A mother’s heartache

Nikki Tod just wants to be able to jump on the trampoline with her children without feeling exhausted and breathless.

Nikki has tears in her eyes as she looks out the window at an empty garden, where her two young children should be happily playing.  

As she approached motherhood five years ago, she decided to put her professional career on hold and be a stay-at-home mum. Her dream was to spend as much time as possible with Samuel, 4, and Alexandra, 18 months, during their precious early years.  

“However, I’ve had to balance that desire with the stress it would put on me and them if they saw their mum taken away in an ambulance, yet again or the possible risk to them if I happened to have an attack in the car or somewhere like the mall or swimming pool.”  

Nikki, 46, has a heart condition called atrial fibrillation which can bring on frightening ‘attacks’ that send her heart racing to more than 250 beats per minute.   

That means it’s simply too risky to have the kids at home all the time, so they spend most weekdays in childcare.    

When the kids are home, Nikki just wants to be able to jump on the trampoline with them without feeling exhausted and breathless. 

“Some days are harder than others so we embrace the days that I'm able to function properly and have as much fun as we can.” 

Her condition reared its head for the first time during a work meeting in 2010, when she was pregnant with Sam. 

“The pain was immense and by the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital it was all over. I just put it down to a difficult pregnancy, being an older mother and feeling stressed.” 

Since then she’s had four attacks, the worst of which came six weeks before her wedding day in 2013, when she was heavily pregnant with daughter Alex.  

“They say your life flashes before your eyes but, for me, it was my kids’ and my husband’s lives because there was a risk I could miscarry and have a stroke.” 

She was rushed to A&E and received cardioversion, a medical procedure which restores a normal heart rhythm, most often by sending electric shocks to the heart.  

At first, her heart problems were misdiagnosed as a muscular skeletal spasm. It took the doctors a long time to work out what was causing Nikki’s ‘attacks, until the admission to A&E in 2013 ’. 

“You can have a number of attacks like I did and it can be misdiagnosed until it gets serious.” 

People with atrial fibrillation sometimes have no symptoms and their condition is only detectable upon physical examination. But others can experience symptoms including general fatigue, rapid and irregular heartbeat, dizziness, weakness, sweating and chest pain.  

Although Nikki’s attacks aren’t fatal, they can be extremely painful, frightening and could lead to a stroke.  

Nikki is still undergoing tests to find out exactly which area of her heart is causing the problems. She takes two types of beta blockers, but being on medication has come with its own difficulties.  

“The medication I was on originally caused me to fall downstairs while holding Alex at Christmas 2014, and I crushed two discs in my back. I now have to take painkillers, but they’re not the normal ones because I’m on heart medication. It’s just this vicious cycle that keeps going on and on.” 

It’s also hard on her husband Mark, who sometimes receives calls at work to say Nikki is having another attack and on her way to hospital. 

Looking back, Nikki says it’s her children that have saved her life.  

“If I hadn't become pregnant, my heart problems wouldn't have been exacerbated and then ultimately been diagnosed. I would have gone on living my life unaware that there was an issue until one day I suffered an attack and it could have had a very different outcome.” 

She says no-one should have to go through what she’s experienced, which is why she’s so passionate about telling women to learn about heart disease.  

“We don’t tend to think about these things because we’re a bit stoic and staunch. We’re afraid of looking like we don’t have it all together. 

“You know your body better than anybody else and if you know something isn’t right, then go to the doctor and get it sussed. It could be thyroid issue, or something else, but at least start the conversation.”  

The Heart Foundation would like to thank Nikki for sharing her story in support of our Go Red For Women campaign.