning signs, no history, nothing...”