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Asthma disguises heart valve disease

Julie thought her childhood asthma was coming back to taunt her, but the real problem was far more “frightening” than that.

In 2012, Julie started finding it harder and harder to climb the 75 steps up to her house in Wellington. “I was getting breathless – I knew something was not quite right. I thought I was getting asthma because I used to get this as a child.”

Julie’s doctor referred her to a cardiologist for some tests, including an echocardiogram (ECG) and x-ray which showed that Julie’s heart was enlarged. She was told that her aortic and mitral valves weren’t closing properly, as a result of rheumatic fever, and she was going to need surgery.

“It was very, very frightening and I remember after that appointment going down to my car and bawling my eyes out… Thoughts of ‘I’m going to die’ were going through my head, and that’s a big thing to get through mentally.”

Julie’s family were very supportive, coming with her to appointments and making sure someone was with her while recovering in hospital after the surgery. For a month after Julie had been discharged, Julie’s mum and a good friend stayed with her week-on week-off.

“...I’d had this big operation, I had my chest split open and someone held my heart in their hands."

During the surgery, Julie was hooked up to a bypass machine while her old heart valves were cut away and replaced with new artificial valves. She spent five days in ICU and another seven days in the cardiology ward, before being discharged to start her rehabilitation.

Julie has noticed that her new valves make quite a bit of noise. “They tick, it sounds like a cheap watch, and the mitral valve is positioned close to the oesophagus, so it almost funnels in stereo where you hear this tick, tick, tick, constantly...”

“I had a bit of trouble in the beginning getting used to the sound, but I got used to it over time. I would tell myself that it is ticking, so that’s a good thing.” 

“One of the things that I had to deal with on a spiritual and emotional level, was that I’d had this big operation, I had my chest split open and someone has held my heart in their hands. These thoughts were soon dispelled with the reality that the hands that had held my heart, had saved my life.

“The physical pain of a healing chest wound, was the most difficult to deal with – coughing and laughing were especially painful until my sternum healed.”

A month after being discharged, Julie met with her surgeon for a check-up. He told her she would probably have only lived for another six months if she hadn’t had the surgery. “That was quite a moment, realising just how fragile your life is. You try to do your part and make sure that these new valves do what they are supposed to do and hopefully keep going for a long time.”

Just over four years down the track, Julie’s cardiologist has told her that her heart has returned back to its normal size, and is functioning well. She has check-ups every six months to make sure her new valves are working properly, and although there have been a few scares, further investigation has shown everything is fine.

“I think I’m a pretty lucky girl, considering what I thought was an asthma attack could have been a major heart attack.” 


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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