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From heart surgery to life support

Sharon had a heart attack in a foreign country, but that wasn’t the hardest bit to get to grips with.

Sharon knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what.

“I had been presenting to my doctor with what I thought were unusual circumstances. It was this very unusual cold sensation underneath my heart and almost simultaneously under my knee.”

She was sent by her doctor to have the “usual kind of tests” but being fit and active, nothing out of the ordinary showed up.

She’d put up with these symptoms for a year, but it wasn’t until she was on holiday with her husband in South Africa that another sensation took over: tiredness. It had begun to kick in even before she went on holiday – “I remember gardening and having to go inside because I was so tired.”

The day that changed everything was like any other day on holiday. She and Frank enjoyed an ice-cream sundae across the way from Victoria Falls, where they were staying. “I was happy to be sitting and relaxing because I was feeling very tired.”

Later that evening they had dinner with a couple they’d befriended from the same resort – Jill and Phil – and by around 10.30pm they were ready to call it a night.

But Sharon wasn’t to get a full night’s sleep.

“I woke, I know it must have been early hours the next morning and I just for some reason knew straight away. I couldn’t breathe, I was having a heart attack.

“I got out of bed and I was in such a state. I was bending over trying to breathe and called out to my husband and I thought ‘my gosh’ – my thoughts were kind of laughing but not really – ‘I’m going to die here and he’s not going to wake up because he is deaf and can’t hear me calling.’”

All she could think was they were by themselves in a foreign country, and she desperately needed help. Fortunately, Frank did hear her. Straight after telling him she was having a heart attack, Sharon asked him to find Jill for additional support, and to call an ambulance.

Help was swift

The ambulance was “just a small van”. Sharon vomited continually on the way to hospital.

“I stayed conscious when I was in the doctor’s room, it was a small room. I was saying a silly thing, I said ‘I want to be sick’ and to me that was the first time I had been sick. He handed me the wastepaper basket, I wasn’t going to be sick into that! Which, when I look back I think how dare I say that to a professional who was trying to help me?

“It’s funny how your reactions are so different and strange. He got me a stainless steel bowl and I can’t remember anything after that.”

Sharon does, however, remember being asked if she had insurance for medical treatment. Not only did she have it, she had all the documentation with her in her travel bag. “From there on, all the procedures that happened for us were excellent.” She was quickly flown down to Johannesburg – a four-hour trip from the local hospital she was in.

It was a tiny plane, says Sharon, and at first she thought she might go into “panic mode”. But she had the comfort of having two nurses on board, and Frank. The pilots were careful to “fly low and slow”.

From the plane, she was put into an ambulance and rushed to a private hospital. “The last thing I remember was that they were running with me down the corridor to the operating theatre.” From there, she believes she passed out...

Sharon’s memories past this point are vague. Her heart surgery did not go as well as hoped. A stent had to be placed, but the insertion of a catheter through a vein in her upper groin resulted in a lot of bleeding.

“I lost over two litres of blood at that point. So they just stopped the operation, I assume because I had knocked out two-thirds of my heart with the heart attack and it couldn’t cope with the loss of blood as well.”

Sharon’s next conscious thought was when she finally woke up – eight days after surgery. There’d been consequences from all the bleeding. Sharon woke up to learn that she’d been on life support for days; news she could barely absorb.

“I came off life support, that was a huge shock, a huge shock to know that I had just lost eight days of my life. I needed to know what happened.   

“Yes my surgeon certainly put me in the picture, but for those that may listen to this, often when you are the patient, it’s all surreal. You are listening, but it’s all not real.”

Sharon is still trying to fill in the blanks, even now. She ended up staying in hospital for a month due to another heart event that occurred after coming off life support.

“When we came home after that month, both my daughter and my husband would not discuss anything with me – they were too traumatised – that was the hardest thing in my life. I am a person who copes better (by) knowing what I need to do or what’s going on, I know definitely that’s part of my personality. So I found it extremely, extremely traumatising – I can’t emphasise how hard I found it – not to know what actually happened,” says Sharon.

Heart fears not far from mind

Returning home meant taking things easy for a while. Before her holiday and subsequent heart attack, Sharon was supervisor of an early childhood centre. “Definitely I had to give that away and of course, as all heart patients know, you have that stand-down period. I wasn’t allowed to go back to work, my GP wouldn’t let me even think about work for three to six months.”

When she was well enough, she took up part-time work as the sole charge supervisor of a play centre, before moving to another childcare centre where she worked two hours on the floor as a teacher and two hours in the garden. Sharon’s gardening still remains her great release and her “saving grace”. “I do a church garden now, as well as my own and it’s my love of gardening that keeps me grounded.”

She was told by someone who’d suffered a brain haemorrhage that it took her seven to eight years to fully recover. Sharon can relate. It’s only now, eight years after her heart attack, she’s noticed the fear subside from her thoughts.

“This has been my best year. I don’t think anxiously, I don’t think ‘am I going to have another heart attack’ or anything like that. But in the early days, that is with you for quite a long time.

“Before you ever have a heart attack you are unaware that your heart is in your body. Once you have a heart attack, it seems to react to any little thing, so you are conscious of it and it will suddenly do flip-flops or whatever. Everyone is different, I can’t describe it, but for me I was certainly aware (of it). You would suddenly be doing something and it would go ‘dong dong’. Or if I was working, it would suddenly tell me it was getting tired of things like that, which is a good thing.”

Sharon says she used to talk about her heart attack a lot, but learnt that people move on “generally very quickly”.

“Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips paper very quickly. Probably in my case, I did talk about it a lot because it happened away from here. I didn’t have (my usual) support people, I didn’t have people who knew about it, I realise now that I probably bored everyone to death, and they were probably going ‘yawn yawn’.”

She notes that the tiredness she gets now, probably as a result of the heart attack, makes her a little irritable. She thinks this might be common with people who have had heart attacks or other severe illnesses, due to the out of control feeling over what’s happened to them.

Sharon still has contact with her surgeon in South Africa, and she and Frank have been back to visit the couple that was so supportive to them during their star-crossed holiday. Though she still has questions about the days that vanished in her Johannesburg hospital bed, she’s come to some peace with it and is thankful to be feeling as well as she does now.  


Shared March 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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