Celeste is on a heart disease roller-coaster

Celeste Esera, now 34, coped with a hole in her heart, open-heart surgery, a rare heart condition diagnosis, atrial fibrillation and several heart procedures, but her biggest hurdle was yet to come...

Celeste Esera and her daughter Ava

When Celeste Esera experienced heart palpitations at 18 she put it down to her typical teen lifestyle – then one day her heart just didn’t stop racing. Rushed to Middlemore Hospital with a heart rate of 220bpm, doctors “pumped her full of drugs” to try and bring it down.

“Nothing was working so they put me to sleep, brought in the crash cart and zapped me, which finally brought my heart rate down to normal,” says Celeste.

“Lots of tests later, they told me I had Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW), a condition where there is an extra electrical pathway in the heart.”

When the heart beats, it contracts to force blood out and around the body then relaxes, allowing the heart to fill with blood again. This is controlled by electrical signals.

Normally, the electrical signals follow a certain pathway through the heart which helps the heart beat regularly. For Celeste and others with WPW syndrome, some of the heart's electrical signals go down an extra pathway, sometimes sparking episodes where the signal short-circuits and the heart beats very fast.

Hole in the heart

While carrying out tests to prepare for catheter ablation, the procedure to treat the WPW syndrome, doctors also discovered a previously undetected hole in Celeste’s heart. 

“This meant open-heart surgery. I was scared,” says Celeste.

At just 19, she had a catheter ablation on 10 September, 2001 followed by open-heart surgery two days later to repair the hole.

“I was off work for three months with a long road to recovery, I pretty much had to learn to walk again. Starting with very slow, assisted laps around the hospital ward. I was quite a novelty on the ward at a young 19.”

At 21, Celeste met her future husband Tony, and the father of her son Xavier, now 12 and daughter Ava, now 6.

Palpitations return

In 2009 during her second pregnancy, Celeste’s palpitations returned. She was put back on medication and closely monitored, including checks on her unborn baby’s heart.

At their worst, Celeste describes these attacks as making her close to blacking out with prolonged spells of dizziness, breathlessness and tightening in her chest that leaves her feeling “like she has run a marathon”.

A few months after delivering a healthy baby girl, she had a second, unsuccessful catheter ablation. Doctors decided to keep her current condition, an irregular heart rhythm referred to as atrial fibrillation (AF), under control with medication.

But the biggest blow was yet to come. At 9-months-old her baby girl Ava, was rushed to Waitakere Hospital with a heart rate so fast the doctors couldn’t record it. She was diagnosed with WPW syndrome the same day.

Mother's heartbreak

“My heart literally broke then and there. The guilt flooded my every inch. No matter how many professionals comforted me with words of ‘this is not your fault, it is not hereditary’. I still cry when I talk about this, those feelings are still so raw although it was six years ago,” says Celeste.

“My little baby went onto medication. And my husband Tony and I were instantly parents of a heart baby.

“After countless late night trips and sleepovers at Starship and Waitakere Hospitals, Ava had surgery in June 2014 aged 3. It was the hardest day of our lives.”

Thankfully, Ava’s surgery was successful and she was cleared and discharged from the Starship cardiology ward a year later.

“You would never know she had been a heart baby looking at her now. She is so strong, sassy and full of life!”

More atrial fibrillation

By 2015, Celeste was experiencing more AF episodes. The decision was made to try a more complicated version of a catheter ablation called a pulmonary vein isolation.

Celeste was understandably scared, once again.

The procedure was successfully completed in February 2016, and Celeste was able to come off all medication again a few months’ later.

However, her roller-coaster journey does not look likely to stop just yet – she has since been put back on medication for further AF episodes. She was hospitalised last December and will potentially have to have another pulmonary vein isolation procedure.

Not only have Celeste and her daughter both struggled with heart disease, but there is also a long line of heart history on her dad, Len’s side of the family. He also had open heart surgery, aged 5, to repair a hole in his heart.

A continual battle

“I am fighting a never-ending battle with heart disease. A disease which I was born with. A disease I would never wish on anyone.

“We are lucky New Zealand has the best cardiologists in the world and that the Heart Foundation funds research and specialist training for cardiologists. I was told if they hadn’t found the hole in my heart when they did, I would have only lived to 25.

“I am forever grateful for the work these amazing people do which, quite simply, is saving lives.”