"The fears will never go away" - the story of a heart patient's partner
The emotional impact of a heart attack can be hard to deal with for all involved. Sue Hawkesworth tells Sarah Brealey how her husband’s illness turned her life upside down.
The memory of the night Sue Hawkesworth thought her husband would die has never left her. Two years on, Sue, 63, from Worcestershire, says: “It haunts me always.”
It was the night that Tim, 64, her husband of 40 years had a heart attack, just a few days after he’d suffered a mini-stroke. “This illness changed the pattern of our lives,” says Sue. “Suddenly, my splendid, strong, ‘in-charge’ bloke became a patient, a victim, and me along with him.”
Mini-stroke, major impact
Those fears will never go away. And I have to find a way of dealing with that
The first traumatic experience was witnessing Tim’s transient ischaemic attack (also called a TIA or mini-stroke). This happens when there is a temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain. This can cause symptoms similar to those of a stroke, but the effects often only last for a few minutes and usually resolve within 24 hours.
“In an instant, out of the blue, use of arms, legs and speech had gone. Thankfully, the effects only lasted ten minutes. But the fear of a repetition has stayed with me and clouds all my days,” says Sue. “In fact, those fears will never, I’ve concluded, go away. And I have to find a way of dealing with that – not as a heart patient, but as a heart patient’s partner.”
Sue did the right thing and called an ambulance as soon as she saw Tim’s symptoms, which hospital tests confirmed as a TIA. He was waiting to have more tests when he had a heart attack at home a few days later.
This time, Sue says, she felt quite calm. “It was about 1.30am. I was downstairs doing something on the computer and he came to the top of the stairs and said ‘I am having a heart attack’,” she explains. “I called an ambulance and I thought to myself, ‘We can do this, we can get through it.’ I don’t remember feeling emotional – that only came afterwards.”
It wasn’t Tim’s first heart attack; he’d been through it all before seven years earlier. Tim, who was then working full time as an architectural technologist, was quickly treated with an angioplasty and stent and gradually life had returned to normal. This time, though, Tim’s recovery was less straightforward. He developed atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of abnormal heart rhythm.
Six weeks later, he was admitted to hospital for a procedure to treat it called a cardioversion, where controlled electric shocks are delivered to the chest wall. But, at the last minute, it turned out not to be necessary. “They did an ECG beforehand and then the doctor came back and said he could go home, the AF had gone away on its own,” says Sue. “We had been so frightened, we both sat there and cried with relief.”
Sue discovered that dealing with her fears took much longer than Tim’s physical recovery. Her anxieties meant she wanted to be with him all the time. She felt guilty about leaving him, even to do the shopping. “Deep down, I knew that being with him all the time wasn’t the answer,” she says. “I did feel I had to always keep my mobile phone turned on, just in case Tim needed to call me. But you can’t always do that – for example, in the cinema or yoga class.”
I have learnt that you cannot help other people unless you are well yourself
For more than a year after Tim’s heart attack, Sue didn’t dare go to bed before him. “I wanted to know he’s tucked up safe.” As time has passed, she no longer feels she has to be “on duty”, as she puts it, all the time. But she still takes two different telephones to bed with her every night, just in case.
These days, the couple sleep in separate rooms. “It is the only way I can get any rest,” Sue explains. “If I had to lie next to him wondering all the time if he is going to draw his next breath, I would never get any sleep. I have the phones with me and the doors between us are open. I feel I shouldn’t think about my own needs, because what matters is Tim, but I know I have got to carry on; I have learnt that you cannot help other people unless you are well yourself.”
Sue, a retired teacher, has had her own health issues. She has high blood pressure and has been trying to lose weight. “I have lost two stone so far. I go to the gym, swim, walk and practise yoga. I need to stay healthy so I can still be here for Tim.
“I worry about who would look after Tim if I wasn’t here. We haven’t got children so there isn’t anybody but us. It is a very real anxiety.”
Equally troubling is Sue’s fear that Tim might die. She describes it as “excruciating” at first. “I remember standing at the top of our field and thinking ‘What’ll I do if he dies? What would become of our house and how would I mow the field? What would I do with the two garages, all those tools and our kit cars? Our finances?’ And I cried.
I was so afraid, not only because I love him dearly and don’t want to be alone, but because there would be so many problems to solve and I could not face them alone. I would want to die myself. I knew that. I’ve never owned up to these fears until now.”
Gradually, she has become less afraid. The anniversary of the mini-stroke and heart attack was an important stage in moving forward. Around that time the couple returned to their favourite holiday spot, Derwentwater in the Lake District, for the first time since Tim’s TIA and heart attack. Being ‘off the beaten track’ and far from the hospital where Tim had been treated was difficult, but felt like a kind of progress.
“We go partly to watch the ospreys, which has become a ritual for us,” Sue says. “Those birds have the strength to travel here from Africa every year. They always come back, and that seems like a good sign – surely heart patients can do it too.”