Mandy Swift was just 51 when she had her first heart attack – but she didn’t recognize the symptoms and didn’t seek medical attention.
“I was decorating my bedroom and didn’t feel right. I don’t remember much but I know I had pain in my left arm starting in my shoulder and right down through my entire arm. The pain I felt in my left arm was a throbbing pain, almost like when you have a toothache, but very painful and my arm felt heavy,” said the 56-year-old from Rhyl.
“I went to bed and think I must’ve drifted in and out of consciousness. I thought maybe I’d pulled a muscle from painting the ceiling but it was more painful than that. I vomited, but I hadn’t really eaten anything , so I was just vomiting water. I think I slept on and off for about two days. I was living alone and afterwards I just carried on with my job and life as normal.”
Just three months later in March 2017, aged 52, Mandy had a second heart attack but again didn’t realize what was happening to her and waited a further week before seeing her GP who immediately sent her to the hospital where she underwent an emergency procedure and had two stents inserted.
She added: “This time my experience was more painful and the vomiting went on for longer. Again I slept for most of the weekend. I just didn’t feel right but it was another week before I went to my GP because I felt my heart was pounding and didn’t feel normal.My GP put me straight on a heart monitor and then rushed me to hospital for an emergency procedure and within two hours I’d had an angioplasty and two stents.I’m now living with heart failure.
“Before the actual heart attacks I had been feeling tired, moody, had felt some palpitation, but I had attributed this to the menopause because of my age. I don’t actually know if this might have been warning signs – it certainly hadn’ t worried me enough to go to the doctor.”
Mandy was living in Bulgaria when she had her first heart attacks. She moved back to north Wales and experienced a third heart attack in December 2020. She’s due to have a pacemaker fitted in March and admitted she wants her life back.
She added: “My whole life has changed since my heart attacks. I’ve had to give up my job and my life in Bulgaria and move back to the UK. I didn’t recognize the symptoms of my heart attacks and didn’t know what was happening to me. I’m now on a lot of medication – I take nine tablets each morning and six each night. I can no longer work because of my condition. I’m very tired a lot of the time, I feel the cold more, and some days I can barely walk.
“It’s hard adjusting to my condition as I’ve always been busy and active. I had no previous heart issues and there’s no history of heart attacks in my family. I have to learn to live with my heart condition now and to accept what’s happened and make adjustments but it’s not easy.
“However I know I am very lucky and that it could have been a completely different experience if I delayed treatment any longer.”
Mandy’s daughter Vicki Salusbury, 37, said she is concerned that women across Wales need to be more aware of the risks of heart attacks and to make sure they seek medical attention if they have symptoms.
“Mum has had three heart attacks and each time the symptoms have been different,” she said. “I want women across Wales to be better informed that they are at risk of heart attack and not to think it’s something which just affects men.
“If they are having symptoms they need to make sure they get medical attention and treatment urgently. My mum looks after my five-year-old son Gethin and I’ve taught him how to use FaceTime on his iPad to contact me if Nannie is unwell while she’s looking after him. That’s not something any child should have to know but it’s an anxiety we all live with.”
Mandy’s account comes as it is claimed that women in Wales are at greater risk of suffering serious harm from heart disease than men due to “unconscious bias and systematic inequalities in healthcare”.
British Heart Foundation (BHF) Cymru said women are more likely to be misdiagnosed or diagnosed slowly, are less likely to receive optimal treatment, and more likely to experience difficulties accessing cardiac rehabilitation.
The charity claims coronary heart disease (CHD) is considered more of a male problem by the public despite the fact 1,300 women die every year of the condition in Wales – double the number of deaths caused by breast cancer.
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Research funded by the BHF suggests the deaths of at least 8,000 women could have been prevented through equitable cardiac treatment over a 10-year period in England and Wales.
A BHF Cymru survey of 1,000 people in Wales in 2021 showed that women are not seen as being at risk of heart disease by the Welsh public with 65% of people in Wales unable to identify heart disease as one of the leading causes of death for women .
Each year around 1,700 women are admitted to hospitals in Wales due to a heart attack but the BHF Cymru survey found more than a third of women in Wales do not feel confident in recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and only 7% feel very confident.
There are plans to address health inequalities faced by women in England and Scotland. Gemma Roberts, policy and public affairs manager for BHF Cymru, said the charity would like to see the same commitment from the Welsh Government.
“The Welsh Government should commit to a women’s health plan which prioritises inequalities experienced by women with heart disease. The plan should seek to improve outcomes for women with heart disease through improved public awareness, timely diagnosis, equitable treatment, and equitable access to cardiac rehabilitation ,” she said.
“Through our BHF-funded research we can see clearly that women are disadvantaged at every stage of the patient pathway.
“Tragically women are less likely to be diagnosed quickly, less likely to receive optimal heart disease treatment, and less likely to receive cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack or surgery. We fear that the assumption that women are not at risk of heart disease is costing women their lives. This has got to stop.
“We are calling on the Welsh Government to commit to a Women’s Health Quality Statement which adopts a lifetime view, moving beyond the idea of women’s health as synonymous with just reproductive health. The women of Wales deserve a dedicated quality statement that drives change to tackle inequity in both care and outcomes between men and women – a problem which is perilous in cardiac care.
“The Welsh Government can lead the way, shine a light on these health inequalities, and prevent women in Wales dying needlessly from heart disease.”
In response a Welsh Government spokesman said: “We are producing a women’s health quality statement to ensure services consider the specific needs of women and ensure timely, equitable access to diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services in all aspects of healthcare in Wales.
“Wales already has a quality statement for heart conditions and we will continue to work with partners and health boards to improve the care of people with heart conditions.”
BHF Cymru is calling on everyone to be more aware of the most common symptoms of a heart attack. These include:
- Central chest pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away. It may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing.
- For some people the pain or tightness is severe while other people just feel uncomfortable.
- Pain similar to that of indigestion is also a common symptom.
- Pain which radiates down your left, or both arms, or to your neck, jaw, back, or stomach.
- Feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.
A heart attack is a medical emergency and can be life threatening. Anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should phone 999 immediately for an ambulance.
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