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Sun Weeken shines on Frank Thompson

Frank Thompson is diabetic and, because of that, thought he was doing a decent job of eating healthily and living a reasonably active life. But two years ago, the now 59-year-old Facilities Manager at the Brandon Research Centre, woke up one morning with severe chest pains. Because he’s also a first-aid CPR instructor for St. John’s Ambulance, he didn’t try to deny what was happening, at least not for very long. In order to help others who may go through what he did, and because February is Heart and Stroke month, AND because he’s been actively involved in the Heart Rehabilitation Program, Thompson agreed to share the story about his heart attack and his subsequent recovery.

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Frank Thompson is diabetic and, because of that, thought he was doing a decent job of eating healthily and living a reasonably active life. But two years ago, the now 59-year-old Facilities Manager at the Brandon Research Centre, woke up one morning with severe chest pains. Because he’s also a first-aid CPR instructor for St. John’s Ambulance, he didn’t try to deny what was happening, at least not for very long. In order to help others who may go through what he did, and because February is Heart and Stroke month, AND because he’s been actively involved in the Heart Rehabilitation Program, Thompson agreed to share the story about his heart attack and his subsequent recovery. (TIM SMITH / BRANDON SUN)

I have to say you look pretty trim!

Well, I’ve lost weight since.

So were you average weight at the time of your heart attack?

I’m diabetic so I thought we were eating relatively healthily. And I did exercise, probably not as much as I should, but probably nobody does as much as they should. And on March 23, 2012, it started at about 5:30 a.m. — I was in bed and it woke me up, and it felt like indigestion. Because I have had indigestion, I just put it down to that and took a Zantac and it didn’t help. And all of a sudden it started to get very hard and very fast. The pain was directed exactly right here (where the heart is) and my chest felt like it was being pushed in from the sides. And the pain kept growing.

Now I’m also a first-aid CPR instructor for St. John Ambulance, so for years, I have been telling people what the signs and symptoms of a heart attack were. And when this started happening with me, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what this was.

Were you terrified?

No. Because all I was worried about was the pain. I knew I had to get to the hospital ASAP. Because I know a lot of people who have had heart attacks and they’re going along fine now. Was it a shock to me? No. Because there’s a history of it in my family — my father died at age 56 from a heart attack, I lost a sister at age 59, and my father’s brother — he also died of a heart attack. So it wasn’t a real surprise to me that it was hitting me. But as I said, I knew I had to get to the hospital right away, so I woke up Jenny, my wife …

And you live out of town?

Yes — we just live north of the airport. And I know this is not the right thing you’re supposed to tell people, but she screamed me into the hospital and I still believe she got me there faster than an ambulance would have gotten out to us.

And I tell you this — when you go into the hospital and you tell them at the triage desk you’re having severe chest pain, they don’t even ask your name. They zipped me in and there were four of them working on me. All I had to do was take my shirt off and lay back and they did everything. One was putting on oxygen, one was shaving me, another was attaching a monitor, another was getting an IV going — fast.

I remember it was 18 minutes after six that I had arrived at the hospital and they were working on me — shots of nitro, aspirin — and they could tell by looking at the monitors what my pain level was. They kept giving me morphine when I said the pain level was going up. The pain level started to drop, and then I believe it was about five to seven I remember telling them, ‘I feel the pain increasing again.’ The doctor was there looking at it and I could just hear him mumble the words ‘heart attack.’

I was pretty certain that’s what it was even before I left home, but at that point in time, they asked me some questions — they were going to give me a shot of an anticoagulant. They asked if I’d ever had a heart attack before, if I’d ever had CPR performed on me before. The only real thing I remember was a warning. He said: ‘Giving you this drug may cause a stroke.’

Oh my goodness!

Well, when you’re in that much pain, you don’t argue. So they gave me this shot, and within a minute, the pain level just nosedived. And after I was stabilized, they moved me up to ICU, which I thought was normal for heart attacks. They took a chest X-ray when I was there, and the doctor in ICU got on the phone to St. Boniface Hospital — they’d told me in emerg that I’d be going to Winnipeg for an angiogram, which is where they inject dye in the heart and look at the picture. So this was no surprise to me. But I figured it’d be Monday or Tuesday, because this was a Friday morning. Well, after the doctor got off the phone to St. Boniface, he told me I was going right away, as soon as they could get an ambulance. But at that time, they couldn’t find an available ambulance in Brandon, so they got one from Virden, and they took me in. I remember I left ICU exactly at noon, and it was about 2:30 when I was checked into the cardio ward at St. Boniface. I was only in the bed it seemed like a few minutes, and a doctor came out and talked to me about the angiogram and how, if they had to do any work, how much longer it would take. So I think it was only about 10 minutes after three I was wheeled into the heart catheter lab. They did the angiogram and then it went to angioplasty because they could see the blockage in my arteries — I had a blockage in what’s called the left anterior descending artery — and they put two stents in that. And they said, ‘We’re keeping you here,’ and they wheeled me upstairs to the cardiac care unit. I stayed in that for about a day and half. The people who looked after me there were all excellent. It was the same as I had in Brandon — everybody who looked after me there was excellent.

