“My heart was killing me, but what killed me most was not seeing my babies. They had to be smuggled in to see me.”
It had taken ten difficult years to get pregnant, so when my twins were finally born in 2016 – on my 39th birthday! – I thought my heart would burst with joy.
What I didn’t realise, was that my heart had started to fail.
As you can imagine, like any new mum, I was exhilarated and exhausted! But the night I brought Tilly and Teddy home from hospital, I woke up coughing, unable to catch my breath. I went to hospital, but after some tests I was told it had probably been a panic attack.
I’m telling you my story so that another woman doesn’t risk everything for fear of making a fuss.
I couldn’t sleep as it felt like I was drowning. My appetite disappeared, so I had to force myself to eat to continue breastfeeding. Despite antibiotics for a suspected chest infection, my health deteriorated until I could barely climb the stairs. I would often just cry with the frustration.
I’d always known becoming a mum would be tough, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel this bad! Yet often I felt like a drama queen. People suggested I wasn’t coping or had post-natal depression.
But I just knew something was wrong.
Road to diagnosis
For five weeks I bounced from doctor to hospital, and finally after not sleeping for four days I went back to my maternity hospital. My difficulty breathing shocked the doctor who sent me immediately by ambulance to St Vincent’s. I called Mum and she drove up with the breast pumps, but little did I know I’d never use them again. The focus had been on my lungs and a suspected clot, but on a whim, they suggested a heart consultant take a look.
When he arrived at my room, he took one look at me from the doorway and ordered a scan of my heart. He’d noticed the artery on my neck was extended – a key sign of heart failure. Heart failure? Surely that happens to older people like my grandad – he had heart failure in his 90’s!
There was talk about a heart transplant and I knew things were really bad when my sister arrived back from London. Yet, despite the diagnosis, part of me was so relieved to finally know that it wasn’t all in my head.
Coping with a life-threatening illness
What was killing me most was not seeing my precious babies as they weren’t allowed in the Cardiac Unit. I was so upset, my family smuggled Teddy and Tilly in under their coats one day. They knew my life was at risk and realised how important it was for me to hold them. I was so scared, but when I was transferred to the Mater, at least I could see them there. I was hooked up to machines, and every time Tilly and Teddy arrived, my heart rate dropped, and shot up again when they left. The guilt at being apart from them, knowing how difficult things were for Eamon and my parents was worse than dealing with my own condition.
I’d developed a rare condition called peripartum cardiomyopathy that affects women in, or after pregnancy. With symptoms like swollen feet and exhaustion similar to those of late pregnancy, it’s difficult to diagnose. Luckily, I slowly recovered over the next year.
What scared me most was how afraid I’d been to make a fuss when I knew something was wrong
When women don’t feel well, we’re terrible for saying, “ah sure I’ll be grand, I’ve 14 million things to do before next Saturday,” and let things go that little bit too long. Other times we know something is wrong, but it can be difficult to get somebody to listen.
Will you please support the Irish Heart Foundation to make sure other women don’t risk everything for fear of making a fuss, like I nearly did? My advice to any woman who feels something is wrong is to take action and listen to your gut. Know the symptoms of heart problems. Knowledge is power.
The Irish Heart Foundation teams give endless support in heart health by ensuring people in Ireland are aware of their risks, advising on healthy lifestyle and providing free heart checks. But they need your help to do more.
1 in 4 women in Ireland will die from cardiovascular disease?
Your kind gift could help to fund heart health checks and raise awareness of cardiovascular disease.