Saying “see you later,” to fellow gym goers, Gary Cassidy finished his workout, got into his car and headed, not for home, but for Whakatane Hospital. He knew something was wrong but no one else was any the wiser.
On entering hospital, Gary grabbed his chest and collapsed on the floor of ED.
“Apparently I was having what’s called the widow-maker heart attack,” he said. “and only 6% of those who suffer one in the community, survive.”
The stormy weather brewing menacingly that day acted as a fitting backdrop to the scene playing out at that moment. Gary needed urgent transport to Waikato Hospital but this was impinged by the wild elements outside that were proving too dangerous for a flight by a rescue helicopter.
An urgent call went out to the Westpac Air Ambulance, the fixed-wing aircraft owned and operated by Philips Search & Rescue Trust, to fly to Whakatane Airport, where Gary’s ambulance was waiting.
“On the trip out to the airport I was apparently giving the ambulance driver instructions,” he laughs, ‘You have to turn left mate, you’re going the wrong way.’ The paramedics decided I needed more meds.”
“I was loaded onto the plane in stormy conditions by a tremendously amazing, caring crew who were so reassuring. It takes courage and determination to fly in atrocious weather,” says Gary.
A routine stent procedure was conducted and Gary was out of hospital the following day. However, it was far from over. Five days later, Gary suffered another life-threatening event.
“All I did was sneeze,” he said, “and it sent me into cardiac arrest.”
Gary’s wife, Anita, raced next door to the neighbour, a nurse, who performed life-saving CPR until paramedics arrived and shocked Gary’s heart back into a rhythm. Once again, an emergency flight with Gary on board left the Whakatane Airfield, but this time undertaken by the TECT Rescue Helicopter, and… “Once again, my flying angels saved my life,” he said.
Gary had experienced an intercranial brain bleed and subsequently suffered three further cardiac arrests in hospital. “An incredible amount of people fought to save me.”
Gary admits that there’s a way to go in regard to his head injury.
“When I first got home and saw the rescue helicopter flying above my house, I couldn’t handle it. The memories. Now I just look at it and think, “There go my angels!”
The story isn’t finished yet as Gary negotiates his way back to full strength. “It’s tremendously hard,” he admits. “A bit of lawnmowing, swimming and biking are my limits right now. I swam three and a half kilometres once and ended up back in ICU. There’s a very long road to return.”
“I’m glad to understand where my new 100% is, because the alternative to that was a pine box – and it got pretty close to that three or four times. A defibrillator is installed in my chest now, so I carry an angel with me everywhere I go.”
“My wife has been absolutely fantastic throughout all of this. I had the easy part – I just had to lie there and die – she had to watch it four times. We’ve been through some pretty tough moments but I’m grateful for them because those flying angels gave me the chance I now have.”
“The rescue helicopter and fixed-wing teams are absolutely fantastic. I want to shake everybody’s hand. Without both those flights, I wouldn’t be here.”