Rowena's Story: If It Can Happen To Me It Can Happen To Anyone

27 Feb 2024

Rowena Newman will possibly be the most grateful trekker staring down the 50km ahead of her as she sets off from Palm Beach on event day.  Yes, you read that correctly – grateful.  You see, four years ago, Rowena experienced a catastrophic heart event that almost ended her life.  She shares her story here… 

On 6 November 2020, in between the two Covid lockdowns, I had a sudden cardiac arrest at my home in Sydney’s Inner West. Afterwards, I learned that it was caused by viral myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and significant heart disease. 

It came as a terrible shock. I was a fit and healthy 47 year old without any cardiovascular risk factors. I had been doing bootcamp before work 3 mornings a week for several years. I have always been very health conscious; I never smoked, I never liked fatty food, I played a lot of sport and was always slim and fit. 

BUT, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and despite the low risk factors, the warning signs had been there for some time: 

Symptoms and warning signs: 

  • 6 weeks prior to my cardiac arrest, in September 2020 I had gone to the Dentist suffering significant pain in my lower left jaw.  I thought I needed a root canal but the x-ray and exam showed nothing.  We put it down to stress and jaw clenching – but I’m now acutely aware that jaw pain is a significant symptom in women when they present with heart disease. 
  • Ten days prior, on 30 October 2020, I walked the 30km 7 Bridges loop with my friend Ali. The weather was awful and I was relieved when we decided to pull up at the 20km mark, I had an ingrown toenail that was bothering me, but in hindsight I realise that I also felt much more fatigued and heavy in my body than usual. 
  • Seven days prior I was at bootcamp and had a strange turn where I felt nauseous and light-headed and my legs just couldn’t find the energy to lift me back out of a lunge. I had to go home.  It worried me enough to go to the GP who found a clear ECG, ordered some bloods and wrote me a referral to a cardiologist. We talked about perimenopause, and I felt that was probably the explanation. 
  • One day prior, as I got ready for work, I sat down on the couch for a moment and when I tried to get back up my legs didn’t have 'the juice' to stand. I decided to rest instead of going to work and felt better for it. I wondered if I had a virus. 


6 November – the day of my cardiac arrest: 

I woke up at 3am on 6 November. My heart felt like a butterfly in my chest, and I felt nauseous and like I was going to pass out. Instinctively I knew it was catastrophic and I yelled out to my daughter, Claudia, who was 11 at the time, to call an ambulance. 

Six days later, on 11 November, Remembrance Day, I woke up to the Last Post being played in the ICU at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The irony is not lost on me in hindsight!  

When the breathing tubes were removed I asked what had happened. I couldn’t remember a thing. I was told that I had a cardiac arrest at home and Claudia had called the ambulance. The paramedics had done 8 minutes of CPR and fractured my sternum. My heart had been restarted by a defibrillator on my bedroom floor. 

I had two further cardiac arrests in hospital and an angiogram revealed spasms in my coronary vessels leading to Ventricular Tachycardia which deteriorated into cardiac arrest. Once they stopped the spasms they were able to stop the arrests and stabilise me. I narrowly avoided ECMO (a form of life support for people with life-threatening illness or injury that affects the function of their heart or lungs) but spent 6 days in an induced coma and was put on a bed of ice to protect my organs. 



Further complications: 

BUT during the angiogram they also found an 80% blockage in my right coronary artery, a blockage significant enough to require a stent. I was a heart attack waiting to happen.  

Again, everyone was surprised, shocked, no one had expected that. And again, my perception was that I didn’t have any risk factors and I hadn’t had any symptoms. 

How wrong I was… 

Turns out I did have a significant risk factor: 

It’s called STRESS.  I am a single parent of two children who works full time.  I had been required to be involved in repeated proceedings in the family court for more than a decade and when I couldn’t afford lawyers I self-represented. The stress was financial, psychological and physical. It was immense. 

Doctors think I had contracted a virus (not Covid related) in the days before the cardiac arrest and the stress I was under caused the virus to invade my heart, causing viral myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). As I slept the myocarditis caused spasms in the blood vessels in my heart - the spasms together with the inflammation and cardiovascular disease/blockage all together meant that my heart couldn't sustain a sinus rhythm and the ventricles were fluttering out of sync with the rest of the heart (ventricular tachycardia). VT can't sustain for long and it deteriorated into cardiac arrest – that is, my heart just stopped. 

And in hindsight I did have symptoms, I just didn’t join the dots.  That trip to the dentist with jaw pain, the increased level of fatigue on the walk, the light-headedness and the nausea all added up.  But when we think of heart attacks we think of a stressed-out, overweight, chain-smoking middle-aged man who feels like he has an elephant sitting on his chest. Because I’m not that person I didn’t heed the signs. And I was so casually confident in my own health that I had attributed the vague new symptoms to menopause. 

If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. 


This is Rowena’s second Coastrek, and having done the 45km distance last year she’s looking forward to the 50km challenge with her team, who she credits with being an important part of her recovery: 

Something enormous happens to your sense of self when your heart has faltered or failed, it is very difficult to describe.? The 'cardiac blues' is a really common phenomenon after a cardiac event and it was a big part of the cardiac rehabilitation program that got me back on my feet. And it's super important to have supportive friends who will walk with you and support you in your journey back to health - my walking crew have absolutely been that for me.  

When I came out of hospital 3 weeks later my muscles had atrophied, I struggled to stand, let alone walk. In my first cardiac rehab meeting I was asked what my goal was. I said that I wanted to be able to walk into twin falls in Kakadu with my kids and I cried, because I just couldn’t imagine ever being able to. Last year I completed the 45km Coastrek and it was very emotional. This year I’m going for 50 to celebrate reaching the age of 50 when I so nearly didn’t. 

We will be cheering Rowena and her team RHAG Dolls (so named because it’s the first letter of each of their names: Rowena, Helen, Ali and Gael) when they cross the finish line!