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Loss of soul mate triggers heart problems

Helen’s heart problems began shortly after losing her husband to a cardiac arrest. She was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation as well as an emerging panic disorder. Ten years down the track, she had a heart attack.

Back in 2006, Helen suffered a devastating and unexpected loss. Her husband Peter, a physical education teacher who was always fit and active, died after a heart attack and cardiac arrest.

“He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke. He was certainly not the epitome of what you would expect for someone with a looming heart condition.”

The day of the arrest, Peter had been perfectly well. It wasn’t until 2 o’clock in the morning that Helen found out something was wrong.

“He woke me up with enough time to say my name. By the time I, in my sleepy state, put the bedside lamp on, he had gone into cardiac arrest.

“I called the ambulance. I remember the lady telling me how to do CPR. As a school teacher, I’d learnt but I think with the stress you just go into panic mode.

The ambulance staff worked on Peter for a long time. “I can remember the defibrillator machine making noises and I remember asking, ‘Is that a pulse you’ve got back?’ but no it wasn’t.”

Peter was pronounced dead, and as he had died at home, the police were called. “They asked me to phone my children. As a mother, that was the hardest thing, to know you’ve got to ring your children and tell them their father has gone. My son said that was the worst day of his life.”

The aftermath

Helen struggled to make sense of losing her husband. “He was only 62, and we were soul mates. Even now I feel the emotion of talking about this. It threw me into panic disorder. In fact, my GP said I probably have post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“I carried on with full-time teaching to try and keep normality. I was often totally unwell during the night, but then in the morning the light of day made me feel better and I’d carry on with the job as normal.

“I suppose it was the night time that brought back those memories. In fact, I often woke at 2am, that same time, every night. Ever since I lost Peter, I’ve kept a packet of aspirin in my bedside drawer, probably subconsciously being scared of having a heart attack in the middle of the night.

“Panic disorder isn’t just feeling stressed or that you need to run away, you actually get symptoms that make you feel like you’re having a heart attack and you ring for an ambulance because you feel you’re going to die.

“I battled with the stress and panic disorder for two years, until I got to a point where I went on medication to help me.”

As well as the panic disorder, Helen also developed atrial fibrillation (AF) in 2010. “Stress has probably been the major factor contributing to my heart disease,” she reflects. “I’ve always been a stress wort, but the panic disorder was a whole new realm.”

Helen’s own heart attack

Then, a decade on from Peter’s death, Helen herself had a heart attack. Fortunately, Helen knew that an ache in her chest ‘wasn’t a good sign’. She dismissed the first ache – which only lasted for ten minutes – as having pruned too many roses. But when it returned five hours later along with nausea and pain in both her shoulder and jaw, Helen called the ambulance.

“The darling St John’s man took the ECG (PDF) and then he held the top of my hand and said, ‘Helen, you’re just having a slight heart attack and we’re going to get you as quickly as we can to hospital.’ He was trying to keep me calm.

“As a widow of someone who died of a heart attack, being alone in the back of the ambulance threw me into more anxiety. It brought it all back to me, right down to the ambulance taking away my late husband’s body.”

At the hospital, Helen’s ambulance was greeted by a cardiac team, who wanted her to have an angiogram as soon as possible.

Helen, however, was most concerned with how the news of her heart attack would impact her family. Before she would consent to any procedures, she insisted on ringing her son, who was overseas at the time, to let him know she was having a ‘slight’ heart attack, but was all right.

Helen’s angiogram showed that two arteries were almost completely blocked and she had several stents put in. “I can remember lying there, feeling like I was dying, and as an ex-school teacher I kept watching the screen to see how they were doing it!”

Starting her recovery

“I woke the next morning to see a beautiful sky and the trees looked greener than green and I felt, thank you God, how truly blessed I’ve been. That was probably the beginning of the journey where you think, whoa, I’ve come through it, I didn’t die. But there is the next stage to go through.

“A heart attack is a huge emotional thing. I mean, the heart is the centre of your emotions.”

First thing that morning, Helen was taken in for an echocardiogram. “The young man doing it said, ‘Oh wow, I can see you’ve had quite a major heart attack here, there’s a huge area of heart damage.’ He said that because I got in so fast and was treated so quickly, the damage should repair itself within a year.”

Helen video-called her son, to let him know the good news. “Thank goodness for technology. I showed him, ‘Look, I’m alive, I’m OK.’ That made him feel a lot better. He was so stressed out, he wanted to jump on a plane and come straight home to be with me. He sent some absolutely beautiful flowers.”

Back on the ward, Helen’s recovery was complicated by her atrial fibrillation and panic disorder. “Initially after the heart attack, my AF caused me probably more problems than the heart attack, so I had that double whammy to deal with.”

