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Surgical complications trigger heart problems

Heart failure, a heart attack and two strokes have only just started slowing Peta down…

“You only live once, do everything you can while you can.” It’s a philosophy that Peta has lived by all her life. After spotting a chance to almost triple her wages by taking a cabinet-making job in Invercargill, Peta emigrated from England while still in her 20s. It was a “very long” trip, made longer by the need to fly into Auckland and then travel by train and ferry down to Invercargill.

“The train got in very late that night, half past 11, it was pouring with rain. My employer met me at the station, carried my bags to his car and then dropped dead of a heart attack.”

It wasn’t a great introduction to life in New Zealand, but the job offer was still made good, and Peta hasn’t looked back. Over Peta’s career, she has fitted out three fishing trawlers, built caravans, an ‘S’-shaped staircase and repaired all the bodywork on a Model A Ford. “I’ve made everything you could think of really. I’ve even done reproduction furniture, Queen Anne right through to shield-back Hepplewhite chairs.”

Peta has since moved to Nelson, where she has been very active in her adopted community. “I’ve always liked to be busy doing things. I’ve been involved in lots of clubs – the Woodworker’s Guild, the Arts Society and the Historical Society. I was a Cub Scout leader for seven years and taught model making for the Air Training Corp for nine years. I was designing and building furniture up here, right up until recently.”

“I’ve always done something – I’m self-motivated to get on and do things. In the last 25 years I’ve been making model sailing ships that came to Nelson. I’ve written two books on them, their immigrants and cargoes. I’ve made about 19 models so far.”

Heart problems following surgery

Though Peta’s been busy, things haven’t been plain sailing when it comes to her health. Surgery for a hernia was followed by complications, including a collapsed lung. But it wasn’t until she met with a rheumatologist that her breathing problems were recognised as being related to her heart.

“He took one look at me and said I can hear your heart whistling from here. You’ve got heart failure. You’d better stop work or you’ll drop dead.”

As it turns out, her heart problems were the result of complications from that previous surgery. Rather than give her a new heart valve, the doctors put a plastic ring in and “sewed the whole thing together...”

“Once I’d had my heart patched up and done all my exercise and stuff for a couple of years, I started doing a bit of work at Founder’s Park, building exhibits. I built a general store, a shoe repairer’s workshop, a tobacconist, a hairdresser, an apothecary shop and so on.

“I was working about three or four hours a day, for about four days a week. That’s all I was capable of doing. I couldn’t do a full day, it was just messing around building these places when you felt like you could do it, you know? I did that for about 10 years.”  

Heart problems multiply

“My heart behaved itself up until about two-and-a-half years ago, I was starting to get very breathless, very tired so I went and saw the doctor who said: ‘You’ve got heart failure this time, well and truly.’”

About six months later, Peta had a heart attack, with a scan revealing she’d had a stroke as well. She thinks some of it was brought on by stress at one of her workplaces.

Peta felt that her manager at the time had issues with her being transgender. “It got to the stage it was oh stuff this, it’s not worth this so I resigned. And I think during that period it caused me a lot of stress and so I had the heart attack and stroke.”

A year later, Peta had a second stroke resulting in a partial loss of vision in the bottom part of her eyes. But she’s not let it interrupt her life – “I’m allowed to drive, but only just.”

Easing the pace of life

Having a pacemaker put in was supposed to improve Peta’s symptoms, but the surgery didn’t go smoothly and Peta came out without the final wire that would activate the pacemaker. She has since discovered that the pacemaker has “broken off where it was glued on, and gone a lot further down my chest… so I don’t know anything at the moment. So I’m just carrying on doing what I can.”  

“I’ve had to ease off all my hobbies. I used to play lawn bowls for seven to eight hours a day. I was doing quite well at it actually. I used to be an umpire as well, that’s something I had to give up. So I have gone back to playing indoor bowls only– it’s a lot shorter distance to walk. I can’t walk up and down because I get out of breath.

“I’ve got a model ship here that was damaged in Picton in the earthquake, it fell off a big shelf and smashed the showcase to pieces. I’ve been fixing that up the last couple of weeks for somebody. But I’m not doing any more now. I’ve sold all my tools and stuff.

“My heart has got so weak now that it’s making me breathless all the time. I’m down now to doing jigsaw puzzles to keep me occupied. I’ve always been someone who’s done something, you know?”

Still keeping busy

“I can’t handle all that I’d like, but I try to do what I can… I still work at the parks that are open to the public. I do a shift in the Grey Power office and I’m on the Committee of the Nelson Asthma Society.

 “My latest project is going to be putting all my model ships on my jigsaws to sell. They’re all historic models and I’ve got loads and loads of photos of them. So I’ve sent them away to the jigsaw people and I’m waiting to hear back from them at the moment about how much it’s going to cost to get it done. So that’s my latest interest.”

As for advice for other people with heart failure? Peta says “Make the most of life. Do as much as you can. That’s what I decided to do. You only live once, do everything you can while you can. Don’t sit around waiting for anything to happen. Get out there and do something like I did.”


Shared March 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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