20 Nov, 2018 Living With Atrial Fibrillation – Sally Brooks’ Story
“I got back to my hotel and my heart was beating out of control.”
After a night of casual drinks with friends four years ago, Sally Brooks realised something was not quite right with her heart. It wasn’t until six months later that she was diagnosed with the most common heart rhythm disorder in women, Atrial Fibrillation – or AFib.
Atrial Fibrillation is a type of abnormal heart rhythm which can increase the chance of blood clots, stroke or heart attack. During Atrial Fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly and usually very fast. This causes them to ‘quiver’ instead of a strong contraction, resulting in blood not being pumped around the body as efficiently. It can cause feelings of lightheadedness, dizziness and even chest pain (see below for more symptoms).
Thinking back to that night, Sally was surprised by her increased heart rate. “I’m not a big drinker, I usually only have a couple of wines but that night I’d had maybe four drinks and I noticed really rapid heart beats.”
“I had just turned 58, so in the back of my mind I thought it might be related to menopause, but when I got home I knew I needed to see the doctor.”
Sally’s GP listened to her heart and said, although it sounded fine, he wanted her to have a 24 hour holter monitor just to be sure. A Holter monitor is a battery-operated portable device that measures and records your heart’s activity (ECG) continuously for 24 hours, allowing more time to pick up abnormalities.
“I didn’t end up getting the holter monitor put on until six months after my visit to the GP because I was busy with work and I hadn’t been having any symptoms.”
So it came as a huge shock when only days after having the test, Sally received a call from her GP.
“He told me to get to his surgery straight away.”
Sally’s doctor explained that the test had shown she has Atrial Fibrillation, and needed to go on blood thinners immediately because she was at risk of having a stroke.
“I was shocked to suddenly have a diagnosis like that, especially when it’s not curable and I need to take medication daily,” said Sally. “But I’d rather be taking a couple of tablets a day than be in hospital.”
Now 62, Sally has made lifestyle changes to help manage her symptoms.
“In terms of alcohol, I have two or three glasses a week because alcohol seems to trigger my irregular heart beats. I also monitor my caffeine intake and only have one coffee a day.”
Reducing her stress levels has also helped, says Sally. “I retired from work a year ago and I’ve noticed the lack of stress has really helped. And all the general stuff of course! Like eating well and exercising.”
Sally also acknowledges that her strong family history of stroke puts her at risk, with her grandmother having three strokes and dying at just 68.
“It’s so easy to overlook but if you don’t deal with it, the risk is stroke. For women it can be hidden because you can put it down to menopause or stress.
Generally a lot of people don’t realise that the symptoms can be different for women, this is why Her Heart is so important.”
“When I was still working I suggested to my manager to go and get a heart health check and I often send women in my life links to the Her Heart website.”
Sally says that she has also been able to learn more about AFib through Her Heart’s newsletters and social media posts.
“You only get 15 minutes or so with your cardiologist so having more information is really important.”
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Lower extremity swelling (eg. swollen ankles)
- Loss of exercise capacity
- Depressed mood