From heart murmurs to murmuring about the heart

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A previously undiagnosed heart defect turned Donna Houghton’s life upside down but, now she has adapted to her new life, she has become a passionate advocate for people getting their heart-health checked.

When Coffs Harbour midwife Donna Houghton went to the doctor for an annual check-up in 2012 she thought it would be 15-30 minutes of nothing dramatic.

Instead, a heart murmur was heard and she was sent to a cardiologist for more tests.

These tests revealed Donna had been born with a structural defect known as a Bicuspid Aortic Valve, which can affect the heart’s blood flow.

Donna had been fit and active all her life and had no family history of BAV, so she was naturally surprised and shocked at the diagnosis – although glad she had gone for a check-up.

Within two years, this newly discovered defective valve had begun to malfunction and Donna was sent for open heart surgery to replace it.

Unfortunately, after the surgery the “electrics” of Donna’s heart went haywire, threatening her life. She was sent back to surgery to have a pacemaker inserted. But, as sometimes happens after surgery, a lung infection developed, one of her lungs collapsed and she was in intensive care for a week.

It was a shocking few weeks for a woman who had turned up at her GP’s surgery with no idea of what was ahead.

“I couldn’t believe this could happen to a fit and healthy young woman,” Donna says.

That was in 2014. Fast forward four years and Donna is enjoying her new life, including working less. “Before I was busy all the time; I used to work, work, work and then work a bit more.”

Now, she works three days a week on regular day shifts. “I’m lucky I have a supportive boss who keeps me on the same shifts – I get to do all the nice things with the babies now.”

The close brush with death – “I did come close to carking it” – was a profound shock and has helped Donna reappraise her life.

She’s adopted a rescue rabbit, Gilligan, walks her parents’ dog regularly and tries to keep fit and healthy. “I spend a lot more time exercising and doing things I love, like a pottery class.”

After diagnoses of high blood pressure and rapid atrial fibrillation, she knows she still has things to keep an eye on.

Her pacemaker helps though. “The pacemaker dobs on you to the doctor; they put a lead over the pacemaker and they can download all the data from your heart and see what has been happening for the previous six months.”

The data tells Donna’s doctor when her pulse rate soared or fell. “It tells the doctor everything your heart has been doing; they know everything.”

Since her own health scare, Donna has developed a passion for educating others about heart disease’s warning signs and risk factors. At her work, she takes a special interest in mothers who have had pre-eclampsia during pregnancy or who have developed gestational diabetes because they are at later risk of developing heart disease.

“Heart disease affects people of all ages; 90 per cent of Australians have one risk factor; 50 per cent of people have two or three risk factors.”

She wants more people to get their heart-health checked. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.” ​

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