So Sunday they put me on the regular cardiac ward and then I was discharged Monday morning. So my wife took me home, and I already had some orders about what to do. But on the discharge orders, at the top of the list, was ‘lifestyle change.’ In other words, eat healthier than what you do, lose some weight, exercise more, and a very important one — they had ‘Begin a heart rehab program.’

I had only been back in Brandon about one or two days and Debbie from the heart rehab program called me and strongly recommended I go to this set of five courses they had. So I went to those courses — they were all good. And then I started on the heart maintenance classes where you go once a month and I’ve been pretty regular — I’ve been hitting quite a lot of them. They asked me if I wanted to join the Y program, and I said yes, but they wouldn’t let me do it unless I’d had a stress test. So I had that around the beginning of November and Dr. Turabian gave them a list of what I could do. So I joined the Y program and I found it very good.

So it’s guided exercise — that sort of thing?

We start off with primarily stretching and warm-up exercises, and you finish off with the same. You do a little bit with weights, and I do about 40 minutes of walking. If you want, you can go and use the machines as well. I’m trying to get there at least once a week. But this winter has not been very good for going anywhere!

I’m betting this heart attack was a wake-up call for you.

Yes. I had to change some of the stuff that I was doing — my numbers were all on the high end of normal, especially the cholesterol numbers. And what they told me at St. Boniface, whatever your numbers were, after you’ve had the heart attack, they’re too high. They had to come down. So my medication has changed quite a lot. Also the big one was cut the sodium hard and cut the cholesterol hard. Those are my two biggest ones.

And that’s difficult to do in today’s society, especially if you eat out at all.

If you eat out, it’s extremely difficult to eat healthy. About the closest I can get for reasonable is Subway.

Taking all those classes — the five heart rehab classes and the maintenance classes and the Y program — has that made a difference in your day-to-day existence?

Big time. Everybody is in that room for the same reason. They might have had different coronary artery disease or valve replacement or thickening of the heart. But we’re all there for heart disease.

I’m sure it’s a life-altering event, because you’re not so sure you’re going to survive it.

Yes. I’m coming up — March 23 is only five weeks away — I call that my second birthday. Because this is a big wake-up call. As my sister put it to me, ‘You’ve dodged a big bullet.’

Do you look at life differently now?

Yes. One of the things at work, some people don’t know what to say to me — they have something that needs to be done on a deadline, I tell them, ‘Well, that’s your deadline, not mine.’

I’m betting cutting down on stress was probably one of the hardest things, too.

Yes — that was a major part of what caused my attack.

So what do you do to cope with that?

Leave your work at work — don’t take it home with you. And basically, stop and smell the flowers. Look at the trees growing. Look at the snow falling this time of year. Live each day as though you’re not going to have any more. It’s changed my outlook on life a lot.

Right now, they’re telling you, ‘Save, save, save, save, save. Put money into RSPs for retirement.’ I’m not looking at that. I’m going to enjoy life right now. Because you can’t guarantee me that I’m still going to be here at 80, living the good life off this retirement that I put away and didn’t do anything with. I don’t believe that because you never know how long you’ve got. Enjoy life while you can.

Any advice for people who might have had heart attacks or might be risking one with their lifestyle choices?

All I can say is eat healthy. But there’s a warning here — it costs you about half as much again to eat healthy. If you get chest pains, don’t hesitate — call 911. That’s my biggest advice — you get chest pains, down your arm, between your shoulder blades — women are apt to get it between the shoulder blades — call 911.

With mine, they said I was a very typical male (heart attack victim) — because as I described it, if an elephant had been standing on me, it would have felt better. It was pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. So don’t hesitate to get help. Better to go in and find out it was a muscle spasm than to read about you next week in the paper.

In St. Boniface, they told my wife that with what I had had, if I had waited half-an-hour, it would have been too late. And I didn’t wait. I didn’t wait to see if it was going to back off.

Knowing your family history, did you do anything to try and circumvent having a heart attack ahead of time?

No. I’m probably typical of most people: ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me.’ I have a different opinion on it now!

Every time I even get a little bit of indigestion, I’m wondering, ‘Is it heart? Or not?’ Since my heart attack, I’ve had probably a hundred angina attacks afterwards. But with every one of them, a shot of nitro cleared it. So that was probably a big incentive to carry on with the program. I used to let the pain advance a bit before I’d take the nitro. But they kept saying at the heart classes, ‘Don’t hesitate — TAKE it!’ And that helped a lot. And the angina attacks finally started slowing down and the last one I had was in August. And the one before that had been the previous winter.

A heart attack does not necessarily mean you’re going to die. I’m still in rehabilitation — I’ve been in rehabilitation the better part of two years. I’m slowing moving ahead. I still don’t have the strength or endurance that I did have. But it’s slowly getting better. And I just keep figuring tomorrow’s going to be better.

Now that’s a great attitude!

My advice for everybody is if you get those pains, don’t hesitate. The faster they get their hands on you at the hospital, the better it is.

A lot of people are scared of the tremendous bill you’re going to get when you call that ambulance. In Brandon it’s $500 or $600 for that ambulance, probably. But think on it another way. What’s your life worth?

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 15, 2014

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I have to say you look pretty trim!

Well, I’ve lost weight since.

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I have to say you look pretty trim!

Well, I’ve lost weight since.

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