Heart attacks encourage Fran to make the most of life
During her 20-year journey with heart disease, Fran has had four heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery and five stents. She explains why heart disease has given her a ‘seize the day’ attitude.
Fran will always remember the date of her first heart attack back in October 2003, but not for the reason you might think.
“I was down in Waipukurau for my daughter’s wedding,” Fran explains. “My daughter got married in Santorini but I couldn’t go, so his family put on another wedding for us and that night I had a massive heart attack.”
At the time she was 53 and hadn’t had previous problems with her heart, although she had struggled with high blood pressure for some time.
“I was on medication and went to the doctor regularly,” Fran explains. “It was funny because I’d been to him the week before the wedding and he said, ‘We need to get this blood pressure under control because you could have a heart attack.’ That was just before the weekend of the wedding. The family reckons he should be buying lotto tickets for me.”
Thankfully, Fran felt fine during the wedding itself, everything ran smoothly and Fran gave away her daughter as planned. However, she began to feel unwell that evening when she returned to the motel where the bridal party and families were staying.
With chest pain, sweating and nausea, Fran struggled out of her room to get help. The best man alerted the bride, who immediately called an ambulance for her mum.
Refusing to leave her mother’s side, Fran’s daughter travelled in the ambulance with her to Hastings Hospital.
“I found out it was a heart attack when we got to the hospital. I was totally shocked,” she says. “You know at 53 I didn’t think I was going to have a massive heart attack. 53!”
Transfer to Hamilton for bypass surgery
Fran spent a few days in Hastings Hospital before being transported by helicopter to Hamilton for quadruple bypass surgery.
After a couple of weeks in Hamilton, Fran was discharged and allowed to go home. It was a scary time for Fran, who lives on her own.
“When I left the hospital I got a bit spooked because I was leaving somewhere I felt safe,” she explains.
Initially, she was supported by a carer, but when that didn’t work out, Fran’s close friend Sharon looked after her.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Fran was back in hospital, after a second heart attack just a few weeks later.
Getting back on her feet
Not surprisingly it was a quiet Christmas for Fran, but in early 2004 she started getting back on her feet.
“I was a bit scared because they say just go for little walk, like down to the end of street or round the block. It is really scary.
As she got stronger she attended the cardiac rehabilitation classes at the local hospital and then started going to the gym, where she was mentored by two men who were heart transplant recipients. It was here she helped start Heart of Gold, an exercise programme at the gym for people living with heart conditions.
Always an active woman, Fran had completed both marathons and half marathons before her first heart attack. But it was the 5km she completed after her first couple of heart attacks that she describes as her real marathon.
“On May 1 2004 I entered a 5km walk. It felt like a marathon. I’d had my quadruple bypass and two heart attacks and it was only about six months after. My work colleagues paid for my entry fee and I was stoked at the end of my walk. I felt really great. It was an achievement for me and for my colleagues and friends that went with me.”
Returning to work at New World in Rotorua was also a challenge, although the support of colleagues and customers was fantastic.
“I wanted to keep the zipper of my work shirt up because the scar comes quite high. Someone said it was good it was a survival thing, but to me it was just a horrible scar. And on my leg. But other than that, my colleagues and bosses were really good, really supportive.”
As well as staying active, Fran also had to make some lifestyle after the heart attack. The biggest challenge was to quit smoking, which she did immediately after her first heart attack. She’s also made dietary changes.
“I used to have sugar on my Weetbix and in my coffee and I’ve cut that out, but I do love bread and I do love ice cream. I have cut down on those things, but it’s hard – I do love them.”
Fran’s heart disease risk was also increased by a family history of the condition, which initially she was unaware of.
“My Dad’s from a big family of 13 and when I came out of hospital I said to him, ‘have you got anyone with heart disease in your family?’ And he said two of his sisters had open heart surgery and five brothers died of a heart attack. I didn’t really know that, although some of those that died, died after I had my heart attack.”
Further heart attacks
Despite keeping active and taking good care of herself, Fran has gone on to have another two heart attacks and had a further five stents inserted in the intervening 16 years.
“The last heart attack was up in Auckland four years ago when I was looking after my daughter’s house and her animals. I was out taking the dogs for a walk, and I came home and I knew I was having a heart attack,” Fran says. “I was having this heart attack and you’ve got to be quick to get treatment, but I was worrying about the animals.”
Fran called a nearby neighbour to alert her to the plight of the animals and then went by ambulance to Middlemore Hospital before being transferred to Hamilton, where she had the stents put in.
Facing the challenges
Of all the challenges heart disease has posed in Fran’s life, it’s not her own condition but the death of a friend from a heart attack which she’s found most difficult to deal with.
“My friend Sharon, who looked after me when I came out of hospital, had a massive heart attack in her sleep and died. That was the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with. I’d known her for over 30 years and she was always just there for me. She lived in the unit in front of me, so her and I would just sit there and talk. Talk about anything. So that was probably the worst thing of all the heart attacks.”
But, after nearly twenty years of living with heart disease, there have been other challenges too, so Fran has learnt to make the most of each day.
“I always say, ‘My heart’s all broken’,” I don’t mean I’m sad, it’s just my heart has been totally sewn up and had all those heart attacks and stents, but I’m still here. It’s been quite humbling,” Fran says. “So now I just live in the moment. I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I live in the moment, make memories, try to spend a lot more time with family. Because they’re all the important things.”
Indeed her enthusiasm for life – and for helping others – is infectious. In 2019 she won a Foodstuffs national customer service award for her work at the local New World Supermarket where she’s been a checkout operator for nearly 20 years.
As part of the nomination for the award the owner of her New World Branch wrote: “She is a cashier that will cause a queue at her checkout because our customers love her that much, that they want to be served by her, even if another checkout is free.”
It’s this upbeat, seize-the-day attitude that she’d encourage in others who are recovering from a heart attack.
“I’d say to them ‘live each day at a time’. And if they have problems, to try and find someone to talk to. Because sometimes when a person has a heart attack they can be quite brutal on their partners and those around them, and they’re scared and they don’t know how to handle it.”
For Fran, a personal milestone was making it to the age of 70 in 2020. It was an event she celebrated with the majority of her 13 brothers and sisters, three children and three grandchildren (although sadly some were prevented from coming because of Covid restrictions on travel).
“It was a really emotional time because my family didn’t think I would make 70. My birthday was in September. We had a Mad Hatters Tea Party. It was amazing. There were about 80 people. I felt the love that night, I tell you. My family for me they’re my life.
“And my daughter Michelle Cross and my sister Chrissy Mills. I want to thank them for all the support and always being there.”
Shared April 2021