30 and Facing Cardiac Arrest: A New Year's Day I'll Never Forget

07 Jun 2023

Emily Walker was just 30 when she woke up with severe heart palpitations and rushed to hospital on New Year’s Day, 2016. She was suddenly confronted with her painful family history - the loss of her Dad who died of a heart attack at just 35 years of age. Here, she shares her story and why taking part in Coastrek is such a personal journey…

“I was two years old when Dad died. He had just got a new job in Cairns and Mum and Dad had packed up their whole life in Brisbane and moved up north with my 4-year-old brother and me. Dad died the very next day.

Sadly, in hindsight there were definite warning signs for Dad, but 30 odd years ago they weren’t picked up on adequately and we just weren’t as informed as we are now. My Dad went for a check-up while traveling for work - the doctor was extremely concerned about his heart and told him to see his normal GP as soon as he got home. My Dad did this, but his family GP just laughed and said not to worry because “he’s only 35- and 35-year-olds don’t have heart attacks”. This was only a few months before he died.

Unfortunately, my father never had an autopsy. So, while he definitely died of a heart attack, there are a number of questions left unanswered regarding underlying causes. We never knew if he had a genetic condition, or if it were a combination of lifestyle choices and bad luck. So, I didn’t particularly worry about my own heart health until I was 30, when I woke up on New Year’s Day 2016 with really, really bad palpitations that weren’t getting any better.

My husband rang an ambulance and at first, we were joking that we might be going a bit overboard - that was until they stuck the ECG on me and then everything got very, very serious. I was in full fibrillation with very low blood pressure and a heart rate over 180. I was rushed to the hospital where following a number of unsuccessful treatments I was successfully cardioverted (and what an experience that was!) That was 7 years ago. Then, 2 years ago, and now a mum of 2, I had another episode that resulted in another cardioversion in hospital.

My Cardiologist is sure that now that it’s happened twice, and living with Atrial Fibrillation, I will experience this again at some point. One day I will likely need an operation but at the moment it’s managed with a combination of pills that I carry with me and take when I have palpitations.

I have no doubt that there was an underlying condition for my dad, but combined with a sedentary lifestyle, heavy smoking and drinking, and the physical stress of shift work, my Dad died at 35 when his children were just 2 and 4 years old. I have started walking 5 kilometres a day with my beautiful dog to build my overall fitness so that when my Atrial Fibrillation next plays up, regardless of whether a defibrillator is available, I will be strong and healthy enough to survive it and see my children grow up- just as I’m sure my Dad wishes he could.

When I contacted some friends last year and asked who wanted to do Coastrek with me, my beautiful ride or die besties jumped at the idea of the challenge and the opportunity to spend time together doing something physical and just for us! Now we have two teams registered. This year, when I realised Coastrek was supporting the Heart Foundation, it felt so opportune. I hope with double the team members, and even more of a personal connection to the charity, that we’re able to raise a lot of money and awareness!

In a small way I feel like raising awareness of heart health- especially for young parents and people in their thirties - honours my Dad’s memory. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that.”

Emily will be hiking for healthy hearts on the Sunshine Coast 21 July 2023 with her team the Fairy Coast Mothers 2023 alongside her second team of hiking buddies, Fairy Coast Mothers 2.

Emma Walker