Arrhythmias lead to pacemaker

Miriama first experienced a racing heartbeat while living in Australia. When she suffered similar symptoms in New Zealand three years later, she was admitted to the cardiac ward for a pacemaker. Here is her story in her words.

In 2009 I was living in Perth, Australia. I became unwell whilst on holiday in Melbourne. My symptoms were a fast heartbeat, nausea and light headedness. I already knew I had a slow heartbeat called bradycardia, but this felt different.

I had just dropped my oldest sister off at Melbourne airport, as she was returning to New Zealand. I felt really ill and the two hour drive back to Ballarat, where I was staying, was out of the question. I called my colleagues from Perth, who were registered nurses – they told me to go to nearest hospital.

At the time I wasn’t diagnosed with a heart condition. The hospital doctor and my GP in Perth wanted me to take medication for my mental health and see a psychiatrist but I decided I was going back to NZ, to my own country, for a further opinion.

I didn't have a history of mental illness but there is a history of it in my family. I can honestly say I was physically and mentally exhausted at the time, in Melbourne, due to family issues and caring responsibilities.

Later that same year I returned to NZ. My GP arranged for me to see a counsellor and psychologist, as what happened in Australia had left me traumatised. These sessions gave me options to consider and think about my outcomes of why I had ended up in hospital. My visits to them were beginning to decrease, as their consultations made sense and gave me clarity.

Symptoms strike again

It was late 2012 the next time I had symptoms similar to Melbourne. I drove myself to my GP.

After being placed on the ECG, my doctor told me to wait in the waiting room. He then said I needed to go to hospital because of my heart. I said I would drive myself. But he was adamant that I was going in an ambulance.

When the ambulance staff arrived, they spoke to another lady in the waiting room – she really looked unwell – asking "Miriama?"

I answered with a smile on my face and said, "That's me!" I could see the surprise on their face... but once I was on their machine, they knew they had the right person.

In the hospital I was connected to a monitor. I was there for three days. The real urgency came when one morning I awoke to two nurses who were about to defibrillate my heart to shock it into action. The monitor had shown them how extremely low my heart rate could go.

I knew by seeing the smiles on their faces that, to their relief, I had awoken just in time. They were about to resuscitate me. They let me know that my doctor would be in soon to see me and explain the next steps...

The cardiologist and doctor explained I needed to have a pacemaker inserted. I was reluctant to have a pacemaker. My thoughts were that it was a foreign object, and what about side effects? What I didn't give a lot of thought to was, "Would I wake up?" and "Did I want to die?"

I eventually agreed to the idea of having a pacemaker put in. With the pacemaker came the beta-blocker, psychologist and physiotherapist.

The physiotherapist was to assist me with breathing techniques, which I thought was strange at first. But the cardiologist explained the breathing exercises were for tachycardia (a fast heart beat). He continued with, “if the breathing exercises aren't enough, drink ice cold water". 

Recent events

More recently, I was with a couple of my siblings in a bank, when I started feeling tired and lethargic. I noticed my heartbeat becoming really fast. I had left my bottled water in the car, and I let my sister know I needed to sit down. I also asked her to get water and I started my breathing exercises.

The bank tellers assumed I was having a heart attack. I let my sister know it wasn't. I had previously forewarned my sister of my condition, but it's not until one sees it to understand the scenario.

I wasn't able to talk as I needed to concentrate on my breathing technique to slow my heart rate down. The bank staff were slow in responding with water. I don't think they believed what was happening.

My sister explained to the ambulance people about my condition. They understood and waited for me to recover and assisted me by giving water (as ice water wasn't available). I could see by everyone’s faces their concerns – especially my brother’s.

I didn’t want to go to the hospital, but the ambulance staff had to follow protocol and had to take me. But hearing from the doctor at the hospital gave my siblings comfort as well as confirmation of my condition.

Heart disease from a carer’s perspective

As well as coping with my own heart problems I also understand the impact of heart disease from a carer’s point of view.

My oldest sister had cardiac heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She came to live with me in May 2016, as my management of my health was controlled. Both she and my brother, who was also in my care, also have intellectual disabilities.

My sister sometimes had difficulty understanding about these "conditions" she was diagnosed with. Communication was a major stress factor as it impinged immensely on her health. As time went on, I became her main advocate. COPD became painful or annoying for her. This condition made it difficult for her to speak, and at times, breathe. 

At end of December 2016 Government funding was granted to help with their care. It was welcomed with joy, there was money to pay for a part-time carer. It came at a time most needed: as we would have many late nights and early mornings.

My sister could only manage to walk to the mailbox without a walker. It was difficult for her to breathe and uncomfortable on her throat.

My sister was always concerned or worried about me. I would be cheeky and say, "I'll be ok... I'll borrow your wheelchair and if my heart stops my pacemaker will kick in and wake me up. It's your health we need to be concerned about... because I have to do CPR if you drop.” She really wasn't impressed when I would joke about myself.

Then there were her questions of concern to carers, mainly about my whereabouts, especially if she knew I wasn't home. There was one time I did go to hospital, whilst she was with me. I saw the panic in her eyes and let her know I'd be alright and that the medication was just being adjusted. Again I would say, “I have a pacemaker.” But she wouldn't be satisfied until I was home. Wherever I went she always wanted to come.

It's certainly been a mission: a journey of knowing how to manage the condition of our hearts.

 

IN MEMORY OF MIRIAMA'S SISTER

Sadly not long after Miriama shared this story with us, her sister passed away peacefully on 31 May 2017. Her diagnosis was "Acute Exacerbation of Chronic Pulmonary Disease."

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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