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“Making the most of every day”

The first Claire knew of her heart attack was a sense of overwhelming tiredness. Three days later she was in hospital having bypass surgery. She talks about her journey and getting back to good health.

When Claire experienced extreme tiredness one Friday, back in April 2009, she assumed it was because she’d been so busy. After a day caring for three grandchildren, and a social engagement with her husband in the late afternoon, it seemed a logical conclusion.  

Too tired to go out for dinner, Claire opted to cook at home before crawling into bed.

“I was thinking to myself, we really need to cut back on our activities, we’re just doing too much, I just feel too tired,” she recalls.

Claire fell asleep almost immediately and woke up a couple of hours later feeling quite unwell.

“I felt that my throat was closing off and I said I think I’m having a heart attack because I had read that’s what happens to people sometimes.”


Tests reveal the need for bypass surgery

Once at the hospital, the doctors quickly confirmed it was a heart attack. Over the weekend, Claire underwent a range of tests at Auckland District Health Board. An angiogram revealed blocked coronary arteries and the need for bypass surgery on Monday morning.

“All that time, from when I went in at midnight to Auckland City, to going up to the ward, and then having the tests taken, I wasn’t able to be out of bed at all. I remember my family coming in stages, and the eldest grandchild, how anxious she was and worried about it. It was sad seeing her anxiety.” 

She says the care and information she received during this time was excellent.

“I was well informed along the way with the tests they were doing. The night before the surgery when my family was there, the cardiology team came in and talked to the whole family about what was happening, how long it would likely take, how long I’d be in intensive care. So we were very well informed.” 


The day of surgery

On the morning of the surgery, Claire felt emotional but confident in the care she was being provided.

“I was totally confident about the care I was given. It still makes me feel a bit emotional, but I remember being wheeled into the theatre and the charge nurse from the ward was with me all the way. I remember her asking if I was alright and I said, ‘Whatever it is, it’ll be ok. Whatever will be will be. I remember feeling very peaceful about it. I put my faith in them.”

The cardiology team had planned to do a triple bypass, but once in the theatre, they realised the problem was more extensive than they’d first thought. In the end, Claire had five grafts (a quintuple bypass).

She was then discharged to the intensive care unit (ICU) before later being moved to the cardiology ward.

“I had wonderful care, both in ICU and then on the ward. It was positive all along the way, it was just so lovely. Wonderful care, lovely people. Not only for myself but for my family as well, who, as you can imagine, were very anxious.”


Involving your partner

Claire was discharged home after five days, to the love and support of family and friends, and she found her husband’s help invaluable.

“I know it was hard for him when he was juggling work and doing more things in the morning for me before he went to the office. I’m sure some of those things were a strain for him, as well as the strain of wondering if I was OK. But he’s a very supportive person and we worked as a team.”

He was great at managing friends’ visits during Claire’s early recovery period.

“You want to see them, it’s good for you, but they don’t always know when to leave. Talking to people is quite tiring when you’re not well. My husband was wonderful, he’d make morning tea and be part of the conversation, but he had a knack of saying to me, ‘Do you feel like a rest?’ then people would take their cue and go.

“It’s very helpful to have someone there that can do that. It may not necessarily be your husband, but somebody who’s with you a lot of the time who can do that.”

Claire believes allowing your spouse or partner to help is also a way of helping them feel involved in your journey.

“I think it’s good for them to know what’s involved. They don’t want to feel isolated from what’s going on, it is something for both of you to be involved in.”


Cardiac rehab

Another source of help during recovery was the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation programme.

“Before I was discharged, a person from the rehabilitation team told me that I’d be required to go to a gym on a regular basis over at Greenlane for a rehabilitation programme. There was also a series of lectures on diet, self-care and various other things, that ran over five weeks. My husband came with me to that. It was important for both of us to go so that two people are hearing the same thing.”

“Some of the talks included information for the spouse too and it gave the spouse an opportunity to talk about their concerns and what they needed to look out for. It was also an opportunity for them to meet other men or women whose partners had been through the same thing.”

Claire strongly encourages anyone who has had a heart event to attend.

“I think sometimes people think there may not be much in it for them, or they get distracted from doing it, but it’s very worthwhile. And you’ve got someone that you can ring up afterwards. If you come away and think about something later, you can ring them up and just go over that again.”

Claire also attended exercise classes for about three months. Once again, the camaraderie she shared with others attending the classes proved hugely beneficial.

“It was nice seeing people who were associated with what went on for you, which was a big event in my life. They were people who were part of that journey, people who actually know what went on and can pick up on little nuances within you each time.

“For example, they’d check-up and ask how’s your week been and are you feeling alright emotionally and what’s been good for you and what’s been bad for you. I felt that they were aware of what it can be like because it is up and down. I wanted to be upbeat with my family and my children as much as possible so that they weren’t worrying about me unnecessarily. So it was good to have someone else to talk to too.”


Make the most of every day

Claire remembers feeling anxious when she was first at home alone after the heart attack but says it’s something you learn to deal with.

“You’ve got to just be positive and think that you’ve had the best care you could get, you’ve got your medication, you’ve got good advice as to how you are. You have to really take all that on board, not be looking for something that’s not really happening.”

Taking things easy was a challenge at first, but over time Claire’s getting better at it.

“I found it hard at a different pace, going a bit more slowly. I don’t find it easy to slow down, but I’ve learnt, if I’m tired, to go off and have a rest in the afternoon, especially if I’ve got a good book.” She also admits that the heart attack has reinforced the idea of being grateful for every day.

“Even after 11 years, I go to bed at night-time thinking I’ve achieved this or that and it’s been a good day. I like to think that I’ve made the most of every day because you realise every day is so important. Every day I remember those wonderful people who were involved in my care.

“It has been a good wake up call for my children. They have recognised that heart disease is hereditary and have looked at their lifestyles and diet and have regular health checks. I would not have expected this to happen to me, despite my mother dying at an early age from heart disease. I was physically fit – I had cycled the Otago Rail Trail three weeks before my heart attack.

“And I will always be grateful. Since then I have had two more grandchildren and without the expertise of all those on the team who cared for me I may not have been able to have the joy that they bring, along with my other grandchildren.”

Shared February 2021

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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