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An unwanted Christmas surprise

When Caroline couldn't face a champagne breakfast on Christmas day, she knew something was wrong. But she never guessed the vomiting and sweating she'd had the night before were signs of a heart attack.

Caroline was at an early evening mass the night before Christmas 2019.

"I felt very hot and clammy and just started sweating. Then I had to desperately get to a toilet. I was trying to work out how I could get across the floor to the other side of the church.”

After vomiting and being very ill, the strange turn ended almost as suddenly as it had begun.

"I then felt good, I felt calm. I tidied myself up, put my lippy back on, went back and joined in with church and stayed there."

She returned home at around 11pm, but Caroline didn't feel like going to bed. Instead, she watched some TV and then sat in the dark.

"I kept thinking ‘What's wrong with me? Why am I feeling like this?’ I didn't feel any pain, I just didn't feel right," she explains.

Still not wanting to lie down, Caroline spent the night doing Christmas dinner prep and decorating the table. Finally, at around 5am she forced herself to go to bed. After a couple of hours drifting in and out of sleep she got up and readied herself for Christmas day.

First up was a champagne breakfast with friends. However, the usually social Caroline couldn't muster much enthusiasm for it.

"I just didn't feel right, I didn't feel like eating or drinking, which was very unlike me."

Caroline went to the breakfast, despite not feeling great. It was the same a few hours later, when the children and grandchildren arrived at Caroline's house to start the Christmas festivities.

"I love being around my grandchildren, but I just didn't want the noise. I didn't want anything. One of our sons had brought some lovely French champagne back from Europe and they knew there was definitely something wrong with me when I didn't drink my champagne."

At the urging of her son, Caroline agreed to go to the local emergency department.

"The hospital staff were very quick to react. They did an ECG and said that I was having a heart attack or had had a bit of a heart attack already – maybe the night before, I'm not sure."

At first Caroline was admitted to Intensive Care in New Plymouth in the hope that she might stabilise, but the doctors soon decided on an emergency transfer to Hamilton for treatment.

"When I got to Hamilton, they did another ECG and they said things were bad. It’s amazing because I felt absolutely fine, no pain, no pressure, no heavy breathing, nothing! And then I was raced to theatre.”

The team then carried out an angioplasty to clear the blockages in Caroline's arteries. 

"The surgeon realised I was very interested in what they were doing, so they put the TV cameras right beside me, and, as he inserted the lines and camera, he talked me through exactly what he was doing. I had three blockages in total."

Caroline was very thankful for the support and information she received from the hospital staff in Hamilton.

"They were amazing. It was encouraging to have people there that could explain to you exactly what had happened, because I had had no signs or symptoms of heart issues."

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Caroline had been aware that something wasn't quite right with her health.

“I got misdiagnosed with adult-onset asthma and got a Ventolin inhaler. So I was sucking like fury on this Ventolin inhaler on Christmas Eve. I was just totally unaware that that's what some of the heart attack symptoms were."

Caroline points out that a lot of heart attack symptoms, such as breathing difficulties and sweating, can be confused with menopause or 'just overdoing it'.  

Since her heart attack, Caroline has discovered a family history of heart disease which she was previously unaware of. The cardiologist also felt stress may have played a part in Caroline's heart event.

"The surgeon in Hamilton felt a factor for me was stress. I could totally relate to that once he explained that to me. I've had a lot of personal stress. No matter how fit and healthy you think you are, there are sometimes underlying currents that just spring up and knock you," she adds.

Heart disease can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
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