How a pacemaker at 34 saved my life

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Mum of two, Kim, found her life turned upside down after developing a heart condition following routine knee surgery. Readjusting to a new normal, Kim shares the emotional and physical upheaval experienced on her journey to diagnosis and recovery.

Everything happens for a reason… right? Good things sometimes fall apart so better things can come together. People change so you can learn to let go. Things go wrong so you can appreciate them when they’re right. But when that something happens to you, the hardest thing is waiting for the reason to come along.

My life was perfect. I was a healthy 34-year-old mother of two who bounced out of bed every day at 5.30am to go to the gym. A solid workout was my favourite way to start the day. It was my time; I loved working up a sweat. The harder my heart worked, the better I felt mentally and physically.

My love for sport and fitness took its toll on my body over the years. I’ve had two shoulder reconstructions, two surgeries on my left knee, one on my right, and a couple of torn discs. But I always found a way to carry on… until that day. Just thinking about it brings back so many emotions. It’s still so raw no matter how many times I tell my story.

It was spring, September 2013, and I just returned from a family holiday in Port Douglas. Life was great. I had two beautiful children, Jack who was four, Ella who was two and a loving husband. I was excited at the thought of expanding our family. In fact, my husband and I decided whilst we were in Port Douglas that we would try for baby number three once I had recovered from a simple knee surgery upon our return.

On the morning of my surgery, I kissed my family goodbye and before I knew it I was on my way home again with my leg in a brace and my plastic vomit bag! I was always very sensitive to anaesthetic but I knew I’d be feeling better in a day or two… or so I thought.

The nausea was horrendous. I was constantly running to the toilet and I ended up with deep vein thrombosis. I became progressively worse over the next couple of days. I couldn’t eat; I was dizzy, extremely pale and very lethargic. I just felt so off. Something wasn’t right.  I called my surgeon and was admitted to hospital immediately. There were no spare beds in the orthopaedic ward that day so I was assigned a bed in the cardiac ward. Quite ironic upon reflection! The doctors weren’t quite sure what was wrong with me so I was placed in quarantine.  I was poked and prodded for four days and when the doctors discovered a heart murmur, I was sent for further investigation.

I was born with a hole in my heart, but it closed over before I reached my teens and I never had any cardiac issues growing up. I also had no family history of cardiovascular disease so I was confident that I would be on my way home in no time and life would return to normal. This was not the case.

It’s hard to articulate what goes through your mind when you think you are going to die alone in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers. I recall the panic kicking in as I started to lose the feelings in my arms. Then my vision started to go. I felt nauseous, my body began to shudder uncontrollably and my heart started beating at a million miles an hour. I was adamant I was having a heart attack and would never get to see my husband or children’s faces again. Two minutes later, my symptoms settled, but I felt like I had run a marathon. I was mentally and physically exhausted and prayed this “mystery episode” never happened again. But it did happen again, again, again and again. There was never any warning. It literally felt like someone was flicking a switch. One minute I was fine and the next I was back in emergency. I spent the next 6-12 months in and out of the coronary care units and cardiac wards undergoing all sorts of tests. You name it; I had it - CAT scans, x-rays, MRI’s echocardiograms and angiograms… the list goes on.

My first Medical Emergency Team (MET) call scarred me for my life. What I witnessed in my room that day was like a scene out of a movie. Only it wasn’t. It was my life and that’s when I started to lose hope.

“Kim, we need you stay to calm. Kim, you’re going to be okay. Kim, you are not going to die. Kim, we need you to relax.”  This is all easier said than done when you’re surrounded by 10 plus hospital staff who are frantically trying to work out what’s wrong with you. The image of the nurse standing at the end of my bed holding a box with an adrenaline needle will stay with me for life. This wasn’t the last time I was confronted by this scene, and over time the psychological impact would become debilitating - to the point where the thought of taking my own life crosses my mind.

That afternoon my husband tries to ease my pain and reminds me of the love that is waiting for me at home. He sends me a link to All of Me by John Legend and as I sit listening (sobbing uncontrollably) my guardian angel struts into my room. Meroula Richardson, cardiac surgeon extraordinaire.

Reflecting on what I have been through to write this blog has reaffirmed the positive psychological impact Meroula has had on my recovery.  She was one of very few people that believed everything I said, and never once doubted what I had to say – numerous people in my life through lack of understanding started to think that all of this was in my head.  Over the space of 12-18 months with Meroula’s help, we systematically attacked each symptom to see if we could isolate it and improve my wellbeing.

My mystery episodes where all thanks to a virus I picked up in hospital whilst undergoing my knee surgery. The illness affected my automatic nervous system resulting in brady-tachy syndrome - slow heart rhythms that alternate with fast heart rhythms. It was articulated to me that a pacemaker at my age was a last resort, but it ended up being a life changing event. 

Since having a pacemaker, the physical part of me has grown stronger and started to heal. I can do things today that I could not do six months ago let alone three and a half years ago, and the anxiety associated with my health and all of the anguish I suffered at the hands of my heart has dissipated.  Having said that, these feelings are not far from the surface. I continue to see Meroula on a regular basis. She has had an overwhelming positive impact on my life and recovery. I hope by allowing myself to become vulnerable by sharing my story, others will heal by acknowledging their own.

If you are living with a heart condition and have faced some of the same emotional feelings as Kim, please join us at our free Emotional Wellbeing Workshop.