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Bypass surgery gives new lease of life

Twenty years ago Teresa’s heart symptoms were so bad she struggled to walk to her letterbox. But bypass surgery gave the now 83-year-old a new lease of life. The keen genealogist is writing books and recently held her own exhibition at Waikato Museum.

Teresa first noticed symptoms of her heart disease in 1996, at the age of 61, while travelling around Ireland, the home of her ancestors.

“Although I really enjoyed the travel I often felt very tired. Frequently my legs were swollen with fluid retention and because of it I had to take a diuretic tablet several times a week. When I arrived home in New Zealand in October, I felt really drained and it took me some weeks of rest and living very quietly to recover.”

She developed similar symptoms about six months later when she and her cousin Fay O’Reilly took a road trip round the lower North Island to do some genealogy research.

“On the way down I had a bad turn when we arrived at Inglewood and Fay had to hold my arm and support me so I could walk into a café to sit down and have a cup of tea. I felt rather unwell for about an hour but then came right again, so we carried on. Although I now realise I should have returned to Hamilton and talked to my doctor.”

Heart symptoms worsen

By mid-November the symptoms had worsened to the extent that Teresa was unable to walk to her mail box. She was also unable to drive because of her medication. For a woman who had been fiercely independent all her life, the reliance on others proved a challenge.

”It was a real ordeal for me to be living on my own and having to get others in to help me so much. I was getting a great deal of angina and was very breathless and feeling exhausted all the time.”

Despite the near constant angina, Teresa’s cardiologist thought the pain she was suffering was from a hiatus hernia. Her GP however was not convinced and referred her to a second cardiologist.

“I went to another cardiologist and he gave me an exercise test and an ECG. Straight away he realised that I was in need of urgent attention.”

Angiogram reveals need for bypass surgery

An appointment was made at Waikato Hospital for an angiogram. “They found that one artery was blocked completely and another was almost fully blocked. I think about 80% blocked. I was told I had to undergo double heart bypass surgery.”

Teresa faced a six month wait for the operation at Waikato Hospital, so she elected to go privately, undergoing surgery on January 17, 1998 at Braemar Hospital.

“For several days after the surgery I was in the post-operative ward. I had nurses all around me, around my bed, all through the first night. I began to realise they were gravely concerned for my health and were constantly checking my blood pressure.

“I was unable to speak and when the morning shift came on duty I heard one of the night staff say they were close to transferring me to Waikato Hospital during the night. I knew then that something was seriously wrong, but at least I was still alive.”

She was in hospital for fifteen days after the operation, but it wasn’t until after she was out of hospital she became aware of why she’d been so acutely ill post-surgery.

“Two weeks later I saw the cardiologist who told me shortly after the operation I had had a massive heart attack.”

It came as a terrible shock to Teresa who was still in the early stages of her recovery.

Recovery at a rest home

As she lived alone, Teresa had made arrangements prior to surgery to recuperate in a nearby rest home...

“I had packed two suitcases before the operation, one for use at Braemar Hospital, and the other one for the rest home later. Even doing that had been a major difficulty because I felt so unwell. I had to sew name tags on all my clothing and also had a number of business and financial matters to get sorted out because I was going to be away for some weeks. As well, I had to ensure the home was secure while I was away.”

But her future planning paid off. “The cardiologist noted that I was well organised and it was well thought-out for me to have arranged recuperative care. It would have been foolish to have gone straight home after the operation. I’m sure that I could not have managed on my own.”

The rest home also provided some comfort for Teresa after she received the news about her post-surgery heart attack at an outpatient appointment.  “All the way back to the rest home, I cried and cried. The matron had gone home, but she was phoned and came round to console me. She was wonderful.

“I cried a lot that night and said to myself, I wish I had died. It was very depressing being all by myself in the room and having no support person with me.”

A change in living arrangements

A hot February was spent recuperating in the rest home, walking up and down the long hallways or in the shade of the trees in the park opposite. When Teresa finally returned to her house in March, she organised a friend to stay for a fortnight for extra help.

Even so, it quickly became clear to Teresa that her old home no longer met her needs. She had a quarter acre section with a large garden that required lots of work, and it was in a suburb which wasn’t really suitable for her to go walking. Teresa knew the time had come to move.

That same month, a villa came up for sale in a nearby retirement village. “After inspecting the villa I phoned my bank about arranging bridging finance. But I soon realised that I was not well enough to handle the business side of the transaction. I phoned my GP. He said, ‘No you cannot do that.’ 

“A couple of weeks later I had an appointment with the surgeon and I told him that I was going to put my house on the market. He said, ‘No it is too soon, you can’t do that.’”

In the end however Teresa did put her house on the market. She sold it in May and, just six months after surgery, moved in to the villa in her chosen retirement village.

“I had been used to organising all my life so I knew I could do it. I arranged for a professional packer, my double garage here at the retirement village was packed with boxes for months. I only just managed to get my car in. But it was the ideal place for me.”

Still pursuing her passions in life

The surgery allowed Teresa to continue life with a great deal of vim and vigour.

In the intervening twenty years she has overcome a number of health troubles, including hip surgery and a resulting DVT, an over-active thyroid, and ongoing bowel problems resulting from earlier cancer treatment.

But she’s let none of these hurdles stand in her way. The only obvious evidence of them is the amount of medication which she takes on a daily basis.

“I take a lot of medication – I’m a walking chemist shop. When I go to Waikato Hospital, the doctors can’t understand why I am still alive. I think the Good Lord must have some purpose for me. I’m a Catholic lady, so I’ve got great faith.

Teresa continues to pursue her two major passions in life: genealogy and history. She has written a number of books on family history and last year she worked with the Waikato Museum to curate an exhibition of her family genealogy.

Despite unrelated emergency surgery a week prior, her exhibition The Callaghans: Portrait of a Colonial Family, was launched at the end of April 2017 and ran for three months, to great success.

And it doesn’t look like Teresa will be slowing down any time soon. “I’ve got so many projects on the go, I hop from one thing to another. I never get bored.  I know I am very lucky, seeing I live on my own. It could be very boring for me. But I read on the computer, things to do with Irish history and New Zealand history as well. And I’ve got quite a library here – my house is full of books of history. I’ve got this really great interest and I think that has sustained me.”


Shared March 2018

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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