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Heart attack puts brakes on ‘normal’ life

At 49, Diane was not only shocked to have a heart attack – she also struggled with the time it would take to recover. This is her story in her words.

The 7th of December 2015 started out like any other Monday, I was working full-time and going to the gym doing box-fit three times a week. I had been promoted at work and started a new position some months earlier which I was still grappling with, as the role was quite stressful. After work I went to the gym and was just completing the first of two cardio sessions when I started feeling unwell, like someone had sat a brick on the left side of my chest.

I decided to sit down for a minute. Subconsciously I was thinking I've had these pains before, admittedly not this bad, but thought if I sat down and relaxed they would go away as they’d done before. I later learnt these pains were angina pains.

I was making my way to a chair when my instructor, Tony, came over to see if I was alright. I told him how I was feeling and he asked me if I had any pain down my arms or anywhere else. I said no.

As I was sitting there my instructor said he thought he should call an ambulance. I said, “No I'll be okay if I just take it easy for a bit.”

It was about then I started to have pain down both arms and cold sweats, even though I was already sweating. Tony then said, “If we are not calling an ambulance, I'm driving you to the hospital.” By the time I got in the car I knew I was in trouble. The pain was getting worse and I found myself rocking like a baby in the passenger’s seat for the whole five-minute ride to Kew Hospital, then walking into Emergency barely able to stand long enough to get my name and address out before collapsing into a waiting room chair. 

I was rushed straight into the emergency room where I was able to put on a gown before the pain became overwhelming. I was hooked up to a heart monitor, and I think given pain relief because I started feeling slightly better. It seemed like only five minutes had passed when I woke up with doctors and nurses rushing around, machines beeping, and an oxygen mask on – panicking me slightly. I remember hearing someone say "she's back" and I thought “back from where?” I had just fallen asleep, or so I thought.  

A doctor who I later learned saved me with CPR told me I had had a heart attack and that they had done CPR and shocked me back to life. I was in shock: surely not, not me, I'm only 49, that sort of thing only happens to other people.  

"During my recovery I felt like life would never return back to normal, whatever that is? Now I know that it’s just different to what it was before..."

I was told that I was going to Dunedin for surgery and that the helicopter was on its way. 

As I lay there thinking about what had just happened, I was in disbelief. I was given a clot-busting drug that the doctors hoped would help until I could have surgery. I was scared, bewildered and in shock. 

I was asked if I wanted to see my family, to which I agreed, and was happy to see them because I had left my two daughters at the gym when I left for the hospital. I remember saying to my husband, “Geez, I don't feel so good,” to which he said, “I'm not surprised, you've just had a heart attack.”

It was around 9pm when I heard the chopper buzz over and I was told my ride was here. As the handover began and I attempted to sit up for the transfer to the chopper gurney, I began to feel unwell again and ended up having another turn of sorts. It took some time for the nurses to stabilise me enough to make the journey. 

As I was wheeled down the corridor, past the whānau room where my family had been waiting to see me before we left, I remember seeing the worried looks on all their faces. They were given the opportunity to come out onto the chopper pad to say goodbye – I later found out this rarely happens and on this occasion was allowed because they were unsure if I would last the flight... 

I remember asking the doctors what the in-flight movie was – I think because of the monitors mounted over the gurney and being high on morphine – they responded saying this was a jet star flight – no frills. 

I remember being loaded in the back of the chopper which was very loud, not what I’d expected – but having said that I had never been on a helicopter before. The doctor travelling with me in the back placed some ear muffs over my ears and told me he would be monitoring me for the whole flight. There were also two other doctors and a pilot so, all in all, four people looking after me: I felt in safe hands. 

I remember taking off and looking out the window before falling asleep, only waking a couple of times through the 40-minute flight before waking when we landed at Dunedin Hospital.

I was wheeled into theatre where I had an angiogram that highlighted the blockage. I had a stent put in, then was taken to the critical cardiac unit. It was around 3.30am when my nurse told me that my family had arrived and were on their way up to see me – they had driven from Invercargill. I was as happy to see them as they were me, even though I looked a sight hooked up to the monitors. They then left to go and get some sleep, staying with a friend of my daughter’s just around the corner from the hospital.

