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Tight throat and breathlessness signal heart trouble

Kaye Burling had just completed a stand-up paddle board course in her hometown of Rotorua when she noticed a reoccurring tightness in her throat suddenly worsen.

Heart attack story Kaye Burling

Kaye with dog Mac, and partner Tim. Photo credit: Little Paws Photography

Then the 49-year-old bent down and picked up her dog Mac’s food bowl from the floor and got quite breathless.

“I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis 18 months prior, and put it down to a side-effect of the medication for that condition,” explains Kaye.

As she lay down to wait for the tightening and breathlessness to pass, she felt a shooting pain across the back of her chest and became concerned enough to email her GP.

“I was advised to get it checked out straight away because of the shortness of breath. I already had an appointment made to see my GP the following Tuesday, but this all happened on the Thursday.”

Kaye followed her doctor’s advice immediately and went to the Accident and Emergency Department at Rotorua Hospital.

Heart attack symptoms

“I was walking around the A and E feeling like a fraud because I was fine by then. The pain I had noticed in my back wasn’t there anymore,” says Kaye.  

“Then they started asking me questions and my answers reminded me of my strong family history. My dad had a heart bypass at 48 and died of a heart attack aged 61. I was just 21 at the time. His sister also had a stent inserted recently.”

Kaye had lots of tests at the hospital including an exercise stress test which was positive. She was transferred by ambulance to Waikato Hospital for further tests including an angiogram.

“I was very lucky because the angiogram showed a major blockage at the top of my right coronary artery. I was told if it had failed, the damage to my heart would have been more serious.”

After two weeks in Waikato Hospital undergoing CT scans and a second angiogram, she eventually had a successful angioplasty procedure to insert a stent and clear the blockage.

A change in lifestyle

Kaye says her heart disease has come as a real shock to her and partner Tim. It has made her prioritise her health more than she used to and take up a “green prescription” for supervised gym sessions through cardiac rehab classes, which benefit both her arthritis and her heart health. She has also addressed the stress in her life and other lifestyle factors.

“So often in professional roles, I see colleagues working increasingly long hours, answering phones at night, and their brain is totally on the go all the time, I can’t do that anymore. Now I make sure I always have healthy food available, prepare healthy meals and exercise to a schedule.”

When Kaye thinks back over the months leading up to that day, she recalls lots of seemingly isolated incidents that didn’t seem important at the time, but could have been related.

“The tightening in my throat would come on with physical activity – I was exercising to try and keep my arthritis under control but my joint mobility wasn’t good, so I just put it down to being unfit. One of the side effects listed for my medication was shortness of breath, so I really didn’t consider that might be to do with my heart,” explains Kaye.

“The week before I went into hospital I was at work and was struggling to stand, which I put down to arthritis. I suddenly got a dry throat, felt nauseous and started vomiting. I didn’t even know nausea was a heart attack symptom until I saw the Heart Foundation brochures in hospital.”

She also encourages others who might experience similar symptoms to seek medical advice immediately.

“You generally know your own body, and to a degree we all carry on and ignore warning signs, but if it’s not right you have to get it checked out.” 

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