Three heart attacks in 10 days
Within just 10 days, young mum Cynthia survived three heart attacks due to spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). Staying positive is what got her through. Here is Cynthia’s heart attack story, as told to the Heart Foundation in an interview.
“It’s incredible how you can recover! I said to my husband yesterday that when I think about what happened it seems strange because nearly a year out, it feels like it all happened to someone else.
“Obviously I still have the physical scars. I know that I get tired quicker than I used to and when I’m sick I can take longer to recover, and I know that my family still carry the emotional scars, but it feels further away.”
Last April – the 10-day trial begins
“I was working last year in an early childhood centre. Just a busy mum, going about life as usual. And I was just picking up my son from school when I collapsed.
“Other parents came to my aid, one of them was an off-duty paramedic, which was no small miracle, and they rang an ambulance to take me into Waikato hospital.
“I was 36 years old, reasonably healthy, exercised regularly, have a good diet, don’t smoke, and have never used drugs – so it was a bit of a baffling situation. Eventually medical professionals figured out that I’d had a heart attack.
“Apparently what had happened at school was that my blood pressure had hit the floor, so that’s what had made me dizzy. This was fortunate because I was just about to get into my car and drive home with the kids. I didn’t feel the heart attack until I was already in the ambulance.”
Second – and third – heart attacks
“They kept me in overnight and then early the next morning put four stents into the arteries around my heart, then with no obvious reason to keep me admitted, I was sent home.
“I came home, had one day at home and then I had another heart attack.
“I’d been out for lunch with my mum and I was coming home, when I said to her ‘I don’t feel very well’. By that time I was carrying GTN spray with me constantly, so I dosed myself with that, but it didn’t help, so my family called an ambulance again and they took me back to Waikato.
“Initially they thought I had pericarditis as a reaction to the stents, but further tests showed I had actually had another heart attack. My arteries had dissected around the stents which was limiting the blood supply to my heart. This further complicated an already unusual situation, so what was next?
“I was put on nitrates to thin my blood, stabilise my heart, and buy me some time for more tests and to consider a long term solution.
“So this was my treatment for a number of days. Then I was taken off the nitrates to see how my body would respond, and I had another heart attack.
“By this time things were getting a bit desperate, I could see my family were so frightened and there were some frustrated doctors. I was put on a balloon pump to give my heart a bit of respite and then I was going to have to have an emergency triple bypass...
“When you’re on a balloon pump you can’t move. It is a helium balloon inserted into the body to help circulate the blood and support the heart. It would beat in between my heartbeats so that the blood was moving. I could feel it – it was like having butterflies in my stomach or the first movements of a baby during pregnancy.
“But once I was on that, I had to have a nurse sitting next to me monitoring the machine 24-hours a day and I was flat on my back, immobile. So that was four days, two days before the operation and two days afterwards they left me on that machine just to give my heart time to recover.”
Coping with a prolonged stay in hospital
“I just took it a day at a time. You know, you have dark moments, and usually it’s late at night when you’re by yourself, you’re not sleeping well, in a bit of pain, and you’re full of meds.
“It’s really easy to get weighed down by everything that’s happening to you. You feel drowsy from medication, you feel tired and uncomfortable, and people around you are distressed. It’s hard to not let that affect you. But I guess for me, it was important for my own recovery to stay positive. I am a big believer in there being a larger plan for my life. I also believe that positivity is contagious and filters out to others around you.
“I’m a relatively happy person generally, but I had to make more of an effort to find something that I enjoyed every day, like a visit from friends and family, a good book, or a warm cup of milo.
“I remember one morning they moved me from being close to the door to being by the window and it seems ridiculous, but honestly, being able to see outside and having sunlight coming in – you know it was just, I’ll just take that. That’s a great thing that has happened to me today.
“So appreciating the small things was helpful and not thinking too far ahead because that would make me worry.
“I had close friends who visited me faithfully, the love and support of my husband and children, and my parents who virtually lived at the hospital during this time. My in-laws also came up, which was wonderful for my husband who also greatly needed support during this time.”
A high-risk open heart bypass surgery
“The day before the surgery, I was very careful not to think too much about it. I mean I knew what was going to happen, the surgeons were very clear with me about the significant risks and complications especially since my heart had sustained damage.
“I remember when they came for me – they woke me up about 5am on the morning of the operation because they had to prep me. And I remember thinking, OK this is a big thing, and starting to be a bit nervous at that point.
“But I also remember reminding myself to stay calm – this has to happen, there are no other options. And obviously I came out of it well.”
Recovering at home after the open heart surgery
“At least for the first few months with that kind of chest injury, I wasn’t supposed to lift or carry anything, not even raise my arms over my head to hang out washing – I didn’t feel so bad about that!
“My young daughter still wanted to be picked up and cuddled, so she learnt very quickly to come and sit next to me on the couch. The whole family adapted.
“My husband is so supportive and loving. He took time off work to help care for the children, the house and me. We were also eligible for a little bit of home help. My mum came to stay for a little while as well, to help with the kids.”
Emotional journey for the whole family
“It was particularly intense for my husband and my kids – my daughter was only three, she had just turned three when it happened. And my son was eight.
“My daughter said to me the other day – she’s just starting to really articulate herself – she said, ‘I cried a lot when you were in hospital Mummy.’ And I thought, oh, you’ve never really said that to me before. And then she said, ‘And Daddy cried a lot when you were in hospital.’ And I said, yes he did, he did cry a lot. She prayed a few nights ago… Thank you God that Mummy is not in hospital anymore, and thank you that Dad isn’t crying anymore.
“More than the physical, the long-lasting effect is the fear – I guess that’s the big thing, especially for my husband and children. Every time I’m sick, we all get a bit nervous, but I have a fantastic G.P. who has been with us for many years and never makes me feel like I’m overreacting.
“For a period of time, my husband wouldn’t leave me by myself. I had one of the St John’s emergency bracelets for a little while. If I didn’t have someone with me, he knew that the ambulance – if I collapsed – they could get to me. And that just gave us peace of mind.
“My daughter for the last year has wanted to hop into bed to sleep with me at night and my son wants to be around home a lot and I guess I don’t know how much of that is just them being them or whether there’s a bit of ‘we just want to be near you to be sure you’re going to be all right’. But I think we’re doing really well.”
‘You’re part of this little group’
“You feel like your story is unique and of course everyone’s is, but when you share it, you realise there are other people in the world who have experienced similar things, and you’re part of this little group.
“I’ve got a great big scar down my chest now and I don’t try to hide it – it’s amazing the number of people who share their story with you once they see your scar. It’s actually fascinating. I’ve been into restaurants where complete strangers come up and want to chat about it.”
“Life has returned to some semblance of normality. I am completely work-fit now, but as a family, we have agreed that I will not return to work at this stage. My children are still young and I am taking the opportunity to enjoy them. The children are busy with football, swimming, ballet etc. And now I get to go on school trips, coach mini-ball, attend preschool events and be really present in their lives. I try to remember to appreciate every day.
“As to the cause, well, there’s nothing definitive. I’ve had a myriad of tests for possible genetic disorders or other reasons, however they have all came back negative. So it’s been labelled a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). It would be easy for this uncertainty to make me fearful, and that is something that I battle from time to time, but I like to think of it as an opportunity to have a little faith.
“I’ve got a new blood supply to my heart, and I see my cardiologist every six months. With a healthy lifestyle, the outlook is good. I thank God and the amazing medical staff at Waikato Hospital, that I have been given another chance at life.”
Shared April 2017