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Unusual symptom leads to heart bypass surgery

Brenda had never had any problems with her heart and thought herself fit and healthy. After seeking medical help for wrist pain, Brenda was surprised to find she had blocked coronary arteries and required triple bypass surgery. Here Brenda shares her story.

My heart story started whilst on holiday in England back in 2016. I had a terrible pain in the joint of my left wrist, specifically on the outer side, below my little finger, within the wrist joint. I could pin-point the pain. When the pain was at its worst, I would describe it as a 10/10. But I was on holiday, as far away from home as I could get. So, I ignored it.

I was in the UK for three months and the pain wasn't there all the time. I actually thought I had repetitive strain injury (RSI). I was quite a healthy woman in my 60s, a Volunteer Ambulance Officer with St John and living with an extended family of my daughter and her two children. My life was always busy.

I said to my husband that if it was still bothering me when we got home, I would see my own doctor. We got back to New Zealand in August and the pain was still annoying, but it hadn't spread at all, it was still a pin-point pain in the same place. I found if I held my hand above my head, the pain eased. So, I left it for another month.

Getting to the bottom of her wrist pain

Then one day the pain reduced me to tears, so I finally saw the doctor. I actually said to him that it was probably RSI. He said straight away that it wasn't. He explained RSI pain would be present all the time. He suggested we should run a few tests.

He arranged for me to do a stress test to check for angina (also known as an exercise tolerance test). I really thought he was wasting everyone's time. I had no chest pain or shoulder/neck pain and no family history of heart disease. Anyway, I did go to the stress test which was at a nearby hospital with a cardiologist.

The test involved being hooked up to an electrocardiograph (ECG) machine whilst riding a bike and having your heart monitored to see if it’s receiving enough blood and oxygen during exercise. I peddled as long as I could, but only managed to last about six minutes before I was exhausted. I remember leaning over the handlebars and saying, "Geez, I'm so unfit!" to which the cardiologist said, "No, Mrs Chaffe, you are rather unwell."

Follow up tests required

The monitor was showing significant changes in my cardiac output. He then referred me on for an angiogram at another hospital and talked about stents, to open any blocked vessels supplying blood to my heart muscle. I must admit I was still wondering how pain in the wrist turned to needing a stent in my heart.  

I was told that stress may have been a contributing factor to my heart problems. This could be partly true because my daughter had been very unwell for a number of years and I was always feeling tired and fatigued, but I just put that down to caring for her all the time.

Anyway, an angiogram was arranged for a few months' time to which I duly went. I had spoken to my GP and looked up angiograms online so had an idea of what was going to happen.  

The hospital I needed to go to was two hours away from me, so my husband came too, and we were booked in for an overnight stay because of distances involved. I duly had the angiogram and following the procedure, I was put out in the recovery room with other patients that had had stents placed during their procedures.

Angiogram confirms the need for bypass surgery

My cardiologist came to my bedside and said, “Well, you won't be needing stents” and then before I even had time to breathe a sigh of relief, he went on to say I was going to need bypass surgery. This news as you can imagine shook me. How could wrist pain turn out to be heart related? I really didn't want the surgery. Again, I looked the operations up online and was quite scared.

Within three months I was back at the hospital being prepped for a triple bypass. To give you an idea of what's involved in the surgery, your heart is temporarily stopped and put on a heart-lung bypass machine during the surgery. New arteries are made from your leg veins and grafted onto your heart, creating a new passageway for restoring blood flow to the heart muscle, bypassing the blocked arteries. Your heart is then restarted. Absolutely amazing but still very scary.

The operation was a success and after what I thought was a very short time of 10 days, I was discharged home to continue my recovery. At home I wasn't allowed to drive, or raise my arms above my head, which made it quite difficult to wash my hair.

I was still tired and weak, but a physiotherapist and a heart nurse came to the house to check up on me during that time. I was also put in touch with another lady that had had the same operation and I found comparing notes with her was very helpful.

Reflecting on the experience

That was now over five years ago. My heart is still beating strongly, and I still enjoy myself, being generally in good health. I reckon as I had over 60 years with my old arteries, I now have another 60 years with my new arteries. I now go to line dancing classes to try and keep fit and walk my dog more.

I am very grateful to my GP for sending me for tests and to all the cardiac team for the extra years I have had since my surgery, and I look forward to many more. I would also like to add that I am thankful to all involved in my operation.

My outlook on life has changed since my surgery. I remember wondering if there was any point to it as it was such major surgery, and I was quite scared. But as my daughter died in 2019, I am rather glad that I did get the surgery done as I am able to be around for her children, my grandchildren.

To sum up my story, don't assume you are not having heart problems, because you just never know. Follow the advice of that Heart Foundation advert on the TV and get a check-up with your family doctor. Don't assume anything when it involves your health. Sometimes it’s the smallest problems that end up being the biggest threat to your life.

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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