Cardiac nurse needs heart bypass
As a former coronary care nurse, Annie had taught people in cardiac rehabilitation how to recognise symptoms of angina. Ten years ago, she had the chance to apply her knowledge personally.
“When I started to feel these same symptoms myself, like so many do I ignored them. I did everything I had told everybody else not to do,” Annie says.
It started out as pain in Annie’s left elbow whenever she went walking with her dog. “I played games in my head,” she says. “I decided it was because the dog was tugging on her lead, even though if I held it in my right hand I still got pain in my left elbow.
“I was quite aware of the fact that women often present with pain that’s not typically central-chest pain. I think some of it was because I was just 45 at the time. I was fit, I was as fit as I’d ever been, I didn’t smoke, I weighed a lot less than I do now in fact, I was young and female so I had lots of protective factors.
“I was doing a lot of tramps at the time, and as I was preparing for them it felt like I was going backwards instead of forwards. I read something about Bill Clinton, who’d just had a quadruple bypass, and he had said one of the biggest things for him was that he couldn’t get fit and that made me think, I have to stop pretending this isn’t happening to me.”
Still, it took a warning from a worried colleague and friend to prompt Annie to go to see her GP. Her doctor agreed that it was unlikely to be her heart, but “quite wisely – and I will be forever grateful to him – he said I should not just take that as a given but should rule out a cardiac cause.”
Annie went on to do a stress test, which showed that she had a problem with her heart.
“I was shocked. I went off to have an angiogram, where I thought they’d find it’s all a big mistake. But it was not a mistake.”
Dangerous blockage in the main coronary artery
When hospital staff showed Annie the angiogram, they pointed out that her main coronary artery is very thin – about half the normal size. “That’s where my blockage was, just where the main coronary artery comes in,” she says.
“It was blocking three main arteries. They think some of the problem was the turbulence of too much pressure at that point. And I was absolutely floored by it, I was really scared. They told me that they usually see that lesion at autopsy, because normally it blocks off and that’s it.”
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The location of the blockage meant that it wasn’t safe to put a stent in, and so Annie was scheduled for open heart surgery.
“I just found it devastating. Even though I had all this knowledge from my working past, none of it was any comfort. And I only remembered the dreadful stories, none of the positive outcomes, including a very good family friend who had one of the first bypasses ever performed in Wellington and was still chugging along in his 80s. All of that went out of the window when it was personal.”
Coming through things
Annie had just two weeks from that initial visit to the doctor before she went in for the surgery. “I didn’t have much time to adjust to anything. It was just, ‘You can go home, but you can’t do this, and you can’t do that.’
“I was scared to go out and walk the dog on my own. I had a friend who knew CPR and she came with me if I went walking, which made us all feel better.”
The surgery itself went well, but Annie was surprised by how long it took her to recover. In a heart bypass, vein is harvested from your leg and used in your heart to make a new way for blood to flow into your heart muscle.
“In the beginning I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’ I went in a young woman and came out feeling 90. I remember looking at this list of medicines that I was going to be on forever...
“I couldn’t walk from one lamp post to the next. I was really surprised by that, but that quickly came right. My husband and I would do a couple of lamp posts, then we’d do a couple more and then before we knew it I was fine again.
“Now I wear my scars as a badge of honour. I’m less disturbed by them all. There’s quite a few when you have a CABG. I’ve got my chest one and I’ve got the one on my arm that’s from my wrist to my elbow. I had a few complications with my leg one as they had to take the entire saphenous vein, lower and upper and that scar goes from my ankle to my groin. So essentially, it’s from my neck to my toes.”
Confronting her own mortality
“It was quite a recovery,” Annie says. “I wasn’t a cancer patient, but I was faced with my own mortality abruptly. I survived, but I was nervous, and kept wondering, will I carry on?
“One of my friends gave me a get-well gift of four sessions with a counsellor. So I talked through those confrontations of my own mortality at a young age and you know, I have none of that nervousness now.
“Definitely for me, those couple of sessions with the counsellor where she validated that I’d been through something, and that’s why I was feeling the way I was feeling, that was encouraging.”
Attending cardiac rehab
In the beginning, Annie was unsure whether to join the cardiac rehabilitation classes but she ended up finding them really valuable.
“I wasn’t going to go, because I thought, ‘They’ll all be 90, and I’m 46.’ But as it turned out, there were another couple of people who were in their 50s – I don’t think anyone was 90 actually – and we all had similar issues. It was such a nice thing to be with other people who had similar fears and concerns at the same time as me.
“I’d say definitely go. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a sharer, because my husband certainly is not, but he came too, and it was a great comfort to both of us. I heard stuff that I knew, but he heard stuff that he didn’t, and I really enjoyed talking to the other people.
“So I’m really glad I went to rehab and I would completely recommend it to anyone who has a cardiac event. It was just fantastic.
Ten years on, feeling fine
“At the time, people said to me, ‘This will be a blip on your landscape’ and I thought, ‘No it won’t!’ But it’s ten years for me in August this year and it is a blip on my landscape, now it’s just something that’s happened.”
“I’m more careful when we travel and I take extra insurance when we travel, so you go with peace of mind.
“I’m not having any side effects from the medication. My blood pressure is normal when I go to my GP and my cholesterol is normal when I have my bloods done, and I’m grateful.”