Celebrate the small steps and other lessons learnt from cardiac arrest

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A story from Emma McRae

Anyone who has experienced a life-changing or life-threatening event knows what it’s like to face a long list of challenges. In my experience, with a threat to my life, surviving a cardiac arrest brought on many social, medical, psychological, emotional challenges.

I remember being in the hospital and having a psychologist talk to me; they asked, “Have you had any thoughts of hurting yourself?”. I paused for a long time and, through my tears, I couldn’t picture my life going anywhere. I thought my life was finished that I wouldn’t be able to do anything and that I would spend my life would in hospitals, in pain and in tears.

I couldn’t picture my life going anywhere

I was so angry after my cardiac arrest, mainly because of what I thought it had taken away from me. I thought I would not be allowed to have more children, that I would never travel again; I love to travel! I had worked in tourism and travelled across Australia and a few other countries.

The fear that overwhelmed me on most days was debilitating, as was the fear of going to sleep! When I slept, I had night terrors; they were so frightening, and I just did not know how to deal with all this. I remember being so sad and, while people tried to understand and comfort me, I felt that they just couldn’t understand how I felt.

That was April 2016 and those intense emotions stayed with me until at least early 2017, having had a few episodes of my defibrillator going off and then undergoing two cardiac ablations (a procedure that can correct heart rhythm problems) in November 2016. My doctor was very honest with me and was very cautious. The ablations were successful, but my doctor cautioned me to remain careful until he had seen data from my home monitoring and check-up appointments for at least 12 months.

Small steps to get through a long list

As time went on, and as my heart events started to become a distant memory for others (not me, I live with it daily), my mindset started to change. I started to think about my next move. I thought that life was so precious and can be taken at any minute, or changed beyond your control with no notice, so: what did I want to achieve? I had a long list, and most is not achievable with our budget.

Not long after the first anniversary of the ablation, we flew to Sydney to see family. I had done this flight dozens of times before, but the only thing I was so anxious about was security. I knew it wasn’t advised to go through the scanners and I built it up in my head that it would be a big ordeal and felt so anxious that they would make me go through the scanner. Then I worried that if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to go on the plane as I would be so scared that the scanner had screwed up my device! The anxiety is so awful!

But the reality of it was, the security people didn’t even blink an eyelid and passed me through an area where they did a pat down and off I went. I remember the relief I felt and my smiles when I got through that one! I was so proud of myself for going on that trip. As the saying goes, “From little things, big things grow”.

I thought back to 2016 and remembered the feeling that I would never travel again; I remembered feeling so upset that my love of travel could be lost. Plus, there was something that had been on my mind for years; fulfilling my dream to visit France. With my successful trip to Sydney under my belt, it got me thinking: Could I do it? I put plans in motion, started the research, visited the travel agent and asked my family if they wanted to do it. I talked to my doctor, and he was fully supportive of my idea.

Only two things worried me: how would I go through international airport security and would I get travel insurance?  With some family help, we found four insurance companies that covered pre-existing medical conditions, and one was happy to cover me. I was so happy and even happier when the premium was nowhere near as much as I thought it would be.

In January 2019 my husband and I and our four-year-old son got on a flight to travel to London, and then we went to France for a couple of weeks.

My experience of travelling with my defibrillator was positive; all the airports, train stations and attractions we went through had processes for passengers with devices. The image I had built up in my head of my device and condition being a huge inconvenience was nowhere near reality. Staff were accommodating, and I went through as fast as everyone else.

My trip was amazing! I loved every minute. I loved the scenery, the people, my four-year-old trying to say “Hello” in French, but most of all I embraced the fact that I was there and reflected on how far I had come to get there; not just me, but my family.

One pivotal moment I remember was at the end of the character parade in Disneyland Paris: I watched my son smiling in amazement at the scenes in front of him, and I was overwhelmed by my tears. I had overcome astronomical obstacles, and I was in Paris, the city I had dreamed of visiting since I did French in high school!

Appreciate every moment

In Nice, I sat at the coastline and stared into the distance, reflecting on my achievement and appreciating that I fulfilled my dream. At that moment, I embraced the support, love and advice of friends, family and my doctors; all that they had done to help get me through the last three years. I remembered that life throws you some serious curveballs.

A life-threatening event can overwhelm you, and you will feel that there is nowhere to go. But time will pass, and with support, you will get to a point where you can see a future, and you will be able to achieve your goals, even after a heart event.

Remember to celebrate the small steps and appreciate every moment on your way.

Hear more personal stories of diagnosis and recovery from a heart condition from young Australians