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What a heart attack at 35 taught me about work life balance

Work Life Balance


An elite level sportsman, peak physical condition, no family history of heart attack, no substance abuse, 35 years old. That doesn’t sound like a candidate for a heart attack, does it?

I was eight months into my last pregnancy and Jason had an injury on the cricket pitch which caused a very bad bone break to his wrist. It was so bad that he couldn’t work, drive, or assist much with our 16 month old toddler. By the time Jayden was born, there had been some slight improvement, but still no idea of when he could go back to work.

At 9am on a Sunday in April, when my baby was two months old, our world turned on its axis. I was on my way out to buy Jayden a christening outfit. Jason and my mum were at home and between them they’d be able to manage the little ones for a couple of hours. Before walking out the door I went to say goodbye to Jason. He was lying on the bed, clutching his arm with one hand, clutching his chest with the other, dripping is sweat, shaking like a leaf, grey in colour, and looking terribly scared. My gut told me immediately that my fit, healthy, 35 year old husband was having a heart attack right before my eyes.

Your husband has had a massive coronary

An ambulance was called and after some test results came up normal, they questioned my ‘diagnosis’ and asked if we still wanted to go to the hospital. Jason looked to me like he needed me to take change, “Yes please,” I said. “We’ll go to the hospital.” So they helped him up and walked him out to the ambulance.

I learned from emergency room chatter there’s a protein that shows up in your blood called Troponin – this tells you definitively if you’ve had a heart attack. It can take up to 12 hours to show up in the bloodstream so there are three blood tests taken over that time to see if it appears. After the second blood test and a few more normal EKGs, the doctors said everything seemed to be okay and asked Jason if he wanted to go home. He looked at me. I looked at the doctor. “No,” I said, “We’ll wait for the third blood test please.” I could see the doctor was a little displeased, like Jason was taking up a bed that a ‘real’ sick person could be using, but he agreed and walked away.

Time came for the third blood test. Soon after, the results were in. And then they came. Doctors, nurses, wardies … they came quickly from all directions, unplugging all the machines that were monitoring my husband, talking to each other in their ‘medical speak’, transferring Jason to another bed and wheeling him swiftly from the emergency room cubicle he’d spent the past many hours inhabiting.

I was left standing there by myself. Not sure what was going on. Not knowing what I should do now. One of the nurses approached me. “Your husband has had a massive coronary. They’ve taken him to the Coronary Care ICU.”

There was nothing further for me to do at the hospital. Jason was being taken care of by specialist medical professionals. I was told to go home, kiss my babies, get some sleep and come back in the morning.

So in a daze I walked back to my car that I’d parked in the lot 10 hours earlier. How was it possible that the world on the outside seemed the same but my own world had changed forever? What had caused a heart attack in my healthy husband? Was he going to die? Was I going to be left with a toddler, a baby, a business … and a husband to bury? These questions, and others that I couldn’t answer at the time, ran through my mind during the 15 minute drive from the hospital to home.

Some answers came to me. Not immediately, and not only about the heart attack. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, a shift happened in my way of thinking. This is what I learned.

Trust you gut

I have no medical training. But on that April morning when my husband way lying on our bed having a heart attack, my ‘logical brain’ told me that 35 year old, fit and healthy men do not have heart attacks. My ‘gut’ told me that my 35 year old, fit and healthy man, most definitely was having a heart attack.

I’m not somebody to stands up to authority. I’ll always listen to and accept an expert’s opinion. They’re the expert, right? They’ve spent years studying and in real crisis situations and know exactly what a heart attack looks like. Because Jason didn’t seem to fit the standard criteria, both the ambulance officers and the emergency room doctors were ready to dismiss my concerns, put it down to a panic attack, and send us on our way.

Ultimately if we’d waited until he’d had the third blood test and the results came back clear and showed that he’d had a panic attack, I would have been okay with that. No assumptions had been made. We’d have medical results telling us what had happened. But my brain told me that we had to follow the process to the conclusion to get definitive results … and my gut told me he’d had a heart attack.

