Tuesday 17 September 2019

'I thought I just had pulled a muscle but it was the beginnings of a heart attack' - Irish woman (50) was lucky to survive

Two women who had atypical symptoms urge others to get their hearts checked

Christine McGrath, who has a history of heart problems in her family, suffered a heart attack aged just 50
Christine McGrath, who has a history of heart problems in her family, suffered a heart attack aged just 50

Arlene Harris

Not long after celebrating her 50th birthday, Christine McGrath started complaining of a pain in her back. The Dublin woman assumed she had pulled a muscle and carried on life as usual, while constantly being reminded of a nagging pain between her shoulder blades.

A couple of weeks later, she had begun to accept her aching back when suddenly she woke up with a searing pain in her chest and down her left arm - but despite experiencing these telltale symptoms, was unaware that she was suffering a heart attack.

"I woke up one night in June 2014 with a shocking pain in my chest and along my left arm," says Christine. "I got out of bed and drank some water and after a while the pain went. My mother had commented during the week that my aches and pains were probably down to trapped gas, so I didn't think any more of it that night and went back to bed.

"The following morning I felt fine, so went off to have a shower. But as soon as I was finished, the pain in my arm came back, so I got dressed with the intention of going to the hospital for a check-up. But as soon as I got out into the road, I had a massive pain in my chest and fell to the ground. A neighbour rang an ambulance and I was taken to A&E."

Carol Breen, from Glanmire in Co Cork, had a stent inserted when, aged 50, doctors found she had a 98pc blockage in a main artery in her heart. Photo: Daragh McSweeney Provision
Carol Breen, from Glanmire in Co Cork, had a stent inserted when, aged 50, doctors found she had a 98pc blockage in a main artery in her heart. Photo: Daragh McSweeney Provision
Christine McGrath, who has a history of heart problems in her family, suffered a heart attack aged just 50

"The doctors didn't initially think there was much wrong with me but agreed that I should stay in until midnight for observation," she recalls. "Feeling better, I got off the trolley to go to the bathroom when suddenly I collapsed with an awful pain in my chest. Everything went crazy then, and I was rushed to the high-dependency unit with wires put into me and machines checking everything.

"I was kept wired up overnight and the following morning while talking to my sister I suddenly started slurring, felt really dizzy and sweaty, and then went into the most horrific pain I have ever felt - I will never forget it."

Christine, who is one of 11 siblings, was rushed to theatre where it was discovered that she had a severe blockage in her arteries and two stents had to be inserted immediately. Her heart was very swollen, so although she needed two more stents, this had to be delayed in order for the swelling to reduce. A few days later, the extra surgery was complete and she was pronounced out of danger.

"I was so lucky to have survived and couldn't believe how close I was to not pulling through," she says. "I was a smoker, and although I didn't smoke much (about five a day), this was enough to have been a problem so naturally I gave them up straight away.

"I also had high cholesterol and a strong family history of heart problems as my father (who is nearly 90) has had a few heart attacks and my mother suffers with angina, so there was always the chance. But it has made me see how quickly these things can come out of nowhere."

Approximately 10,000 people die each year from cardiovascular disease (CVD), including coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and other circulatory diseases. CVD is the most common cause of death in Ireland, accounting for 36pc of all deaths, so Christine was extremely lucky to have received medical help as quickly as she did.

"I really should have called an ambulance as soon as I started feeling chest pain that night in bed," she admits. "As it was I ignored the pain initially, but thankfully I was rushed to hospital and taken care of very quickly the next day, otherwise there could have been a very different ending to my story.

"After my surgery I had to have rehabilitation as I needed to build my strength up again and I have been tipping away great ever since. I have given up the cigarettes, have started exercising more, and although I am only seven-and-a-half stone, I don't eat any fatty food any more," says Christine.

"I am now on medication for life, and thankfully feeling great, but it just goes to show how a heart attack can happen to anyone at any time - a combination of high cholesterol, family history, smoking and stress was what caused it for me - but people need to be aware of the symptoms and go to the doctor or hospital as soon as the first pain is felt."

