A frightening 40% of heart attacks in women in Australia are fatal. Martha survived two.
It began with an intuition, a strange feeling of dread that Martha Rose Coomber still struggles to explain. She woke her partner, James Thomas, and told him she felt nauseated and that she might be having a heart attack.
It was three in the morning in Mutijulu, home to a tight-knit Aboriginal community located at the eastern end of Uluru, and more than 1300 kilometres from the closest major hospital in Adelaide.
By the time the ambulance attached to the nearby community clinic arrived, Martha knew the attack was about to happen. She remembers hearing two nurses talking on the phone to the hospital in Adelaide. She recalls being hit with the defibrillator to shock her heart back to normal rhythms. She remembers thinking she was about to die. In the early hours of that July 2018 morning, Martha suffered two heart attacks.
Given her medical history, she was not really surprised. She had never expected to make old bones. Her mother, Lillian, had died of heart failure at the age of 45 and, given the long, generational history of heart disease in her family, Martha was convinced she would never make it past her 40s.
The statistics were also working against her. According to the Australian Heart Foundation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are almost twice as likely as non-Indigenous women to have heart, stroke and blood vessel disease.
The first inkling of the trouble to come in Martha’s life occurred when an irregular heartbeat was detected during an annual check-up. A few years later in 2018, she suffered a heart attack while undergoing a heart health test. She was flown to Adelaide where she underwent cardiac triple bypass surgery.
In the weeks and months following the surgery, Martha felt her recovery was lagging. She had stayed in touch with others on the cardiac ward who had undergone similar surgery and their progress seemed to be significantly ahead of hers. “I still felt I had the same heart difficulties but worse even,” she recalls.
The cardio team told me it was just a matter of courage, that I might have some post-operation depression. But I just didn’t feel right.”Martha Rose Coomber
Her intuition may have helped to save her life. Shortly after she was flown to Adelaide following her two heart attacks, Martha learned that in a situation regarded as rare, one of the artery grafts from her earlier bypass surgery had failed. She needed more surgery.
She was also diagnosed with a condition known as atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often rapid heart rhythm that can lead to blood clots in the heart. A small device called a cardioverter-defibrillator was implanted in her chest to detect and stop abnormal heartbeats.
“The thought of having it there is strange, but I have to admit I’m grateful for it,” she says.
There are times when I am a long way from help. I didn’t think about that in the moments of the attacks. I was so surrounded by people I love and trust. James [my partner] is first-aid qualified and I honestly feel the first-responders were so well-qualified.”Martha Rose Coomber
The journey back to better health was challenging for a woman who was struggling with diabetes and being overweight. Diabetes increases the risk of heart attack by three to seven times in women. Martha had also been a smoker from the age of seven – she recalls lighting her mother’s cigarettes for her – but finally quit in her mid-forties. Making healthier food choices was difficult too for a woman with a weakness for ice cream.
Coming from a poverty mentality, you have a sense that you never have enough. When you have only a small amount of money, it’s easy to spend it on expedient food, like fast-foods.”Martha Rose Coomber
But Martha discovered a reserve of strength she hadn’t realised she possessed. She trained herself to eat healthily and steadily began to lose weight. “I basically stick to an 80/20 plan [where I eat healthy foods 80% of the time],” she says. “I can’t be too strict. I time-limit my eating and never eat after 3.30pm.”
Martha estimates she has lost about 60 kilos.
Despite the trauma of triple bypass surgery and surviving two heart attacks, Martha feels blessed. “I am so grateful to be in the moment,” she explains. “It makes moments more poignant now to see a baby come into the world, to see the colour of flowers, to smell the rain. It’s always a good day to be above ground.”
From her kitchen window, Martha has a view of Uluru, the 348-metre-high monolithic boulder that is sacred to Indigenous people. She says it inspired her to get well. She is now back at work in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
She remains convinced that women should listen to, and act on, their intuitions. “It doesn’t matter if you are wrong about your intuition, act on it,” she urges. “Your intuition is an inbuilt warning system.
Women should also check their heart health regularly. My level of awareness around my heart health helped to save my life.”Martha Rose Coomber