How writing about my heart event has helped me through troubled times
A heart problem led to a car crash, pacemaker and difficult times for Jane Burns. She tells Sarah Brealey how writing about it has helped.
Jane Burns’ life changed in an instant when she blacked out on the motorway. Before that, she was a healthy 48-year-old, with no history of medical problems.
“My heart stopped while I was driving. I had total loss of consciousness. I hit the back of a car that was queuing to come off the motorway: my car spun round and hit another car that was coming up behind me, and then went into the central reservation. I don’t remember any of this – I was told afterwards.”
Luckily, no-one was killed. But it remained a constant worry for Jane, who suffered memory loss as a result. “I kept getting upset, asking my partner if I’d killed anybody. I couldn’t remember anything about the accident.”
This meant big adjustments at work for Jane, who is self-employed as a paediatric brain injury case manager. She nearly lost her business, but carried on with colleagues’ help. Jane still finds work more difficult because of memory loss and problems processing information, so three years after the accident, she decided to cut back on working hours.
I was getting flashbacks, and was referred for counselling, where all I did was cry.
But things got worse rather than better. “It gave me more time to think. It hit me then what had happened. I was getting flashbacks, and was referred for counselling, where all I did was cry.”
Jane was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was the counsellor who suggested she try writing about her experience. Doing this, together with counselling and support from her family, has helped Jane come to terms with what happened. She still struggles at times but, gradually, things are getting easier.
Writing through the pain
Jane hadn’t written poetry since she was seven, but found this style of writing suited her needs. “With a diary I used to feel bad about not writing for a week,” she says. “With poems you can write when you need to. If I was having a particularly bad day, I could capture it all. It was like emptying out what I was feeling onto the page.”
Jane got in touch with her local writers’ circle and decided to go along to a meeting. She found it useful to have her story heard by others.
“I thought, if I can share this with someone else, that will help. I had kept a lot to myself. Once they read my poetry, my story was out. I got a lot of support from the group,” she says.
Jane recommends writing to everybody. “It has definitely helped put things into perspective, and deal with and share my emotions.”
Her partner Kevin, children and close friends have also been a huge source of support. “I have found this very difficult, I’m not going to lie. At work I would say things like ‘you will get through this’ and ‘try to stay positive’. But when it came to myself, I couldn’t. It’s been such a long process, but I know it is getting better when the upset comes with longer bits in between. I know I have to get on with my life.”
Jane's partner Keith encourages her work
She is also grateful that the trauma has given her a new perspective on life. “Sometimes I wish I could turn back the clock, but then I wouldn’t have written the poems,” she says. “I would still be working very hard, but now I realise there is more to life. I have tried not to be so tough on myself, to be a little more understanding of myself.”
Life with a pacemaker
Jane was diagnosed with a Mobitz type 2 heart block, which means electrical signals from the top chambers of the heart don’t always get through to the bottom chambers. This can cause dizziness and fainting. It can happen as a result of another heart condition, but sometimes it happens on its own, as in Jane’s case.
Sometimes I think, why me? I’d never smoked. I led a fairly healthy life.
Jane had her pacemaker fitted while in hospital, recovering from the crash, and, at 48, felt young compared with the other cardiology patients. “Sometimes I think, why me? I’d never smoked. I led a fairly healthy life.”
Psychologically it’s been difficult for Jane. In her mind the pacemaker is linked to the car crash, and the trauma that comes with it. Even going for her check-ups has been difficult, because returning to the hospital brings back bad memories.
“The pacemaker is a constant reminder of what happened, and that’s difficult. I also find it intrusive. Mine is very prominent – it sticks out of my chest, and if I move my arm I can feel it,” explains Jane.
“Seeing the pacemaker just gives me a feeling of sadness. I have to be careful it doesn’t bring me down. I have to stay positive. I’ve accepted I need a pacemaker, otherwise I could die. Now I’ve accepted that, I think the other things will get easier.”