Or, what happens when someone has a heart attack right in front of you.

A picture of a bike painted on the road with fallen autumn leaves

A couple of Sundays ago, I went out for a bike ride with my neighbour. I’d dithered about whether or not I should go. It was Mother’s Day and I could have had a guilt-free lie-in. But it was a beautiful, sunny morning, so I thought it’d be good to get out into the big blue room. I quickly dressed and got my bum on the seat.

My neighbour is an avid cyclist. The week before, she’d been on a cycling trip with her friends and, on one of the days, they cycled 60 km. I was worried that I’d not be able to keep up with her, even though I have an electric bike. But I was surprised at how easy my ride was. Meanwhile, my neighbour was struggling. We live in a pretty hilly area, and we were chatting a lot. I wasn’t too concerned about her, though. She’s so fit, I thought, and when we encountered a hill, I tried to let the conversation lapse so she could focus.

At one point, at the bottom of a very large hill, I said: “Let’s stop talking. I’ll drop behind you while we do this hill.” She said: “You go ahead.” So I did.

I waited for her at the top of the hill and she rode up, looking puffed, and got off the bike. She said: “This feels weird,” and we talked for a while about how she was feeling. She was sweaty and red in the face. She said she had a heaviness on her chest. That’s when I should have called the ambulance, but the thing is, each time I’d seen her recently she’d mentioned this heaviness, which she’d attributed to a cold.

“Should we call an ambulance?” I asked. “I’m wondering,” she said. “I’m thinking about it.”

My neighbour, my friend, is a retired ICU nurse. So I kind of figured that she’d know if something was wrong. I felt inadequate. What was I supposed to do? Check her pulse? Her temperature? I was so unsure.

“You keep going,” she said. “You enjoy the ride and I’ll head home.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. I called my husband and asked him to come and get her and her bike – clearly, she wasn’t going to get back on it right away.

She didn’t clutch her chest or have a pain in her arm. There was no visible sign that she was having a heart attack. As far as I was concerned, the symptoms she was experiencing were those of someone who has just ridden up a big hill: shortness of breath, sweating, needing to sit down on the grass and take a breath.

According to Health Direct, the most common symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • chest pain – pressure or tightness in your chest that may spread to your jaw, neck or left arm
  • suddenly feeling dizzy, faint, light-headed or anxious
  • nausea or vomiting
  • a feeling of indigestion
  • sweating, or a cold sweat
  • looking pale
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • palpitations (being aware of your heart beating).

Chest pain may come and go.

They also say that females may experience different symptoms, such as:

  • breathlessness and generally feeling unwell
  • tightness or discomfort in your arms
  • chest pain that feels more like burning, throbbing, tightness or like trapped wind
  • a feeling of indigestion or upper tummy pain
  • upper back pain or pressure.

Pretty soon, people started to stop and ask if my friend was ok. The traffic was building up around us as people started heading out to Mother’s Day brunch. There was a guy jogging who stopped, as did a couple heading out for a walk. We agreed that I should call 000, so I got on the phone. The call-taker wanted to know so much. How old is she? 65. Is she conscious? Yes. Has she had anything to eat or drink? Yes, water. Is she clammy? Yes. Meanwhile, the female walker laid my friend down on the footpath.

At this point, my friend knew she was crook. She kept saying “Hurry!” and she didn’t want to answer the questions the call-taker had. She just wanted the ambulance to arrive.

They took about four minutes to get there. This compares to an average ambulance response time of 9.53 minutes. We’re lucky that we were very close to the local hospital. As I look back on this now, I’m just so glad this didn’t happen when my friend was out riding in the country the previous week. The ambulance driver reassured her, asked a few more questions and then they put her on a stretcher and took her away.

My husband and I stood waiting on the footpath next to the ambulance for a good ten minutes. Then the ambo emerged. He said: “She’s had a heart attack.” And I was so shocked. Until this point I had still believed that she was just puffed, that she’d bounce back, that it was just a big hill.

Of course, that was madness and, in retrospect, I can see my actions were just not urgent enough. I’d given her heaps of space. I’d relied on her medical training, something that I can see now was completely unfair. I’d remained calm, which I’m proud of, but what was actually needed was a little more decisiveness, a willingness to take command of the situation, to call some shots.

The list of calls I made shows that almost ten minutes passed from the moment I called my husband until the moment I called the ambulance. Ten minutes during which I did not know how to act.

In Victoria, there’s an active push to discourage people from calling ambulances. I think this affected my thinking. I didn’t know my friend was having a heart attack, so I didn’t know how urgent it was. I didn’t want to make a time-consuming, wasteful mistake. It wasn’t until the male jogger who’d stopped said: “That’s what ambulances are for,” that I finally punched 000 into my phone.

She survived, thank God. She had to have a stent put in immediately. Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to go with her in the ambulance or into the hospital. I didn’t have the phone numbers of anyone in her family. She had called her partner before the ambulance arrived, but he lives a long way away. Luckily, he’d called her daughter, and I was able to meet this lovely young woman at the hospital and sit with her until she could see her mum. Mother’s Day lunch was cancelled, of course.

And then there I was, a neighbour, a nobody, a friend of someone who, only a few hours ago, almost died. It was hard to think straight. It was hard not to blame myself, and to quell the adrenalin that had rushed all around my body once I finally knew what she’d been through. I cried, and I was so relieved.

Thank goodness the ambulance came quickly, and for the kind ambo who kept my friend company until she got into surgery. Thank goodness for a world-class medical system that could make a surgeon available straight away.

My friend is doing really well now. She’s a very positive person and her outlook is good. She’s going to take some time to recover, which might be hard for her as she’s so active. Amazingly, she says she’s looking forward to riding with me again. I think that’s incredibly generous of her.

Another friend of mine is going to book us both into CPR training. I’m looking forward to it: I want to have the skills and confidence I need should something like this ever happen again. My friend waited ten minutes longer than she should have to get help, because I didn’t know what to do. In these situations, every minute counts.

I hope that by sharing this story I can encourage others to do first aid training, or even just to consider that the person in front of them might be having a heart attack.

It’s easy to categorise this experience under ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few.’ But I don’t actually regret heading out on the bike with my friend that day. An active life with strong social connections has to be a positive. This experience has brought her and I closer, and I will always have her back. I just want to build my skills so that I’ll know that I can always have anyone’s back, no matter who, no matter where and no matter what.

Much love, Lyndall