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Heart attack

Initial emotions about having a heart attack

A heart attack is often a sudden and dramatic event. It can be frightening when you are taken into hospital suddenly and are surrounded by monitors and hi-tech equipment that are supporting your heart. You may think that you are going to die or, if you survive, that life will never be the same again.

Here, the people we interviewed talk about their feelings when they had their heart attack. For more about what people felt and how they coped after their heart attack (see 'Coping with emotions after a heart attack').

Reactions differ from person to person but many experienced fear, disbelief, denial and shock because they didn't think they were at risk of a heart attack, or they had not had any previous symptoms. 

One man found it difficult to accept that he had, had a heart attack three months after he retired.

 

He found it difficult to accept that he had had a heart attack.

He found it difficult to accept that he had had a heart attack.

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 65
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Well with hindsight, you pick up the terminology and I realise now that you just go into a state of denial, you just don't accept it. You just refuse to believe that this is happening to me. I enjoyed super health all my life and I worked until I was sixty-five and this happened within three months of me retiring. It just seems so wrong and you refuse to accept it. 

The initial days in [the local hospital], they did have staff there who were responsible for looking after your, your comfort side, I can't think how better to put it. They're very sympathetic, they come and explain things to you, what's happening, because all the time you're struggling not to go in this channel. 

You can't believe that you're going to go down there and when the, the consultants or surgeons appear, they talk in an everyday language to them, which is very sort of esoteric, and you think well that's nothing to do with me, I don't want to know any of that. 

Another man in his forties talked about the mixture of emotions he felt during his first 24 hours in hospital.

 

Describes the mixture of emotions he felt during the first 24 hours after his heart attack.

Describes the mixture of emotions he felt during the first 24 hours after his heart attack.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 42
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I was petrified. Well, part petrified and part believing that they must have it, it must be wrong, I was in the pub yesterday. This all happened on Saturday, I was in the pub yesterday and I don't feel any worse, and then I did start feeling rotten. But I think the whole consequences of it all were dawning on me. And you know heart attack, my dad had had a heart attack but he was, he's seventy odd but I just didn't think it, it could've happened. 

Although, well half of me thought that, but then I thought, 'Well that would explain why it hurt so much,' and I mean, it really was pains I can't really describe. And I was lying there and my wife got, I managed to phone, I phoned my wife from the doctor's office and I was well a bit upset because I was just so shocked and trying to break the news to her was even worse. I'd rather somebody else had done it really [laughs]. 

But I think it was good that she could hear that it was me and that I wasn't lying flat on my back somewhere. And by the time the morning came I became a little more sort of, well the confidence was just seeping in that I can get through this, I don't know what it's going to be like when I leave hospital whenever that may be but I can see myself going out to work again. 

I don't know about playing football again but just getting back to some sort of normal life, and then half an hour later I'd think that that's never going to be the case, I'm going to be an invalid, I'm not going to be able to do anything. I'll be like the poor people that you see sometimes who live with an oxygen cylinder and a mask by them. I don't know why I thought that, but gradually as the days went on, the sort of longer I felt like I'd survived, the easier I felt.  

One man with a family history of heart disease said that he was expecting to have a heart attack, but it was still a shock when it actually happened. Some were scared that they were going to die. Others were frightened or apprehensive that they might have another heart attack in the next few hours.

 

He felt apprehensive that they might have another heart attack in the next few hours and unsure...

He felt apprehensive that they might have another heart attack in the next few hours and unsure...

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 51
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At that time, I was very nervous, because what they said was, that there was this chance of a repetition, within, the biggest risk of a repeat heart attack, I suppose it's like an earthquake, when you get the aftershocks, the biggest chance was in the next thirty days. So there was certainly that apprehension that you kept listening to your body for, and any sort of twinge you think, well is this another heart attack because having had that experience of a minor secondary one on the first day, was that happening?. So there was apprehension there. 

There was also, because it happened so quickly, just you begin to think ahead, well, what's going to happen? I'm aware that something major has happened, it's going to change one's lifestyle. So what's that going to mean? Being in hospital in a totally different environment, just suddenly taken away, it's not as if you'd say, you could prepare yourself. If you perhaps were going in for an operation or something in advance a certain date. 

You were just suddenly taken straight out of your environment and plonked in hospital. So there's all those things that to begin with it certainly, it's daunting I suppose is the way to, and also it's the sheer uncomfortableness of having all these monitors strapped to your body, which means that movement is pretty tricky and, also not really being able to get out of bed.

But, yeah I suppose you adjust, and therefore I found that probably within, that was the first, the first sort of 24, sort of 36 hours and then you got used to it.

