When Colette Ivory Ajili visited her doctor in September 2019 to discuss the recurring “panic attacks” she had been having for four years, she fully expected to be back home with her three daughters (aged 16, 12 and six) within an hour or so. However, the reality couldn’t have been more of a contrast as she was detained much longer than expected after being airlifted to hospital by helicopter.
My mum had been very sick for a number of years and in 2015, I began having what the doctor described as panic attacks,” says the 39-year-old. “He knew our family well and knew how close I was to my mother so each time I went in with pains in my chest, he put it down to stress. This seemed to be the obvious reason as they would subside not long after I got there, and I even had an ECG which didn’t show up anything.
“Then in September 2019, the girls and I had just come back from Tunisia and I got the same squeezing chest pains, so I went to see the doctor again. My mother had only died in June and I was naturally still in shock, so again the GP thought it was stress. It was only when he started listening to my heart with his stethoscope that I could tell something was wrong as his expression changed.
“I began to panic when I saw the concern on his face and he told me that he was going to call an ambulance just to find out what was wrong. I really started panicking then as my husband, Kais, was still in Tunisia and wouldn’t be home for a week, but he calmed me down until the ambulance arrived.” The doctor escorted Colette to the ambulance and it was only when she overheard him discussing the situation with the paramedics that she really realised how serious the situation was.
“The paramedics hooked me up to an ECG machine and although they were keeping their voices down and using medical terms, I heard one of them ask where was the closest place a helicopter could land,” she says. “They said that I wouldn’t make it if I was taken to hospital by ambulance — that was when I really realised that I was in trouble.
“I was taken to the pitch at a school where the helicopter landed and then flew to Galway where they did their best but were unable to treat me properly. I was put in an induced coma and transferred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin and accompanied by a heart doctor who had to monitor me the entire way.”
The Longford woman says she was more anxious about her children than herself as she didn’t think she was in serious danger. “I had tightness in my chest, but I didn’t think it felt like a heart attack,” she says. “I was worried about the girls as Kais was still away and my dad was told to come and look after them. He was also told that I might not make it and I’m surprised that he didn’t have a heart attack with the shock of it all.
“I was transferred on September 6 to the Mater and was in a coma at the time. I think I came around about the 20th or 21st and during that time, I had a blood clot on my leg which they removed by going in through my ankle. I was kept going on balloon pumps (to keep the blood pumping) which were inserted through the groin area and when I woke up, I was told that I needed a heart transplant.
“I knew I would have to wait for this to happen so asked if I could go home to the girls, the older two with their dad who I was in a relationship with previously, and the baby was with my husband. They got me up and walking about a bit and then I was let home on October 11 but had to agree to go up and down to Dublin for check-ups.
“Then when I went in on the 30th, the consultant said she was going to keep me in as I was full of fluid and wasn’t breathing properly. I begged her to let me go home just for Halloween as I had promised to be with the kids, but she said she couldn’t risk anything happening while I was there, so I had to stay.” After two false starts (due to unsuitable organs), the mother-of-three underwent a heart transplant on January 10, 2020, and began the long road to recovery.
“Five weeks after being told I needed a heart transplant, I had the operation,” she says. “I didn’t really want to think about it, but knew I didn’t have a choice as my doctor told me that if a heart didn’t come quickly enough, I would have to be put in palliative care.
“Then the first heart turned out to be an unsuitable match and the second one had a hole in it, so it was the third donor heart that I was going to be given. I had sepsis twice while I was in hospital and had needed a blood transfusion, so I knew the doctors were worried that things wouldn’t be easy.
“Apparently I was in surgery for just over seven hours and then I came around after about three days. I felt very sore everywhere and found it very difficult to breathe. I remember being told that if I needed to cough, I would have to hold a pillow over my chest and make a cross with my arms, almost as if I was keeping my chest in place.
“Seeing my scars for the first time was also a bit upsetting as they ran from my neck right down my chest and then I also had all the scars from the balloon pumps.” After the surgery, it would take several more weeks for doctors to be sure that Colette’s body had accepted the new organ, and on February 18, she was finally discharged.
“I was so glad to get home and be with my family,” she says. “I hadn’t let the girls visit much as I didn’t want them to see me like that, particularly the way I was before the transplant. I had every faith in the doctors that I was going to survive, but still at the back of my mind I kept thinking that if the worst happened, I didn’t want their memory of me to be associated with tubes and hospitals. So when they did visit, the nurses left out juices and biscuits for them, and they put me in a chair and did their best to hide away the tubes so the situation would look more normal.
“As soon as I got out, I started trying to get stronger. I was advised to walk for 15 minutes three times every day to get the blood circulating. And in the beginning, this was difficult because I had been in bed for so long that I had lost some of the muscle in my legs. I couldn’t lift anything, even the kids which was hard as the youngest was only four.
“I had also been advised to be careful when I was around kids playing in case anyone bumped into me or a ball or something banged me in the chest, so it took a while for things to get back to normal, but now I feel great.” Colette has no idea why she had a heart attack, but she feels it could have something to do with stress.
“I hardly ever drink and up until my heart attack, I had been smoking about 10 or 12 cigarettes a day for six years and I never ate too much, so I had a good lifestyle,” she says. “But my mum had been in a nursing home for a long time as she was a bad diabetic and had renal failure and it was very stressful because she wouldn’t do anything the nurses told her. There was just the two of us as my dad hadn’t lived with us for years, so we were very close.
“She passed away in 2019 and three months later I had my heart attack, so I do think it may have been an issue. I asked my doctor who said that could have had something to do with it, but we just don’t know.
“But I do know that it is so important to insist on getting something checked if you are not happy with a diagnosis. I never thought I had a heart problem, but I would say to anyone else who has pains in their chest or shortness of breath, don’t let people tell you that it’s just a panic attack. It may well be something simple, but it also might not be, so make sure to ask for further tests. An ECG takes no time at all and it could save a life. I’m sure that if it weren’t for the Mater Hospital and particularly Dr Emer Joyce, I would not be here today.”