Gym-going father speaks out after mistaking heart attack symptoms for indigestion

"I don’t scare very easily but for the first time, I was petrified. I spoke to my wife on the phone, told her that if anything happened, to tell the girls I was a good man."

Tim Harris
Tim Harris

Those are the words of a fit and healthy father-of-two from the Black Country who suffered a heart attack in January – and is now raising awareness of the condition.

Tim Harris, from Sedgley, regularly went to the gym at least three times a week but started to feel a "dull ache" in his chest after going to Devon for New Year's Eve.

The 43-year-old headteacher, who was with his wife and two daughters, put it down to indigestion due to eating a lot over Christmas and it went away after five minutes.

But the pain returned four days later like a dull ache once again– almost like he had an elastic band tightening around his chest – when he was on a walk with his family.

He kept silent, as to not worry his family, but felt clammy and queasy before the feeling disappeared. Weeks later and he headed to gym, returning an hour later to help one of his daughters with her homework when the pain returned.

After checking his pulse on his Apple watch, the headteacher watched his pulse fall down to 34 beats per minute and so alerted his wife and they agreed to get it checked out.

"We decided to drop the girls off at my mother-in-law’s house as they’re only five and eight so I didn’t want them to know anything was wrong," he said.

"Once we got there, my wife and I stayed in the car on the drive and decided to phone 111. I explained what had happened and they sent an ambulance to check me over.

"At the time, the pain in my chest had completely gone and I felt absolutely fine, so I actually walked down the road to flag the ambulance down. I didn’t want the girls to see their dad getting into an ambulance and worry them."

The paramedics who attended advised Tim they were not happy with the results of the ECG (electrocardiogram) they performed and would need to take him to hospital. Even at this stage, Tim didn’t realise there could be something seriously wrong.

He added: "I started to get a little bit concerned when they said they were going to take me to New Cross Hospital and would have to put the blue lights on to get there. When we arrived, I asked if could walk in to the hospital but they said no, and I was wheeled into a room where five nurses were waiting for me, which is when I started to panic.

"It felt like everything happened really fast and before I knew it, a heart specialist came in to say I’d had a heart attack and was going to have a procedure to have a stent fitted. All I could think was: I need to phone my wife. That’s all I wanted to do.

"I don’t scare very easily but for the first time, I was petrified. I spoke to my wife on the phone, told her that if anything happened, to tell the girls I was a good man. It still upsets me thinking about it now.

"The doctors and nurses were fantastic, they were all so calm and spoke to me about the procedure and what would happen. My mind was just racing at the time but they did manage to calm me a little bit. Everything happened so quick and before I knew it, I’d had the procedure and was on a ward, all by lunchtime. I then spent three days in hospital before I was allowed home.

"When I got discharged, the doctor said it was lucky that I went in when I did as the lasting damage is minimal. I had no idea that I was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack at the time, but I’m so glad that I phoned 111 when I did and didn’t just brush it off."

A heart attack occurs when the supply of blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked, which can starve it of oxygen, potentially causing serious muscle damage. And whilst the early signs of a heart attack can vary, the most common symptoms include a heavy or tight, squeezing sensation across the chest, often going up the neck and into the shoulders or down the arms, sweating, and a sense that something just isn’t right. The person will be conscious and breathing.

Health chiefs have said the symptoms of a real-life can be very difficult to how they're usually portrayed in films and television. There are more than 80,000 hospital admissions for heart attacks in England every year, with the overall survival rate for people experiencing a heart attack is seven in 10, but this increases to nine in 10 for those who come forward for early hospital treatment.

Dr Joe Martins, consultant interventional cardiologist at The Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Helping people to recognise when they, or someone around them, is experiencing a heart attack and getting them to seek early medical help is vital.

"The image we so often see in media of a person suddenly clutching their chest and collapsing is not how heart attacks usually present. The pain can in fact be quite mild to start with.”

"It’s important to look out for tell-tale symptoms like tightness of the chest, breaking out in a cold sweat, or feeling breathless, anxious or sick. Symptoms can range from severe to mild, and are different from one person to the next.

"Often people don’t realise they’re having a heart attack and it can be easy to dismiss these symptoms, but it is never too early to seek medical help. The faster you act, the better the chance of a full recovery."

Recent NHS research shows that 70 per cent of people understand that pain in the chest is a symptom of a heart attack, but just 41 per cent knew sweating was a symptom. Only 27 per cent understood feeling weak, lightheaded or a feeling of general unease were also symptoms.

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