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Heart attack or muscle strain?

It was the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. What had begun the day before as a twitch in Wendy’s back had become a solid weight on her chest, and she questioned if she was having a heart attack. This is Wendy’s story in her own words.

The sun was shining at the time I woke on the morning of Friday 10 November 2017, easing the job of getting out of bed and getting ready for work. By the time I left for work the sky was overcast – no surprise there, I live with my partner of 26 years in a little central North Island town where it’s normal to have four seasons in one day.

I love my job and have worked as a property manager for over 13 years; I had no idea that I would be facing a life-changing experience within the next 24 hours.

Symptoms begin

I arrived at work and started to notice a twitch between my shoulder blades; you know, it feels like if you could just stretch your shoulders a little and pull that pinch apart and it would feel all good again. Slowly over the next two hours the twinge turned into a consistent ache, and was moving down the centre of my back and it hurt.

Knowing how hard it is to get a same-day doctor’s appointment, I almost put off phoning the doctor but my co-worker argued that’s exactly why I should phone and would you believe it, they booked me in for 4.00pm that day.

At lunch time I was really uncomfortable, and once home I took some anti-inflammatory medication. Magic. After half an hour it was just a dull ache again but had now moved lower down my back and I was starting to feel I must have pulled a muscle.

My doctor was brilliant, checked everything going by what I told him, and told me my blood pressure was fine. I smugly replied, “And I’ve just had a cigarette.” I was embarrassed for that comment over the next few days. He told me I had most likely pulled a muscle, and to keep taking anti-inflammatory medication if it was working.

At last, it was 5.00pm Friday and I was ready to go home. I’m 54 years old, and by the end of the week I am tired, hot and sore. My weekends are precious to unwind, relax and play… but not this one.

Symptoms worsen – unsure what to do

The next morning I woke with constriction, aches, numbness, in my jaw and lower face. Over the next hour or more they moved down to my throat. I was starting to pant and huff trying to clear the blockage. I was starting to feel very scared and unsure what to do. No matter what I did, I could not get comfortable or relax...

Then the weight in my chest which had been present all morning, started getting worse. I felt I had a large metal cylinder placed internally in my windpipe down the middle of my rib cage. This solid lump was getting heavier.

At this stage over three to four hours had passed and I had been moving from my lounge to the kitchen to my bedroom in some sort of hope it would just stop what was happening to me.

Calling for help

Finally I decided this was serious and I needed help. I was alone in the house, but we have a boarder who lives out the back in our sleep out. I phoned her and she came up to the house. She said I looked like death and phoned an ambulance for me and contacted my partner.

The ambulance arrived at 12.01pm and they calmed me down for the first time that day. I was able to breathe and felt like I was getting enough air into my system. The staff were fantastic and once I was given pain relief, I looked back and wondered, “Why did I wait so long?”

I asked them the question that had been nagging in the back of my mind all morning: “Do you think I am having a heart attack?” The paramedic smiled and said, “You might be. We are going to get you to hospital and get you checked out.”  

Very shortly thereafter I was delivered to hospital. The emergency room is a well-oiled machine with experienced, efficient staff. I spent the next four to five hours being monitored, probed and diagnosed. I was told yes, I had had a heart attack.

Trip to Wellington

I spent the night in intensive care and was sent to Wellington hospital the next day. This was the closest hospital that could do coronary angiography which showed exactly where the blockage was. At the same time the doctor would install a stent to open the artery. They told me that a blood clot and collapsed artery had caused my heart attack.

I was home by 4.00pm Tuesday afternoon all better, well; I did have a few instructions and rules. One was give up smoking, not something I’ve wanted to do before and to be honest, previously I’d thought, “I’m good. Shit happens to other people.”

I’m happy to say, I have now been 26 days smoke free and I have no intention of ever smoking again. 

A warning for others

I have written this to inform others, especially women, that the symptoms of a heart attack aren’t what you would expect. My symptoms were intense, supple, and consistently changing, initially it was the sore back, jaw and throat. My body seemed to know, I still missed it. But in the end, the massive weight in the chest just could not be ignored.

No matter what your age, if you have any of these symptoms don’t ignore them. Remember the longer you leave treatment the more damage you are doing to your heart and that is one thing the doctors and nurses cannot repair.  



Shared December 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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