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Fear that family heart history was repeating

Having lost both her father and elder sister to heart disease, Susan was first in denial about her symptoms. Then she was afraid she wouldn’t make it.

The day of Susan’s heart attack started like any other. A passionate social worker who dealt with families in crisis, abuse and deprivation, Susan’s job kept her very busy, and more than a little stressed. This particular Friday, she was busy rationalising away her heart attack symptoms as she carried on with her morning appointments.

“I had been feeling exhausted for about a month before it happened,” she recalls. “Every night when I got home from work, I wanted to go straight to sleep. I had wondered if it was glandular fever, which I had had before.

“One of my biggest symptoms was jaw pain on my right side. I had broken a tooth so I put the pain down to that. No one, not even the dentist, thought anything of it.

“The hot flushes I put down to menopausal symptoms, tiredness I put down to my work and maybe having a virus because I worked in an office environment and we were forever sharing bugs between workmates and families. The shortness of breath was the only thing I couldn’t explain.”

Shortly before lunchtime, when she started coughing, Susan decided something wasn’t right. She rang her GP to ask for an afternoon appointment, but the nurse on the phone insisted one of Susan’s colleagues call an ambulance.

“Then I got on the phone and rang my partner James and said to him, ‘Hi hun, it’s just me, I think I’m having a heart attack.’”

Fear that family history was repeating

Susan was taken to Southland hospital. Within an hour, she was flown by helicopter up to Dunedin hospital.

Having lost both her dad to a heart attack and her elder sister to complications just six weeks after a successful quadruple heart bypass, Susan was scared she wouldn’t make it.

“So for me, that’s what was going through my mind. ‘Oh God, here we go again’. I can remember the chopper lifting up and flying out over the estuary and looking back and thinking, ‘this might be the last time I see Invercargill’.

“The staff in the helicopter were incredible, they kept me calm. I was petrified, to be honest. I was so scared.”

The weekend wait

Susan was kept on an IV over the weekend waiting for an angioplasty, but she didn’t wait alone. Friends and family showed up with her colouring-in book, and there was lots of talking, lots of laughter. “They were trying desperately to keep me calm...”

Susan found that the best distraction for her was to talk to the others in the ward. “The social worker came out in me. I took myself out of my situation and focused on other people’s situations a little bit. It was great to be able to talk to other people about what they were going through.”

Susan insisted that her family keep going with their normal routines rather than stay for her surgery on Monday. She didn’t want to take the kids out of school, or keep her partner from his work. “I was trying to be tough – it was probably a bit detrimental to me really.”

Plans derail

Early Monday morning, the plan was to do an angiogram of Susan’s arteries and put in stents to prop open her arteries where necessary.

“When it finally happened, I went to surgery on my own, which was probably one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life.

 “I was told it could take one and a half to two hours, but they finished after 10 minutes. I vividly remember thinking that is not a good sign.”

That afternoon, the medical team sat Susan down and explained that having looked at her arteries, they wanted to do a quadruple heart bypass. However, because of the state of her arteries, they would only be able to get three useable grafts and so it would have to be a triple bypass.

“They told me I have the vascular system of a 90-year old woman. The cardiologist told me my arteries look like they have been crimped. They look as if a crimper has gone along the artery every few millimetres.

“That was incredibly scary, and still is, really. That is the thing I live with every day that worries me more than anything.”

Susan doesn’t remember much of the first few days after her triple bypass, until on the third day she was taken to the ward and put in a recliner. “That was the most incredible place. Oh my God, I am alive and I can actually sit up. That’s when the fight really started. That’s when I remember thinking right, I have got to get out of here, I want to be at home.”

Home again

As a mum who was usually in charge of the cooking, the cleaning and making sure everyone is all right, Susan found it difficult to have control taken out of her hands. “For me, the biggest thing was getting used to letting other people do things for me. It was scary, I felt that my independence had been taken away.”

A six week driving ban was also a struggle, as Susan’s daughters needed to get to their sports events. “It was the normal day-to-day stuff I felt I had been isolated from. I had been taken out of it and that was incredibly hard. But the six weeks did go fast.”

Getting used to the ‘new normal’

While at hospital in Dunedin, the cardiologist had advised Susan against going back to her stressful social worker role. She looked into a part-time role, but in the end decided not to go back to work.  

“It’s been hard because being in a career like that, I am a helper. I was working with my families through some huge challenges. Not knowing what has happened to them, it’s intensely frustrating.

“I have days where I get very angry that my heart has caused this. You are warned at the beginning that you will go through the mental health side of things, and for someone like me who had never been through depression and is generally in control, it’s been difficult.

“I can remember the girls at cardiac rehab saying, you will have to get used to your new normal. For me, that has been the biggest challenge, accepting my new normal.

“Control has been taken out of my hands but a year on, it’s coming back. But it looks different. My situation looks different, but it is still positive. I’m looking forward to whatever life throws at me.”


Shared June 2017

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

  • Brenda 18 July 2017

    Great story and lucky for you that you finally went to the Dr. With a familial history like that, I would have more vigilant, but I am a nurse, so I am aware of the signs. Good health to you.