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“Out of the blue” – Faye’s heart-stopping journey

Faye, a 48-year-old schoolteacher at a primary school in Whanganui, epitomises the term ‘busy mum’. With husband Ivan and three children, each heavily involved in activities like motocross and dancing, Faye's life was a whirlwind of responsibility and joy.

“Before it all happened, I had some funny chest pain, but I put that down to stress,” she recalls.

“I’d always eaten quite well, I took care of myself and exercised regularly. I had lost a bit of weight previously because I was a bridesmaid a few weeks prior and I’m quite a small person – so I never imagined something like this would happen to me.”

Faye also took herself to the hospital just in case but they didn’t find anything amiss.

“Just a year before, my brother had died from a heart attack” she says. “So, I was aware of heart issues, but no one at the hospital seemed worried – they told me they would send me onto someone else and that would be another month or so.”

The day that changed everything

But on 29 November 2019, Faye's life came to a screeching halt when she suffered a cardiac arrest while participating in Whanganui’s annual Tough Kids event with her students. 

“We have the event every year and travel by bus,” she says. “All the kids go down to the rugby grounds and do obstacle courses. I had been complaining on the bus that it was too hot, and it was only 8.30am. I walked my kids up the slight bank to take them to their seated area and I collapsed, I was out.

“It was so quick, but I was lucky that it happened where there were a lot of people,” she says. “There were teachers with me and medics for the event, so I had an immediate response and then an ambulance came in and I got everything that I needed.

"It was like winning the lottery," Faye says. "Yes, it was a traumatic experience, but if it had to happen then I’m just so grateful that it happened like that. Afterwards, I was flown down to the cardiology department in Wellington, so it was quite the journey! And all completely out of the blue."

A new lease on life

Faye woke up in the hospital in Wellington where she received an S-ICD defibrillator implant. The defibrillator wire runs across her chest, a constant reminder of her second chance. It took her days to regain her memory and even longer to process the enormity of her experience. 

"I didn’t even know what a cardiac arrest was before it happened to me,” she says. “Now I know it’s different to a heart attack – people will often ask me how I am after my heart attack, and I’ll tell them the difference.

"This knowledge needs to be out there because there are a lot that people don’t understand about heart events – like the need for AEDs to be absolutely everywhere possible to save people’s lives."

Heart health and the bigger picture

Upon further tests, Faye discovered she has Familial hypercholesterolemia, a hereditary condition causing excessive cholesterol levels. Her father and late brother had the same condition. Two of her children have slightly elevated levels and are on statins

"The long game," as Faye describes it, "is to prevent our arteries from clogging. The main arteries of my heart are OK, but the little arteries in the bottom, the small ones, are a bit clogged and I think that’s what threw my heart out of rhythm. That's what they believe happened, they weren't 100% sure. They put the defib in and said, ‘Get on with your life because you are very lucky.’” 

Beyond the physical challenges, Faye grappled with psychological trauma. Counselling helped her process the "Why me?" questions that haunted her, especially given her brother’s similar fate at a young age. 

"It was a very scary way to learn that lesson. I am also very lucky I don't have any brain damage or anything like that,” she adds. “The possibilities are endless. I've had some counselling to help me deal with it, I wanted all the help I could get to deal with it. There's nothing shameful and having counselling to help you process it all is so valuable. I’ve got to live for my kids, live for my family.”

The ripple effect

Her near-death experience became a catalyst for change. Faye's school now hosts St. John’s instructors who teach students cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques and what to do in emergency situations. Faye spearheaded fundraising for an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) for her school, educating her community on its use. 

"I hope that one day I can help someone else be as lucky as I was," she says.

Faye now also focuses on preventive measures, carefully watching her diet, reducing stress, and enjoying an active lifestyle. While she remains cautious, avoiding solo swimming or long drives, she embraces her second chance. 

"I am trying to enjoy life at the same time because I’ve been given another chance," she shares.

A family united in support

This ordeal has left a lasting imprint on her family as well. Faye's youngest daughter, Leah, who was present during her mother's cardiac arrest, is particularly vigilant. 

"Every night we say we love each other, even when she’s at a friend’s house she will text it to me," Faye explains. For Faye and her family, it’s the little things that have come to mean the most.

Finally, Faye has become an active member in online cardiac arrest survivors’ groups and wholeheartedly advocates for the Heart Foundation. 

"The stories I read on the Heart Foundation site were a big part of my recovery. If my story can help even one person, it's worth it."

Her message is clear: Know your cholesterol levels, understand your blood pressure and educate yourself. Heart conditions are not discriminatory; they can affect anyone. Faye's story serves as a poignant reminder that life is unpredictable, but it's how we adapt, learn and share our experiences that makes all the difference.

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

  • Brian 31 October 2023

    It’s great to see you getting on with life after such an event. Good luck for the future.