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Surviving a legacy of heart disease

Georgina has lost both parents and seven of her siblings to heart disease. Here she talks about her own journey with atrial fibrillation and valve disease.

My name is Georgina Huia Paerata and I live in the beautiful community of Tokomaru Bay, on the East Coast. I am of Māori descent and my iwi are Tuhoe and Rongomaiwahine/Mahia.

I come from a large family, of which I am the 13th out of 14 children. As one can imagine, all of our whānau had to work hard from a young age. My mother was a fairly strict person who liked the house and surrounding grounds to be clean and tidy. All of us children were well organised to help with chores. We had a wonderful childhood despite our isolation of living and growing up in the Urewera National Park, Bay of Plenty.

I come from a nursing background and trained at Whakatane Hospital from 1963 to 1966. There are four qualified nurses in the family. After I married, I worked as a nurse/manager on the East Coast for 51 years including being the manager for 25 years at Te Puia Springs Hospital.

My husband and I have one child, a son who is 42 years old.

Prior to my heart condition, I’ve always considered myself to be a reasonably fit person and I’d always been active in both my work in the health services and in my personal life doing physical work. I still enjoy playing musical instruments including the piano and ukulele. I also enjoy reading when time permits and most of all I enjoy helping other people which is one of the reasons why I became a nurse. 

However, one of the other reasons why I went into nursing was to fill the gap that was left by my 25-year-old sister who, on returning from her midwifery training at St Helens Hospital in Christchurch, was killed with six other people in a small plane crash on Mt Ruapehu on 21 November 1961.

Why did this happen to me?

I had thought "why did this happened to me" but on reflection, our family has a poor history of heart problems as you will see below. This would have played a large part in my own journey.

The specialist and nursing staff asked if I had rheumatic fever when I was young. I wasn’t sure as my parents had never ever mentioned it to me. I could not remember being sick with chest pain, having shortness of breath on exertion, nor had complaints of joint pains. I do remember having sore throats from time to time during my childhood but did not have any treatment for it. My family history and DNA may tell the story as follows:

All of my family members had medical problems and were treated for their conditions by their local GP. My father had high blood pressure and died from a cardiac arrest aged 65. My mother had congestive heart failure and died aged 69. My oldest brother had heart failure and died from a cardiac arrest aged 71, my oldest sister died from congestive heart failure age 82, my next oldest sister had a cardiac arrest and died aged 53, two brothers (one had a pacemaker) died from heart conditions aged 75 and 82, two other sisters had high blood pressure / heart conditions and died from vascular and other related problems, and my youngest sister aged 63 has just recently been diagnosed with having had two silent heart attacks.

My heart symptoms

In September 2015, I became very short of breath while walking briskly along the hospital corridor and this continued when walking up a flight of stairs to a nurses' meeting. I actually had to stop and rest with every second step because I felt my heart thumping and racing. I immediately made an appointment to see the doctor on duty and felt that I was in the right place at the right time.

After having had some initial tests done e.g. blood tests, ECG, the doctor informed me I was in atrial fibrillation and that I needed to be transferred to Gisborne Hospital.

I didn't want to cause a fuss, but I said, "Don't get the Helicopter" which she was about to order because I knew the cost of flying a person from Te Puia to Gisborne. The ambulance had to come from Ruatoria which is half an hour away from the hospital so I asked the doctor if my husband could drive me by car. She wasn’t happy, but I insisted even knowing the risk.

I promptly went to my office, closed down the computer and locked my office. I then made arrangements for management oversight for all of the 30 Full Time Equivalent staff within my Primary Health Services before heading home to get essential toiletries and clothing. 

Admitted to Gisborne hospital

After arriving at Gisborne A&E I was immediately commenced on I.V (intravenous) drugs and treatment to slow down my heart rate from 150 to under 100 beats per minute.

I was later admitted into Gisborne Hospital for further treatment and observation/monitoring by holter monitor (PDF). Two days later I was discharged home under the care of my G.P and with plans to do further investigation by angiogram. A few months later arrangements were made for me to go to Waikato Hospital to meet the cardiovascular surgical team. An angiogram was carried out and I was told I’d need valve surgery.

The plan for surgery was delayed by a month because I had a dental check-up which is routinely required. The dental x-ray showed that I had an abscess at the root of one of my front teeth. The tooth was extracted, I was commenced on a course of antibiotics for seven days and then had to wait for the gum to heal.

Valve surgery

I had a mitral valve annuloplasty for severe mitral regurgitation in June 2016. It was noted that because I had persistent atrial fibrillation preoperatively (before surgery) it was recommended by the heart specialist that I remain on a drug called Pradaxa for the rest of my life.

I was discharged after four to five days in Waikato hospital. Luckily my husband and I could stay with my son who lived within a five-minute drive from the hospital and we stayed there for the next four weeks.

It was fortunate that I wasn’t discharged back to Tokomaru Bay because into my third week, I became very short of breath and had swelling of both legs. I was readmitted into Waikato Hospital with right-sided heart failure. After two days, I was again discharged to my son's flat where I stayed for a further week before we returned to Tokomaru Bay.

Family support

My son made a decision and resigned from his position at the meat works in Hamilton and came home to help take care of me and his dad, whose health was also declining.

Once I got home, my recovery was straight forward and three months later, I attended a Heart Rehabilitation program in Gisborne which was very helpful for my physical and mental wellbeing.

My G.P visit/follow-up appointments were planned for monthly, quarterly, six monthly and as required to check on my blood results, blood pressure, medication and social issues/needs. Eight months following surgery, I saw the visiting cardiologist from Waikato Hospital at Gisborne Hospital, then every year until the recent appointment that was booked in February 2019.

Echocardiogram procedures were carried out prior to specialist appointments with reports showing that the heart muscle and mitral valve were all working normally. I will be seen by the cardiologist in two years time unless symptoms arise or something new develops. I was given travel vouchers under the National Travel Assistance Scheme to enable me to meet my appointments at Gisborne Hospital and Waikato Hospital.

Moving through the health services from Te Puia Hospital to Gisborne Hospital; being transferred to Waikato for surgery and referred back into the health services on the East Coast was a satisfactory patient pathway for me and my family. We did not encounter any problems and the staff in all of the health services were very supportive and understanding.

I still take time out to help people in need in the community and enjoy running our home, providing administrative support for the family farm and taking care of my husband.

Life in my view is very good and that includes having our son home to help with the future of the farm, doing the ground work around our home and providing support to his father and I.


Shared August 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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