“I wasn’t overweight or anything but I was having night sweats which I didn’t realise was a symptom and a desperate thirst in the evening,” he says.
He would soon learn undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes had triggered the heart attacks, which presented as chest tightness two nights in a row.
“I went to the doctor and the doctor basically called an ambulance and they took me into the hospital… confirmed they were heart attacks… did blood tests and said, ‘So how do you treat your diabetes?’ I was like, ‘What diabetes?’” he remembers.
His new wife, Michelle Jewels-Parsons, was just as shocked.
“I said to the doctor, ‘You must have the wrong file – Rick doesn’t have diabetes’. They said ‘Oh yes, Rick has diabetes’,” she says.
“This could have gone right back undiagnosed to the mid-to-late teens.”
He went really low and flat. It was overwhelming.
It was a lot to take in.
“So I’m going, ‘OK, we’ve only been married five weeks, my husband has had two heart attacks and he’s now diabetic,” Michelle says.
“He was injecting insulin multiple times a day from then.
“The one thing we weren’t prepared for is that it had a huge impact on his mental health. He went really low and flat. It was overwhelming. There was zero support for me as a spouse and I knew nothing about diabetes.”
Fortunately, Rick was able to avoid surgery and repair damage to his heart with medication and diet and lifestyle changes.
But that wasn’t the end of their health surprises.
A few years later, Michelle was also diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, brought on by early menopause as a result of cervical cancer that she had beaten years earlier.
“I had a dry mouth and was drinking lots of water and had a lot of trouble sleeping,” she says, of the symptoms that led to her diagnosis.
Living with the disease has taken a toll – medication costs them $400 a month, but it’s the emotional and physical impacts that have perhaps thrown up the biggest challenges.
“We realised really early on that our mental health really was hard,” Michelle says.
“We stopped accepting dinner invitations, we stopped going away for the weekend, we stopped doing things because we didn’t feel that that was in our control.
“The lethargy for us was something we also found hard to get on top of.”
They joined Diabetes SA, got themselves more educated about the disease, made necessary lifestyle adjustments and realised it was still possible to have a positive future.
“Sometimes we might not always make the perfect choice but they’re certainly choices that are much better than we would have made pre-diagnosis,” Michelle says.
As well as eating a healthier diet and exercising more, they make sure they have regular heart, eye and foot checks, for signs of any damage caused by diabetes.
Knowing what he does now, Rick suggests others have an annual check-up with their GP.
“Make sure you get a blood test and get all of the things that might be niggling you but not really a problem, get them looked at – you just never really know what they are,” he says.
Michelle offers these words to anyone faced with the same daunting diagnosis: “Don’t look at it as a death sentence or a life sentence. It is manageable.”
The Felixstow couple, both now aged 51, have a treadmill at home and have also taken up ballroom dancing.
“We’ve got two left feet but we’re getting there,” Michelle laughs.
“We enjoy it. We’re not waiting until we’re retired to do all the things we want to do in retirement so we’re doing them all now.”
Rick says managing diabetes is about “just being mindful and making the best choices that you can”.
“Do I want that second piece of chocolate cake? I might want it but, no,” he says.
Michelle quips: “Only if you want to eat it on the treadmill!”
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