Carol Breen, from Cork, also had chest pains, which she initially put down to food-related symptoms, and was also just 50-years-old when she visited the doctor for what she thought was a bout of severe indigestion.

"Mild indigestion is something I have suffered with on and off over the years, and would always have a bottle of antacid handy," she says. "But even though it was a regular occurrence, I never thought it was important enough to mention to my doctor.

"Then in the spring of 2011, I had a spate of very bad migraines and was referred for tests. But while I was waiting for these, my indigestion pains started again, and my doctor suggested a thorough examination which included blood tests, an ECG and an angiogram, which revealed that I had a 98pc blockage in a main artery of my heart."

Carol, who works as an artist and has two grown-up children with her husband Eamon, was naturally shocked by this news, particularly as she had no family history, was a non-smoker, and wasn't overweight.

"The news was very distressing for both me and my family and I was terrified that I had such a serious problem. I was admitted straight away and sent down to ICU for the night, which was very scary. The following morning I was brought down to theatre to have a stent put in, which was also traumatic.

"I had never even heard of a stent before and suddenly I was there having it inserted. The doctors and nurses were very nice and kind but I still found it all very daunting," says Carol.

Thankfully Carol's surgery was a success, and after a week she was discharged and given a list of medication, which, like Christine, she will be on forever. The heart scare left scars both physically and mentally but, over time, she learned to put it behind her and get on with life.

"Once I returned home, it took a good few weeks to get over the shock, but it was recommended that I begin exercising as soon as possible so when I felt fit enough, I started going out for walks," she says.

"Knowing that I had a serious heart condition made me really nervous - I was worried that I might have a cardiac arrest if I did anything too strenuous. But I was referred for a six-week cardio rehab programme, which I found invaluable.

"Twice a week, the cardiac nurses and physiotherapist put me through a circuit programme. This was really helpful because all the time during the exercise, they monitored my heart while I was hooked up to a special machine.

"I found this very comforting, and it gave me the confidence to know that I could do a hard workout without being afraid for my heart. During the weekly classes, there were also different speakers who came in to teach us how to look after ourselves in the future - a dietitian, a cardiologist and a pharmacist - all who were a great help as they explained everything to us."

Six years on, Carol is fit and healthy and along with the medication, has made some other lifestyle changes in order to ensure she maintains a healthy heart.

"My health is still very good thank God," she says. "I attend my cardiac rehab circuit class every month and find it is a great help both physically and psychologically. I exercise every day, either walking for an hour or going for a swim every day. I go to an aqua aerobics class twice a week, and am conscious to try and eat as healthily as possible. I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, have swapped red meat for fish and chicken, and have cut out junk food. Mind you, I'm not a complete angel and do have the odd treat occasionally.

"If I could give some advice to other women, I would say take care of your heart, as it is not until problems arise that you realise how vital it is. No one expects to have problems with their heart until they are elderly, but I was only 50 and my symptoms were not typical.

"Thankfully my doctor persisted until she found out what was wrong with me. So I would encourage people to go to the doctor and get checked if they have any concerns - I am so lucky that I did because it truly saved my life."

* For more information visit irishheart.ie

f is forfacial weakness

Heart disease: the facts

Every hour in Ireland someone suffers from a stroke, and every day, hundreds of Irish people are diagnosed with heart disease. Fortunately 80pc of this disease is preventable and a few simple steps can help to minimise your risk of heart disease and stroke. These include:

• Be active, 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days a week, like a brisk walk

• Eat well, try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Cut down foods high in fat, salt and sugar

• Watch the weight, know your healthy weight range

• Quit smoking

• Have regular blood pressure and cholesterol checks

• Know your family history

• De-stress

Symptoms of a heart attack can include:

• Chest pain

• Upper body pain in the jaw, back, neck or arms

• Shortness of breath

• Sweating

• Nausea

• Light-headedness

• Loss of consciousness

t is for time

s is for speech problems

a is for arm weakness

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