One minute, Michelle Hampton was living a normal life as a successful career woman. The next, she was being told that her heart was at risk of failing at any moment.
The 38-year-old came home from work one day and as she sat down to relax she realised her heart felt a little odd.
Things worsened to the point where Michelle went to hospital, and that’s when her world was turned upside down.
“Within a couple of minutes, I had three emergency doctors in the room, and they asked me if I was aware I had a major heart murmur,” Michelle tells Be.
“I was told the only way to fix it is with open heart surgery, and if they didn’t fix it I will die of heart failure.
“It was a potential death sentence. How do you even start to get your head around the fact that if you don’t have major surgery, you will die.”
The Sydney local was actually born with her heart condition but never realised she was experiencing any signs of heart disease. Busy running a successful communications agency for over 11 years, Michelle had put most of her symptoms down to her sometimes stressful life.
“All I really ever felt was a little fatigue, breathlessness when I would walk upstairs, and a little bit of dizziness when I got up of the couch, for example,” Michelle tells us.
“I never stopped to listen to what was going on.”
But that all changed one night just before Christmas in 2016, when Michelle got home from work, sat down on the couch, and realised something wasn’t right with her heart.
“It was the first time I was really conscious of my heartbeat,” she recalls.
“At the time I thought my heart felt a bit funny, that’s the only way I could describe it. And it got worse and worse to the point where it wasn’t beating properly.
“But I just put it all down to being really tired. It wasn’t until I got to the hospital that things got really serious.”
After finding out she had a heart murmur, a cardiac MRI revealed the full extent of her condition and she was told she required open heart surgery in order to survive.
She was diagnosed with a sinus venosus atrial septal defect and partial anomalous pulmonary venous drainage, conditions that she had carried since birth.
“It meant my heart had been using mixed blood for my whole life, and three times the amount of blood a normal heart would pump,” she says.
“I am relatively young and I was just very underprepared to hear that news. When I sat down with the surgeon I just burst into tears.”
But Michelle says the hardest part was having to call her family and tell them the news, a moment that still makes her emotional when thinking about.
“It was emotionally one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. But it was harder on my family,” she says.
“I have an identical twin sister and I think for her she is still not over it. She lost sleep, had anxiety, and thought she would lose her best friend.”
Michelle had open heart surgery in February last year and admits that before going into the operation she had prepared herself for the worst.
“I had completely accepted my fate. I was so calm on the day because I had just let go,” she reveals. “I was not in control of what happens, so I just had to trust that everything would be okay. If I wake up amazing, if I don’t then….
“You just become really philosophical about life and how at any point in time it can be taken away from you, and I think there is a level of peace that comes with that realisation.”
The surgery went for six hours, during which doctors had to stop her heart for three hours. But the operation was successful and while waking up in ICU was a traumatic experience for Michelle and her family, she has now fully recovered.
While there are some restrictions – like not getting her heart rate above 140 – she is back to living a normal life, is currently free of medication, and only has to see a cardiologist once a year.
“I notice my heart struggles more if I am tired, run down, don’t have enough sleep or water, but I lead a pretty normal life,” Michelle tells us.
“I am more conscious of being healthier now. Ultimately, I’m alive and I’ve been given a second chance at leading a hopefully long life. I feel like I’m the lucky one, because not everyone is.”
Michelle, who is now an ambassador for the Heart Foundation, is sharing her story to help raise awareness of the sometimes ‘invisible’ symptoms of heart disease, and to encourage people to take care of their hearts.
“Heart disease is a silent killer, and I am a walking example,” she says.
“Go and get your hearts checked! Just because you don’t have risk factors, don’t assume. My dream is to get to the point where if people are going to get a health check, the heart is at the top of the list.
“We take it for granted until something goes wrong, and we realise how fragile the heart is.”
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