One man was too frightened to go to sleep that night in case he didn't wake up. Another said that although he realised he could die, he felt calm and reassured by the nursing staff, the technology and because he had been treated promptly.

 

He felt calm and reassured by the nursing staff, the high-tech equipment and by his prompt...

He felt calm and reassured by the nursing staff, the high-tech equipment and by his prompt...

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 54
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I wasn't at that point sure whether I was likely to have another one. And you know and what, and you know, I was fairly sure if I was to have another one then that was likely to have very serious consequences. But I was calm and whether that calmness was just, came from within me or was also to do with the sort regime and indeed things like diamorphine, I don't know.

And I think it's, I mean my, the bleakest part was when I was on the bed by myself and nothing was happening but that was a fairly sort of narrow window of time really.

So that having received that sort of emergency treatment, I was then taken through to the cardiac care unit which I, actually was next door to the place that I'd been receiving treatment in Accident and Emergency. And I mean that was a very, again a very reassuring experience. It was impressively hi-tech if you see what I mean; there were lots of, lots of things happening.

Very impressive nurse managed regime. Very impressive sharing of information from the very, you know, explaining everything from the very outset. And obviously, and I suppose the reassurance of being in a cardiac care unit of that sort, apart from the fact that I had a sort of a residual memory that the two most important survival factors were, speedy intervention and post-intervention treatment within a cardiac care unit, they were more likely to result in positive outcomes.

Some people who had a heart attack at a young age had at first felt depressed, frustrated and angry. One man, who had a heart attack when he was 46, thought that a heart attack was something that happened to older people and shouldn't be happening to him.

 

He felt he shouldn't be the one having a heart attack, but felt better when someone even younger...

He felt he shouldn't be the one having a heart attack, but felt better when someone even younger...

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 54
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So next morning when my wife phoned up the ward I was in, 'oh no, no, he's been moved. He's in the cardiology unit.' Panic stations and I must admit, I felt depressed when I found out I'd had a heart attack. 'Why me?' All my life I'd been working on my feet and I thought I was fit. I thought, 'Why me? 

There's other people who sit down at desks, you know bigger than me, so 'Why me?' and I was angry as well, it's hard to explain. You don't think you've survived and thank god you have, but it was a couple of days later when somebody else came in to the hospital who was younger than me, because everyone else in this ward was older and I was the youngest, and when this person came in who was younger than me, I felt a lot better. It's a terrible thing to say now, but I did. 

 

Describes the mixture of emotions he felt when he had a heart attack.

Describes the mixture of emotions he felt when he had a heart attack.

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57
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Disbelief was the first feeling, absolute disbelief. The classic you know, not me. Then a certain amount of frustration, but continuing disbelief. Even though people were telling me this, couldn't have been nicer and more considerate, your disbelief then begins to turn in to anger. Not at those but at the 'why me?' kind of concept and then you've got like your family on the way to see you, and I know this sounds really silly, but you begin to feel guilty that they are going to come in a distressed state. My situation will make them more distressed and so you even then begin to feel guilty about it yourself, which I know is an absurdity but you can't help it as it were.

 

He felt angry and frustrated because he thought he was too young to have a heart attack.

He felt angry and frustrated because he thought he was too young to have a heart attack.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 47
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You feel absolutely shattered, you know really tired and quite depressed really. Plus a little bit of frustration because you want to do something about it but you're not altogether sure that you can do something about it. It's only afterwards that you learn that you can do things but you think, or at least in this area, the attitude still is, it's changing slightly now but the attitude was and is to a certain extent, 'You've had a heart attack, that's it. 

You don't do anything now, you can't do anything now.' And you know I was only 47 years old, I've got a life. You know I have ambitions to reach 97 and you think well all this is coming to an end; I'm on my way out. This is what my parents should be doing you know, it's not where I should be. This is for older people, much older people.

Those who had no pain or only minor symptoms could not believe that their symptoms were a heart attack because they felt well. One man explained that he felt a fraud because he did not have severe chest pain and felt well once the painkillers and other drugs began to work.

 

He had no chest pain and found it difficult to believe that he had had a heart attack.

He had no chest pain and found it difficult to believe that he had had a heart attack.

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 63
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At various times I've had to be reminded about how serious it was and I find that very difficult to accept. I suppose to a certain extent you know we are conditioned by the media, the heart attack is always a very dramatic event and I'm sure in many cases it is. But in my own case it was really a non-event. 

I can't tell you how I felt when the A & E doctor at [the local hospital] turned to me and said to me "You're having a heart attack now," I thought you must be joking, I really did. Okay I felt washed out and uncomfortable. I felt tired and as I say you know once they started to administer all the various drugs then twenty minutes later I wanted to go home. And then you know when they turn round and say "No you've had a major heart attack," my God [laughs].

