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Heart attack weighs on Elaine’s mind

Elaine was the first in her family to have heart problems. Now she wants others to know heart disease can strike anyone, anywhere. Armed with a stent and personal experience of both angina and a heart attack, she’s determined not to ignore the symptoms again.

It was a throwaway comment from a nurse that first got Elaine thinking about her heart. After months of taking medications to settle her stomach, Elaine was booked in for a procedure to check for a stomach ulcer when she started chatting to the nurse about her chest pains.

The pains had started during Elaine’s early morning exercise routines.

“I’m a reasonably slim, active person and I used to go out doing my ‘bobbing’ as I call it, a cross between walking and jogging, every morning before I went to work.

“It was July and it was cold. I was bobbing up a hill and my chest hurt and I thought it was just the cold air hitting the back of my throat. It was quite severe. A couple of days later I went out again and a similar sort of thing happened.”

When the same pains started coming while she was lying down to sleep, Elaine grew concerned that she was eating too late or eating too many tomatoes, which she loved. Her pharmacist and doctor gave her medications to help with an acidic stomach, but the chest pains were getting worse.

“I remember once rocking backwards and forwards in such pain in the bath and not being able to get out. It really hurt.”

Suspecting a stomach ulcer, Elaine’s doctor referred her to a specialist for an endoscopy. It was at the specialist’s that a nurse asked if Elaine had ever had her heart checked. Eager for a delay before the endoscopy, Elaine mentioned it to her doctor. She did an electrocardiogram (ECG) on her heart, which showed some irregularities, and sent her off to a cardiac specialist for a treadmill test.

Referred to a cardiologist

“I did really poorly on the treadmill test, and I explained that I hadn’t been jogging for several months because I’d had this pain. The specialist said to me, ‘Well yes, of course you’ve been in pain because one of your arteries is quite badly blocked.’

“He wanted to operate, but I wanted to avoid that so he gave me a month to try and sort it out myself. He told me he thought I’d be back, possibly for a stent.” 

In the meantime, the specialist gave Elaine a glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) spray to use when the chest pains came back. She was told that one puff should relive it, but if she needed three puffs she had to ring an ambulance. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘I’m absolutely serious.’ I was in absolute denial that I had anything wrong. Nobody in my family had anything wrong with their heart...”

After a week of cutting virtually all fat out of her diet and taking daily aspirin, Elaine’s chest pains returned one night at 1am. That first night, she refused to use the spray. “I’m not someone who takes medication, and I rarely get sick.”

The following night, the chest pains returned. “That one was quite bad so I used the spray and within about 30 seconds the pain had completely gone. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was the first time I realised that this was serious.”

Angina turns to heart attack

“About a week later, here we go again, rocking around sitting up in absolute agony. It was crippling pain and I was all alone at home.

“I did the first GTN spray and then another and I dialled 1, 1 and I thought about it, I had another GTN spray and I thought, ‘It’s still here, it’s still hurting,’ so I pushed the third 1. The ambulance people told me to have an aspirin and asked me to open the door, which I could by then because this pain only ever lasted about ten minutes. It seemed like an hour but it was about ten minutes.

“I have a horrible driveway, and they couldn’t get the ambulance up my driveway, so they walked in and I got a bit upset. I was crying and I said, ‘This happens all the time, I’m really sorry, thanks for popping out.’’’

The ambulance staff were firm in their determination to take Elaine to hospital, refusing to leave even when she told them she was under a specialist and going to see him in a few weeks. Once in hospital, a blood test showed elevated troponin levels and Elaine was told she had experienced a heart attack.

“It really was a shock. My artery was 95% closed so apparently I caught it just in time because if it had completely closed up, it would have been far more serious.”

“I was admitted to the heart ward. People came up to me thinking I was part of the nursing staff because I was slim, in my late 50s, and didn’t look like most of the other people on the ward.

“I ended up having a stent. The man next to me who was in the waiting pen to go in to have it done, said to me, ‘Oh is this your first?’ I had actually thought you can only have one stent, not knowing anything about hearts, but he was on his fifth one. So there is a probability I guess that this may happen to me again.”

Emotional recovery takes time

Elaine was in hospital for three days. She had taken two weeks off work, thinking she’d be back to normal much quicker than that, but says that her emotional recovery did take time. “I did feel weird, I did feel funny, it took about a month to really feel right again.”

She has had a few scares where she has mistaken muscle strain for angina pains, but has learnt to tell the difference. “I travel for work and I’ve put a heavyish bag in the overhead locker and slightly strained a chest muscle, enough to think, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, my chest is hurting, oh my gosh.’ I’ve done that a couple of times. But it is different, you know.”

Elaine’s learnt that muscle strain is a continual pain that lasts for two or three days, something very different from the crippling angina pain she experienced before her heart attack. “That was a tightness, I felt it coming on and then the pain would crescendo and then it would cease. But I don’t get that anymore and it’s coming up about twenty months since my heart attack now.”

Staying well

Elaine has started jogging again, and has been using an activity tracker to keep a record of how much exercise she does.

“I wish you could have an ECG every two years because it would be reassuring or even if you knew your heart was starting to get blocked again maybe you wouldn’t slip occasionally on your diet. It’s very easy to think ‘I’m OK to have some cheese’, or ‘Never mind, I’ll have this.’”

These days, Elaine is very aware of her heart. She’s determined to recognise any signs of more heart problems and to act promptly, rather than thinking there is nothing wrong. 

“I guess it’s always in the back of your mind because you can’t see inside your body to know when the next one is coming. It’s not like having a rash where you can see it, it’s not like having a headache.”

“You know, even if you’re the first in your family ever to have a heart condition, don’t ignore the symptoms. It could be your heart. Pay attention to your health – it’s only one life, so make the most of it.”


Shared August 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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