Skip to main content

Warning bells in the council chamber

After making her case in a council meeting, as she’d done for many years, Jenny suffered her first heart attack. Thirteen months later, the same thing happened again.

As a Wellington City councillor for nine years and a former town planning commissioner, Jenny chaired a lot of planning hearings. Though she didn’t much like public speaking, it was a necessary part of the job.

Twenty years later and retired, Jenny was part of a group of individuals appearing as objectors at a Masterton District Council resource consent hearing. When all the talking was over and the group was heading out for coffee, Jenny started to feel off-colour.

“I’ll pass (on the coffee),” she told a colleague. “I’m going to go home and take a couple of Panadol, I feel something coming on.”

She drove home and started feeling pain in the corners of her jaw, like “swollen gland pain”. She also felt as though something, like a hand, was squeezing on her heart very gently. It never occurred to her that she might be having a heart attack, so she considered having a hot bath and heading to bed. But now, the pain was spreading to her shoulder blade and around her back.

“Then there was that critical moment where I thought ‘no, this is getting really bad’ and I did the thing that you’re not supposed to do… I got in my car and drove down to the medical centre,” says Jenny.

When she got there she remembers feeling “sort of spaced out – in another dimension”.

“My thoughts turned inwards, but I was semi-conscious of what was going on in a funny sort of floaty state.”

Soon, Jenny found herself in an ambulance off to the hospital where she was told she’d had a heart attack.

No surgery or stents were needed – three days later she was discharged with medication instead. “So that was the first one,” she says.   

Second heart attack

Thirteen months later, while back in the council chamber as an objector, Jenny once again started to feel unwell. She asked the commissioner if she could be seated to present her submission.

During the lunch break she thought, “Oh lord, surely history can’t repeat itself because I’m not feeling great.” This time she also had pain in the corner of her jaw...

Jenny considered driving again to the medical centre, but thought the better of it. Instead of calling an ambulance, she thought she would walk the few blocks to get there. “I thought if the pain is gone by then, I will just go home. But by the time I got to the middle of the road, opposite the medical centre, it was a lot stronger and things seemed to be getting a bit dark.”

It was about lunchtime during the Masterton traffic rush, she says.

“I was standing in the middle of the road. I couldn’t get across the rest of the way for a wee while and I started sort of almost laughing. I thought oh what a way to go here, I’m going to do it dramatically, in the middle of Masterton’s lunchtime 10-minute rush-hour traffic!”

Jenny did make it to the medical centre where she was picked up by the ambulance and sent to Masterton Hospital and then two days later transferred to Wellington.

Bad angiogram experience

At the hospital, Jenny had an angiogram where dye was released in the heart to find any blockages or abnormal function. Unfortunately, a nerve was clipped on the initial insertion of the sheath.

“You know you’ve got the option of going toward life, rather than death, by going through these horrible procedures. But wild horses wouldn’t get me to do another one,” she says.

“I was like a lamb to the slaughter. I didn’t expect there would be anything other than momentary pain to be endured and it would probably be unpleasant. (But) it was just appalling, screaming pain… I still feel pain in my groin.”

Since then, Jenny has done some research into the procedure and found that these problems can occur because of the proximity of the main nerve to the arteries and veins. “It’s not a matter of negligence or anything, it’s a matter of statistics.”

Third episode

Jenny returned home, with medication again, and life carried on smoothly. However, in 2014 another incident occurred.

Jenny had gone with friends to explore Castle Point Headland – a trip involving a steep uphill hike. Towards the top, Jenny started feeling severely nauseous. She didn’t want to worry anyone so she encouraged her walking buddy to check on one of the other people in the group ahead who’d had a history of heart complications. Jenny hoped a quiet sit-down would help the feeling pass.

“It was literally the most dreadful thing I have ever experienced, it was just horrible.” But the discomfort soon eased, and lying on her back with the sun shining on her, Jenny felt like she’d entered some sort of trance. “I remember thinking oh this is lovely, I don’t even have to breathe anymore. And I was just lying there for I don’t know what passage of time, I really don’t.”

Another friend, coming up from the beach below, then called out to Jenny, asking if she was alright. Jenny started taking note of how she was and where she was and eventually sat up and put her head between her knees until she felt better.

Her friend made her promise that she wouldn’t go any further. “Then I said ‘Oh I’ve come so far, can I please just crawl over and look down the side because we’re so high up I just want to see what it’s like.’ And she said ‘Promise, promise you won’t go any further!’ So I crawled over and had a look, then the rest of the party joined us again and we all toddled back to the car.”

When Jenny got home, she simply put the incident down to “some sort of crazy episode”.

The next day, while on the phone with her friend from the walk, a significant earthquake struck the Wairarapa, where she lived. With this distraction, and others, she put aside seeing her doctor for another two weeks.

When she eventually made it to the doctor’s, her GP was “not pleased” with her. Jenny was sent straight to Masterton Hospital for a treadmill test and ECG which showed she had a “funny” heartbeat.

It took her nearly a month to get to Wellington for another “awful” angiogram.

“I said ‘Look, the last one was so awful that I will probably pass away’ so they agreed to just put me on the treadmill. They made me run as long as I could while increasing the pace. Overwhelming nausea started up at some point and I called a halt.” Her recovery rate, however, was good and she was advised she could go home.


Jenny goes to her doctor for regular check-ups every six months and is now very mindful of putting herself into stressful situations or highly physical ones. She says she would still climb the headlands again, but would tackle it a different way.

“My heart has had some muscle damage from my heart attacks so I think I have really learned to know my limits and to not push myself to extremes.”

Jenny is now retired from both council work and her other career as a garden advisor, but she stays active with regular exercise and doing the gardening. She also helps out in the community and volunteers for the Heart Foundation.

She lives alone with a very supportive family, friends and neighbours looking in on her. Having a medical alarm and driver’s license gives her peace of mind and enables her to continue living independently.


After Jenny’s second heart attack, all she wanted to do was crawl into a hole, but that was not an option with so many relatives and friends calling in on her. She was grateful for the support, but also tired from not sleeping during her three days in hospital.

“I wasn’t in a very good state when I got home and my family sort of took turns to keep an eye on things – it went on for about a month.”

A nurse also came around, and at one point Jenny revisited the hospital because she kept getting dizzy – simply because her medication dosage was too high and the strength had to be cut down.

Some talks run by the Heart Foundation also helped a lot, says Jenny. “These classes are wonderful. I learned about the medications and what they did – I found that interesting and it was also good to have a brush-up on my resuscitation skills in case it happens to someone else. It was very informative and empowering”

Jenny says women need to be specifically educated because heart attacks are usually seen as a men’s issue even though the figures show more women die from heart attacks. “With a science degree, I’m supposed to be a well-educated person yet didn’t recognise a heart attack when I was having one.”

As well as the educational benefit of the classes, it was good to talk to others who had experienced something similar, says Jenny. “It’s a real social thing. Like who wants to get together with all their friends and talk about all their pains and things. Sometimes it’s better (to speak) with a complete stranger when bad things are going on.”

It’s now over nine years since her first heart attack and Jenny is grateful to still be going strong. “It’s good to come out the other side and life is still good.”


Shared December 2016

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

Find similar stories

View all stories
  • Be the first to post a comment.