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The one that took Jan’s breath away
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

The one that took Jan’s breath away

Open heart surgery to treat damaged heart valves has improved Jan's overall health.

Jan Nelson thought she was having another asthma attack, but when a series of tests confirmed that her aortic valves were damaged, she had open heart surgery and is now walking and going to the gym three times a week.

Jan Maree, 55, was happily married with two grown-up children and was a long-term asthmatic who couldn’t walk down the street without running short of breath. After she had open heart surgery to replace calcified valves in her heart, Jan is now more physically active and even the asthma has gone. 

Jan’s heart story 

From the age of five, I was placed on a regimen of cough medicines and antibiotics after being mistakenly diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia. 

It really wasn’t until I married and changed my doctor that I was given the correct diagnosis. I’m an asthmatic, or seasonal asthmatic. At least twice a year, I’d get bad bouts of asthma – especially if the temperature was fluctuating or if there was heavy pollen in the air. Sometimes it could be triggered by a simple cold. 

But I learned to manage the symptoms – shortness of breath and sweatiness – with oral steroids and a range of puffers. Despite the medication, however, there was no improvement.

I thought I was getting an infection in my lungs because of my asthma, which caused the sweatiness. I had done all my normal steps but there were no improvements. In fact, I was getting worse and I just couldn’t understand why.

I went to my GP, who put me on a nebuliser, rather than a puffer thinking that would improve my asthma but a week later, I just felt ill. Then one morning when I was getting ready for work, I was extremely short of breath in the shower. My husband kept saying I shouldn’t go to work, but I insisted – even though I felt awful. I had only begun working as an admin manager for a private firm – in November of the previous year – so I hadn’t been working long at all.

Eventually, I did agree to drop in at a clinic on the way to work – not expecting anything grim – certainly not life-changing.  I still thought it was the asthma. At the clinic, I was placed in a treatment room and given an ECG (electrocardiogram), which registered my heart rhythm as normal even though I felt hot and clammy.

At that stage, they didn’t think I’d had a heart attack, but that I may have had a blood clot in my lungs. I was then sent to St Andrews hospital where I underwent more tests and scans but it wasn’t until the results of the first blood tests were received that we finally knew. The registrar in emergency told me: “You’re going to be here a while.”   

I was then admitted for a week and placed under a cardiologist. 

The CT Scans showed that my aortic valves were not functioning properly as they were heavily calcified. They initially tried to manage it with blood pressure medications so I ended up on 15 to 20 tablets a day in total. When the medications failed to work, I was scheduled for open heart surgery in July of last year, to have the damaged valves replaced.
I was told there was a 98 per cent chance I would make it. So – you get your house in order, you get your Will ready.
I had to deal with it, I didn’t have a choice.

I think it’s harder for the family; my husband is a bit of a worry wart and he was worried before the surgery, but he would never show it in front of me.

My children visited me. After the surgery, they brought their laptops and did their assignments next to me, they sat with me.

After the surgery, I was sent home but wasn’t allowed to travel to work especially as there were two flights of stairs to climb – and no lifts. I still worked – but I just worked from home. I just put a whiteboard up at home. My bosses and everyone at work were really wonderful.

Since my surgery, I have noticed a distinct improvement in my general health. Before the surgery, I couldn’t even walk down to the end of the street, 600 metres away, without going short of breath.
I go to the gym three times a week now, I see a cardiac physio who monitors everything.
The other day, my husband and I walked 5 km. Before surgery, I had also been gaining weight because of the steroids I’d been taking. Today is my first day without any steroids at all – and I’ve been losing weight again since I’ve been weaning myself off the steroids. And I’ve had no asthma at all. 

Jan’s one piece of advice  

 “I would like to encourage everyone to check with your doctor if you’re feeling unwell so you can get the treatment you need if something is indeed serious.” 


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