Skip to main content

A slow journey back to normal life after heart attack

Sheryl never expected a heart attack to derail her routine during retirement, but now she’s gradually making progress in getting back to her old self.

At age 66 I retired from a position as a librarian at Auckland Libraries. I was previously an early childhood teacher, but I had always wanted to work in libraries. I now volunteer at the local community library in Māngonui.

I love to read. My partner and I chose to retire to the Far North, and it was a good decision as it is a beautiful place to live.

Out of the blue

I am 74 now and a heart attack was not on my radar at all. Perhaps it should have been as I have PAD – Peripheral Artery Disease – and stents in my legs.

At the time of my heart event, I was awaiting a decision on what further treatment I needed as the stents in my legs had become blocked again. I guess I knew that it was possible for other blood vessels to become blocked, but I pushed that to the back of my mind.

I am a difficult patient because I do not tolerate statins to lower cholesterol nor medications for blood pressure. I have persisted with a blood thinner to prevent clotting, despite some side effects as I know how important that is. I was taking aspirin.

On Thursday 23 March I had been out in the garden. I like gardening – I would love to have a fantastic garden but visualising it doesn't produce the desired result – you actually have to work at it.

Pain after gardening becomes more serious

I went to bed around 10.30pm and thought I may have stretched a muscle as my left shoulder was sore. The pain got worse, a really deep ache in my arm, I could not get comfortable. I finally got out of bed to get some paracetamol. I noticed that I felt very unsteady as I went back to bed.

After 3 hours of tossing and turning with extremely uncomfortable pain, early Friday morning I found myself clutching my shoulder and the heart attack ads came to mind.

From there it was all action. My partner called an ambulance, fortunately they were not too far away, and on the way to Kaitaia Hospital a call was put out for the rescue helicopter to meet us.

By now I was realising that something serious was happening. Helicopter rides have never been on my bucket list, but we are so fortunate to have access to this service in the Far North.

Angioplasty surgery in the nick of time

I was flown to Auckland and after a short wait was taken into surgery. The amazing cardiologists then inserted two stents through a very small incision in my wrist right up to my heart. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but they were ever so skilled, and it was all thankfully successful.

It turned out I had two blocked arteries around my heart and after they were opened up, I spent four days in hospital.

I owe a huge thanks to the very calm, efficient local ambos, Kaitaia Hospital (a very brief stop) the copter crews, Auckland Hospital’s CCU team and the cardiology team. They are the reason I’m still around today to tell my story.

I promised hospital staff that I would really try to take their meds – I have managed to persist with the blood thinner – I only have a couple of months before I can stop it. The blood pressure and cholesterol meds are constantly under review even after 10 months, but I will get there.

The long road to recovery

Returning to normal has felt like a slow journey for me as I am still having trouble getting my medications sorted. A heart attack has a huge impact both physically and mentally. I am back in my garden and feeling more confident as time passes. We adopted two kittens and they have been instrumental in getting me moving.

After my heart attack it was dispiriting to look at the garden and not have the energy to tackle the weeds. In fact, I was too scared to do anything much for weeks as I was not sure how much my heart could manage. It was an anxious time – every little twinge had me wondering if it was my heart.

I have a hospital bag packed and ready in case I have to leave home suddenly again. I am more confident now but there is still, at times, that little grey cloud sitting on my shoulder thinking “what if?”

A face-to-face appointment with a cardiologist recently gave me the opportunity to find out exactly what had happened to my heart and what my expectations should be. I am a person that needs to know.

Heart disease is not something that has featured in my family history. My Mum had a minor stroke in her 80s but she recovered well and was active into her 90s. She did have a pacemaker fitted and she did suffer TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) for the rest of her life. My Dad suffered a stroke while being treated for terminal cancer – his two brothers also suffered fatal strokes, but I have never thought that maybe it is in my genes.

Exercise and diet key

But life goes on, I read, and I garden, and I play with the fur babies. I’ve realised I need to move more – I attribute my heart attack to a lack of exercise along with a sweet tooth. I thought my diet was OK as I didn't think I ate much fat, but sugar was my downfall. The PAD, which went undiagnosed for several years, causes discomfort and cramping in my legs so it is a disincentive to go walking. It was only after I retired that I knew about it, and I didn't really connect that it is described as a cardiac disease.

I have just bought an exercycle with a recumbent seat – a normal exercycle with a traditional seat was just too uncomfortable and I was making excuses not to get on and ride. The new one is so much better – I place my computer alongside me and ride bike trails all over the world. I have lost 7kg without really trying since the heart attack, a little bit more and I will be at my desired 65kg.

My message to others would be that if you think you might be having a heart attack, seek help – it’s always better to be safe than sorry! I had no chest pain but agony in my arm/shoulder. I wasted around three hours not realising I was suffering a heart attack – I was lucky not to suffer more damage.

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.
View all stories
  • Be the first to post a comment.