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Kylie defied the heart attack stereotypes
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Kylie defied the heart attack stereotypes

Cardiac rehabilitation was a turning point for Kylie and essential to her heart failure recovery.

It should’ve been a fun night out at a Guns N’ Roses concert. Instead, Kylie Sardinha found herself in the arena’s medic tent, wracked with pain and fading in and out of consciousness.

Life was good for Queenslander Kylie Sardinha. She had a terrific job, a healthy lifestyle, a loving husband and three children – the youngest of whom had just finished high school. Then a heart attack struck. 

Kylie’s heart story 

On a hot night in February 2017, my husband and I were lining up for a Guns N’ Roses concert in Brisbane. I had bought him tickets for the mosh pit as a 40th birthday present. After months of waiting, the big night had finally arrived. 

Life was good for us. We divided our time between Brisbane and our hometown of Rockhampton. I had a terrific job that allowed me to work from home. The youngest of my three kids had just finished high school and was about to start university.

If you’d asked me about my greatest health concerns at the age of 48, I might have listed all the usual ‘female’ things, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer and menopause. I certainly wouldn’t have nominated a heart attack.

In my mind, a heart attack was something that happened to older people and probably mainly men.
I always thought that the typical candidate was someone who smoked, sported a beer belly, and had high blood pressure. I was a fit, young, non-smoking woman in my forties. A heart attack couldn’t happen to me – right?
I could not have been more wrong. 

As we queued for the concert, out of absolutely nowhere I felt an overwhelming pressure on my chest. It was so sudden and so intense; as if the Incredible Hulk had put his hand on the middle of my sternum and pushed me against a wall and kept pushing.

I also started feeling hot, clammy, light-headed and nauseous. This was accompanied by a vice-like grip on my biceps, along with pins and needles in my hands.

I told my husband I didn’t feel right, that something was very wrong. At first, he thought maybe it was a normal reaction to the sweltering heat that evening.

But as the gates to the concert opened and people started streaming in, I began to feel excruciating pain. It was the worst pain I’ve had in my life, and it was everywhere! Luckily, I got to an usher and asked for help – just before I collapsed to the ground in agony, drifting in and out of consciousness.

I was rushed to the arena’s medic tent, where the staff gave me a strong painkiller and an aspirin tablet, and performed an ECG. Unbeknown to me, this indicated I may have had a heart attack. I was told I’d need to go to a hospital for more tests.

Without knowing what the doctor suspected, this seemed like overkill to me. By now the pain medication was taking effect and I felt fine, apart from being hot, hungry and cranky about missing the concert. I could walk to the ambulance, and even the emergency-room doctor initially thought I may have had a heat-related event or an anxiety attack.

A blood test told the real story. My level of troponin – a protein in the blood that’s used to measure damage to heart muscle – was more than a hundred times higher than normal. The doctor pulled the curtain around my bed and said, “I can’t believe I am about to say this, but you’ve had a major heart attack.” 

The next day, I had an angiogram. The results were shocking; in total, I had six blockages in my coronary arteries. The worst, a 90 per cent blockage in my left anterior descending (LAD) artery, required a stent.

Four days later, I was discharged from hospital and returned to our unit in Brisbane, but I was a long way from being back to normal health. That first day at home, I found myself sitting and crying on the floor of the shower, unable to muster the strength to do something as simple as wash my own hair. Everything was so hard.

I was given many booklets when I left the hospital. Two were from the Heart Foundation: ‘My heart, my life’ and ‘Living well with chronic heart failure’.  The latter scared me most: here I was, just 48 years old and all of a sudden I have heart failure! I was determined to do exactly what I was told to make sure I gave myself the best chance of making a good recovery.

After a week of resting in Brisbane, I was allowed to return to Rockhampton. There, I was referred to the care of a cardiac nurse, who set up my participation in a rehabilitation program. I cannot stress enough how crucial this part of the healing process was for me.

I started with rehabilitation specifically for heart failure. I needed this because immediately after my heart attack, my heart was not working as it should due to the amount of damaged muscle.

The heart’s ability to pump blood around the body is measured by an ‘ejection fraction’. This is expressed as a percentage and refers to the amount of blood being expelled from the left ventricle – the heart’s main pumping chamber – with each contraction.

A normal left-ventricle ejection fraction is over 50 per cent; straight out of hospital, mine was around 30 per cent. Through rehabilitation sessions – twice a week over 12 weeks – and  medication for heart failure, my ejection fraction gradually increased to somewhere in the mid 40s.

Next, I attended cardiac rehabilitation – also twice-weekly for 12 weeks.

Typically, cardiac rehabilitation includes information sessions about things like quitting smoking, good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight, as well as managing medications and gentle exercise.

I already have a very healthy lifestyle, so for me, the focus was working with an exercise physiologist to develop a plan that would help me regain my strength. This involved a combination of cardio and resistance-based weight training.
Cardiac rehabilitation gave me something I hadn’t anticipated. It really lifted my spirts through meeting people who had been through a similar ordeal. My friends and family loved and supported me in whatever ways they could; however, they could not truly understand what I’d experienced. At cardiac rehabilitation, I met people who did – and it was a real turning point for me. 
Looking back, I don’t feel I had any warning signs of a heart problem. My family history was a significant factor – my biological father had two heart attacks in his forties, but I didn't find that out until after my own near miss.

Today, I’m doing well. I’m one of the extremely lucky cases who has recovered to the point where I no longer need to see a cardiologist regularly. I put this down to getting quick treatment (within 15 minutes of my symptoms appearing), and participating fully in my rehab sessions. I also continue to have a very healthy lifestyle, eating well and walking up to 10 kilometres a day. 

If there’s one piece of advice I could give others, it’s to see your doctor and find out about your heart-disease risk factors. Do it for the ones you love.

I have a new motto in life: “It’s not about missing the milestones, it’s about being missed at those milestones!” My husband and kids are thankful every day that I’m here to celebrate even the smallest of things with them. Family is everything.

Kylie’s one piece of advice 

See your doctor and find out about your heart disease risk factors. Do it for the ones you love.

Photo credit: Steve Vit 

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