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“It’s easy not to know you’re having a heart attack”

Despite a family history of silent heart attacks, Leonie put her seemingly mild symptoms down to ‘old age’. She never imagined it could be her heart.

The day of Leonie’s heart attack started just like any other. “It was about a month before my 71st birthday. I was having a nice time, I’d retired and there was always things to do, and I thought, ‘Now what shall I do today?’ I never dreamt that I was going to end up in hospital.”

Even when she was in the ambulance, she still had trouble believing it was a heart attack. As she points out there wasn’t really any pain.

But, in hindsight, she can now identify a number of little warning signs which were all pointing to heart trouble.

For a start there was a family history. When Leonie’s mother died at 96 doctors discovered she’d had a number of “silent heart attacks” - heart attacks that occur with no or minimal symptoms and often go undiagnosed.

There were also some mild symptoms. She struggled to raise her arms to dry her hair, or get them behind her back to put her bra on. On very cold days she found walking in the wind difficult and could no longer have a glass of cold tap water.

But these symptoms took a back seat because Leonie had other things on her plate. As well as the death of her mother, Leonie also had to deal with her husband’s 29-year-long battle with a terminal brain tumour whilst still maintaining a part time job.

“The last few years my husband was deteriorating, so I was running round in all directions with him. Also his mother was alive and at 96 was still living on her own. So after my husband passed away I was doing a lot more for her.”

At the back of Leonie’s mind, during this stressful period, there was a sense that something wasn’t quite right with her own health.

“I just didn’t feel well”

“I just didn’t feel well. I didn’t feel right about something. The doctor looked at me, checked my blood pressure and what have you, and seemed to think I was alright. He asked if I wanted him to sign a certificate for two days sick leave. And I was actually quite horrified he thought I was looking for a way of not going to work. It was a bit cavalier the way it was said. I certainly wasn’t one to just ‘take a day off!’”

Blood tests taken at the same time revealed that Leonie had Type 2 diabetes, a diagnosis she thought might explain her sense of ill health...

“I thought, ‘Oh well that’s what it was.’ So I cut out all the things I like in life: honey and bananas and sugar and stuff. But it didn’t make a difference. I was actually going slower. It only made my life miserable because I couldn’t have my bananas and stuff.”

Heart symptoms put down to ‘old age’

“During this time I’d started feeling that old age must be creeping up. And I wished my Mum were alive to ask her, ‘Is this the feeling that you get?’

“I realised that I was walking up my hill and driveway more slowly,” she explains. “And when working in my garden, I would be sweating quite profusely and I’d go and sit down, thinking I didn’t realise it was such an awfully hot day. So all these little signs definitely were there, but I didn’t realise they were heart signs. I thought they were old age.”

Struggling to walk up hills

At a routine appointment for her diabetes, approximately four years after she first visited the GP for her feelings of ill health, Leonie mentioned to the nurse that she had been finding it hard to carry her groceries up her driveway. The nurse asked if she’d tried the walk up the steep driveway without bags.

“I tried the next day and sure enough I realised that I was stopping coming up the hill and definitely up the driveway. But I didn’t think heart, again I just thought it was old age. I wasn’t puffing and panting, so I guess that’s why I didn’t think I was short of breath.”

She saw the nurse the next morning, but again no heart problem was diagnosed. However at a doctor’s appointment two week later, after tests had failed to reveal any respiratory issues, Leonie was referred to the hospital for a cardiac check-up, which was scheduled for three months’ time.

Fate intervenes

Leonie never made the cardiac appointment, because fate intervened just a week later.

“My daughter Nikki rang. We were having a talk, and she said ‘Mum are you feeling ok?’ and I said, ‘Yes I’m fine.’ And I really thought I was.

“But my daughter said, ‘You know to ring 111 if you’re not well?’ I said, ‘Good heavens yes.’ I thought I don’t need that.

“I put the phone down, and I thought maybe I’ll ring the doctor. Nikki must be concerned about me. Maybe I don’t sound right. So I went to go back to ring the doctor and I just dialled 111. To this day I do not know why I dialled 111 maybe because I had to find my glasses to read the doctor’s phone number … but I prefer to think someone was ‘watching over me’.

