Graphic: Chris with his family

Feeling sick first warning of dangerous heart problem

Date published

16 Aug 2017

Chris Zanker thought he had food poisoning when he got sick on his way home after a family holiday in New Zealand. But the 32-year-old miner from Broken Hill could have died.

"He went to see our doctor to get a medical certificate," explains his partner, Kelly. "But when the doctor checked Chris' pulse he found it was unusually high."

The doctor found Chris had atrial fibrillation. This abnormal heart rhythm causes the heart to quiver instead of beating normally.

"It means the heart doesn't pump blood around the body as well as it should," Kelly said. "It can cause blood clots, stroke and even cardiac arrest." Chris was rushed to the local hospital where they were unable to get his heart beating in normal rhythm.

"When we got to the hospital his pulse was 189; a normal pulse range is 60-100," Kelly explained. "It was very scary because I didn't know if he could have died or gone into cardiac arrest."

To get his heart beating normally again, Chris was told he'd need an electrical cardioversion. An electric current is used to reset the heart muscles so they beat in a normal rhythm.

The only person who could perform this procedure was a cardiologist 515 kilometres away in Adelaide. The Flying Doctor was called to rush Chris there as soon as possible.

"The RFDS got me there within a few hours," said Chris. "They were the only option we had.

"They kept me updated and let me know what was going to happen. I felt comfortable and calm at what was a very nerve-wracking time."

Once he got to the hospital the specialist treatment got Chris' heart beating normally again.

"What happened to Chris isn't that common in people his age so that made the whole situation even more stressful," a relieved Kelly said.

"He had no symptoms. Most people feel dizzy or tired like they've run a marathon but Chris never did. He could have had the condition for months and not known."

After a follow up visit to his specialist, Chris got a clean bill of health and is now back at work.

"The Flying Doctor team were really good. I couldn't have asked for better," said Chris.

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