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Going strong...Owen Smith is looking forward to his 91st birthday in a few days. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

Owen Smith (90) always knew that farming was the life for him.

He grew up on a sheep farm and that was where he wanted to stay.

So as someone with an active lifestyle, he never imagined there was a problem with his heart.

Mr Smith had his first atrial fibrillation episode in his 20s, but he wasn’t diagnosed with the condition until middle-age.

“I remember going out one night to do some shooting of hares or rabbits and I felt really faint. I stopped beside the fence post and I didn’t know what had happened.

“But I waited and then I just carried on from there.”

By the time he returned home, he had put the event behind him and didn’t even think to tell his wife.

“I just got on with my life as a sheep farmer with shearing and crutching and fencing.”

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm, which results in poor blood flow and an increased risk of heart failure and stroke for some.

It can strike adults at any age and it’s estimated nearly one in 35 New Zealanders between the age of 35 and 74 have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation – that’s more than 60,000 Kiwis.

And it’s likely there are many more who don’t know they have it, making it the most common type of irregular heart rhythm also known as arrhythmia.

For the next decade, Mr Smith experienced increased episodes of atrial fibrillation but didn’t seek medical help or even mention it to his wife or four children.

At that stage, he didn’t know what his condition was or that it was putting him at risk of a stroke.

Finally, however, the attacks were coming too often to keep quiet about.

“I finally went to the doctor because I did the silly thing and mentioned it to my wife,” he says, laughing.

The GP immediately referred him to the hospital for an ECG.

“When I went to the hospital, the letter that the doctor had given me was probably three to four weeks old.

“So, I handed that over and that caused almost a panic in the hospital because they thought I was going to drop dead straight away.”

Since that time – now more than 40 years ago – Mr Smith has continued to lead a physical and active life.

He walks a couple of kilometres every morning after breakfast and does balance exercises every day.

But even with medication he continues to get dizzy spells as a result of his condition.

It can be very challenging for people like him who live with atrial fibrillation so the Heart Foundation, together with the South Canterbury District Health Board, is offering a free session on living with the condition.

It’s a warm, supportive environment that allows people to learn how to understand and manage atrial fibrillation, what medical treatments are available and how to keep well.

Whanau also had a chance to hear from SCDHB clinical nurse specialists cardio respiratory Kathy Patrick and Suzanne Jackson and to meet others who are in a similar situation.

Atrial fibrillation session

The Heart Foundation and South Canterbury District Health Board atrial fibrillation session will take place on Tuesday November 19 at Geraldine High School Library, 93 McKenzie St, Geraldine.

5.30pm-6pm Registration, light refreshments, blood pressure and pulse checks.

6pm-7pm Atrial fibrillation presentation

7pm-7.30pm General discussion

No need to register in advance.

For more information contact Marthy Cloake on (03) 688 8089 or marthyc@heartfoundation.org.nz