‘This is just our family story about heart disease, and the many different ways we can all be affected.'
Growing up in Melbourne in the 1940s I was part of a large, loving family. Our relations were our closest friends and we spent holidays and weekends with our cousins. I didn't realise then just how young a lot of our male relatives were when they passed away, as 50 seemed quite ancient. But I remember that our family often spoke of it.
Generations of heart disease
As I grew up and my own dear father developed the same symptoms as his grandfather, father, uncles and male cousins, I knew that our family had a serious problem. They were all fine, strapping, healthy men, physically active with a good diet – no junk food in those days!
After a series of heart attacks my dad died aged 54, followed by his elder brother a couple of years later. Two other uncles died within six weeks of my father – not from the same gene pool but still young men by today's standards. At that time I thought that angina, which led to heart attacks then death, was a condition exclusive to the male members of the Johnson clan.
That was until my sister Rhonda, aged 51 had a major stroke. Rhonda was becoming well known as a writer, poet and playwright, and was struck down just as success was coming her way. Although she recovered at first, and took every precaution, another stroke when she was 53 led to her death.
A crisis on holiday
I was still not concerned about myself, in spite of having hypertension and high cholesterol. After all, I wasn't overweight and had never smoked. I enjoyed a very active lifestyle and was very involved with my four grandchildren, friends, travel and entertaining.
On a holiday to Central Australia in 2001 when I was 57, I struggled to keep up with my husband and friends as we hiked through the desert.
As I had been diagnosed with mild asthma I assumed – or wanted to assume - that this was causing my breathing problems.
I now shudder when I think that I could have had a heart attack in the outback, miles from a hospital or help.
My body sent me a message not to over-extend myself, so I stayed behind reading or sending postcards. I have two good friends to thank for insisting that I ask my doctor to check on my ‘asthma'.
I was sent immediately for an ECG, which showed a major artery blockage. I needed an urgent angiogram to ascertain its extent. As expected, I had a blockage in three arteries into the heart and would need a bypass operation – again as soon as possible.
It was with enormous trepidation that I entered the hospital on 1 August 2001, as coincidentally this was the anniversary of my father's death in 1968. It is a frightening experience, especially when one has seen so many family members in the same situation.
The operation was a huge success and five days later I was allowed home, although with strict instructions not to overdo it. For six weeks I attended exercise class three times weekly, couldn't drive and felt very tired. But after six weeks I felt so much better.
... and inspiration
The night before my operation a volunteer had visited me. He reassured me that, in time, I was going to be all right. He knew because he had gone through the same ordeal.
I told him that if all went well for me, I intended to do everything I could to help others in the same situation - especially women, as it is not nearly so prevalent in females. I was later to discover that after their 40s and 50s, women catch up very quickly with men.
A brighter future
Now nearly nine years later I am forever grateful that modern medicine has given me years of life that were denied to other members of my family. As an aside, my cousin Neil underwent a bypass two weeks after I did, aged 52 - more proof of our genetic predisposition.
Our family's health and treatment
Heart disease has affected others in my immediate family. At 40 years our daughter Sarah was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. This alone does not cause heart problems but it makes you more prone to a whole range of diseases – including heart issues. As she also has inherited hypertension and high cholesterol, Sarah has to be vigilant in monitoring her heart health.
Imagine our distress when both our granddaughter (at age 16) and grandson (11) were found to have SVT – super ventricular tachycardia – within days of each other. It is a most frightening condition as your heart beats extremely fast and has to be controlled. Emily had a radio frequency ablation and Charles a cryo ablation to rectify the problem. Now both are well.
Research is the key
Research, even over the 10 years since my sister died, has enabled me to live an exciting and enriching life. My blood pressure and cholesterol are under control, and of course I am always following my cardiologist's instructions regarding diet and exercise.
We now have five grandchildren and I feel most privileged to share their lives and see them growing up. I look at them and I feel such love and also relief that they don't have the heart-health worries we used to have.