The next morning my husband told me that my parents were on their way – flying into Dunedin from Hamilton. We were to fly to Hamilton that Thursday to attend my mum's 70th birthday celebration that weekend.

The next morning I managed to get out of bed once my nurse hooked me up to a mobile monitor. I remember being shocked looking at myself in the mirror, my left eye had burst blood vessels and looked terrible, I also had a haematoma on my breast along with bruises and marks from the CPR and paddles. It still had not sunk in – all the things that had happened since the gym the day before. 

The doctor came to see me, explaining what had happened, and the expected outcome for me which was good as long as I gave up smoking which I was doing at the time. I was then given five different medications to commence – I had never been on any medications before so this was a new experience for me. 

After spending three nights in Dunedin Hospital I was again seen by the doctor the day I was released, where he told me how lucky I was and that if things hadn't gone the way they did, people would have been going to my funeral that day. Wow, that really resonated in my mind. 

Once home I rested and let other people take care of me for a change. I was a mum, wife and working full-time, I did not have time to be "sick" but decided I needed to listen to my family. After three weeks, and on the 19th of December, I attempted to return to work. I managed to do a couple of hours before the fatigue set in, I was always tired so found it a struggle to work more than two to three hours a day before heading home for an afternoon nap. But I managed to struggle through until the Christmas holidays when I had a couple of weeks off before returning back on the 4th of January.

I did not fully allow myself the recovery time prior to Christmas as I had told the doctor that I had a desk job and made out it was easy (when the truth was it was very stressful and I think a contributor to my heart attack) – so I was cleared to return back to work too soon. I should have taken a few weeks off but didn't, I think I was still in denial and thought I could continue like before, like nothing had happened. I was wrong. The other concern I had was if I had enough leave to cover my absence: the answer, not really. 

Eight weeks on, struggling to do as many hours as my body would allow, my manager called me into her office to tell me that they were very sorry this had happened to me but the role I held was an important one and that I would be expected to return back to full-time hours asap.

I was shocked and disappointed. I went back to my GP and explained my struggle with fatigue and some memory loss: things I would have instinctively done I now had to think about. My brain just wasn't working the same and some side-effects from my medications were taxing – being on blood thinners and still menstruating was a particular nightmare. So my GP wrote a note for my manager stating that I should be allowed another two weeks of flexible working hours and I would then be okay. I was not.

I struggled through work and three months on was pushing myself back to work full-time. I felt as stressed as I was prior to my heart attack, collapsing into bed when I got home after 5pm, for an hour or so, having dinner then going back to bed. I was hanging in at work, though I felt let down by the lack of support and flexibility.

I had asked for a three-month leave of absence to allow myself time to recover but was denied it. My family, concerned for me, were encouraging me to give up work.

We had planned a trip to Hamilton on Easter weekend 2016 to celebrate my 50th birthday and during this time decided that I needed to allow myself time to recover. I needed to take charge and put myself first, so upon my return resigned my position and worked out my one month’s notice.  

During this time I felt let down by my doctor over a number of issues and decided to change my doctor as well. Once I changed doctor, I began to make more headway with my recovery. I’d suggest to anybody struggling with issues to either get a second opinion or change – it made all the difference for me. 

I would also encourage anybody who has experienced an event to attend the cardiac rehab classes – this was great in helping me come to grips with my condition while providing lots of valuable information to help me manage my condition. Talking to others about what had happened to them also helped – I met Linda who had her event a week prior to me. I now call her my heart buddy and friend.

Three months after giving up work at the end of April I’d recovered as much as I could have, and began to get back into life. I had already signed up to be a volunteer for the Heart Foundation and was enjoying the involvement in some work again.

I was fortunate to have trauma cover on my life insurance policy, which my husband and I took out around 30 years ago for both of us, mostly for him as heart conditions ran in his side of the family (we certainly did not expect to be claiming for me). That insurance money gave me a bit of financial security and enabled me to feel better about not working as I’d always done.

During my recovery I felt like life would never return back to normal, whatever that is? Now I know that it’s just different to what it was before, and one of the most significant changes, probably, is that I now have fuller charge of my health.


Written December 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

  • Kelltmayrich73 10 April 2017

    I love the true rawness of reality in your story Di thank you for sharing xxx stay strong!