I came to Australia from Pakistan in 2013.
For the next six years, life was great. I was a regular father of four living in Melbourne. I did exercise, had an athletic build and ate traditional Pakistani food. My health was good too – or so I thought.
Then one day, in early 2019, I was on the train coming home from work when I suddenly starting sweating. My heart was palpitating and I could barely walk. I didn’t know what was happening. So my wife picked me up from the train station and we went to see a doctor immediately. When the staff at the clinic gave me an ECG, they saw my heartbeat had changed. They called an ambulance and I was transferred to hospital.
I was soon diagnosed with a serious but rare heart condition called Brugada Syndrome. It’s a genetic disorder that can cause a fast, irregular heartbeat that can be quite dangerous and prevent blood from circulating correctly in my body.
The diagnosis meant I would need to change my diet. The doctors also told me that I could have a cardiac arrest in the near future and may need a pacemaker. It was all a bit of a shock.
"If I do eat a big piece of steak, I won’t be able to sleep the whole night. I’ll have heart palpitations or start vomiting. My body just doesn’t accept it anymore."
Weeks later, I was on the phone with a friend at home when I passed out for almost 10 minutes. When I woke up I knew I had a cardiac arrest. I felt very scared.
At the time, I was 36-years-old. I was so lucky to survive a cardiac arrest, and not sustain a brain injury. I feel very grateful to have a second chance at life.
I had to change my diet and give up the foods of my culture
After the cardiac arrest, the reality of my life changed a lot as I came to terms with what it meant to live with a rare heart condition. I had an ICD pacemaker implanted and made serious lifestyle changes – including diet modifications – for the sake of my health.
I used to love eating beef regularly but I now can’t eat any more than a small piece of red meat once a week or fortnight. If I do eat a big piece of steak, I won’t be able to sleep the whole night. I’ll have heart palpitations or start vomiting. My body just doesn’t accept it anymore.
I also can’t eat Pakistani food. It’s too spicy and it causes heart palpitations. Giving up the foods of my culture was heartbreaking because it’s all I’ve ever eaten. But my health is my priority so it’s okay.
These days, I eat a balanced diet featuring lots of fruit, vegetables, brown rice, pasta, boiled eggs, chickpeas, beans, lentils and fish. I also get very excited about trying healthy meals from many different cuisines beyond my own culture like Japan, Korea and China. I really love eating well.
"I often use food as a distraction when I have heart palpitations and feel anxious. I usually eat something healthy or cook as a way to calm myself down."
Life in lockdown with a serious heart condition
There’s been one other big change that’s occurred since I had the cardiac arrest. I can now cook.
When Melbourne was in lockdown for four months last year, there wasn’t much I could do, so I started watching YouTube videos and taught myself to cook.
My wife used to be the only one in the house who cooked before. But now, I make meals for my family three days a week. I can cook fish with ginger and garlic, along with different kinds of pasta, omelettes and katsu curry. I'm becoming a pro.
"No matter how I feel physically, I now know that I am resilient."
Cooking has since become a kind of therapy for me. It helps me to switch off from my daily routine as I just focus on food – I think about what I will make and the recipe. Cooking is also a family activity: I have four kids so they help me wash the vegetables and follow the cooking videos by my side.
I often use food as a distraction when I have heart palpitations and feel anxious. I usually eat something healthy or cook as a way to calm myself down.
With my condition, I have good and bad days. But when I cook, I always feel a sense of achievement knowing that I can now create meals that I never thought I’d be able to make.
No matter how I feel physically, I now know that I am resilient.
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For more information on heart health and healthy eating, visit heartfoundation.org.au.