A focus on recovery
Episodes of supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) had Monique's heart racing, and she also experienced episodes of angina. Breathlessness concerned her from a young age, but the cause wasn't discovered until she was 50.
As an adolescent, Monique was involved in various sporting activities. As she grew up, she noticed overwhelming tiredness and shortness of breath if she was exercising for more than 30 minutes, but just assumed this was normal for her.
"Now looking back, I don't think it was normal," says Monique.
When she reached her late twenties, after the birth of her first child, Monique had times where her heart would start racing causing palpitations.
"I would be just sitting at home reading the paper and my heart would start beating over 200 [beats per minute]. When it first started happening it would go on for about five minutes and then I'd relax and just try and adjust my breathing and it would stop."
When the episodes increased to half an hour at a time, Monique went to the emergency department where the doctors brought her heart rate back to a normal rhythm. However, due to Monique's age, the cause was put down to stress.
In 2004, on a trip to the UK and Europe, Monique had a couple of episodes of palpitations and had to visit a hospital in Germany to receive medication for her racing heart. Then, on the plane back to New Zealand, Monique's heart started racing again.
Luckily a doctor onboard gave her oxygen and calmed her until they reached their stopover destination – Thailand. Monique needed a medical certificate to continue travelling, so visited a cardiac hospital in Bangkok, where an ECG revealed supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
On her return to New Zealand, Monique was referred to a cardiologist in Hamilton and in 2004, she underwent an ablation procedure to correct the issue. Thankfully, she has had no issues with palpitations or a racing heart since.
"It took a wee while to recover, about two weeks. I just felt really tired and it took me a bit of time to get back to normal activities. I gradually increased that, so within a month, I was back to doing my usual activities and working full time in the disability sector."
While recovering from a bowel surgery in October 2019, Monique joined a gym for rehabilitation, but found herself gradually getting tired while exercising.
"I was spending quite a bit of time in the endless pool doing aqua jogging and I was getting to the point where I felt like passing out. I would get a feeling like the circulation was cut off from my shoulder to my arm and I was overwhelmed with tiredness."
Monique visited the emergency department a couple of times but each time her ECG and blood tests were normal, so a doctor recommended that her GP refer her for a treadmill test (PDF).
The cardiologist arranged the treadmill test, an echocardiogram (PDF), and finally a CT scan for Monique, which showed that there was a congenital abnormality in her coronary arteries which restricted blood flow to her heart. This was to be treated by coronary artery bypass surgery.
Monique's surgery was scheduled for January, so she spent the time over Christmas taking it easy, researching her condition and surgery, and preparing for the recovery.
"I avoided looking at graphic surgical videos." Monique remembers. "There were videos online that were animated and that was enough to give me an insight to the surgery I was going to have. I read all the stories that were on the Heart Foundation website and I focused more on the recovery."
Monique's husband dropped her off at the hospital with her sister, and they played scrabble to keep her mind off the surgery until the last minute.
"At the end of our game it was time for me to go to surgery and I just felt relaxed. I didn't feel anxious. I decided I'm not going to let the fear set in. It was open heart surgery, they took a mammary vein and then fused it to the left coronary artery to give it another blood supply."
When she woke up, Monique's husband was there to reassure her, but she felt overwhelmed with the monitoring equipment and 'spaced out' from the drugs she had been given.
Monique stayed in hospital for a further seven days after surgery, while she regained strength and a regular sleeping pattern. Monique struggled with nausea and vomiting for the first couple of days, so was given anti-nausea medication to help her keep food down.
Monique had planned for her recovery and invited her Mum to stay so she could help with things around the house. She also organised to do an art project to keep herself occupied.
"I got an idea from someone that shared their story on the Heart Foundation website who had an art project to help them recover. I do mosaics, so I started a mosaic piece, a mannequin torso. When I got out of hospital, I could only just put a couple of tiles on a day. Then I increased the time to like half an hour a day. It was helpful because I wasn't focusing on the pain. It gave me something to get up and work on."
Two weeks after Monique got home, while she was working on her mosaic, she took a sudden turn for the worse.
"I had intense pain and shortness of breath and I just thought 'what is happening to me?'."
Monique called an ambulance, which took her back to hospital. Tests showed the blood wasn't flowing through the new graft as well as it should be, and Monique had pericarditis (inflammation of the heart lining). After another week in hospital and an angiogram that showed better blood flow through the new graft, Monique was allowed home.
Getting back on track
When Monique was feeling better, she gradually increased her hours at work and began going to the gym again to use the bike and treadmill, and to do some stretching.
"I feel fine. I keep an eye on my heart rate and have lots of water. The other thing I get is really low blood pressure, so I've got to make sure I keep hydrated."
Once the weather improves, Monique is looking forward to getting back to outdoor activities and planning what she wants to do next.
"I try not to think that because I've had a heart condition I'll never get back to my full potential. There are some things I want to do. One of the things I like doing is going to Ruapuke [near Raglan[ and go horse trekking on the beach.
"I wrote down a few things too. Not bucket list stuff – more like, where to from now? What do I want to plan for me? It's like re-assessing your life and fortunately I am in a good position that I don’t have to push myself and work full-time. It's about making lifestyle choices. It [the experience] makes you re-evaluate things."
Shared December 2020