Grainne Hunt (44), from Athea in Limerick and now living in Walkinstown, Dublin, suffered two heart attacks in the last three years.
Grainne, who describes herself as living quite a healthy lifestyle said she exercised regularly, walking her two dogs every day and tried to maintain a healthy diet as best she could with no alcohol or smoking. Grainne’s immediate family have no history of cardiovascular disease, however, some extended family members including her Aunt and Uncle both died from heart conditions.
On the days preceding her first heart attack, in April 2020, while in lockdown at the beginning of Covid, Grainne didn’t experience any symptoms that concerned her. On the day before the heart attack, she noticed on her usual walk and when going up and down the stairs that she was slightly breathless which was unusual for her.
Grainne woke during that night and found herself unable to go back to sleep due to a burning sensation in her chest. She put it down to heart burn and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk but got no relief.
At this stage she woke her wife, Louise, and explained the situation. She asked Louise, “am I being dramatic or is something wrong”. Louise suggested calling an ambulance which Grainne dismissed and said she would wait until the GP opened at 8am.
"Am I being dramatic or is something wrong?"
Grainne recalls sitting at the bottom of her stairs wondering “am I doing the right thing” and listing out all the other tasks she had to do that day. She also recalls saying to Louise who at that stage had started to panic; “Will you cop on, you’d swear I was having a heart attack.”
By the time she had gotten to the GP she now had a pain in her arm and had convinced herself she had merely pulled a muscle as she had been cutting hedges the weekend before.
The GP recommended that she went straight to the Emergency Department. While waiting to see a Doctor, Grainne recalls constantly looking at the clock and thinking how busy work was and all the meetings she was missing. She also thought she was wasting the Doctors’ time.
Grainne went through a number of tests including a blood test and an ECG. A Doctor then came with her results and Grainne asked if it was nearly time to be discharged. The doctor looked at her puzzled and said that she was being admitted and had just suffered a serious heart attack. “I was flabbergasted and asked if he was definitely speaking to the right patient.”
“It took a further two days to sink in what happened. It wasn’t until a chat with some of the nurses that it really hit me”.
The nurses spoke her through her condition of SCAD and gave her some Irish Heart Foundation materials on managing her condition.
Grainne stayed in hospital for seven days. Because her heart attack was brought on by SCAD the treatments she received were more complicated than a usual heart attack.
Following her stay in hospital, she enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation programme in St James’s Hospital, which she found excellent. This allowed her to be around other heart patients and felt like a safe environment.
Following the heart attack, Grainne became very conscious about her diet, any signs or symptoms, and making sure she got enough exercise.
“I had the typical peri-menopause symptoms like night sweats, brain fog, restless legs and low moods so it was confusing to understand if the signs were related to my heart or peri-menopause.”
Getting back to her normal life, Grainne found herself quite nervous. “I remember all the firsts after the heart attack, going to the cinema, going to concerts and weddings or flying over to my sister in Scotland on my own. I remember going to Limerick for the first time and thinking I’m so far away from a hospital if anything happens.”
Her second heart attack happened in July 2022 at the All Ireland Hurling Final between Limerick and Kilkenny. A huge Limerick fan, Grainne secured one ticket to the final and despite being nervous about going alone, she attended the final at Croke Park.
During the second half, Grainne felt a “jolt” in her heart. She had never before experienced the sensation but put it down to the excitement of the day. After Limerick’s win, she knew something wasn’t right.
Grainne called her sister who urged her to go to hospital. A short distance away, Grainne walked to the Mater Hospital where she had a number of tests. Again, she was nervous she might be wasting the Doctors’ time. Later that day it was confirmed that she had indeed suffered a second heart attack.
“I felt more shocked the second time.”
"How could this happen again? I am doing everything right. If I wasn’t on the medication from the first heart attack, would I be dead?"
Grainne believes that one of the areas of her life she can work on is her stress management. Since her second heart attack she made the decision to give up her job until she finds something that is not as stressful. In her past roles, Grainne often found herself working 60-hour weeks while only contracted to work 40. She also found that she would often “hold stress in her body” and found it very hard to shut off from work. Grainne recalls telling her Doctor she was giving up her job and him saying “you are doing the right thing”.
Grainne has since started a new part-time job as an Administration Manager in a not-for-profit organisation.
As part of her recovery Grainne received a lot of information from the Irish Heart Foundations website but also found the HSE’s Living Well Programme to be a great support. She also found the SCAD Support Network a brilliant resource. The support group, based in the Irish Heart Foundation, helped her obtain some “really useful practical advice”.
Grainne found exercise played a key role in her recovery and recommends that anyone in a similar position do some research. “There are lots of PT’s and gyms out there that are brilliant with heart patients. Find the right one so you feel comfortable in your recovery.”
She also recommends taking your medication and being proactive in seeing your consultant and GP.
The Irish Heart Foundation’s Her Heart Matters campaign highlights that one in four women dies from heart disease and stroke and encourages women to look after their hearts by making small, sustainable lifestyle changes.