Letter to myself: What I've learned since my cardiac arrest
In a letter to her younger self, Sarah Woodford reflects on how a heart condition made her a better nurse, and looks back at her journey from cardiac arrest to returning to work with an ICD.
I know as a nurse you think you can empathise with your patients, but soon you’ll have a real understanding of what they’re going through. You’ll have a cardiac arrest at home, aged 50. Nothing can prepare you for the angst or the feeling that you’ve lost control and need to protect your family. But you’ll get stronger and be a better nurse because of it.
You wanted to be a nurse since you were a little girl, and you liked the caring side of nursing. You worked hard at school and did voluntary work from the age of 15 at the local cottage hospital. You liked talking to the older people. When you moved to London, you got a job at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where you helped stitch up after pacemaker implantation. You wouldn’t have believed that one day you’d undergo a similar procedure and be the person on that table. But after the cardiac arrest, when you feel the doctor inserting and stitching in your ICD, you’ll think back to that.
Just before the cardiac arrest, work was very busy, but that wasn’t unusual. You strived to do your best in everything you did. At the time, you won’t think you’re stressed, you’ll think you’re busy. Now, I can see that you were cramming everything in – even at the weekend you were trying to make the most of time off. I want to say to you: “Your body needs a rest; you’ve got to stop.”
On the day of the arrest you’ll work from 7.30am to 8pm, skip your lunch break, call your mum during the drive home, then finish paperwork and eat Shreddies for dinner. When you go to bed that night, you’ll be so glad to finally lie down.
You dismissed it all because you’re young and looked healthy. But heart conditions can affect anyone
But you’ll feel yourself passing out. You’ll feel really calm, and think, “if this is dying, it feels nice”. You’ll tell your husband Dave: “I’m going.”
Actually, you only made grunting noises. Dave will tell you later that your face was red and contorted, you were unresponsive, and he started CPR.
He thought you had died, but he continued and managed to bring you back. You’ll feel shocked to end up in hospital, but deep down you’ll know it’s not out of the blue. Your back was straining, you had swollen ankles, you felt so drained, and got breathless after running upstairs. You dismissed it all because you’re young and looked healthy. But heart conditions can affect anyone.
Sarah with her family during the 2014 Christmas holidays, before her cardiac arrest.
At hospital you’ll have many tests. They need to monitor you, but you’d like to go home and you feel like a prisoner. Because you’re a nurse the staff will think that you know what’s going on, but your medical knowledge will disappear. You’ll realise for yourself how bewildering it can be for patients with a newly diagnosed condition.
You’ll be diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. Your children won’t have it, but will be tested at regular intervals for any signs of heart problems. You’ll be in two different hospitals for a month in total.
You had been training for the Bath Half Marathon, and went for a 10-mile run the day before the cardiac arrest. Now you can’t move around without a mobile heart monitor, but they’ll only have two for the ward, so you’ll spend a lot of time resting. You’ll be frustrated by this, but just be patient and positive. You’ll get through it.
When you leave hospital you’ll be determined to get back to running along the quiet South Wales coast that you love. You’ll be the youngest person at cardiac rehab, but don’t forget that you need it just the same as everyone else. You’ll worry about receiving a ‘shock’ from your ICD, but will learn to overcome this fear and understand more about when this could happen.
Don’t let the heart condition define you! Your positive attitude and determination will help you live a 'normal' and fulfilling life again
You won’t be prepared for how up and down you’ll feel after leaving hospital. Conflicting advice will knock your confidence, self-doubt will get to you, and at times you’ll feel down. You’ll worry that you won’t be the person you were before. When you feel like that, remember that this is a blip. You’ll come out of it, so stop being so hard on yourself.
Don’t let the heart condition define you! It’s just something you’ve got, and your positive attitude and determination will help you live a 'normal' and fulfilling life again. Within a couple of years your heart function will almost be back to normal, and you’ll be on medication that helps. You and your family will be stronger than ever. Running-wise, you’ll get back to where you were. You’ll almost forget your ICD, but it will be comforting to know the safety net is there.
After the cardiac arrest you’ll be off work for six months and your colleagues will be able to carry on without you. Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you have to. You’ll find out that your home life is the most important thing to you. You’ll know that you are strong.