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Chest pain not stress but a heart attack

It took six weeks of symptoms, a stranger approaching her in the supermarket to ask if she was all right, and pain like an axe through her sternum for Denise to realise there might be something seriously wrong.

Denise ignored six weeks of symptoms that led up to her heart attack in July last year.

“At the time, I was very tired and lacking energy,” Denise says.

“My main concern was that I was quite breathless when I exerted myself. I thought, ‘My goodness, I'm unfit.' I experienced discomfort in my chest but I thought it was stress.

“I thought, ‘I’ve just got to pull myself together, maybe I needed some iron tablets or something.'”

It wasn’t until the chest pain started getting worse that Denise went to her doctor.

“My heart was actually fluttering. I couldn’t bear to lie in bed on my heart side, because I felt something like a pulsation of the heart in my throat.”

At the doctor's, Denise’s blood pressure was skyrocketing out of control and getting higher each time the nurse took a reading. After talking to the doctor, Denise left having agreed to start medication to control her blood pressure which helped to “level everything out”.

Denise thinks it took those six weeks of feeling uncomfortable for the blood clot that eventually caused her heart attack to form.

"Someone had to actually physically come to say to me 'This is what is happening, go and get it sorted.'"

“When I walked up the stairs to the supermarket, this lady just rushed over to me. I must have looked dreadful because she asked me if I was okay and if I’d ever had a coronary before because she had. She thought I should go to the hospital.

“We talked for half-an-hour before I carried on shopping, thinking that I’d be alright.

“When I got into the car, it hit me. The only way I can describe it is that it was like being on a chopping block and having someone put an axe right through your sternum into the back. I drove myself to hospital, hanging onto my chest and saying, ‘Lord get me there...'"

Denise’s dog Molly was in the car, having come along for the ride to the supermarket. Worried about Molly being left in the car, the first thing Denise did when she got to the hospital was let Molly out briefly.

“I didn’t know if I would be in for 10 minutes or five hours. Thank God I let her out for a bit, because the poor little thing would have been in the car all night.”

When Denise got inside the hospital, she explained to the nurse that she needed to be seen by a doctor, but was told to take a seat and wait.

“I said to this nurse in reception, ‘I have got a little bit of chest pain.'"

“I didn’t like to dramatise it, there were too many people in the waiting room. Thankfully, another nurse came out and said, ‘You don’t look good to me.’ She got me into a wheelchair, it was all action then.”

The hospital confirmed that Denise had had a heart attack and an exercise test showed that she had an 87% blockage of her heart. Before the doctor sent her up to Hamilton for treatment (stenting or bypass), he asked for an angiogram to pinpoint where the blockage was. But the doctor couldn’t find it – the blockage had vanished.

“He said, ‘I can’t find it.' I replied, ‘Keep looking, keep looking - I’m not coming back again.'"

Denise didn’t end up needing a stent or bypass surgery.

“I don’t know if you believe in the power of prayer, or my diet or if the medication kicked in, but when the doctor did the angiogram, he couldn’t find the blockage. Whatever it was, I’m grateful to still be here.”

Both of Denise’s parents died of heart disease. Having struggled to recognise the symptoms in herself, despite the family history, she is grateful to the lady who stopped her at the supermarket.

“This woman came out of the blue. I think I must have a guardian angel around because I wasn’t listening to the signs and symptoms. Someone had to actually physically come to say to me this is what is happening, go and get it sorted.

“Without her I probably would have come home and gone to bed for a bit of a rest, and I could have died.”

Life now

Denise is more confident now about recognising what a heart attack feels like.

“I now know what I’m looking for. If it ever happens again, if I get that tightness across my chest, I’ll immediately dial 111."

One year on from her heart attack, Denise is doing well.

“It’s been an emotional journey and it took courage to recover. My life now is very different from how it used to be. You have to think before you do anything, plan your days out and take medication on time.

“Having the heart attack was a big wake-up call for me. I discovered I needed to change my diet to a Mediterranean one and eat raw vegetables and less meat. I also get on my exercycle every day, and I keep meaning to get back into swimming.

“I still go about my life as normally as possible, do a lot of volunteer work and try to stay positive.  

“People look at me and say they can’t believe what happened to me. I say it’s all down to a good moisturiser and a great sense of humour.”


Shared July 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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1 Comment

  • Faith 15 August 2022

    This was really a great help, thank you very much