Learn more: Being the perfect mum, wife and business woman … whatever that is!

Have people you can rely on in a crisis

Monday is pay day. At that point in my business I didn’t have staff. But I’d franchised my business and had some franchisees. I remember crossing the hospital carpark on Monday morning with a baby on my hip and phone to my ear. I was talking to my franchisee on the Gold Coast and needed her help with client wages that day. With very little instruction from me, she stepped in and did what needed to be done. She obtained the information she needed, processed the pay runs, sent details to my clients, and all staff were paid without delay. And I didn’t have the stress of having to deal with that, as well as everything else.

Whether you have staff or not, you must have people that you can rely on in your business that can take over in times of crisis. Or just when you want to take a holiday! Outsiders don’t need to know everything about your business, or be there the entire time. In my instance I needed somebody to step in and help me with processing wages, and management of my client’s supplier bills and customer invoices. Data entry, bank reconciliations, reporting … that could all wait.

Have good systems

When I was pregnant with my first baby I developed my business into a franchise. Within a few years I had 14 franchisees Australia-wide. The concept was to help mums get back to the workforce and build a business they could work around their families, with the support of others within the network. Part of the franchise concept was that we all follow the same processes and use the same systems, so when you want to go on holiday or have time away from your business, we could rely on each other to step in without the need to train a new person, or worry that another bookkeeper is going to steal your clients while you’re away.

Of course my clients were very understanding to my situation. But ultimately, staff still need to be paid, bills still need to be processed, invoices still need to be issued. Having a highly systematised business and open communication with my clients meant that my business ticked along without me while I could focus on my family.

Now, many years later, my systems have evolved and have been refined even further. I can be away from the office and be confident that my staff are doing exactly what needs to be done – because they’re following the system.

Learn more: Dealing with small business overwhelm

Enjoy life now

Jason survived his heart attack. We were given no answers at the time about the cause. So in the quiet times sitting at his hospital bed, watching him sleep, I thought about the future. What would that look like? Could he have another heart attack? After all, we didn’t know what had caused this one. I was wondering what my children’s memories would be of their father if he were to suffer another heart attack and not survive. I didn’t want their memories of weekends to be filled with lawn mowing, house cleaning, grocery shopping. I needed to create some memories so that if Dad was not there, my boys could look back and remember the fun times we had with him.

So by the time Jayden was two years old, we’d bought our first caravan. Let me give you a bit of background here … I was not a camper! I was someone who you took to a 5-star resort, not the bush; I ate off beautiful plates in restaurants, not off plastic plates on my lap; and don’t even get this ex-pat Kiwi started on the bugs and wildlife you come across while camping! But my mission was clear – to create memories. So if I had to make a few sacrifices along the way, that’s what I’d do.

We now take a 3-day camping trip once a month, with one or two longer trips throughout the year. And what do you know – this ex-Kiwi can handle the bush and plastic plates, and can survive a weekend on 50 litres of water and no power!

My main ‘job’ as a mum, other than growing my little humans into adults of course, is to create memories. So as far as work life balance goes, I think we’ve nailed it! As a family we’ve travelled to some amazing places both in and out of Australia; together we walk in the bush, swim in lakes, climb mountains; we do mud runs and military style obstacle courses together; we go out for dinner or to the movies on a school night; we use the good plates and the fancy wine glasses; we have conversations with each other; and we’re having so much fun creating amazing memories together.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been some sacrifices. My work days typically start at 4am so I can be there for the boys before and after school. And the weeks we’re taking a long weekend, I often work harder to make up for the Friday we’re taking off. But no matter how busy I am, or how much I have on my plate, as soon as we pull away from home with the caravan on the back of the car, I can feel the stress leaving my body.

I’m so grateful that I’ve created a business that works around my family. With some planning, you can too.