Instead of watching the coastline disappear in his rear-view mirror as he made the journey from Sydney's Northern Beaches to Queensland for a holiday, actor Ray Meagher found himself staring at the walls of a hospital ward, terrified of what would happen next.
The Home And Away veteran was about to embark on a winter getaway with his wife Gilly.
But a few days before the trip, a routine health check revealed one of his arteries was completely blocked and another two showed similar symptoms.
Just 36 hours later, Ray was prepped to have emergency heart surgery.
Lying on an operating table "With a man standing over me holding a giant chainsaw", Ray tells TV WEEK, he barely had time to digest the diagnosis before going under the knife.
"It all happened so quickly," Ray, 74, recalls of his triple-bypass surgery last August. "But if I hadn't seen the cardiologist the day I did, I probably wouldn't be talking to you now.
"We were about to drive to Queensland for a short break. Had anything happened while I was driving, I could have killed myself, my wife and other innocent people on the road."
WATCH: Home and Away's Ray Meagher speaks candidly about his heart surgery. Story continues below...
But like his formidable H&A character Alf Stewart, no-one rallies like Ray. After six weeks of recovery, he was back on set. Today, the Summer Bay stalwart is fighting fit.
"Boxing is making a big comeback in this country and if I got back in the gym, I might be able to challenge some of those blokes for the title," Ray jokes.
"No, the recovery is going exceptionally well. When I left the hospital, the doctor said, 'You've got a new motor now, you can go on for another 100,000 miles!' I've followed his orders to a lick."
At home, the strict exercise regimen continues under the watchful eye of Gilly, a former nurse. Speaking on Sunrise recently, he praised her for being "absolutely amazing" in his time of need.
"She's put up with everything for six weeks and is a wonderful nurse," he enthused. "It's been fantastic having her around the house."
Ray believes his second chance is no accident and intends to make the most of it. He also encourages others to do the same – because, after all, it could save your life.
"The biggest message I can put out there is for everybody to get regular check-ups," Ray, who is also an ambassador for Dancing With The Black Dog, says.
"Don't do the Australian thing that Alf would and say, 'Oh, I'm fine. She'll be right.' With my recent heart problem, I can't stress enough how quickly it can happen. Talk to someone about your symptoms, or even just how you're feeling."
As all of Australia can now breathe a sigh of relief, Ray has stopped to do the same. Then, with a short pause, he reaffirms his future. "The good Lord willing, I'll be on the [Summer Bay] pier for a bit longer!" he says.
Ray is counting his blessings in all facets of his life. As Home And Away gears up for a new season – its 33rd – the actor believes he stumbled onto greatness not by skill, but by chance.
"My longevity in the show has been a hell of a lot more luck than good management," he says.
"It's been a terrific run. People ask me when I'm leaving, or if I've ever wanted to leave, and there have probably been four or five movies I've been offered to do that I couldn't because of the show.
However, without Home And Away, I wouldn't have been able to do stage shows in the West End. The net gain is far wider with it."
After more than 30 years, Ray's character has become embedded in Australian culture. You can find a wax figure of Alf Stewart in Madame Tussauds in Sydney, hear his catchphrases in popular use, and spot his broad-brimmed hat on the street.
Ray prefers not to weigh in on his legacy. Instead, he humbly picks up the script and gets to work on creating something that will last.
"I just turn up for work each day and try to stay true to the character," he says of his popularity.
"I'm just lucky that Alf resonates with people. They may not know much about the character, but they laugh at certain things he says, such as 'Stone the flamin' crows' or 'Flamin' galah'. Things like that are just ingrained in Alf now."
Despite rumours that he's edging closer to retirement, Ray declares that the back end of 2019 was "the busiest I've been all year!"
For most of the season, Ray has been kept on his toes thanks to intriguing storylines and plenty of drama. In unexpected scenes, Alf was reunited with his long-lost love Martha – played by Belinda Giblin – who had been presumed dead for more than 30 years.
"It was great to read that in the script," he says. "All those years ago, we thought she couldn't swim. So when she dived into the river, that was it! Turns out she's a very good swimmer! It's been a very rocky road for them to find common ground again.
"Also, I'm not sure if anyone picked up on this… but when Alf went on to marry Ailsa [Judy Nunn], Martha was actually still alive, so I was a bigamist for a while there." [Laughs]
While Alf hasn't always enjoyed romance in his life, Martha's re-emergence saw two worlds become one.
"Working with Judy all those years ago was absolute fantastic," Ray says of his former co-star.
"And now I have Belinda as my second wife, who is just wonderful. The funny thing is, Judy and Belinda are actually good mates!"
While Ray's Home And Away character is high-profile, his home life with Gilly is distinctly low-key.
The couple, who married in 2010, prefer to keep their personal and professional lives separate.
Ray may keep his TV WEEK Logie Awards in a secure spot – "They're on a bookshelf at home with a few other bits and pieces," he says – but Alf isn't much of a topic at home.
"We actually don't discuss Alf – or work – much," Ray says. "I have no idea what she thinks about him, but she hasn't encouraged me to run away from the show!
"I just hope she thinks Ray is alright!" [Laughs]
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