Nikki Tod stares out the kitchen window with tears in her eyes, looking at an empty garden where her children should be playing. As she approached motherhood five years ago, Nikki made the decision to put her professional career on hold to be a stay at-home mum. Her dream was to spend as much time as possible with Samuel, now five, and Alexandra, two and a half, during their precious early years.
But five months into her pregnancy with Samuel, Nikki developed a heart condition called atrial fibrillation – a type of irregular heart rhythm where the heart rate can increase by four to five times the normal rate and may result in poor blood flow to the body.
Despite medications and catheter treatments, which have reduced the frequency of her symptoms, Nikki continues to experience ‘attacks’ that can send her heart racing to more than 250 beats per minute.
Although these attacks aren’t fatal, they can be extremely painful and frightening.
“That means it’s simply too risky to have the kids at home all the time, so they spend most weekdays in childcare,” Nikki says.
“I’ve had to balance my desire to be a stay-at-home mum with the stress it would put on me and them if they saw their mum taken away in an ambulance yet again, or the possible risk to them if I happened to have an attack in the car or somewhere like the mall or swimming pool.”
Nikki, 47, is one of thousands of Kiwi women living with heart disease. There are approximately more than 4,000 admissions to hospital each year for women with atrial fibrillation. Latest statistics show that heart disease kills nearly 3,000 mums, sisters and daughters every year. That’s 4.6 times more than the number taken by breast cancer.
This month, the Heart Foundation launched its annual Go Red for Women campaign, which aims to increase awareness of heart disease in women, and raise funds to underpin life-saving research and prevention programmes.
Gerry Devlin, Heart Foundation Medical Director, says a major goal is to change people’s perceptions of heart disease being a ‘man’s disease’. “That’s a really common perception but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Gerry says.
“Heart disease is the biggest killer of men in New Zealand but it is also the number one cause of death for women, claiming more than 50 women’s lives each week. Of all deaths from heart disease last year, around 44 per cent were women.
“What’s worse is that many of these deaths are premature and preventable,” he explains.
Gerry says there is evidence that women tend to wait longer than men to call for an ambulance after experiencing heart attack warning signs. That means they are more at risk of permanently damaging their heart or of dying.
So why are women not getting help they need sooner?
“One reason could be that women tend to place their loved ones’ needs higher up the priority list than their own health,” Gerry says.
“Women often feel that they can’t take time out to look after themselves because they have so many other things to manage. But how can you take care of all those people in your life if your own health is in jeopardy?”
Another reason may be that Kiwis – both men and women – aren’t aware that the symptoms of a heart attack can differ between the sexes.
“Like men, the most common heart attack symptom for women is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely to experience other symptoms, such as discomfort in the upper back, sweating and unusual fatigue,” Gerry says.
These symptoms can occur with or without chest discomfort. This may be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main coronary arteries, but also in the tiny coronary artery blood vessels that branch off from the main ones. This is called microvascular coronary disease.
“It’s not just women who need to be aware of these warning signs; men also need to be able to recognise if their partners, mothers or female work colleagues are having a heart attack. Otherwise, how will they know to call for an ambulance?”
Gerry says that Māori, Pacific and Indo-Asian women need heart check-ups from the age of 45. Women with known risk factors – such as a family history of heart attack or stroke, or high blood pressure – should also get their hearts checked from 45 years old. All other women should get their hearts checked from the age of 55.
Nikki Tod says the impact of heart disease on her life has often been overwhelming, exhausting and traumatic.
“At times it has stopped me being the active mum I want to be and I struggle with that. It affects your personality and impacts your relationships.
“My husband married a vibrant, ballsy, go-getter who managed to juggle many demands effortlessly, both professionally and privately. Now I can barely cook a meal some days.”
People with atrial fibrillation sometimes have no symptoms and their condition is only detectable upon physical examination. Typical symptoms others experience can include general fatigue, rapid and irregular heartbeat, breathlessness and chest pain.
The condition affects about one per cent of the population, and symptoms in the majority of patients are well managed by medication or catheter procedures.
Atrial fibrillation is usually not life threatening but can lead to distressing symptoms that adversely affect quality of life and occasionally heart failure. In addition, patients are often considered to have an increased risk of stroke, which can be reduced significantly by blood thinning medications.
Nikki is still trying to figure out which medications and dosages are right for her, and how to manage the symptoms of her condition. But she refuses to be a ‘victim’.
“That’s not how I roll; I am someone who acknowledges there are going to be sacrifices and compromises in what I’m able to take on and gives myself the time to achieve the goals I have set myself. It’s a balancing act.
“My goal is to see my children grow into wonderful adults.”
Nikki, a Heart Foundation Go Red for Women ambassador, says no-one should have to go through what she’s experienced.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about telling women to learn about heart disease. We Kiwis don’t tend to think about these things because we’re a bit stoic and staunch. We’re afraid of looking like we don’t have it all together,” she says.
“You know your body better than anybody else and if you know something isn’t right, then go to the doctor and get it sussed. It could be a thyroid issue or something else, but at least start the conversation.”
Nikki urges Kiwi women to have open and honest health conversations with each other. “Educate and empower yourselves with the knowledge to understand the many aspects of heart disease and the symptoms. If you or someone you know is not feeling 100 per cent, please get checked out.”
The Heart Foundation’s Go Red for Women campaign features a series of celebratory high tea events, nationwide fun runs and other fundraising initiatives.
To support the fight against heart disease in women, visit www.heartfoundation.org.nz/go-red-for-women
Source: Believe Magazine - Issue 13 2016