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Heart failure led me close to death’s door

Within six months, Phyllis went from being active and energetic to feeling so fatigued she couldn't even speak on the telephone.

The words ‘heart failure’ sound so final, so terminal. And sadly, they often are.  

Phyllis Sagstad is thankful to still be here to tell her story about how heart failure led her, as she puts it, “close to death’s door”. 

Within the space of only six months, Phyllis went from being an active, energetic person to being too fatigued to collect her mail or even speak on the telephone. 

“I was so ill that I could hardly breathe. I had not one bit of strength in my body – I could barely walk to the toilet. For my family looking on, it was frightening.”

The first signs of trouble for Phyllis, who was 57 at the time, were repeated bouts of common chest cold and cough. After numerous trips to the doctor without her health improving, she was referred for an appointment with a respiratory specialist at the hospital. 

The appointment was scheduled for 18 weeks later. But just one day beforehand, Phyllis was rushed to A&E struggling to breathe and on the verge of collapse.  

She was admitted to hospital but there were no indications she was having heart trouble. The medical staff thought she could have had a tumor, although the tests and scans came back negative. 

They had one more scan to carry out, this time on her heart, and that’s when they discovered Phyllis had severe heart failure. 

“The thing with heart failure is you may not have symptoms. I had no swelling and I had lost weight, which is why they thought I had a tumour.”

The tests showed her heart was functioning at only a quarter of its normal strength. 

“My heart was barely pumping. My family were so worried. Even my wee grandson burst into tears at the hospital because I looked so ill.”

Heart failure is a chronic long-term syndrome where the heart is unable to pump blood adequately round the body. It causes blood to back up in the lungs or the liver and extremities, causing a number of debilitating symptoms. 

Causes of heart failure are numerous and include previous heart attacks, blocked arteries, valve problems and high blood pressure. In many people the actual cause remains a mystery.

“For me, this was the case – we still don’t know why it happened,” Phyllis explains. 

There is no specific cure but medications help the heart muscle function more efficiently and can help people live longer and more active lives. 

Phyllis says her case of heart failure was a severe one, but it should serve as a major wake-up call to others.  

“I was close to death’s door and that’s because I’d not been aware of checking my heart. People need to be asking their doctors ‘please check my heart’,” she urges. 

“You have to take care of your heart because it’s your most important organ.”

After nearly three years of rehabilitation, Phyllis now has well-being and feels like a different person. She’s a committed member of The Larks, a cardiac rehabilitation support group in Dunedin. 

“It’s been a very slow process.”

Meanwhile, researchers continue to hunt for the causes of heart failure, and new ways to treat it. 

Since 1970, the Heart Foundation has invested close to $3 million into research specifically aimed at preventing heart failure and helping those who live with it. 

But as a charity, we need your help to continue this urgent work.