Graeme Gale, with sons David and Kevin (right) has had a life-saving heart procedure and says men need to get serious about their own health. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Gallows humour isn't in short supply around the Helicopters
Otago base since kingpin Graeme Gale was rushed to hospital
in the middle of the night.
''What's it like photographing a dead man?'' the rescue pilot
asked cheerfully yesterday at the hangar on the Taieri.
The 60-year-old says he feels fine two weeks after an
emergency stent was inserted to open up a narrowed artery
which had left him fighting to breathe at 2am. But while the
gruff humour and colourful language remain the same, the
sharp eyes which have guided the Otago Regional Rescue
Helicopter on hundreds of medical mercy dashes are looking at
life from a fresh perspective.
''My father dropped dead from a massive coronary at the age
of 56. I got a second chance. I was extremely lucky.''
As wake-up calls go, having a heart attack 44 years to the
day since his father's sudden death was pretty hard to
But even as he was being driven to hospital, the lean,
healthy, ''bulletproof'' father of three was refusing to
acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.
''I was still in denial. I'm thinking, `This isn't happening
to me. That's what guys do. And we're really, really good at
The first sign that he wasn't bulletproof was breathlessness
as he was working with his chainsaw on Queen's Birthday
His wife, Ros, asked him if he was alright and he said he
was, despite feeling some chest tightness.
''I ended up not finishing what I was doing. I looked at the
chainsaw and I couldn't even think about picking it up to
carry it back. No man leaves his chainsaw out, does he? But
the pain went away again.''
What did you tell Ros?
''You don't tell your missus things like that, do you? I told
Woken by breathlessness and chest pains at 1am, he shrugged
it off. Half an hour later, the symptoms returned.
''At that stage I thought, `I am in trouble.' And, of course,
that was the first Ros heard about it.''
Once he was in the coronary care unit, it turned out to be a
quick procedure to insert a stent and he was home later the
Full of praise for the ''world-class'' care he received, he
stresses he was lucky and not all cases would be so
But he says what is straightforward is the need for men to
listen to their bodies - and their families - and sort out
their attitudes to health. The timing of his message could
not be better, coming in Men's Health Week, which finishes
Despite a family history of heart problems - his mother also
died of a heart attack, in her early 70s - Mr Gale never
considered he was at risk.
He'd passed regular medical tests for his pilot's licence and
had transported so many cardiac patients he thought he knew a
thing or two about chest pain symptoms. ''But the chest pain
wasn't what I expected. It's not like you've just hit your
thumb with a hammer.''
Subject to passing the medical tests, he plans to return to
flying after the compulsory stand-down period. In the
meantime, first on his radar are two guys he sees every day -
his sons Dave (40) and Kevin (36), both of whom smoke.
Kevin says the ''old man'' has been hammering him harder than
ever to give up the fags but admits he's a classic case of a
guy in denial.
''I never thought about it [the family history of heart
problems]. It wasn't happening to me. It still isn't
happening to me.''
Dunedin Hospital cardiologist Tim Glenie said men could take
several key steps to protect their heart health. Number one
was giving up smoking.
Next on the list was regular contact with their GP. The
doctor could run routine screening tests and check family
history and other factors against a risk profile. And perhaps
most important was the need to act when symptoms appeared.
''If you're getting breathlessness, go and see your GP. If
you have chest pain, you need to call an ambulance.''
Graeme Gale is a 100% convert to this way of thinking.
''Health is fragile, and I see it on a daily basis. I see a
lot of tragedy. I see a lot of trauma. Some of it's through
no fault of your own, but some of it's stuff you can control.
''It's been a wake-up call and when I think back on it I
reckon I had my toes right over the edge of the pit. It
wouldn't have taken much and it could have been a totally
His message to others?
''If you've got chest pain don't bugger around. Ring 111.''
- Sean Flaherty.