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A gradual progression with heart valve disease

A thumping in her chest while going uphill was the first sign of heart trouble for Juliet, but it was several years later that things got worse.

It was 20 years ago that Juliet first noticed a thumping feeling in her chest when walking up the hill to her home. She mentioned it to her GP who prescribed some medication, but Juliet wasn’t too concerned at the time and thought “they were making a big fuss about nothing”.

It wasn’t until seven years ago that the feeling began to bother her again – suddenly her heart was thumping continually. But she and her husband did not see a doctor or call an ambulance for a couple of days.

“It was over Easter time and we were loath to make a big show because we live next to a church and we didn’t want all the church people seeing ambulances and things. And that’s why we waited, not because I was scared of dying or anything, it’s just that we didn’t want a fuss here in the village.”

They eventually did call an ambulance “and got amazing service” she says. “We got a volunteer paramedic from the fire brigade, two trainees from St John down the road who were having a training session and the ambulance drivers themselves. So I thought VIP treatment!”

"We were loath to make a big show because we live next to a church and we didn't want all the church people seeing ambulances and things."

Juliet ended up spending seven weeks in hospital, requiring a heart valve replacement and bypass surgery. “They gave me the choice of a pig valve or a metal one, and I chose the pig valve.”

Juliet’s teeth also got some attention. She needed some fillings and doctors said it was necessary to get these done before the surgery. “I was there for that long because they had to arrange for me to have dental treatment before they would operate.

“I didn’t really want to be in hospital, but I got wonderful treatment from everybody.”

Since her surgery Juliet says she’s felt fine, although there have been other health incidents along the way. Two years ago, while getting a scan for a separate health complaint, Juliet learnt she had an aortic aneurysm...

“After lots of visits to the vascular clinic at the public hospital, they decided to ‘wrap’ the aneurysm and that involved a lot of tests on my heart to make sure it could stand the stress. I was sent back home in a week, so that worked out well.”

Then in January 2016 came another round of trouble. “I had a fall in the house and it somehow disturbed all the nerves in my arm and my back. And when my back goes into spasm my heart thumps again. And my heart will thump a lot.” She says she is able to control her heart rate by sitting down for a while and applying a heat pack to her back.

Now aged 86, Juliet says she and her husband are considering a move from the small town they’ve lived in for 26 years, to the bigger town of Darfield, so they can be closer to medical attention if needed, and a wider network of people.

“We just counted up and 15 of our friends have moved away,” she says. “We have to go somewhere because we’ve lost all the support that we had here. We’ll go to Darfield because it has a lot of services for people like us, especially if my husband loses his driver’s licence.”

Juliet has no immediate concerns about her heart health and feels well-supported by her GP, also based in Darfield. She has her three-monthly check-ups and is on low-dose medications to manage her heart health.

The only thing she sometimes worries about is how long her pig valve will last. Doctors can’t predict that sort of thing, she says. But she’s happy with the one she’s got as she’s just been to see someone with a mechanical one “and it makes a noise all the time!”

The surgeries haven’t restricted Juliet’s life in any way and, at 86, she feels fortunate to say she’s feeling “fine, really fine”.


Shared November 2016

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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