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Routine appointment ends in open heart surgery

When Colleen Dolan saw a doctor for knee pain, asthma, and a touch of indigestion, she did not expect to undergo open-heart surgery – she’s sharing her story to raise awareness of what heart disease can look like.

On the March 28 2018, Colleen Dolan went to the doctor. She mentioned her knee pain and that her asthma was getting worse.

He was measuring Colleen’s blood pressure and asked her, “Any other symptoms?”

“Just the pain across the left shoulder, maybe because I’m carrying heavy things,” she replied.

 The doctor then asked if she experienced pain down her arms.

“Yes, down my arm once.”

“Anything else?” asked the doctor.

“Oh yes, a little pain in the middle part of the ribs, I think it might be indigestion, and pain in the back of my throat sometimes.”

“Anything else?” asked the doctor again.

“When I’ve been making the bed, I’ve been getting lockjaw.”

Colleen was immediately sent to the nurse to have an electrocardiograph (ECG), which she thought was a bit over the top for asthma and indigestion. When the results came through, the doctor told her there was an issue with her heart, gave her aspirin and sent her straight to North Shore Hospital in an ambulance.

In hospital she was diagnosed with angina, but after two days she was discharged for the weekend – as she no longer had the symptoms. Her son, Zane Thompson, came to take her home. She was given nitro spray to use for temporary relief from angina symptoms and was told to come back to hospital if she had more than two angina attacks.

Colleen had five angina attacks over the course of the next day, but as they were far apart she decided not to call an ambulance. But, when she spoke to Zane on the phone that evening she mentioned the attacks, and he took her straight back into hospital.

An angiogram showed several blockages in the arteries around her heart.

“I had higher levels of Troponin which showed something was happening. I had three bad pains in the chest.”

Colleen was transferred to Auckland Hospital for coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) surgery, which relieves angina symptoms by improving blood flow to the heart. She spent 11 days recovering in hospital.

“My haemoglobin levels were low, so trying to breathe, I was hyperventilating. They wanted to get everything back to normal so that I could breathe and be a lot better.”

Colleen says her care at both North Shore Hospital and Auckland Hospital was wonderful, from the cardiologists and nurses to the catering staff who deliver coffee and tea. 

Colleen takes medication to support her heart, including a daily aspirin and Omeprazol to protect her stomach lining from the acidity of the aspirin.

Road to recovery

When Colleen was discharged from hospital, she received information booklets about recovery following heart surgery, and also attended cardiac rehabilitation classes.

Zane came over every day for three weeks, to help Colleen as she regained her strength and independence. He kept her house clean and delivered heart-healthy groceries.

“I cut down on sugar and carbohydrates – half a plate of vegetables, quarter of meat and a quarter of carbohydrates. All the vegetables taste lovely now.”

Her next-door neighbours checked in on Colleen and brought her meals during her recovery, and friends ring every morning to see how she is, which she says helps keep her spirits up.

Once Colleen was feeling strong enough, she started doing exercises in her lounge while watching television as well as taking Siobhan – her Chihuahua/Jack Russell cross –  for walks.

“That took me a while because I was wary of going too far from the house. Now I take Siobhan for walks every day.”

Colleen says she has fully embraced a new heart-healthy lifestyle and is sharing her knowledge with others to inspire them to make healthier lifestyle choices.

“My nephew is on a treadmill machine now, and my grandniece is on a fitness programme. The next- door neighbour took off six kilos. My friends are now looking at their eating, because they never thought I’d be the first to go. When I go in to my old work – I used to take in creamy and chocolatey cakes – but now it’ll be blueberries, mangoes or avocados.”

Heart Foundation connections

Colleen has also been a long time, regular supporter of the Heart Foundation since her father had heart problems – via the Heart Foundation Lottery.

“I buy three tickets each time. You feel good that it’s gone to someone lovely, and you’re contributing to a lovely cause that is helping everyone.”

Colleen had seen the Heart Foundation Heart Attack Awareness television campaign before her heart event.

“After having my symptoms, I thought, ‘We need to be more aware that they’re really subtle these things’. They’re sore and painful when they happen, but they’re subtle enough to think, ‘They might be asthma or reflux or indigestion’.”