I am living with heart disease and lost my husband to a heart attack. So I know how real it is and how it can affect women at my age. I am 54 years old and was diagnosed with AF (atrial fibrillation) with dilated cardiomyopathy and heart failure when I was only 42 years old.
I was working full time as a warehouse and distribution supervisor but hadn’t been feeling well so I went to the doctor. Something was just not right. My stomach felt upset and I was breathless when going up stairs.
My GP thought maybe it was stress causing the symptoms but to be on the safe side, decided I needed an ECG. When I had the ECG, I was told to go straight to A&E. But I told the doctor I couldn’t go right then as it was my son’s 6th birthday party on the Saturday. I suppose I am like most women –my family came first, even before my own health, so I didn’t go to A&E. The doctor wasn’t happy but couldn’t make me go. I promised I would go after Saturday.
That night, however, at around 3.20am, I woke with my heart racing. I woke my husband, David, and we got a neighbour to look after our son and went to A&E.
When we got there, I was seen immediately. I told them I needed to be back out by 6.30am to get home and get my son to school. They looked at me like I was mad! Instead I was taken to coronary care where I was diagnosed with AF (atrial fibrillation) with dilated cardiomyopathy and heart failure.
Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often fast heart rate. Dilated cardiomyopathy is when your heart muscle becomes stretched and thin so it can’t pump blood around your body efficiently. The symptoms that this causes are collectively known as heart failure.
With that diagnosis, of course I was kept in hospital. Not only did I not get my son off to school that morning, I also missed his birthday party on the Saturday. My husband had to do the party by himself. I sat in hospital in tears.
At that stage, my condition was stable but I stayed off work. However, in the next couple of years I had two or three bad bouts when I had to have cardioversion to get my heart back into normal sinus rhythm.
In 2006 I had a pacemaker fitted which is the best wee gadget ever. Beforehand my heart would start racing faster and faster. With no time for my heart to fill up with blood between beats, not enough blood would be pumped around my body. My blood pressure would drop suddenly and I would pass out. I have passed out in church. I passed out at my son’s school open night. I passed out anywhere and there was nothing I could do but it hasn’t happened in a long time. The pacemaker keeps my heart beating between 60 and 120 beats per minute and doesn’t allow it to go too fast or too slow.
Then in 2009, my husband David passed away. He was diagnosed with cancer on the 1st May, but had a massive coronary on the 12th May. He had no symptoms at all. It just suddenly came on and he died in front of me. I was left having to look after the house, our son and everything by myself.
Coping with his death and raising my son alone would be difficult anyway, but my heart problems have added an extra challenge.
I had already given up my full time job as my condition made me too tired to work full time. I suffer from breathlessness. Walking on the level is fine. If I am walking up stairs, the first flight is okay but the second is hard.
But the secret is to manage what you do and know your limits. I know what I can and can’t do and how much I can do. Often my head wants do something but then I know I have to pace myself. This can be frustrating. It makes me cross that I can’t do everything, but that’s the reality.
I started volunteering for Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke and am the chairperson of the Ballycastle Fundraising Support Group. I organise fundraising activities that help fund research and health promotion campaigns. I can’t change my own heart condition or bring my husband back, but I can work to make others aware of heart disease, in the hope that it will not affect their family, as it has affected mine.
Find out more about the cardiac support services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.