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Reduced lung function masks atrial fibrillation

When Shirley first noticed breathlessness walking up a hill, she assumed it was a result of her congenital birth defect. She was “flabbergasted” to learn it was a heart condition. This is her story.

After a hard day’s gardening, on a very hot day in January, I found my heart racing. I didn't think much about it and it was still pounding rather fast when I went to bed. But when I woke up the next morning, I didn't seem to notice it so much.   

I went down to collect the paper from the end of our 200m drive and found that I had to stop five times on the way up because I was short of breath. It is relatively steep and, more often than not, I do stop once. I have always been short of breath, especially on inclines and if I exercise, as due to a congenital defect, I was born without a right pulmonary artery.

Once I got inside, I said to my hubby that ‘I had to stop many times’, and we just put it down to shortness of breath because of my reduced lung function.

We had breakfast and I was sitting down at the table reading the paper when suddenly I felt cold and started to perspire. As soon as I said that to my hubby he wanted me to phone the doctor, I said ‘no, I would be alright’. But he was persistent and even rang the number. 

I went straight to see the doctor who was very thorough with his examination and even gave me an electrocardiograph (ECG) (PDF). He advised me that he had phoned the Christchurch Hospital Emergency Department and they were expecting me, then asked if I needed a ride or could someone take me. I was flabbergasted!

Atrial fibrillation diagnosis 

When I arrived, the hospital staff were amazing and by late afternoon they had managed to get my heart rate down. They told me I had atrial fibrillation (AF), so I was prescribed medication and discharged to go home.

Having been told how the heart works, I am surprised and feel very naive in my knowledge. I cannot remember being told in school how the heart works and was surprised that when things go wrong with your heart it affects your breathing. And, of course, going through life with one lung not working properly, I thought my shortness of breath was as a result of that.

Looking back over the years I have had AF episodes a number of times. In one instance we rang the after-hours medical number but were told to ring back if it continued. As well there have been times when my heart has raced.  

I now know what this means, I need to take it seriously. I live a healthy lifestyle with moderate exercise, no smoking and I seldom drink. I take medication for high blood pressure, cholesterol and AF. Also we have a pulse oximeter [a device to measure oxygen levels in the blood] and blood pressure wrist band, so we can check on how the body is working when I don't feel so well.



Shared August 2018

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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