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Valve replacement and a brain injury

Kate was visiting her newborn daughter in hospital when she felt pain in her chest and collapsed. Fortunately, she had a medical team around her, as what followed left her in a coma for two weeks.

In early May 2018, Kate's baby, Ruby, was born premature and severely underweight at 26 weeks and was kept in hospital.

During the next couple weeks, as she visited Ruby daily in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) Kate felt unwell. She had pain in her chest, back and shoulder, as well as blood in her urine, but initially put her symptoms down to a flare up of a condition she has (lupus).

One day, on the way to hospital, the chest pain got worse.

"I was on the way to see Ruby," remembers Kate. "I had significant pain in my chest that lasted 20 seconds, but it passed and I kept walking. About half an hour later I was struck with even more chest pain and collapsed in the NICU."

One of the nurses put her in a wheelchair and took her to the women’s assessment unit.

"By then I was screaming. I was really in pain, it was uncontrollable. I was attacking everybody and going pretty crazy. My oxygen was extremely low, and the nurses were trying to put the mask on me to give me the oxygen, but I wouldn’t let them."

Intensive care

Once Kate was calm she was taken to the cardiothoracic and vascular intensive care unit (CVICU). She can’t remember much of what happened next, but emergency surgery and a cardiac arrest were to follow.

Kate was given a general anesthetic while the doctors carried out an investigation, which confirmed a rupture of a heart valve. This required her to have emergency surgery where her mitral valve was replaced with a metal one.

After surgery, Kate remained extremely unwell. To allow her heart and brain to rest, she was put onto a life support machine, which provided support to her lungs and oxygen to her body.

"I was on the life support machine for five days and then they kept me in a coma for another two weeks. It wasn’t until 16 June that I had my first movement, where I blinked my eyes and wiggled my tongue. It was very blurry from there. I had a tracky as well and that wasn’t taken out until 25 June."

Concern for Kate's recovery

As a result of a cardiac arrest during surgery, Kate had a hypoxic brain injury (damage caused by a lack of oxygen). The initial prognosis was that Kate would likely be blind and wouldn’t talk or walk again. However, Kate had other ideas.

"My sight was very, very bad and I couldn’t speak but I could see way more than anybody was giving me credit for. I tried to give them clues but I couldn’t move my body or tell anyone. I used to bite people! I wanted them to know that I understand. I would be like “hello”. I was very frustrated. Being trapped in a body when your brain is functioning how it should, but your body won’t do what your brain is telling it to do is very hard."

Kate slowly improved and once she was able to swallow food she was taken to the neurology ward.

"Being inactive for so long you get a lot of muscle wastage, so I still couldn’t get up and walk, but I could talk. I was in neurology for three weeks and then on 9 July I went to the rehab ward and I stayed there until the start of August. That is where I learnt to walk and dress myself again."

Caring for baby Ruby

During the time Kate was unwell, Ruby stayed in NICU. The team in the NICU knew of Kate’s situation, so kept her baby safe while she got better, even though after a while Ruby didn’t need the extra care.

"I like to think that Ruby came early because she sensed that something was going to happen. Because if she had stayed in my tummy for another two weeks she wouldn’t be here. It was a blessing that she came early."

While Ruby stayed in NICU, the team looking after Kate organised for visits every couple of days, so they could see each other.

"It took like an army of people. They had to take me in my bed because I couldn’t walk. While I was still in CVICU I had to have two nurses with me and the NICU nurses were with Ruby, so it was huge and exhausting. Once I was in neurology I was able to go in a wheel chair every day, either by my partner or a nurse, to see Ruby."

When Kate left hospital in August, she was still using a walker and unwell, but her main priority was making sure Ruby was well-cared for and healthy. Unfortunately, Ruby is going through her own set of heart troubles now. She has been diagnosed with a heart murmur, a leaky valve and a hole in her heart, which she recently had surgery for.

At home

Once Kate was out of hospital, Ruby was moved to a unit closer to home so it was easier to visit. Before Ruby was discharged, Kate stayed with her for a couple of nights, so she could get used to looking after her full-time and through the night. The new parents then took Ruby home on 11 September, four months after she was born.

"When she came home it was very scary, but it felt amazing and I couldn’t believe that we finally got there and that the both of us were alive. I was still very tired all the time, but I just can’t even describe how great it was, it was just awesome."

Kate has come so far in her journey and can now do things the doctors didn’t think she would ever manage.

"I honestly feel like nothing ever happened, apart from a giant scar on my chest! I think it will take me a little bit of time to realise that that was really me and that it happened to me. I think that once I get to that point, I will be on my road to recovering my mind. I have recovered my body, I think I have done a pretty good job at that. The mind is just as important if not more important. I am on the buzz about getting my healthy mind back."

"You don’t want to act too brave and not ask for help because people are willing to help if you just ask. I never want to feel sorry for myself. I know that I have been through a lot and it is a huge amount, but there are always people who are worse as well and that is what I try to tell myself."

"I appreciate everything so much more, especially Ruby and my partner Joe. I always knew he was a good guy. We have been together 14 years and he stuck by me this entire time, it really shows how much he cares."


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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  • Tinyiko 31 July 2020

    Sure really was puzzeled i had cardiac arrest cbr its Amazing i made it sure im blessed too be alive

  • Kate 12 September 2019

    Yes it sure was a tough journey, all journeys are difficult and different. As you said having a great guy stick through it all was a blessing :)

  • Merys 11 September 2019

    Wow ! My journey was bad enough, but as you said, there is always someone worse off, though they don’t get much worse than that. Blessings to you and Ruby, and hang on to your man. A partner who can handle all that is a gem.