Leukaemia masks heart disease symptoms
Margarita had been suffering from breathlessness for a while, but as she had another serious illness at the time, she never imagined she also needed urgent heart bypass surgery.
When she first began suffering symptoms of breathlessness, Margarita’s heart was the last thing on her mind. “At the time I had leukaemia, so that was sort of a priority and it was affecting the body overall.”
She put her lack of puff down to her ill health and a lack of fitness. “It crept up on me over a period of about four years. I noticed I was puffing when I was walking up the hills in Port Chalmers and I thought I was unfit, so I decided that I’d increase my walks in duration and I’d try to speed up a bit.”
Despite the efforts to improve her fitness, Margarita’s breathlessness continued. Things came to a head in October 2014 when she took a trip to Rotorua to visit a friend. On the final day of her stay, the pair climbed the escarpment on the Buried Village track – a steep walking trail just outside the city.
“We were very, very puffed, both of us and we just put it down to being unfit, just our ages,” she recalls.
A trip to the GP
The following day, when back home in Dunedin, Margarita continued to feel unwell. She booked an appointment to see her GP, who immediately referred her for further tests at the hospital the next morning.
“I’ve never seen a GP write scripts so fast. He was writing about four of them to different departments, and there was this little list, I had to go to x-ray first then I had the other departments after that.”
As she was having breakfast on the morning of the appointments, Margarita got a call from the hospital to say their first patient had cancelled, and asking if she could get there as soon as possible. It was the first time she got the sense that something serious might be at play.
“I just had a sort of spine-chilling tingle going down my body, I thought, the team upstairs are working overtime.”
Margarita underwent the tests and returned home, only to be recalled to hospital that afternoon where she was immediately admitted.
“I was gowned–up, put on a bed and then hooked up to the monitors behind me, so I couldn’t see anything going beep, beep and all the little lines and the lights. I thought, ‘Dammit, I’m missing out on the picture show.’ I have this facetious sense of humour, which some people think is rather crass but it gets me through panicky stages without going into meltdown.”
Admitted to the cardiothoracic ward
After being examined by the doctor, Margarita was told she’d been spending the night on Ward 7A. As a former nurse aid at the hospital, Margarita knew what that meant – she was being sent to the cardiothoracic surgical ward.
Margarita was then kept sedated while she awaited surgery.
“It was at least 48 hours before I was told that I was on the list for bypass surgery because by then, I’d lost track of time. When you’re in a softly-lit room and you know that you’ve been drugged to relax and be calm, that’s when I knew things were really, really serious.
“Fortunately because I’d worked in a hospital I wasn’t panicking, but I could imagine someone who wasn’t used to hospitals – they might well have panicked. I thought, well, I’m in the best possible place.”
Margarita finally had her triple bypass surgery about a week later. It all went very smoothly.
“I didn’t feel a thing, and I woke up after it all and I wasn’t nauseous, I wasn’t sick, just a little bit thirsty.”
As she lives alone, Margarita organised to stay with a friend for 10 days immediately following the operation.
“That was a great help, and the district nurse came and checked the dressings and everything. I felt thankful to the team and that I had a friend who took me in and I wasn’t having to stay in hospital or go to a convalescent home.”
The recovery was also relatively painless, with the wound healing quickly.
“It felt like when you’ve gashed your knees and the wound is healing but the scab is pulling a wee bit. It wasn’t itchy or sore and I knew there were stitches holding everything in place. You sleep on your back or slightly propped-up and because I had this little pillow over me it meant that nothing was actually resting on my chest.”
Reflecting on the surgery
Margarita admits that the surgery was something of a wake-up call. “I had to realise that I wasn’t 50. I was in my 60s and I had to slow down a bit.”
She’s made some practical changes to ensure things run smoothly if she has to make a sudden trip to hospital. This includes:
- keeping keys in her front door if she needs to unlock it quickly for paramedics
- keeping a list of contact numbers and her NZ health number ready
- giving a spare key to a friend who can feed the cat should Margarita be suddenly admitted to hospital
- keeping a bag packed ready, including with a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Looking back on the event, Margarita says she feels lucky to be alive.
“What I’m really amazed at is that something didn’t happen sooner, because that escarpment my friend and I climbed, I mean it was sheer vertical. I can only say it was my team of guardian angels and spirit guides or whatever you want to call them. I firmly believe that we all have a guardian angel, and some just work overtime!”
Shared November 2018