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People don’t believe I had a heart attack

Rachel Turner says one of the hardest things about having a heart attack so young is that most people don’t believe she had one.

Rachel was stranded helplessly on the living room floor with her two-year-old son at her side when the ambulance pulled up outside their house.  

“He was so cute, he just sat by mummy until help came. He was too short to reach the door handle.”

Rachel was only 35 when she had a terrifying heart attack in July 2011. When the symptoms began less than 24 hours earlier, she thought she was just coming down a case of flu.

It started with severe reflux, body aches and lethargy. Rachel didn’t want to overreact and create a fuss so went to work as usual at the local Accident and Medical in Auckland.   

But while walking to get dinner that night, her legs suddenly felt incredibly heavy and she became short of breath, despite being on flat ground.  

“The next morning I woke feeling even worse - dizzy when standing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.”

With her husband at work, an embarrassed Rachel was left with no choice but to call emergency services.

By the time help arrived, Rachel had crawled to the lounge and unlocked the ranch slider, with William at her side.

She was rushed to hospital and had an urgent angiogram, which revealed a 100% blockage of an area in the heart called ‘the widow maker’.

Only two hours later, Rachel emerged from surgery with a life-saving stent inserted.

“I saw my husband by the trolley as I was wheeled up to the coronary ward and said to him, ‘I suppose this means no more babies’. ‘Ah yes,’ was his only reply.”

Rachel says most people can’t believe a woman so young could have suffered a major heart attack.

“The hardest part is the fact that people don’t believe I had a full heart attack or they think I am broken somehow and unable to make decisions rationally.”

She was born with a birth defect in her left kidney and had been experienced fluctuating hypertension before the attack. But there was no history of heart disease in her family before the age of 70 and her cholesterol was only just above normal.

“It’s annoying because I had no risk factors. Having no risk factors isn’t a guarantee of no issues but, having said that, even one risk factor worsens your chances.”

Since the heart attack, Rachel has made some important lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of having another heart attack.

“One of my angina triggers, poor sleep, improved with our son getting older and having his tonsils out. I also changed jobs to avoid working with certain people who increased my stress levels exponentially.”

Her biggest fear now is having another heart attack and dying, leaving her five-year-old son and husband on their own. 

“We have decided not to have a second child purely due to fact that if I ran into heart issues we would have to immediately terminate and, in our mind, that is no way to enter a pregnancy.

“We have a wonderful little man and it is selfish to risk him having to grow up with no mummy, or one with even more serious heart issues.” 

What advice does she offer to other women?

“Don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, and live life to the most. Don't be afraid of what might happen.”

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