‘I didn’t want the heart attack to define me’

As someone who was always fit and healthy, Maggie initially felt shocked and then angry she’d had a major heart attack. But it wasn’t long before she was making the most of her ‘second chance’.

Maggie had always been a very healthy person – and she’d worked hard to keep things that way. A regular gym goer and walker, she’d never been overweight and kept her blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.

“I thought I was very fit, I had always gone for all my health checks and thought I was being very good about everything – very self-righteous I guess.”

Her life, however, was very busy. “I was working full-time. I have my own company. I was on committees, I was doing a lot of gym work, walking, so I was very busy. I was pushing myself very hard.”

Even so, when she first felt a pain in her sternum she initially thought she was suffering from indigestion.

The pain came in ‘huge rushing waves’

“I’d gone to the supermarket quite early, about 8am, because I had a meeting on that day and had some training to do and a lot of work to get done. At the supermarket I got these incredible pains. They were at the top of my stomach, kind of underneath my sternum. And I actually thought I’d gobbled my toast too quickly.”

Maggie went home, took some indigestion tablets and tried to lie down, but the medication had no effect and she found she couldn’t get comfortable.

“The pain just kept coming in huge rushing waves. It actually flicked through my mind once – is this a heart attack? I thought, no. I’m too fit, I’m too young. I was 60 when it happened. I thought, it just isn’t that, there’s no history, my cholesterol was good, my blood pressure had been good, I wasn’t obese or anything like that and I’d never really been sick, I’m not a sick person.”

Her partner had left for a fishing trip in Rarotonga that morning, so there was no-one home to drive her to the doctor. She considered driving herself, but felt unsure if she was capable given the level of pain.

Living just a few hundred metres away from a walk-in medical centre, Maggie made the decision to get herself to a doctor on foot. “I walked up the road – up a slight rise too and some steps. Well, I didn’t think I was having a heart attack!”

As it turned out, the first doctor who saw her didn’t think it was a heart attack either. Neither did the ambulance team who drove her to hospital.

“I went up to the walk-in clinic and said to them I have these incredible pains in my sternum. So the doctor saw me and said, ‘Have you ever had stomach problems?’ Long story short, he said, ‘I think you’ve got ulcers.’

Maggie was given a heavy duty pain killer by the GP, who then called an ambulance for her – but because she was deemed ‘low priority’ it took an hour and a half to come.

“In the ambulance they actually did an ECG and said, ‘It’s not your heart. I said, ‘No, I know, because I haven’t got one.’”

When she arrived at hospital Maggie was given the usual array of tests, and finally, at about 4pm – eight hours after the pains began – she got her surprising diagnosis.

“They came in and said we think you’ve had a heart attack, and it was kind of like what?? Even then I don’t think it really clicked. I thought, are you kidding?”

“Then all hell broke loose and there’s injections going in, sprays and tablets and all that. I was taken up to the coronary care unit. Even then, I was like what???”

Friends and family shocked by the news

Maggie wasn’t the only one who was surprised. When her partner Cameron called from Rarotonga that evening he was shocked by the news.

“I told him I was in the cardiac unit and he couldn’t believe it. He was stunned. First of all he thought I was kidding. And most people that know me, couldn’t believe it.”

She had a similar reaction from her brothers and sisters. “They were all shocked. My sister got on the plane and flew up straight away. As she said, ‘I was just saying recently we’ve had cancer, we’ve had all sorts of other things in our family, but at least we’ve all got strong hearts. And then you go and do this and ruin our record!’ So, I guess it was a bit of a surprise.”

Maggie was told that she would probably have an angioplasty on Monday morning, but that decision was soon to be revised.

Emergency surgery

“The next morning the cardiac surgeon came in and said, ‘Call in a team, we’re doing an angioplasty right now.’ Within an hour I was in theatre. Apparently I had a 100% blockage in one of my main arteries and some of the nurses were saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve been given a second chance, you’re so lucky’.”

Even then Maggie still didn’t realise how serious it was. “I was in the theatre and this nurse came up and I said, ‘Oh, you’ve drawn the short straw’” And she said, ‘Oh no, we’re on call and if we’re needed we come in.’ And I said, ‘Oh so you’re doing a few people today?’ And she said, ‘No, just you.’ And that’s when I thought, Ooh, hell. That’s a bit scary now. And I thought there’s nothing I can do about this I’ve just got to close my eyes and go to my happy place and just go with it.

“By the time Cameron rang me again on Saturday it was over and done with. He said, ‘But you told me it wasn’t going to happen til Monday. And I said, ‘Well I thought that was what was going to happen, but I’m done and I’m fine.’”

Feeling angry after heart attack

Following a minor complication with a blood clot, Maggie was discharged four days later. One of the overriding emotions she remembers from the first couple of weeks after the event was anger.

“I was pissed off that I’d had a heart attack. I had the rehab nurse come in to see me and she was very nice, but I just wanted to punch her, to be quite honest. I said, ‘I’m pissed off, because I’ve done everything right. And this happened. I know people that smoke and drink and don’t exercise and are extremely overweight - not that I want that to happen to them - but why has it happened to me?’ So I was annoyed, I was really annoyed.”

