Hospital sister ignored her own symptoms

Celia Hall meets a woman who failed to notice the warning signals
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The Independent Online
Sheila Louw should have known better but like many thousands of women she did not associate her aches and pains with heart disease.

She should have known better because she is a nurse of great experience. If she had suspicions, she successfully put them to one side and got on with her full and busy life. Mrs Louw was a night sister in the accident and emergency department of Rotherham District General Hospital. Sometimes, at night, because of her seniority, she was in charge of the hospital itself.

How close Mrs Louw came to dying no one will ever know. She certainly had an early heart attack - as a later scan proved - but ignored it. This probably happened two years before pain and breathlessness while walking finally drove her to her GP.

"I had pain in my throat every time I put a foot down and I was short of breath. I felt very ill. It is hard to describe I just felt ill all over,'' she said. Her GP diagnosed angina and gave her medication for the pain. It was December 1991.

"Quite honestly I was surprised at the diagnosis. Heart disease was something that happened to other people. My brother had it and my father, but I never made the link.

She was quickly referred to a consultant for tests. Her coronary arteries were furred up. "This was when I was told I had had a heart attack. The only thing I can think of is that in 1989 when my husband was dying I once had this bad pain in my chest when I was driving to the hospital to visit him. I didn't do anything about it. Anyway the pain went away."

Two days after seeing the consultant, Mrs Louw had her second heart attack. By now she was very scared, and she was admitted to the coronary care unit of her own hospital. A few days later, she had an angioplasty to clear her right coronary artery at Northern General Hospital, Sheffield. It just was after Christmas and her daughter was getting married on 28 December. She believes the stress contributed to her attacks.

She felt weak and unwell at the wedding and not fit for work. In fact, Mrs Louw, then 55, did not work again. "I think the fear was the worst thing. Every little pain and you think you are going to have another attack. I had to take life really very carefully," she said.

In March 1992, she had angioplasty for her left coronary artery and in November returned to Sheffield for checks. While dye was being passed through her system to give an image of her arteries her heart stopped beating for 10 seconds. "All I remember is the most intense feeling of nausea and then nothing at all. When they had resuscitated me I had the most tremendous feeling of euphoria," she recalls.

Today Mrs Louw swims three or four times a week, walks daily, is trying to lose a bit of weight. But she says it took her three years to recover.

Her advice to other women is simple. "If you start to feel rotten you must go to the doctor. Women are too good at saying they are too busy with the family or with work. There is no point taking the risk."