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Juggling life, work and unexpected cardiac events

For Natalie, a young wife, mother and nurse, a cardiac event happened on what seemed like an ordinary evening. But her nursing background immediately sounded internal alarms and she knew she was experiencing something out of the ordinary.

“It all happened one night when I was folding laundry in 2018,” she recalls. “I had felt a little stressed for some time but had no idea that this could be having an effect on my heart.”

Suddenly, Natalie felt a wave of nausea wash over her, accompanied by a pain down her arm and a burning sensation in her chest.

Natalie told her husband she thought she was having a heart attack, who was initially in disbelief. "He called an ambulance and then I went to lie down."

The ambulance officers were on their way to another job, so they were able to triage her call out and see her straight away. 

“Because of the way I presented when they arrived,” she says, “they decided it was a cardiac issue and they transferred me to North Shore hospital.”

After a three-day hospital stay and an angiogram, her diagnosis was inconclusive. Natalie sought a private consultation for a second opinion. The second cardiologist diagnosed her with myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, though there was also suspicion of SCAD (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection). Both these conditions can present suddenly and have similar symptoms to a heart attack. 

Natalie's health journey didn't end there; two years later, she developed heart rhythm issues and was diagnosed with AF (Atrial Fibrillation) and SVT (Supraventricular Tachycardia).

A private cardiology review and an MRI revealed scarring on her heart muscle, confirming the myocarditis diagnosis. The development of heart rhythm disorders, like AF, is a known complication of myocarditis.

"I felt some relief to have some answers, but it was challenging to understand these changes as they were out of the blue," Natalie says. “I had no family history of heart disease or previous health issues.”

Natalie soon realised the importance of mental health in her cardiac journey.

"You feel incredibly vulnerable after a sudden health event like this," she explains. "I saw a psychologist to help process my experiences. We worked on understanding that avoiding life out of fear would mean missing out on the good things.

“You can feel anxious when something unexpected occurs. It knocks your confidence,” she adds.

Natalie's condition had a significant impact on her day-to-day life. 

"Simple activities like a day at the zoo would exhaust me, but I initially blamed it on chasing around two toddlers. It took a while to realise it was my heart causing the exhaustion and to learn the symptoms and identify triggers. It was frightening." 

To manage her condition better, Natalie took several proactive steps.

"I've completely cut out caffeine and almost all alcohol, and I work on identifying my stress triggers before they become overwhelming," she says.

Natalie found solace in connecting with others who had experienced similar health issues. 

"I attended a SCAD group at Auckland Hospital and heard some incredible stories," she shares. "While it's not a community anyone wants to join, it's comforting to know you're not alone."

Support from loved ones has also been crucial for Natalie. 

"My husband, parents and friends have been fantastic. We've learnt to adapt. I'm careful about how I discuss my health with my kids; they need to be aware but not burdened."

"For women, especially during times of hormonal changes like childbirth, it's vital not to ignore stress and tiredness," Natalie advises. "And if there's one thing I'd like everyone to know, it's to check in with your health provider if you have any concerns or notice any changes."

Natalie's journey is one of resilience, self-advocacy and a deep desire for knowledge. 

"Stay proactive in your health journey. Manage your sleep and stress. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

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