A 41-year-old Leigh mother who suffered three serious cardiac events and almost died as a result of an unusual heart condition is warning other women never to ignore unusual pain or symptoms.
Melissa Crockett-Joyoue says it was only because she was having a rare quiet morning at home that she really took notice of what was happening when she had her first heart attack in November, and that on any other day she might simply have ignored the symptoms and carried on. This was because she felt no pain, only strange sensations, and had no idea it was anything to do with her heart.
“I was putting moisturiser on my face when my chest felt heavy, right in the middle. I have a very heavy hei-tiki and it felt like that was weighing on my chest. I took that off, but it still felt heavy,” she says.
Then her jaw began to feel tight and tingly.
“I just thought there’s something really weird about this. My gut said there’s something wrong, even though there was no actual pain.”
She lay down on her son’s bed and called wife Doria for help.
“By that time my chest went from feeling a bit of weight to feeling tight and then I had funny tingling sensations running down the back of my arms. My jaw was still tingly, and then it was tight and tingly across my upper back. It still wasn’t painful, though. Just tight, like a band around my chest, and it kept getting tighter and tighter.”
Leigh Fire Brigade was first on the scene and immediately gave her aspirin. She was told later it was that, and the fact that she had laid down, that had saved her life.
Once at North Shore Hospital, she had an angiogram, where a thin tube was inserted into her artery and injected with dye. However, as soon as the dye got to the heart, it blocked the artery and prompted a second heart attack.
“It was terrifying, because everyone was yelling and calling for the crash team. They eventually managed to put guide wires through a closed flap in my artery and get me stabilised,” she recalls.
That flap was a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, known as SCAD, where the inner lining of an artery tears and impedes blood flow. In Melissa’s case, the injected dye pushed the torn piece of artery so that it completely blocked the artery.
It turned out that Melissa had three tears in her arteries and it was decided she needed double heart bypass surgery. However, just two days before she was due to have the operation, she caught gastroenteritis and a consequent drop in her blood pressure saw her pass out and suffer cardiac arrest.
It took a sustained bout of CPR and a tense few hours of trying to bring her blood pressure back up and rehydrate her before Melissa was out of the woods again.
“Of the three times that I could have died, that was the most dramatic and frightening,” she says. “It was terrifying that I could just ‘leave’ without knowing, without being able to fight.”
After a day’s recovery, Melissa had her open heart surgery and returned home just before Christmas.
“It’s had massive impacts on all of us,” she says. “I can’t pick up the children, and it took eight weeks just to be able to bottle feed our baby daughter Hine.
“But the community has been amazing – people gave Doria lifts to the hospital, we had meals delivered for six weeks, local friends organised breast milk donations from around the country, and the fire brigade saved my life.”
Melissa is now keen to increase awareness of SCAD and the fact that it frequently affects women who have recently given birth. She says women need to listen to their bodies and to make sure they are heard by health professionals, who might not immediately suspect heart issues with them.
“It’s a real warning for women,” she says. “If you have something that feels wrong, ring an ambulance, don’t just soldier on. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, listen to it.
“On any other day, I might have explained my symptoms away, and I wouldn’t be here now.”
What is SCAD?
The Heart Foundation says spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) occurs when there is a tear in the inner lining of a coronary artery. Blood then flows through the tear and pools between the inner and outer linings of the artery, reducing blood flow and sometimes blocking it completely.
This reduction in blood flow can cause:
• A heart attack
• Abnormal heart rhythms
• Cardiac arrest
At least 80 per cent of people with SCAD are women, and some experience it in the weeks after giving birth. SCAD is most common in people in their 40s and 50s, although it can affect people of any age.
What are the symptoms of SCAD?
SCAD happens suddenly and without warning. The signs and symptoms can closely resemble a heart attack caused by coronary artery disease. These symptoms may include:
• Chest pain
• Heaviness or tightness in chest
• Pain or discomfort in arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach
• A rapid heartbeat or fluttery feeling in chest
• Shortness of breath
• Nausea and sickness
• Extreme tiredness
• Loss of consciousness
Most people who experience SCAD recover fully, providing their condition is diagnosed quickly and treated correctly. However, as SCAD can result in cardiac arrest, it is vital that people call 111 for an ambulance immediately if they experience any signs of symptoms, even if they don’t think they are at high risk of heart disease.