While heart failure is something you may have heard of, there are many people who wouldn’t be able to identify its symptoms or even know if it was something they were living with. This was the case for 62-year-old Western Australian Christine Goodall, who at 56, began noticing a number of changes to her body that she simply dismissed as normal signs of getting older.
“I wasn’t concerned,” Christine recalls. “I’d had a bit of a cough and I wasn’t sleeping well. I’d been putting on weight as well and I thought, ‘Oh, middle-age spread, don’t worry about it’.”
Christine eventually also noticed swelling in her ankles and that she would struggle with daily tasks, such as hanging out the washing, because she’d become short of breath. After experiencing these symptoms for several months, she decided to visit her GP to be on the safe side.
“I thought, ‘No, this isn’t improving. I really must get this sorted’,” Christine says.
After struggling to breathe following her initial consultation, Christine was rushed to hospital, where health professionals confirmed her heart was enlarged and causing the symptoms she was experiencing. This revelation was all the more shocking for her because she previously had no idea that there was anything wrong with her heart.
Christine remembers how surprised she was after her x-ray when a doctor asked her what kind of heart condition she had. She replied that she didn’t have a heart problem, only to be told she had a very enlarged heart.
“My lungs were nearly full of liquid and then it transpired that my heart was really enlarged and that’s what the problem was,” Christine says.
Christine was eventually diagnosed with heart failure, a condition that occurs when the heart muscle is no longer strong enough to pump enough blood around the body. Swelling can occur when fluid builds up in the lungs, abdomen and legs, while less oxygen reaches the brain and muscles. It can be caused by wear and tear to the heart muscle or from damage following a heart attack or heart surgery.
In addition to the symptoms Christine experienced, heart failure can result in a number of symptoms including a loss of appetite and nausea, sudden increase in weight from fluid retention, difficulty sleeping when lying flat, a rapid or irregular heartbeat and a persistent cough or wheezing with white or pink blood-tinged phlegm.
Other side effects include difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness, increased need to urinate at night, severe shortness of breath and chest pain. These symptoms don’t always mean you’re living with heart disease, which is why it’s important to talk to a health professional as soon as possible to find the cause of the symptoms and best treatment for individual circumstances.
Looking back, Christine realises her swelling and breathlessness were issues she should’ve acted on quicker. Back then, she had no idea they were pointing to a serious health condition that impacts around half a million Australians and claims 60,000 lives each year.
“I just thought, ‘I’m getting older. I’m putting on weight. I’m not exercising like perhaps I should have been’ and things like that,” she says. “I should have done something about it a bit quicker.”
Once she was formally diagnosed, Christine was referred to the heart failure unit at her local hospital and underwent further testing.
“I’ve done the VO2 test on the treadmill [the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during intense exercise] and I’m having regular ECGs [medical tests that detect heart abnormalities],” Christine says, adding that she now visits the unit regularly for check-ups and to manage her condition.
She now describes herself as “one of the lucky ones” because she didn’t ignore her symptoms and advises others not to mess around when they notice changes in their body.
“Don’t think you’re being silly in getting checked,” Christine says. “Any symptoms, any change to anything in your body, make sure you go and get help and advice.”
Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Macquarie Park, NSW Australia. AU-9295 Prepared September 2019
Heart failure affects around half a million Aussies, with more than 67,000 people diagnosed each year. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing possible symptoms of heart failure. You can learn more about the condition here.