I am
Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’

Key takeaways

Sudden cardiac arrest can, believe or not, happen to seemingly healthy people. At 26, Tom was the fittest he'd ever been, but a near-fatal cardiac arrest turned his life upside down.
3 min read

At the age of 26, Tom Pickersgill had never been fitter. 

Diagnosed with an enlarged heart as a baby that was later re-diagnosed as ALCAPA Syndrome at 16, open-heart surgery gave him an extraordinary new lease on life.

“After my surgery at 16, I decided to go for a jog and I kept running. I was amazed that I could do it after years of not being able to run at all.  The surgery opened me up to a whole new world and I became addicted to it."

For the next decade, exercise became a big part of Tom’s life, participating in high-stamina sports such as kickboxing, triathlons and extreme rock climbing all over the world.

But on the morning of 11 May 2013, Tom didn’t feel quite right. He had been feeling unwell, like he had the flu, and hadn’t done any exercise.

“Even though I didn’t feel well, I hadn’t taken any time off work. I told myself to stop being soft and go for a run.” 

That’s all Tom remembers from that day. He woke up five days later in intensive care. He had suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest.

In an amazing twist of fate, two nurses travelling in opposite directions both saw Tom clutch his chest, fall back and hit his head on the footpath.  They immediately ran to his aid, called Triple Zero and alternately performed CPR. 

During this time, another car stopped – it contained four employees from NOVA radio station that had recently trained in CPR.  All four assisted the nurses and performed CPR on Tom until the ambulance arrived.

The ambulance came within 16 minutes and applied 14 shocks – unable to restore a normal rhythm the officers were about to “call it” but decided to try one more time.

Tom’s heart came back to life.

In hospital Tom was put into an induced coma for three days and his family was given a grim prognosis – he may not wake up, he may not be able to speak or walk again and he may have no short-term memory.

Tom woke after five days and had no immediate memory, although over a week his memory did improve.  At this time, he had more heart surgery and had an internal defibrillator inserted to shock his heart back into rhythm if it started failing again.

The next six months were a very dark time for Tom.

“I bottled everything up. I told everyone I was okay but I wasn’t. I didn’t want my family to worry – I just wanted my old self back.”

Tom had to adjust to a completely new ‘normal’.  He had previously been employed as an MRI technician and part-time lecturer – a job he was passionate about. Having an internal defibrillator meant he was no longer able to do the same job.

After a decade of looking after his diet and exercising at very high levels – he lost all motivation. He began drinking and eating unhealthily. In his mind he had done all the right things and his heart had still failed him. What was the use of living a healthy life?

“I couldn’t train anymore and I wasn’t interested in cardiac rehabilitation. In my mind I thought I knew what I had to do but looking back cardiac rehab would have been the best thing for me at that time. It is the first thing I would recommend people to do now.”

After a nine month “bad patch”, Tom finally sought help.  He saw a GP and a psychologist and talked about his anxiety and depression, and after a few months began to feel that things were going to be okay.

“It was great to get things off my chest. I learnt to tell people close to me that I wasn’t okay.  To finally communicate that was brilliant. I had to get used to being a different guy.”

Heart disease isn’t like having a cast on your leg or being in a wheelchair. It’s a silent thing. When you are struggling it’s sometimes hard to get across to someone who can never understand. Seeking help and meeting others in a similar situation definitely helped me.

Tom also got serious about his lifestyle again. He made major changes to his diet, improved his sleep, started exercising and continued to receive help for his mental and emotional wellbeing.

Today Tom is in a “good place”.  He has a new role as a specialist in cardiac CT and MR imaging which takes him all around the world.

Tom also says his cardiac arrest is “the best thing that ever happened to me”.  He is now happier than ever and has a clearer idea on what the “important things in life are”.

“Work-wise, my cardiac arrest has turned into the biggest blessing as now I have a job that is bigger than I ever imagined getting before. Something I enjoy way more.”

He also credits the support and unwavering love of his girlfriend Christina who stuck with him through the very dark times.

“After my cardiac arrest I told my girlfriend that she didn’t have to stay around as she didn’t sign on for this. She has been incredible, without her support, understanding and complete patience I don’t think I would have made the recovery I have made.”

And today, what would Tom say to those who are struggling like he was after a heart event or heart surgery?

“Don’t bottle things up. Let everyone know how you feel. As soon as you try and go it alone the weight of the problem is so much harder to deal with.  It’s an old cliché, but as soon as you share the problem, the problem is halved. Seek advice, get help. There are many people out there who can help you. Getting the right support is huge. You deserve it.”

If you’re a young heart patient (aged 18 - 40 years) and have faced similar emotional challenges, please join us at our free Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing online forum on Saturday, 23 May 2020.

Register now

Discover more heart stories

You might also be interested in

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Emma shares her story and opens up about her emotional struggles....

Action Plans

Action Plans

Action Plans

Recovery is a long journey, so having a plan makes a huge difference. Using an action plan gives you a step-by-step guide to improving your lifestyle....

Alcohol action plan

Alcohol action plan

Heart stories

Heart stories

Heart stories

Stories of hope from Australian men and women fighting heart disease....

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

Cardiac rehab is proven to keep you out of hospital and reduce your risk of death from heart conditions....

Exercising for heart and soul

Exercising for heart and soul

Exercising for heart and soul

Alicia Philipatos was three days old when her heart condition was diagnosed...

