ATTACK: How Yamba helped save Peter from a silent killer
When Shelley Walters received a phone call from Yamba police around 9am on Saturday, October 17, her thoughts turned to her husband Peter, who was in Yamba and loved an early morning surf.
"Oh god he's been taken by a shark," she thought. "I'd also warned him about that up there.
"Then I thought, oh god he's been hit in the head with a board."
The real reason for the call was just as serious, but something Ms Walters never even considered an option.
Peter, aged 53, who was fit and didn't drink or smoke, had suffered a heart attack.
Ms Walters said she couldn't be more thankful for the Yamba community who helped her husband get to safety, and back on his board again.
Looking back at that morning, Mr Walters said it was like many he had spent in their holiday house at Yamba, beginning with a morning bike ride to get fuel for the mower, and then riding to Turners Beach for a surf.
"I felt fine, everything was going sweet. I paddled out, caught a wave, it was a beautiful morning and the surf was lovely," he said.
"I caught another one, and it was the first in the set … and turned around and got cleaned up by the other two.
"When I came back up, there was another set there, and I had to paddle pretty quick to get out the back."
When he made it through the waves, it was then the warning signs began.
"I thought I had the worst indigestion I'd ever had, so I sat up on the board, moved around and tried to get rid of it," he said.
"Five minutes later, I had this real pain in the bottom of my jaw … and a couple of minutes later the worst molar tooth ache - and I thought it didn't feel right."
Mr Walters caught a wave and made the 100m walk up to the Turners Beach showers, but still didn't feel well.
He walked back to his bike, another hundred metres away and sat down.
"And a guy came up to me and asked me if I was all right and I said no. I just sat under the tree and didn't feel all that crash hot.
"I remember thinking that if I felt like this at home I would've gone to the neighbour and told them I wasn't feeling well."
A lady with a mobile phone also checked on him, and Mr Walters asked her to ring an ambulance.
"And just then the police were going past on a patrol, and they stopped to check on me, and I asked them to ring Shelley, because I knew I was going to the hospital."
However, with the ambulance more than 50 minutes away in Evans Head, the police began making more phone calls, and organised transport for Mr Walters into Maclean Hospital, with his Yamba neighbours on their way to collect his board and bike.
He arrived at Maclean Hospital, was put on the machine, and was told he was having a heart attack.
"And I thought you have got to be kidding me," Mr Walters said.
When Ms Walters heard the diagnosis, she couldn't believe it either.
"He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he's 53 years old," she said.
With doctors now on the phone to Ms Walters to explain what was going on, they placed him on blood thinners, and mulled to send Mr Walters to Lismore or Gold Coast hospital.
"I was still in a bit of pain, even though the blood thinners were working, and because the cardiac catheter lab worked on the weekend at Gold Coast, they sent me straight up there," Mr Walters said.
Meanwhile, at her home in Tamworth, Ms Walters was fielding what she felt was "400 phone calls" about what was going on, and with the news her husband would be in Queensland, she was unable to see him, as COVID-19 border restrictions were in place.
Talking to her husband and her son who lived in Brisbane via Facetime, Ms Walters asked whether anyone had thought to take his clothes to the hospital.
"He said it wasn't exactly the first thing he was thinking of while having a heart attack," Ms Walters said.
"I asked him what he had, and he pulled back the sheets, and he was there in a pair of budgie smugglers. He had nothing.
"My son had to go and buy him toiletries, and underwear and everything so he had something he could come home in."
With COVID restrictions, and Mr Walters' case now considered low-risk, he was bumped to the back of the line, and ended up having an angiogram performed on the Tuesday, when they found a single clot and inserted a stent in 20 minutes.
He was released from hospital on the Wednesday, when their son was able to take him from the hospital, while being escorted to the border bubble in NSW, where Ms Walters picked him up and drove him south.
"I got a sneaky carpark hug with my son too," she said.
"I brought him back here for a few days just to rest, and then we went home."
Two months later, the couple returned to Yamba for Christmas. Mr Walters said he felt great, and was exercising even more than he was before as part of his cardiac rehabilitation.
"Honestly I felt fine pretty much the whole time. I told Shelley that on the Sunday at the Gold Coast if I had've had my board I probably would've gone for another surf," he laughed.
Mr Walters said his doctors believed a bit of plaque caused by elevated cholesterol broke free and formed a clot in an artery to his heart - the only blockage doctors found, but enough to cause the attack.
"My diet and exercise have always been good, and my cholesterol had been at 7, which they treated at the high end of normal," he said.
"A lot of things have to line up. But it doesn't matter if you don't drink and don't smoke, if you've got high cholesterol. If I hadn't have been so active and popped it off they mightn't have found it."
"I consider him lucky now," Ms Walters added. "For the first ten days I was in denial about how unlucky he was.
"But now we've had a look at what's going on, and we get a chance to fix it. Some people don't get that chance.
"When I was talking to the doctor at Maclean, I remember him saying that it was very common for men of this age who were going to have heart problems to have something once they get past 50.
"I guess that's the message, if you've got high cholesterol don't ignore it. Once you hit 40, go and get your heart checked, and watch your sugar and cholesterol, they are the silent killers."
Ms Walters wrote a lengthy post thanking the people of Yamba at the time, and again paid tribute to the help her husband got during his attack.
"Everyone was amazing," she said. "Even the police were constantly ringing me in the afternoon asking how he was going, and where he was.
"And my doctor from Maclean Hospital rang me at the Gold Coast to see how I was going," Mr Walters said. "Everyone was so helpful."
Back in Yamba, Ms Walters said she was nervous for her husband to hit the water again.
"I'm just worried, because strenuous activity is what brought it on, and I wonder if he's up to being strenuous again," she said.
"Because he's on blood thinners, he has to be careful about being hit in the head as well. I just want to put a big sign up around him saying please don't hit him with the board."
"Once I get on the first wave, she'll be right," Mr Walters grinned.
And how was that first surf?
Well, there were no sharks, no board strikes, and definitely no early morning phone calls.
"It went well," Ms Walters said. "He is loving it again."