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“There’s no reason you can’t lead a good long life!”

It’s been a decade since Vivienne experienced her first atrial fibrillation symptoms. She says a positive mental attitude has ensured her condition hasn’t negatively impacted on her life.

Vivienne’s atrial fibrillation (AF) symptoms first began in 2007, when she was in her early fifties. But initially she wasn’t that concerned by the “fluttering”.

“I could feel that my heart wasn’t beating properly. It was like an irregular beat. I felt it instantly, as soon as it went out of rhythm. It was like a sort of a fluttering sensation.”

Although she knew the sensation was in her heart, she didn’t imagine it was a heart condition. She always seemed to be able to explain away the symptoms.

 “Quite a few months before I was diagnosed, I noticed that a couple of times I had what I thought were palpitations. And I just thought it was to do with menopause so I just ignored it. The second time it happened, I’d done this massive move all by myself after work. I was stressing out and I thought I’d just brought on some sort of panic attack.”

It wasn’t until Vivienne mentioned the palpitations to a fellow teacher at her school that she started to take the problem seriously.

“My colleague said: ‘Oh, you should get it checked out.’ And then I worried. Until then I hadn’t worried.”

The next time Vivienne experienced an episode she “really panicked”. Her partner drove her to the closest A&E and it was then she was diagnosed with AF.

“I was surprised. I remember saying to them, ‘I thought I had a good heart’.”

She was prescribed beta blockers and anticoagulant (blood thinner) medication. Her doctor also decided to test her for hypothyroidism, a condition that increases cholesterol levels and consequently raises the risk of heart disease.

“I had a small goiter that I’d had for years and I was aware it could cause heart problems. They tested me and found I had slightly underactive thyroid. It’s borderline, sub-clinical hypothyroidism, that’s what they call it. So I also got medication for that”

A tricky transition to life-long medication

Vivienne found the transition to life-long medication a hard one. “I was unhappy obviously. Because one minute you’re not taking anything and the next minute you’re taking four or five things.”

In particular she disliked the anticoagulant which required regular blood tests to measure the time it takes for blood to clot.

“I hated going in for the blood tests all the time. I don’t have the veins, they’re hard to find. They’re small. And the other thing was that I fell over at work and injured my knee. I got very bad bruising then ended up with an infection in my leg partly as a result of the medication, they said. So the only health problem I had, came from the medication.”

Vivienne’s frustration was such that, following a scheduled cardioversion (a procedure that returns the heart to a normal rhythm) Vivienne took herself off the medication – even though her clinical team advised against it.

“When my heart went back into the normal rhythm after the cardioversion I stopped taking the medication. They tried to make me keep taking it, but I didn’t.”

However, two months after the procedure, the abnormal heart rhythm returned and Vivienne realised how important the medication still was.

“When my heart started going back into the irregular rhythm I started taking the medication again.”

More recently she has had to come off it for unrelated surgery, and in consultation with her GP, has made the decision to try a new type of anticoagulant medication which requires less regular blood testing.

Was stress a factor?

Vivienne wonders if stress made have played a part in the development of herAF.

“I do wonder if being a teacher for as many years as I have, a very stressful job mentally, has had an impact. My blood pressure wasn’t ever high enough to be on medication, but it was never 120, it was always on the high end.”

There is also a family history of heart conditions, although her other family members weren’t diagnosed until later in life.

“My grandparents died of heart conditions and strokes but not until they were in their 70s. My mum had angina and had a quadruple bypass in her early 70s but she never had a heart attack, it was done before that.”

Her mother also had high cholesterol, a condition that Vivienne now has too. “It was only when I got to menopause that I got it. I was getting tested from 40 on, I remember my doctor used to do me and it was quite normal until I got to menopause then it shot up. I’m now on medication for that too.”

Meanwhile Vivienne’s father also had AF – although he wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his 80s. 

A pragmatic approach

In general Vivienne has taken a pragmatic approach towards her heart condition. “For a while there, after I first got AF, I got really anxious and I actually got myself really worked up over it for about six weeks. But then I got used to it and then I was fine. Now it doesn’t really worry me.”

She’s made a number of lifestyle changes – doing her best to eat healthily and go to the gym – but she says it’s a positive mental approach that has ensured that her AF hasn’t impacted on her quality of life.

“In the end, if you’re in that anxious state all the time, it’s going to affect your health because mental attitude and health definitely do go hand in hand.

“If you’re going to dwell on things all the time, your life’s not worth living. Maybe it’s easy for me to say, I know, because the AF hasn’t affected my life much, but I think you’ve just got to be positive and be grateful for what you do – and don’t – have.

“AF is very controllable and treatable. Medically, the prognosis is good. There’s no reason you can’t lead a good long life.” 


Shared July 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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