“I said to the lady on the line, ‘I’m not feeling well. I don’t know what’s wrong I don’t have any pain.’ But she must have heard it in my voice. She said, ‘Darling I think you’re having a heart attack. I’ve got the ambulance, they’re on the way.”

“Fuzziness” in her armpit

Once in the ambulance, Leonie began to feel some minor symptoms: not pain, but a “fuzziness” deep in her right armpit which ran down under the arm to her elbow.

“They say pins and needles, but I wouldn’t have called it that. It was more like a fuzziness.”

The ambulance staff confirmed what the 111 operator had suspected – that Leonie was indeed having a heart attack. At the hospital Leonie learnt that she had a number of blocked arteries.

“It was later that night that I definitely started feeling it. I thought I was going to be sick and shortly after it spouted out. It’s a certain nausea with heart, different to your ordinary being sick.”

After that a faint back pain started, and a pain in her shoulders, although Leonie still notes that she didn’t think “it was that bad”.

“There was no back pain really, and nothing across the front of my chest, no pain there. It’s easy not to know you’re having a heart attack.”

Recovery on the ward

The medical team made the decision to insert a stent during the middle of the night. By the next afternoon Leonie was on the recovery ward enjoying the camaraderie shared between other patients who had undergone the same procedure.

“It was nice to be with other people who had been through it,” she explains. “For the lady next to me, it was the second time she’d had one done, so I thought, ‘Oh, you can come back for another one.’

“The other lady was 91 and she’d been shearing sheep earlier that year. She was annoyed they weren’t going to let her shear sheep anymore.”

Help after hospital

Once out of hospital friends and family rallied round to ensure Leonie, who lives on her own, was safe and well cared for. They made sure she had someone staying for the first couple of weeks and also organised meals.

“I’m sure they had a roster for phoning me,” she laughs. “I had backup support there and the neighbours were keeping an eye out too.”

Leonie also found the cardiac rehab classes a great help. “That was marvellous. I’d totally, totally recommend that.”

These days she continues to do her exercises at home. “It would be wonderful to have exercise classes for people to continue on with. I’ve looked around, but I don’t want jazzercise and I don’t want a dance school one so now I do mine here."

“One thing I learnt through the cardiac class with Sport Waikato was just to walk – even if you’re inside – just walk. I push my coffee table over and walk in figure eights.”

Stent improves quality of life

The stent made a noticeable difference to Leonie’s quality of life.

“I had so much more energy it was marvellous. I wish I had known four years beforehand I would have been zooming round.”

It also helped her cope with other life events that were to come. “Just months later my 99-year-old mother-in-law started going seriously downhill. She died at the end of September. That really was a shock for me, because her grandmother lived to a 103 and her great aunt to 101. I’d totally expected her to last that long.

“Fortunately I had had a stent put in and I was able to cope with that much, much better. Otherwise I think it would have been the end of me too. I think I probably would have fizzled out.”

Lifestyle changes

When asked what has been the most difficult thing to adjust to since her diagnosis, Leonie says undoubtedly the “wretched food”.

“It’s don’t have this, don’t have that. You settle on something else and then it’s no you shouldn’t be having that. That’s what I’ve found hardest of all.”

And she hasn’t let her condition stop her physical activity. “It certainly hasn’t stopped me from trimming trees and sweeping leaves up and what have you.”

“Don’t assume it’s old age”

Despite her diagnosis and time in hospital, Leonie still finds it hard to approach the doctor when she’s not feeling quite right, because her symptoms aren’t physically apparent.

“There have been times when I may have had a little thought, ‘Oh is something going wrong and/or what about this?’ And I don’t have the confidence to go back to the doctor and say I’m getting this feeling. If I had a big spot on my face to show proof that would be good, but there’s no visible proof.”

That said, her advice to others is not to assume slowing down is a sign of old age.

“If you’re slowing down and you think it’s just old age, then go and get your heart checked. I’ve often thought to myself, ‘I wish I could have a chat with Mum and find out how she felt,’ particularly as she was having silent heart attacks. I seriously thought it was old age.” 


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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