Blood pressure action plan

Blood pressure action plan

Key steps that can help you manage your blood pressure....

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Explore our guide for driving and heart attack recovery. ...

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

I’d always thought of myself as fairly fit; I swam a lot, and did ‘soft running’, a combination of running and walking. ...

Find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you

Find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you

This cardiac services directory presents information on cardiac rehab programs offered across Australia....

More Australians die of Heart Disease than any other cause.

More Australians die of Heart Disease than any other cause.

More Australians die of Heart Disease than any other cause.

And the heartache lasts a lifetime. But you can help the Heart Foundation fund life-saving research to keep more families together....

Heart Health Check Toolkit

Heart Health Check Toolkit

Research Directory

Research Directory

GLOBAL CARDIOVASCULAR RESEARCH FUNDERS FORUM

GLOBAL CARDIOVASCULAR RESEARCH FUNDERS FORUM

GLOBAL CARDIOVASCULAR RESEARCH FUNDERS FORUM

FACILITATING INTERNATIONAL CLINICAL TRIALS ...

Tahini tofu dressing

Tahini tofu dressing

Tahini tofu dressing

Matilda signs up for Jump Rope just one month after open-heart surgery

Matilda signs up for Jump Rope just one month after open-heart surgery

Matilda signs up for Jump Rope just one month after open-heart surgery

Media Release - 26 June 2020...

Cheesy Mexican vegetable pie

Cheesy Mexican vegetable pie

Cheesy Mexican vegetable pie

1 hour
Serves 4

2021 NSW CVRN Ministerial Awards for Cardiovascular Research

2021 NSW CVRN Ministerial Awards for Cardiovascular Research

Nominations are now open for the 2021 NSW Cardiovascular Research Network’s (CVRN) Ministerial Awards for Cardiovascular Research....

WEBINAR | The future of CVD risk assessment

WEBINAR | The future of CVD risk assessment

WEBINAR | The future of CVD risk assessment

Should population-based CVD risk assessment models make way for individualised risk prediction techniques?...

Q&A with Dr Caleb Ferguson

Q&A with Dr Caleb Ferguson

Q&A with Dr Caleb Ferguson

An education program to promote self-care for people living with atrial fibrillation (INFORM-AF)...

Absolute CVD risk charts

Absolute CVD risk charts

Absolute CVD risk charts provide a visual tool to calculate CVD risk for use in practice in Australia....

Cyril credits cardiac rehab for getting his life back

Cyril credits cardiac rehab for getting his life back

Cyril credits cardiac rehab for getting his life back

Cyril suffered a heart attack in 2015. Cardiac rehab helped get his life back on track. ...

Lunch recipes

Lunch recipes

Lunch recipes

Search our lunch recipe ideas...

The Heart Foundation Research Program

The Heart Foundation Research Program

The Heart Foundation Research Program

We are Australia’s biggest non-government funder of world-class research into heart health. Learn more about our high impact research. ...

Ranch dressing

Ranch dressing

Ranch dressing

Serves Makes 1 cup | Serves 6 (2 tablespoons – 40ml)

Donate Monthly | Become a Regular Donor

Donate Monthly | Become a Regular Donor

Donate Monthly | Become a Regular Donor

Join the fight against heart disease....

Wholegrains and heart health

Wholegrains and heart health

Wholegrains and heart health

All you need to know about wholegrains to put you on the right track...

Absolute CVD risk assessment resources

Absolute CVD risk assessment resources

Resources and clinical information for health professionals...

Heart Foundation Research Award Recipients

Heart Foundation Research Award Recipients

Explore our research award recipients and projects...

Supporting Young Hearts Podcast

Supporting Young Hearts Podcast

Supporting Young Hearts Podcast

Supporting Young Hearts is a six-episode series interviewing young people with lived experience of heart conditions and talking through advice for supporting emotional health and well-being....

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease means that your heart valve or valves don't open or close properly....

Jaxson skips through a bucket list of Sydney landmarks

Jaxson skips through a bucket list of Sydney landmarks

Jaxson skips through a bucket list of Sydney landmarks

Media Release - 15 September 2020...

Automated Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD or AICD)

Automated Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD or AICD)

This is a device inserted into your chest to return abnormal heart rhythms to normal using electrical impulses. ...

Become a corporate partner

Become a corporate partner

Become a corporate partner

Partner with us to help us fight for Australian hearts....

You’re probably not eating enough fish – here’s what you should do.

You’re probably not eating enough fish – here’s what you should do.

You’re probably not eating enough fish – here’s what you should do.

Fish and seafood is one of the most beneficial sources of omega 3. Incorporating more of it into your eating pattern can significantly lower your chances of heart disease and stroke. ...

Italian recipes

Italian recipes

Italian recipes

Find heart healthy Italian recipes....

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD)

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD)

Clinical information and links to SCAD resources....

Sweet potato breakfast hash

Sweet potato breakfast hash

Sweet potato breakfast hash

15 minutes
Serves 2

Keeping a close watch on brain and kidney health during heart surgery.

Keeping a close watch on brain and kidney health during heart surgery.

Keeping a close watch on brain and kidney health during heart surgery.

Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing: An Online Forum for Young Heart Patients

Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing: An Online Forum for Young Heart Patients

Supporting Your Emotional Wellbeing: An Online Forum for Young Heart Patients