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“I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.”

Sally’s ongoing battle with atrial fibrillation (AF) has led to many health concerns. She has endured brain fog, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, and fatigue. The 74-year-old is now onto a new chapter in her life thanks to cardioversion and medication.

The journey began in July 2012 when I visited my grandchildren in Australia. I fell ill and had to extend my stay. I was admitted to Hornsby Hospital with bronchitis and hypokalaemia (low blood potassium levels).

While in hospital, an Electrocardiograph (ECG) revealed a prolonged QT interval. This is when the heart takes longer than usual to recharge between beats.

Back home in New Zealand, I felt unwell and struggled to speak. I saw my GP, who identified irregular heartbeats on the ECG. Suspecting AF, my doctor arranged for an ambulance to take me to the hospital. After a brief stay, I was prescribed a course of diltiazem. An appointment for a cardioversion procedure was scheduled for the following month.

I was back at work a week later, teaching a class. I jumped up suddenly to reprimand a couple of misbehaving students. At that moment, my heart reverted to its normal rhythm. This led to the cancellation of the planned cardioversion.

From then on, my AF episodes occurred intermittently, which is a form of AF known as Paroxysmal AF.

Disconcerting heart palpitations and unusual symptoms

In 2014, I returned to the hospital after waking up with heart palpitations. Despite a short course of amiodarone, the palpitations did not improve. I was eventually discharged with a prescription for metoprolol.

Returning to work, I found myself less enthusiastic and energetic. Nonetheless, I continued living with Paroxysmal AF, and life continued as usual.

In 2019, My life took a turn when I collapsed walking into a lift at my doctor’s surgery. I was admitted to hospital, where the medical staff focused on stroke and lung issues. As a result, I learned breathing exercises to enhance my respiratory function. But I faced excessive sweating during these activities.

Having now retired from teaching, I was volunteering in a local reserve. This job required me to wear surgical gloves. Yet, after 30 minutes, my hands were drenched in sweat. Each finger of the gloves was almost saturated. Thinking that this was unusual, I sought medical advice. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, my consultation was over the phone. My voice sounded raspy and outside the normal range.

Atrial fibrillation diagnosis confirmed

I visited my grandchildren in Australia after the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. But, when I returned to New Zealand, I felt very unwell, and my GP suspected Covid-19. However, the ECG revealed AF. I went straight to the hospital. Although the Covid-19 test was negative, I received a permanent AF diagnosis.

During an outpatient clinic appointment, I had an echocardiogram (echo). The results revealed that I had a Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO), mild impairment in the left and right ventricles and dilated left and right atria.

Daily struggles lead to cardioversion

Living with AF was an arduous experience. I constantly battled with brain fog, breathlessness, fatigue, and exhaustion. My hands shook, and I suffered from frequent headaches. My general wellbeing declined.

The tipping point came when I struggled to cross the road outside my house, which was a short and flat walk. A compassionate woman driving by stopped her car and offered me a ride. I was struggling to take each step.

Finally, in October 2021, I was admitted to the hospital again. A cardioversion procedure restored my heart rate to normal. My metoprolol dosage was reduced to a much lower level, and the brain fog lifted.

Another trip to the emergency department

One night, I experienced rapid heartbeats like a horse kicking my chest. I asked my daughter to take me to A&E the next day. As we arrived, I could not stand and slid down the wall.

These ‘fainting episodes’ occurred quite frequently. But as long as I was near a wall, I would slide down it without sustaining any injuries.

The long QT interval and irregular heartbeats were monitored for six days. I was then presented with various options for treatment.

The medical team acknowledged the complexity of my case. Still, I was determined to restore a regular heart rhythm. I would worry about the potential complications later! I had another cardioversion and woke up free of brain fog and filled with renewed vigour.

On to the next adventure

My most recent echocardiogram revealed that my heart had returned to its normal size and was functioning efficiently. I can now walk a reasonable distance, engage in conversations, and no longer have brain fog. With this positive news, I decided to treat myself.

I took a boat trip with Heritage Expedition to the sub-Antarctic Islands. I saw sea lions and penguins up close and the remarkable megaherbs of the region. It truly was a trip of a lifetime! The entire expedition was a dream come true.

AF can be frightening, but good quality of life is possible with medication and cardioversion. My treatment has allowed me to enjoy the activities on my bucket list.

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

  • Elizabeth 16 February 2024

    Thankyou for sharing your story and your journey with AF . I have got encouragement from reading this I’ve found it quite scary and I’m still working through this keep well and thank you again liz m