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Heart attack confused with asthma

It was more than a month before Nalda found out that the severe breathlessness she’d had one night was a heart attack. Now she’s doing as much as she can to prevent another.

Nalda hadn’t had heart problems before, so when she began to get breathless while watching TV one night a couple of years ago, she assumed it was her asthma.

“I’ve had asthma for the past maybe 10 or 15 years. Previously I was a smoker but I haven’t smoked for 40 years,” the 75-year-old explains. “I have got asthma medication, but I’d never had an asthma attack. Then, when I was watching the rugby on TV one Saturday night, I just became very, very short of breath.”

At home with her late husband Lyall, who had severe dementia, Nalda decided to call emergency services.

“It got worse and worse, so I had to ring 111 myself. They were wonderful when they came, fantastic.”

Nalda was immediately given oxygen, which made her feel slightly better. However, when she took the mask off and began getting ready to go to hospital, the severe breathlessness returned.

“I put my shoes on, but I was in trouble again. So they put the oxygen back on and sort of wandered round the house with me while I got myself together.”

As Lyall’s fulltime-carer, Nalda also had to make emergency arrangements for him.

“Because my family all live out of town, I had to take Lyall with me, so he came in the ambulance as well. Luckily, I was able to get hold of a grandson, who came and got Lyall and took him home.”

Admitted to hospital

After initial tests, Nalda was admitted to a ward.

Although she hadn’t previously had heart trouble, she did have a few heart attack risk factors. She was already taking medication for high blood pressure and had a family history of heart conditions (both her parents had angina). What’s more, she’d been under a lot of stress as sole carer to Lyall whose 10-year battle with dementia was getting more difficult.

Even so, the idea that she might have had a heart attack never crossed her mind. When she left hospital five days later, she still thought the breathlessness had been caused by her asthma. Doctors changed her medications to include daily aspirin, but she wasn’t clear as to why she had been prescribed it.

“At no point did I know that I had heart issues. Five days later I came home, I still believed it was asthma. On reading the paperwork that came to me, because I don’t have a medical degree, the words didn’t mean a thing to me. I still didn’t realise.”

After she was discharged from hospital she returned home to once again take on the full-time care of her late husband.

Follow-up after returning home

“There was a cardiologist who rung me two or three times after I got home to see if I was alright,” Nalda recalls. “I thought, ‘How did I become special?’ But there was no other follow up at all. So I was totally unaware, I felt as though I’d had an asthma attack.”

It wasn’t until a GP appointment a month or two later, that her doctor told her that she’d actually had a heart attack.

It was shocking news, but on hearing Nalda’s main focus was on what she could do to prevent another one happening.

She also wondered if she slipped through the net for cardiac rehabilitation.

“Sometimes when I hear people talking, I wonder if there should have been a follow up somewhere, that maybe somebody should have rung me and explained that I’ve been in hospital with a heart issue and maybe you should be doing this and this.”

Lifestyle changes

Apart from taking her blood pressure medication and aspirin, she hasn’t had to make a lot of changes to her lifestyle.

“I think my eating habits are fine, I grow some of my own vegetables even though I’m in a little townhouse, so I eat a lot of that sort of thing. I mean we don’t all eat the right things all the time, but normally my eating habits are good.”

Her stress levels reduced when her late husband, who has now sadly passed away, went into full time care. This also allowed her to start Tai Chi classes, which she hadn’t had time for when she was his full-time carer.

She’s been keen to increase her level of knowledge about heart disease, something she’s managed to do a little since volunteering for the Heart Foundation.

“I want to stop it getting worse. I want to help it,” she says. “It’s a bit scary when you can’t breathe.”


Shared September 2019

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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