What else did you feel at that point?

Oh it's very difficult to quantify. I suppose you realise with horror that a lot of things that you've done, as part of your daily life up to that point might not be available to you in the future. My steam locomotive driving, my HGV driving, the income it generates you've really got to rethink your life and at that stage I suppose in a sense you're almost in a state of shock so you can't think straight and you know you realise that it is a defining point of your life. 

But for whatever reason, may be because, if I, if I'd experienced a lot of pain with it, it may well be that my outlook would be completely different. I might be feeling very much more sorry for myself. 

A few felt calm accepted it and were not worried. One woman recalled feeling as though she was on 'auto-pilot' so that it wasn't until later when she got home that she felt the impact of what had happened to her.

 

He didn't find it difficult to accept that he'd had a heart attack and was grateful that...

He didn't find it difficult to accept that he'd had a heart attack and was grateful that...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 49
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I accept things. I was able to accept it no trouble. I've never had any problem. I'm not one of these people who think, 'Why me?' or  'Why should I be in this situation?' I'm just grateful that the facilities were there to rectify what I had.

I had no thoughts or feelings really about it at all, which is surprising because I wasn't, no one is prepared for it. We all react different ways. My way was I've had a heart attack, I've got a problem with my heart, these people are going to rectify it, which they did and I'll be eternally grateful. 

 

She was calm and it was only later when she came home that it affected her.

She was calm and it was only later when she came home that it affected her.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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I don't know, I think I was just stunned to the point where I didn't fully take it in and I've spoken to my doctor since and he said, 'When you came to see me,' he said, 'you were so calm and you'd had a heart attack, and you were saying, 'oh I think it might be a bit of indigestion' You were very calm', he said, 'and I think it suddenly hit you after a few weeks and that's why the anxiety came.' It did suddenly hit me that you know I could have died. But it didn't affect me at the time, I just got on with it.

After the initial shock, some people began to worry that they might be disabled and dependent on their families, or that the life they knew had ended. The man who had his heart attack three months after he retired felt that his retirement had been snatched away from him.

 

He felt that his retirement had been snatched away from him.

He felt that his retirement had been snatched away from him.

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 65
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Yes, that's, it's the thought that in my case having worked until I was 65, always pushing on, pushing on you know and I had thoughts that, well if I get twenty years, I've kept reasonably fit, if I get twenty years you know, 85 doesn't seem too much to ask these days, there is longevity in the family. That's what you're aiming for and you think that's all gone. 

Then it comes to you in stark reality that my mother died, she collapsed and died immediately with a heart attack when she was 53 and in the hospital, they say to you, 'Okay we have to go through this list; do you smoke, are you overweight, do you take exercise?' and the whole list I got a tick, everything was great until you know, it's your genes. 'Anybody in the family?' 'Mum died at 53' and they just tick it, they don't know why and a lot of work going in to that now. But yes, you think these twenty years has been snatched away from you.

A small proportion of people can have a heart attack without experiencing any obvious symptoms. One woman who had been feeling breathless for some time was devastated to be told that tests showed she had, had a heart attack one month earlier.

 

She was devastated when tests showed that she had, had a heart attack one month previously.

She was devastated when tests showed that she had, had a heart attack one month previously.

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 63
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I've never ever felt like that before. I was absolutely devastated because it was such a shock because as I said I felt fine, back at work, everything. Looking forward to a holiday, which we never had, as I say. So I was absolutely devastated. I don't think she could have said anything worse to me.

Can you describe some of the feelings you had at that point?

Well I burst in to tears. She cried because I cried. She was very, very sweet. She gave me a box of tissues and all that. I just couldn't speak. I felt as though the bottom had dropped out of my world and that I was going to die the next day. I thought she was going to send me to hospital, which immediately panicked me but she didn't. There's no way to describe really how I felt apart from being absolutely devastated.

One man described his surprise at being told by doctors that he had already had one heart attack several years previously, which he had been unaware of.

 

He was surprised to find out that he had, had a silent heart attack in the past.

He was surprised to find out that he had, had a silent heart attack in the past.

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 56
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At that time I was amazed, staggered to be told, 'yes, you've definitely had a heart attack,' you know when they take tests, come back and said, 'the signs are increasingly confirming that you definitely have had a heart attack,' and then the subsequent x-rays and other tests they said, 'when did you have your first one?' and I responded and said, 'I've never, ever had a heart attack.

I've never had any chest pain.' 'Well you've definitely got scarring of the heart.' prior to the definite heart attack I had in 1996. So when I sort of got over the shock of that, they said, 'well it could have happened in your sleep. You may not have known about it but you definitely have had a heart episode, prior to the onset of the heart attack in 1996.'  

Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated August 2010.

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