Tom’s road to gratitude – one step at a time

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Tom Pickersgill
At the age of 26, Tom Pickersgill had never been fitter. But, without knowing it, he was at his most vulnerable. Diagnosed with an enlarged heart as a baby, he was later re-diagnosed as ALCAPA Syndrome – a rare congenital heart defect.

At 17, open-heart surgery gave Tom an extraordinary new lease on life.

“After my surgery, I decided to go for a jog and since then I’ve kept running. I was amazed that I could do it after years of not being able to run at all,” Tom said.

“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 cycling, triathlon and mountaineering all over the world.

But on the morning of the 11th May 2013, while running through the suburban streets of Melbourne, Tom suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.

Two nurses who happened to be passing by in separate cars and stopped to help. They gave him CPR while another car full of people also stopped to help until paramedics arrived on the scene.

Dark days

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

After five days, Tom woke up. At first, he had no memory, but it improved a little over the week in hospital.  Then he had more heart surgery. Surgeons inserted an internal defibrillator into his body, designed to shock his heart back into rhythm if it failed again.

The next six months were a 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,” he said.

Tom lost his job as an MRI technician. And after a decade of eating well and exercising at very high levels, he lost all motivation. He began drinking and eating unhealthily. He’d done everything right and his heart had still failed him. He thought “What is the use of living a healthy life”?

The long road back

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

“My priorities have changed enormously. I see it like this – I have died – I was so close to having all my future time taken from me and now I’ve been given it back.” 

Five years later Tom believes that having a sudden cardiac arrest was the best thing that ever happened to him.

“I have totally changed my attitude to life – I don’t sweat the small stuff – I don’t worry about what people think of me or whether they like me or not. I know that I am much more tolerant on a day to day level.”

“I also have more empathy - there were certain situations where I would be a bit judgemental about people’s lifestyle choices. I now realise that anything can happen to anyone at any time and people are doing the best they can with what they have.  Everyone has been on their own journey”.

New opportunities

Losing his job was devasting, but Tom has now retrained and specialises in CT cardiac imaging, a job that has enabled him to travel extensively to countries such as Bhutan, Vietnam, India, and the US.

“My partner and I are focussed on experiences, not things.  We have travelled to 16 countries in 3 years. I am grateful for my new job, my family, my life.”

Tom is acutely aware that his post-cardiac arrest experience and acceptance is not something that everyone may experience  

“My appreciation of life and acceptance of my new normal did not happen overnight – it took nearly two years, a lot of very hard and at times confronting work to get to this stage of gratitude.  There were many, many times when I struggled to accept what had happened to me and I could not envisage a positive future. I could have easily felt that way for the rest of my life”.

Tom’s top tips to get you on the road to gratitude

Sweat the right small stuff

Making a conscious effort to do all the right small stuff for our health can really change how we feel mentally and physically. This can be eating well, getting enough sleep, not drinking too much alcohol. All the things we know we should do, but don’t always! If we do all the little things right for our own mental and physical health that compounds to huge changes!!

With your health -take control of as much as you can

With your own health, I think it’s important to take control of managing your health as much as you can. Start by taking control of your morning and developing a healthy routine. Get up, meditate, do some form of exercise, (doesn’t have to be a marathon - start small anything is better than sitting on the couch), have a healthy breakfast and do something that makes you feel good. The key is monitoring your progress and remaining consistent. It’s important to look at how far you have come in your own health journey and to celebrate the win and be proud of yourself, no matter how small.

You are your own secret weapon

I realised one day that no one was going to rescue me and make me feel better.  Superman and Batman were not coming through my door and going to fix things for me.  Once I realised it was up to no one but me to take control of my life, this was the catalyst I needed to make changes for myself. As they say; setbacks lead to comebacks.

Watch more stories from other young Australian men and women on diagnosis, recovery and coming to terms with the physical and emotional side effects of a heart condition