Against all odds, she survived

Growing up as a child suffering extreme asthma (in the days before there were the fantastic treatments available today) and suffering cancer in my early 20’s, I was no stranger to ill health.

I was 27 and pregnant with my first child when the Obstetrician sent me to a Cardiologist. It was extremely scary. What if my child was affected? It turned out that I had a heart murmur and the Doctor assured me that I would need no further treatment needed.

Fast forward 20 years: I was struggling to breathe and very tired and assumed it was my asthma but the GP sent me for tests. I was not ready for the diagnosis of Cardiomyopathy that eventuated. This can’t be. That’s what killed my Dad. Oh my god! After a visit to the hospital, I stabilised enough to begin Cardiac Rehabilitation at The Canberra Hospital.

I can’t praise the work done by the Rehabilitation Unit highly enough. The standard length of time a patient will attend is 6 weeks, with twice weekly visits. I was there for 12 weeks. As well as attending the Gym and the classes, I started walking every day. At first I would walk to the end of the driveway. Then the end of the street. Then around the block. I walked everyday no matter what. Even Christmas Day.

Through all of this I continued my usual life as much as I could. I was carer to my husband who had MS. Eventually the Doctor was able to tell me that I had improved to the stage where my heart was now at the lower end of normal. Over the next few years there were quite a few changes in my life. I went back to work, my husband passed away and I became a grandmother.

During 2009, at the age of 55 I was struggling with multiple chest infections and pneumonia. I had 4 lengthy stays in hospital. A visit to the Cardiologist at the beginning of the year had revealed that there was some calcification around one of my heart valves, but the Doctor said it may be 10 years before any action would need to be taken. By the end of the year the calcification had advanced so rapidly that I had an appointment with the surgeon early in the new year.

I had reduced my working hours so I was only working mornings, and still had a couple of weeks until I would see the surgeon. I was about to leave for the day when I took a call from a particularly difficult client. I can’t thank him though, because if not for his call what came next may have happened in my car.

A lot of what came next I only know from other people. A colleague noticed I was making a strange noise. My friends went into action. The first aid person and a new colleague who had previously been an ED nurse worked on me. Another friend timed and kept a record of how long I was breathing and not breathing.

It had not been just a heart attack. There was also heart failure and a stroke. At the hospital I had several further events during the night and the following day I had surgery. The only thing I can actually remember of that time is waking up on the way to surgery; they gave me a new artificial valve and my next memories are weeks later.

I spent a total of about 12 weeks in hospital with 6-8 weeks in Intensive Care. Much of that time I was unconscious. There was one doctor who asked me what I wanted to do if I had another heart event? I said “keep bloody trying”. When it happened again he asked my friend what he should do. She said “you heard her – keep trying”, and he did. He actually came to me months later and apologised and said he had learnt something from me. I was pleased. Next time maybe he won’t be in such a hurry to give up. My Cardiologist decided that a pacemaker might help and once that was put in I turned a corner.

My recovery was interesting; I remember waking and seeing this big scar down my chest and wondered how that got there. Then there were the hallucinations. The first time the nurses asked me if I wanted to have a shower I was so excited! I expected to get out of bed and walk there and it came as a shock to be told that I couldn’t physically walk. I had to learn that skill right from the beginning and it was weeks before I could take a step without a walker. Mostly though I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was alive. I was recovering. I had a future. Everything I saw was special. I went home and the sky was blue, the flowers were amazing, the air was clean. Music, colours, people, all brought a smile to my face. I valued everything. Minor irritants no longer mattered. That is not to say that I didn’t have bad days where I would be depressed. I still have the odd day. It is a rare day when I don’t think about what happened and I am grateful for still being here.

I had many months of various types of physical therapy. The only sign of the stroke now is that I can’t swim anymore and a little pain in one arm at night. Nothing that really matters. I now celebrate an extra birthday on the day of my surgery. I went back to work part time a month after leaving hospital and was back to full time after 3 months. I am still working full time and will continue to do so for a while yet. I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren. I spend time with friends and love to attend concerts of bands from the 60’s and 70’s. I have made a point of catching up with old friends.

My life has been a scary, scary roller coaster. However it is not over yet and there is still plenty of things left to do. I don’t plan on ever stopping enjoying my life. My motto is “Keep On Trying”.

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