Women and Heart Health

I had an operation at seventeen to save my heart and lungs from being crushed, after my initial bone grafts crumbled and weren’t able to keep my spine straight. It remains incredible to me, that my chest was opened- floating ribs removed- and someone massaged my heart for many hours during the mighty surgery. I guess I became cavalier about my heart as a result. After all, the amount of times I thought this heart was incapable of any further psychic injury, and yet it still kept beating, is incalculable.

Four years ago, I lost my dear friend, Serena, and my attitude toward my heart changed. She had a family history of cardiomyopathy, with both her father and aunt dying young. She went to her GP, complaining of exhaustion and a nagging cough, and it was put down to a virus. She ended up collapsing at home, and was taken by ambulance to hospital, where it was discovered she was in heart failure. She was put on the transplant list and transferred to St Vincents. She died that evening, leaving us shocked. Women are more likely to die from heart disease than any other cause, and yet we are reluctant to seek help as a matter of urgency. One reason for this is that the signs of heart disease are often vastly different than for men.

A few months ago, I went to see a new doctor, as mine was on holidays. I told him that my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and that I felt like I had indigestion each night, with a weight in my chest. I was also breathless, nauseous, dizzy, with a tight neck and was exhausted all the time. My symptoms were worse when laying in bed. He took one look at me, 48 kilograms, a vegetarian with low blood pressure, and reached for the obvious. I had gone into premature menopause in my early thirties, and it seemed that my symptoms were caused by the lack of hormones. He suggested I go back onto the patches, but something didn’t feel right. In the meantime, I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia and TMJ problems, so I put a lot of the symptoms down to these conditions, and the stress of dealing with such.

Meanwhile, I felt ever weaker, and had to grip onto furniture to stop me falling over. I was in bed early each evening, completely spent, and my heart felt as though it was going to jump out of my body. I ended up losing consciousness a few weeks ago, and an ambulance was called. When I came to, I felt silly causing all this fuss, and apologized to the two women taking my vitals as I lay on my bed. After doing an EKG, they said that they were worried about my heart, and took me to hospital. Another EKG was taken, and it was alarming. My heart was beating way too fast, signalling a problem. Another EKG was taken by my regular doctor, which showed the same. At this juncture, I took the advice to rest as much as I could.

My doctor organized an emergency appointment for me with a cardiologist, and it was found that I wasn’t breathing from the base of my lungs, and that I had chronic pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the sac that envelops the heart. Shortness of breath, fatigue and coughing are common symptoms. It feels as though I am being stabbed through the heart continuously. I was put on three medications, which will hopefully ease the symptoms, and told to rest. No exercise. I have to be careful to avoid the flu, as I can’t have a flu shot when my immune system is weak. I am going for review in a week’s time and undergoing more tests.

I am telling you all this, because I was cavalier. I drink my three litres of water each day, live on a plant-based diet and exercise daily. It still didn’t protect me. Issues with the heart can have so many causes, including genetics and stress. I have had enough stress for a few lifetimes, though I had thought I was managing it. If you are experiencing any of the above, please, go seek medical advice. The longer a potential problem exists, the more damage can be done to your heart.

I was strangely calm after these recent experiences. I had to stop and reflect; I didn’t have the energy for much else. This numinous child of mine took precedence in my thoughts, as did my determination to see her flourish as an adult. Having no time to waste has also taken priority. I have often said that you know when something is right to do because it takes nothing from you. Rather than feel drained, you feel replenished afterward. I had begun spinning out of control, like a crazed sprinkler, flinging my attention every which way. It is time to get back to basics; to have fun and do what doesn’t create such exhaustive spillage. This was my warning to do what I can, and then rest from the day’s efforts. We are only given the one precious heart, and boy, does it go through some trauma over a lifetime! Somebody once massaged my beating heart. It is my responsibility to take as good of care of it as I possibly can.

Serena.

10733747_864904400210073_4217018992701463406_o

I haven’t been on my blog (or planet earth), for several weeks. It is due to my dear friend, Serena. Before I tell you what happened, let me tell you how it all began. I was at a local park with my daughter eight years ago. The Jacaranda’s were out, and the rose gardens in full bloom. A lady -with hair assembled from the shavings of fragrant cedar- was at the playground with her little boy. She smiled as I approached, and spoke in a delicate English accent. I fell in love with her on sight. Her son and my daughter would hold hands in my car as I drove us around. They did gymnastics together, celebrated each other’s birthdays and local festivities. Serena was a teacher, who had changed children’s lives in the small county from where she came. She had squirreled away her money, and travelled the world. Oh, the adventures she went on, and the beauty she saw! She went around Australia, finally settling in Sydney. She had her little boy, then another blessed bub. She wrote stories, dreamt, and was loved by all who met her. She didn’t take life, nor herself, too seriously, and marched to a different beat. Her dance had an elegance to it, and was certainly independent of choreography.

1507265_860322504001596_5366620154724001302_o

We shared many wonderful escapades, drinking cocktails with friends, seeing shows and movies. I would usually smuggle in a flask for us to share. She earthed this flighty fairy. She loved this country, though gravitated to New Zealand more than once. I think it reminded her of home. We shared our hearts, our homes, our lives. A month ago, I received a message that she had been rushed to hospital. It was her heart. I knew this was perilous. Her father and aunt had succumbed to a rare heart disease, and we all prayed Serena wouldn’t present with symptoms. Even in hospital, she was directing us all not to make a fuss. There was nothing she needed. When talk turned to a heart transplant she was as brave as she had always been. I had some marvellous talks with her. She was always interested in your life, asking how you were, what the children were up to. It wasn’t surprising that her heart worked too hard. It overflowed with love and compassion.

10817030_869546726412507_1947302517_o

Our darling fought, my, how she fought. She was transferred to St Vincent’s, and had a wondrous visage from her bed of our beautiful city. She was relieved. One step closer to a transplant. To having more time. It was after midnight when her beautiful heart stopped. The staff did everything they could. Serena was gone… She had taken off her glass slippers, teetering out of the room. Gone in the small hours, not wanting to make a fuss. You will always be with us. You changed us, putting everything into perspective, especially the holiday season. It is about holding your loved one’s close, comforting your two little boys and your beautiful mother, who has flown over from the UK, and understanding what a tenuous grip we have on this precious, painful, wondrous life. I am finding it hard to catch my breath with the burden of grief I am left with. So many share this grief. Our town holds so many memories. Wherever I go, there you are. You will always be there, my dear, sweet friend. You lived a full life, the half you were allotted. I will complete the journey on your behalf. When I am eighty (twice your age), I promise to imbibe Bailey’s and raise my glass to you.

10477644_869598559740657_3423767334546020975_o

To make a donation to the Victor Chang Institute, which is doing extraordinary work in the fight against heart disease, please click on the link above. xxx