At first, it was just heartburn.
Diane felt it every time she pumped as hard as she could during spin class last year.
“I was drinking water during the class so I thought, ‘Oh that’s kind of uncomfortable,’” says Diane, 62, who didn’t think much of it at the time.
Then, there was a pain in her left arm — not much, really, just a little pang that went away when she stopped cycling so hard.
“I thought I should have it looked into, but it’s probably nothing.”
Diane is a nurse at St. Mary’s General Hospital and prepares people having heart surgery.
She’s heard lots of stories over the years; sometimes those stories stick. Like the one from a fellow nurse who experienced a vague feeling in her chest while on holiday with her husband and later needed bypass surgery. Or that of another colleague who had a sudden heart attack.
And so it was with those stories in mind that Diane mentioned her heartburn and the slight pain in her arm to her family doctor. He thought she might be gripping the stationary bike handlebars too tightly, but sent Diane for a precautionary stress echocardiography - a treadmill exercise test how well the heart and blood vessels are functioning.
Diane was so convinced nothing was wrong, she went for the test having never mentioning it to her husband. But when cardiologist Dr. Sammy Ali noticed something on the test results and wanted to send her to London for additional testing, she had to bring her husband into the loop.
Still in disbelief, Diane admits that she didn’t cut back on any activity. In fact, at the family cottage north of Barrie, Diane could be found dragging and burned brush without pain.
A few days later though, her family doctor’s office called. They wanted her to see Dr. Ali again and ordered her nitroglycerin spray, which widens blood vessels and is used to treat chest pain.
“I started crying right away because up to that point I thought, ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing,’” says Diane. “Once I got that phone call I took it seriously.”
When Diane’s active mother - who had no previous heart issues - died suddenly of a heart attack, the stress of that experience left her with a chest pain that wouldn’t go away. At the urging of her sister, Diane’s husband took her to St. Mary’s and doctors there realized she was having a cardiac crisis. Her emergency angiogram - an x-ray of the vessels that supply blood to the heart to see if they are blocked or narrowed - revealed that Diane had severe blockages in her coronary arteries.
“It was amazing I didn’t have a heart attack, really,” says Diane, who had a stent and balloon put in, a procedure used to treat heart disease that pushes back plaque deposits inside arteries.
“I didn’t want to be sick, I didn’t want to change my life. I wanted to be able to go back to the gym and I wanted to be able to do everything I normally do,” she says.
Diane says she is back at that point now, thanks to her cautious family doctor and Dr. Ali as well as the support she received from the hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation “Hearts in Motion” program. She’s at the gym three to four times a week, but she still worries about having a heart attack.
“You never know now,” says Diane. “The year this happened, we thought, ‘Oh we have 20 more years.’ It sort of changed all that.”
Before she was diagnosed with heart disease, Diane had never had major surgery. She was active, healthy and didn’t smoke. At 45 she ran a half-marathon. She also never had any symptoms, except the heartburn during spin class.
With no family history, no clear symptoms and an active lifestyle, she never predicted she would ever get heart disease.
“I thought it can’t be true,” she says.
Now, Diane relies on six medications daily, her water access cottage is equipped with a portable defibrillator and her kids all know first aid.
And Diane is looking forward to the future.
She still enjoys two fulfilling days a week working at St. Mary’s, and has no intention of retirement. Her four young grandchildren that visit at least once a week, and Diane is taking a trip to New York City in May with her daughter to celebrate her recent engagement and MBA graduation. Come September, Diane and her husband will land on the coast of Portugal for a much-needed vacation.
“In my mind, you just don’t know, so I’m a little bit nervous, but I’m doing everything I want,” she says. “There is still so much living to be done.”