The pressure on my chest was horrendous

When Lisa started feeling pressure near her collarbone, she assumed it was a muscle spasm caused by her massage that day.

It was May last year and Lisa Abernethy was running late for a work meeting in Central Auckland. 

As she drove into the city, the mother of two suddenly felt a strange pressure near her collarbone. 

“I didn’t think too much of it initially, as I thought it might have been muscle spasms relating to a massage at work about an hour earlier,” she says. 

“But the pressure started building and I remember squirming in my seat trying to alleviate it. By the time I found a park, I wasn’t feeling right – I was quite light-headed and breathless.”

Lisa, now 44, still didn’t think her symptoms were serious, but she decided to call Healthline to get advice. The nurse who took the call told Lisa to wait in her car, and called an ambulance.

An ECG confirmed Lisa was having a heart attack, and she was rushed to hospital.

“The pressure on my chest at one point was horrendous – like I had a car on top of me. That was the point where I thought I was really in trouble.”

Luckily this didn’t last long, as two stents were inserted to open up a complete blockage in one of Lisa’s arteries.

She learned she had experienced what’s called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) – an uncommon occurrence caused by tearing in the coronary artery wall.  

Lisa was fortunate to be treated that day by leading cardiologist Professor Peter Ruygrok, who received funding from the Heart Foundation to train overseas early in his career.

“Professor Ruygrok came in and explained what had happened. He said I had had only a 45-minute window to get treatment, so I was really lucky to be in the city centre at the time. I felt someone had been looking down on me that day as if I had been at home, the wait to get help could have been a lot longer.”

Once she returned home, Lisa took three weeks off work to recover. Her husband stayed home with her for the first week, and she was grateful to friends who helped with picking her daughters up from school and called in to check on Lisa several times a day.

“Emotionally, it has taken a long time to get over this. Initially, I was afraid to go to sleep because I thought I wouldn’t wake up again,” she says.

While her daughter Jessica, 6, was too young to grasp what was happening, the event was traumatic for Lara. At 10 years of age she was old enough to understand the seriousness of the event. 

“Now if my husband Graeme picks them up from school for any reason, my eldest daughter instantly thinks something has happened to me and it upsets her,” says Lisa.

Going through such a frightening event has made Lisa more aware of relishing the good things in life.

“I cherish life more. I practice mindfulness and walk around our lifestyle block when I can. I try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s been hard to change my habits but I need to do it for my health.

“Life has gradually gotten back to normal. It has given us all a bit of a wake-up call.”

There is currently no official known reason or cure for SCAD, but patients are most often middle-aged women with few or no risk factors for heart disease. 

One way the Heart Foundation is trying to prevent traumatic events like Lisa’s is by funding about $2 million of vital research and cardiology training every year. 

As New Zealand’s leading independent funder of heart research, our hope is that one day we’ll find the causes and cure for SCAD.