She wore a Holter monitor constantly, and remembers being very grateful for it during a panic attack. “I buzzed for a nurse in the middle of the night, saying I’ve got a rapid heart rate and I’m not feeling too good. She did an ECG and told me I wasn’t having another heart attack, but offered to get me a cup of tea, which was a lovely act of kindness.”

Support helps Helen regain confidence

Before returning her retirement village, Helen stayed with some friends for a week. “I knew that in coming home from hospital I would be on my own. Although I live in a retirement village you still have to go to bed at night and sleep alone, so I made arrangements to stay with dear friends.” It had the added benefit of giving her family some peace of mind to know she was being cared for.

When Helen eventually returned to her own home, she found that she relied heavily on the support of the local cardiac rehabilitation team.

“I came home and that’s when it hit me. I’d walk from the lounge to the letterbox and feel absolutely shattered and wonder, ‘Should I be feeling like this?’ You’re scared of doing too much in case it causes some problem. Every little ache in the chest you think – uh oh, is this it? But the rehab team were hugely supportive, they encouraged me to walk and to get out and about.”

Emotional recovery from heart attack

Emotional recovery from the heart attack took time. “You go through these huge emotional ups and downs. You have days two or three months down the track, where you can be in tears one day and you’re thinking, ‘why is this happening?’ Or you suddenly feel very anxious – people generally just don’t get it.

“When you’re living alone, nobody else gets it, they don’t understand how you feel. Your heart is your heart and it’s the major organ of your body, and it causes that feeling of vulnerability.”

Helen says it took about a year to feel like her old self. “It’s an ongoing adjustment, the fact that you’re so aware you’ve had a heart attack and yay, you’re one of the lucky ones who’ve come through it, but it isn’t over – you are living with heart disease.”

Ongoing atrial fibrillation problems

Meanwhile Helen’s atrial fibrillation symptoms continued without let up.

“My atrial fibrillation was quite severe and very symptomatic. My heart would go out of rhythm whenever it fancied, and it would revert back to normal, just as quick as a switch being switched off.”

Over time Helen’s symptoms began to get worse. Despite taking regular anti-arrhythmic medication, an AF episode could last up to 17 hours.

Helen was advised by her cardiologist to take an extra tablet and rest if symptoms began, but to go to hospital if the episode lasted longer than 12 hours. “So, I’d lie down and try and relax. That’s a huge joke because you can’t relax! I would feel my heart so badly; it was like it was doing a tap dance.”

On a few occasions Helen felt so unwell she had to call an ambulance. Fortunately her heart always went back into rhythm on its own, without the need for cardioversion.

“Mine always got to a point where you can feel your heart rhythm has gone back to a peaceful, normal rhythm. And you sort of breathe and think, “Thank God for that!” The next day though you feel like you’ve run ten marathons, because your heart’s done a lot of work.”

No quality of life

By 2016, Helen was finding her AF episodes scary and felt that she had no quality of life. The cardiologist recommended an ablation, but warned there was no guarantee the procedure would cure her symptoms. Helen was nervous but knew she had to give it a go.

“There would be some weeks that I felt so tired and unwell that I wouldn’t go out. I spent most of the afternoons at home lying on my couch and sleeping. So I knew I had to give this a try.”

The ablation

During the procedure, Helen had a nurse on either side of her holding her hand. “The cardiologist was very busy looking at this huge computer screen. I kept trying to look at, but I was drowsy and dosing off.

“I was warned that I may feel something, but it’s not painful. I could tell that something was going on, but it was certainly nothing to be worried about.”

It took Helen a few months to regain her energy after the ablation, but she was soon feeling “fantastic” and has only had one AF episode since.

“There are days where I can feel my heart wants to go out of rhythm, but then I just spend a little extra time in bed that morning or rest on the couch for an hour. It soon passes and I’m fine.”

Greater confidence and quality of life

Helen feels very fortunate she was so well cared for by the Waikato cardiology department and is grateful she has regained her confidence and quality of life.

She currently takes a blood thinner and a beta blocker to keep her heart working to the best of its ability and a statin to lower her cholesterol and reduce her risk of a further heart event.

She also has a leaking mitral valve, which her doctors are monitoring.

“If that gets worse as I get older, who knows, that might mean a valve replacement, I don’t know and I’m not worrying about it.”



Shared January 2019

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

  • Darren 18 December 2021

    Hi Helen. Thanks for sharing your story. I have AF as well and had 2 ablations. Prior to that I had a mitral valve repair and it was after this all my AF started. It’s the shortness of breath and fatigue that wears me down mentally and physically. And they say try and relax?? Are they kidding…this week after being AF free for six months the signature dizzyness, short of breath and palpatations have started up and that old feeling of dread and helplessness is back. And that familiar question… now what the hell am I going to do. I hope you continue to improve. I feel I’m back to square one again at the moment.