Despite her frustration, Maggie was aware that the time she’d spent in the gym may have saved her life. When she received the news that one of her arteries was 100% blocked, she’d asked one of the clinical team why she wasn’t dead and was told it was because she was so fit.

“At the time, I’d been sitting there thinking, all that time I’ve been to the gym, all that exercise and it hasn’t helped me one bit and they said, ‘Actually it has, it’s probably kept you alive’.”

Maggie says that the anger phase passed quickly, and she instead focused her energies on getting well. “The day I came home was the Tuesday and on the Friday I went to the cardiac rehab. I went to all the cardiac rehabs, and I still go to the cardiac rehab gym. I try and do everything I should be doing. I walk and do all my exercise, I take all my meds and I do all of this. I was just so determined that there was no reason why I couldn’t go on.”

Stress can be a killer

Maggie believes it’s likely that stress played a part in her heart event. “I had no family history, nothing, absolutely nothing of why I should have had a heart attack - except for stress.”

Accordingly one important lifestyle change she made was to reduce her work-load. “I have really decreased my stress load and my work load. I quit the committee that I was president of, as that was giving me a lot of headaches. I was supposed to be president for another year, and I said, ‘No, sorry, my health’s more important.’ So I guess what it has taught me is be a little bit kinder to myself.”

And although her diet was relatively healthy before, she’s more careful now about what she eats. “I eat the wrong foods sometimes but I try not to, too much. Every so often, I really crave brought chippies, then I have a packet, but I don’t keep anything like that in the house any more. I love a glass of wine, but now I’m way more careful. I can have a glass of wine and enjoy it but I’m not going to go crazy.”

Decline in heart function

Even with the lifestyle changes and the medication, Maggie couldn’t avoid further problems with her heart.

As a result of the delay in the diagnosis of her heart attack, a considerable proportion of her heart tissue died. Then in 2015, echo scans showed her heart function had declined from 42% to 30% and Maggie’s cardiologist suggested she should have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) inserted.

“That threw me a little bit,” Maggie admits. “Because I thought I was doing very well – and I was doing well. In fact I think my cardiologist was more upset about it than I was. She was the one saying, ‘You’re doing everything right. This is not fair, this is happening to you’.”

It didn’t take much for Maggie to agree to the procedure. “My cardiologist said, ‘This will save your life.’ And I said, ‘Well that’s a darn good reason to have one. I’ll have it thank you very much.’”

“At the end of this year I’ll probably have another echo scan to see what’s happening. Technically I’m in heart failure but physically I’m not because I’m doing a lot of gym work, so I’m not showing the symptoms of heart failure.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

As well as the amazing support she received from her clinicians and her family, Maggie says she found the local cardiac group helpful - particularly for asking many of the questions she had about her condition in the months following the event. Similarly a drug trial, for which she was recruited during her stay in hospital, gave her the opportunity to ask further questions of the cardiac staff – an opportunity she might not have had otherwise.

“You don’t know what is normal and what is not,” she explains. “Some people may not want to ask a lot of questions but I wanted to know everything. So I had a lot of questions to ask, and without that drug programme, I probably wouldn’t have known who to ask. I could have asked my doctor but then again you don’t want to feel like you’re being a nuisance.”

Doctor’s orders

Maggie says the best advice she has for others in a similar situation is to take responsibility for their health and to do as the doctor tells them. She encourages others not to “waste their second chance”.

“Listen to what the doctors tell you and do it. I cannot believe it when I run into people and they have had a heart attack or something and they are just sitting there and doing nothing. That annoys the hell out of me. Go to the gym and do your exercise. My advice is only you can look after your health.

“Everyone’s completely different but I just think if that happens to you, you need to be really grateful, for everything that has been done for you.”

Listening to your body

Part of Maggie’s journey has been learning how to stop and listen to her body – and rest when she needs to.

“Everybody says at the beginning you must listen to your body. But I expected my body to be as it was before. Now I accept my body does get more tired, that’s possibly also getting older.

“I can’t run upstairs, and I puff more than I used to going up stairs or going up hills.  I do get tired quicker, but that’s fine I can manage that. And I know how to do that now.

“I take tablets but that doesn’t  worry me. And I’ve got the ICD. When I travel, I’ve got a wee card and I don’t let them put the wand over me. And I take my little monitor, ICD unit messenger and plug it in.

“Other than that, life is pretty normal. I’m more laid back I don’t work as hard, I have a bit more time off and I’m perhaps a bit kinder to myself.

Don’t let a ‘dodgy heart’ define you

Despite all the changes, Maggie still retains the independence she enjoyed before her heart attack. “I’m still very independent. I’ll still travel by myself. That doesn’t worry me,” she says.

Later this year she’s travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia on her own. “Cameron wasn’t interested. But I said, ‘Well I want to go, so I’m going.’ So I don’t let things stop me. And that’s what I said after this, I didn’t want the heart attack to define who I was. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be one of these people who sit round and say, ‘I can’t do that because I have a dodgy heart’.”

 

Shared June 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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