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Living with a ‘one-cylinder heart’ after a heart attack

It was three days of feeling rough and sick with slight indigestion before Mary went to the hospital. The delay in treatment has left Mary’s heart pumping at less than half what it used to.

Sometimes in one’s life something comes along that shakes your reality in a totally unexpected way. In 2009 this happened to me. I was 64 years old. I had had a Cardiovascular Risk Assessment completed seven months earlier showing I only had a 2% risk within the next five years.

We were living up a valley in an isolated community. I had just finished my first year of a counselling diploma and was looking forward to the second year. My husband suggested I take a break to see my daughter and grandchildren in Brisbane and a cousin in Melbourne.

As I was about to depart we received a phone call from the UK to say my mother was in hospital and not expected to live. She was 96 and this had always been expected. I decided to fly to Brisbane and call the hospital when I got there. She died during the following night. Even with the grief of losing my mother, having the support of family allowed me to continue my trip.

Explaining away heart attack symptoms

The morning after I arrived back home in New Zealand, I had a sore back. Blaming the airline seats, I took some paracetamol and carried on with life, feeling a little rough. The second day saw no improvement in my back plus some slight indigestion. This also got blamed on the food I had eaten while away.

However, on the third day I decided at 7.30pm I was exhausted and headed for bed. To my utter amazement when I tried to lie down there was a pain which made me sit up until the pain went away.

Through the night and early hours of the morning I was alternating between sitting up and lying down until about 4am when I knew I was going to be sick. I said to myself as I headed to the kitchen for the sick bowl, that’s good – the indigestion will go away now. So I sat on the side of the bed and threw up. My husband woke up and looked at me and went to ring for help. He said I was grey and clammy and being sick, whereupon he was told to get me to a doctor.

It was quicker to drive to hospital than wait for an ambulance

Let me tell you here that our isolation involved 14 kilometres of unsealed road that wound down through a gorge. To have rung for an ambulance would have necessitated him leaving me to guide the ambulance to where we were. That would have taken them an hour and then another hour for the return trip...

My husband asked me if I could get dressed. He gave me a very warm jacket our son had bought him in Finland. At 5am we set off as fast as he could drive in the pitch black down the gorge with me clutching the sick bowl and feeling rough. We made it to the Accident and Emergency (A&E) department in 45 minutes.

Getting help in A&E

I sat down on the chair clutching the sick bowl and he went to reception to tell them that he thought I was having a heart attack. Again let me tell you, nobody in either of our families had had heart attacks. So feeling rough and being sick was just not in the heart attack arena of knowledge we had. But to continue, the nurse appeared at the door and called me over.

Off went the sick bowl and Finland coat for me to sit on another chair just inside the door. Then she asked me if I could walk once more to the bed to be examined. I stood up, trying to comply, looked at her face and said I am going to faint. Goodness knows what happened next.

I remember coming round in the examination room and hearing them say we can get someone now. I murmured my husband is in the waiting room. Then I was gone again. The next time I was conscious, my husband and the nurse were standing at the bottom of the bed and he was given his Finland jacket and my clothes that they had cut off me. I lay there wondering why they had cut off all my clothes? Then I was gone again.

I remember the bed being pushed along the corridor and into somewhere with a screen and some medical staff. One man kept asking me if I was alright. I got so irritated with him but he continued to check I was alright. Then I heard the other man say, “Here it is, I have found it,” then I was gone again.

Mary’s husband’s story

When I came round again I was in the Coronary Care Unit with my husband sitting by my bedside. Then I was to find out the other side of the story. My husband had made a guess that I was having a heart attack and knew it would be quickest for him to drive me to the hospital. In my case this had proved so.

While he was waiting in A&E all the alarm bells went off as they summoned the cardiologist team. When they called him in after stabilising me, he was told that I was going up to the cath lab and they were insistent that if he needed to call anyone, he should do so now. So he rang our daughter in Brisbane who had been an intensive care nurse and our son in America to let them know what was happening. He was then sent off to get some breakfast and to wait in the Coronary Care Unit where I would eventually hopefully be.

Long-term heart damage

The next morning on the doctor’s rounds I was told my heart’s ejection rate was only 25%. I had one stent inserted where the clot had been in the left anterior descending artery and asked why hadn’t I called the ambulance!!! There was one blockage still in the lower part of the heart which could not be cleared and they thought this had been caused by the bursting of the clot. The rest of the arteries were clear.

The damage done to the heart by me going for three days not knowing I was having a heart attack means I now live with a one-cylinder-engine heart and an ejection rate of 41%.

The insurance company would not pay out on the cut-off clothes!

Living with reduced heart function

We moved back into town and my medical care became the responsibility of the cardiology team as an outpatient and my GP and the local heart nurse. I have always had relatively low blood pressure. On my CVD it was 104/66 and I had to trust in the medics as they struggled with the level of medication I needed to allow the heart to heal and for me to have a life.

This has been a journey of adjustment to cope with the tiredness that the remaining healthy part of my heart feels in its different reality, and the medication which has slowly been reduced over the years. I can’t speak highly enough of the support and service I have received from all three on the heart team. I know my heart nurse will always answer any questions I have; my GP allows me to be in control of my life and always will refer me back to the cardiology team when he considers it necessary; the cardiology team will discuss the pros and cons of any changes they consider may benefit me and maintain the health of my heart.

What is so interesting is that nobody used the words ‘heart attack’ during the process. To this day for me, it was that I felt rough, had slight indigestion and was sick.


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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1 Comment

  • Bruce 28 September 2017

    thanks for the information