A Newfoundland woman who shrugged off symptoms of heart disease is warning other women to listen to signals from their bodies.
Cathy Murphy, a nurse and health advocate, now lives in Ottawa. In March 2013, she discovered that she had a 95 per cent blockage in a main artery.
Murphy says she had several tests in St. John’s and Ottawa that cleared her of a heart problem, but the pain persisted. She put it off as an old shoulder injury, but finally heeded the words of a cardiac nurse who told her to keep getting checked.
“One of the biggest challenges is accepting something is wrong,” Murphy said in a telephone interview, adding she’s an example of how important it is to listen to the signals your body is sending.
“Women have an intuitiveness.”
The blockage, she said, had gone undetected in various cardiac tests and she was considered physically fit from activities such as rowing, spin classes and yoga, as well as healthy eating.
She had injured her left arm and shoulder in 1990, so when she began having pain off and on for months prior to her diagnosis, she thought it was that problem flaring up.
“When I went for a walk, I would feel like my shoulder was going to fall off — achy pain,” she said.
“You try to rationalize why this is happening, look for other reasons.”
She was aware of a family history — Murphy’s brother had his first stent — a tube used to help offset clogged arteries — in his mid-20s.
But her blood pressure, cholesterol and other tests proved fine.
Murphy’s husband was moving to Ottawa for a new job and she was leaving a career of 30 years and following him, so she put the symptoms off to anxiety and hit the yoga classroom to reduce stress.
As a mental-health nurse, she thought while she had never experienced that much fear and anxiety before, it was connected to the life transition, rather than heart disease.
One day in the fall of 2012, while photocopying documents at her
St. John’s office, she experienced hard pain down her arm and chest.
“It was the first time I said out loud, ‘I suppose I am not having angina,’” she said.
But she ultimately dismissed it.
Then on Boxing Day 2013, she was home alone with a cold while her family was out. She started having pain in her chest that went down her arm and up her jaw.
It lasted 10 minutes and Murphy said she drove herself to the hospital.
Although she failed a subsequent stress test, all else seemed good and Murphy doesn’t fault the care she was given.
When she was discharged, she left elated that it wasn’t her heart.
But while her mind told her she was fine, her soul was telling her otherwise.
“I had the best treatment and response to my symptoms. However, due to my excellent physical condition and age, my blockage was missed,” she said.
“For me, it was like having someone go to the cupboard and looking for pepper. If they strongly believe the pepper is not in the cupboard it may be right in front of them, but they won’t see it. I was fit, confident, outgoing and full of life. I was turning 50 … and moving to Ottawa with my husband. I was preparing to start a new phase in my life. I did begin a new phase, but it was not the one I planned.”
The family history was even more clear — her brother had four stents by that time.
In Ottawa, Murphy sought help for her shoulder from a chiropractor, massage therapist and others in the injury-recovery field.
But she could not go two blocks without having pain.
The chiropractor finally advised that the next time she had pain, she should go to emergency.
She got treatment from the heart institute.
“They did all the right things again,” she said. “Nothing showed up.”
It was there a nurse urged her to keep coming back.
“That was the most powerful thing anyone said to me, to trust yourself,” Murphy said.
Sometimes she would wake up twice a night with pain that would last as long as 20 minutes. Some people suggested she was having an anxiety or panic attack.
She saw a cardiologist and when nothing turned up in tests, she was given medication for anxiety.
One day she was shopping and had pain so severe she was afraid to get in the car and feared passing out. She felt a sense of impending doom.
The cardiologist asked for a more rigorous stress test and it led to the discovery of the blockage.
“This is not a bad hospital story,” Murphy said, adding while it took awhile to be diagnosed correctly, it’s crucial for women to keep seeking answers.
Murphy said she knows a few women who have died of a heart attack.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Heart and Stroke Foundation was unable to provide data breaking down male and female mortality and incidence rates.
But Heather Percy, director of health promotions and resuscitation, said denial is a factor for everyone, especially women, who may not always put themselves first, and think heart attacks and strokes are still predominantly men’s diseases.
“Women are gatekeepers of their families — their children, husbands, aging parents. They are so busy taking care of everybody else in life, they do ignore symptoms,” Percy said.
While Murphy considered herself fit, lifestyle and exercise are big factors.
People can reduce their risk by 80 per cent through lifestyle choices and finding healthy ways to cope with stress, Percy said.
The recommended activity level is 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk, jogging or swimming.
Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in this province, after cancer, Percy said.