An NHS pathologist who fought off shingles was told she needed triple bypass surgery just nine months later when she felt like she was “drowning from the inside” after the virus attacked her heart.
Mum-of-two, Sarah Worsnop, 46, was diagnosed with shingles in January 2016 which, caused by the chickenpox virus, usually manifests in a painful, blotchy rash and leaves people feeling generally unwell.
Still feeling breathless in September, Sarah, who lives in East Yorkshire with her husband, Steven, 48, and their two teenage daughters, was told she had a chest infection, but could not lie down and felt so ill she dialled 999.
Rushed to A&E, she was diagnosed with viral myocarditis – inflammation of the heart muscle – and heart failure caused by an infection, thought most likely to have been shingles.
Sarah, who had a triple heart bypass some months later in February 2017, said: “Heart failure affects every aspect of my life. It’s like carrying an uninvited hitchhiker around on my back.
“But I won’t let my illness define me and I’m dedicated to raising awareness about it and doing everything I can to keep feeling like myself.”
Working with patient-led heart failure charity Pumping Marvellous, she is keen for people to recognise the four signs of heart failure – shortness of breath, swollen ankles, feeling unusually tired and dizziness.
Sarah, who was suspected of having everything from rheumatological conditions to stress before doctors discovered her heart failure, said: “I felt really breathless.
“I was 41 and I had really bad fatigue, but doctors thought it was caused by the shingles because it stays in your body for a long time. But it just got worse.”
She added: “I had shingles in January 2016 and I felt very unwell. The GP thought I had post viral syndrome and in September 2016 I was diagnosed with a chest infection and given antibiotics.”
“I just felt awful and stayed in bed.”
But the mum was horrified when her body swelled and soon she could no longer lie down, saying she felt like she was “drowning on the inside.”
“I just couldn’t lie down,” she said.
“My heart was beating really fast as it was struggling to pump blood around my body and my lungs and body were filling with fluid. I was basically drowning.
“Something pinged in the back of my mind that if you can’t lie down you should call 999. I don’t know where I’d seen it, but I did exactly that. I just knew something was really wrong.”
Ringing an ambulance, Sarah was rushed to A&E, as paramedics became concerned she had sepsis – a life threatening reaction to infection.
But an X-ray and blood test revealed she was in heart failure due to viral myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, usually caused by a virus.
“I was only 41 when I was diagnosed,” she said.
She added: “I think because of my age no one thought to check for heart failure. But doctors think my shingles affected my heart and caused viral myocarditis.
“It was a shock. My world was tipped on its head.”
Given a triple bypass in February 2017, where surgeons redirected blood from the scarring in Sarah’s heart, she also had a defibrillator fitted to administer an electric shock to the organ if she goes into cardiac arrest.
“The surgeon rerouted my blood supply from the scarring,” she said.
“Five months later I had an interior defibrillator fitted, as I’m at a higher risk of cardiac arrest. It definitely helps me sleep at night knowing I have it.”
Despite the fantastic work of her medical team, Sarah says living with heart failure is extremely tough.
“I don’t want to be defined by my illness,” she said.
“I was forced to stop working, but I’m committed to doing as much as I can, so I can keep feeling like myself. I have an online book club with Pumping Marvellous and I volunteer for them regularly.
“But not all days are easy. Some can be very challenging. I get dizzy and easily tired. Even eating a big meal can leave me exhausted.”
Almost three quarters of people could not explain what heart failure is.
Only 20 per cent of respondents would seek same day medical assistance for shortness of breath - a key heart failure symptom
47 per cent of UK respondents misidentified the descriptions of cardiac arrest, heart attack or stroke as heart failure.
Over half of those surveyed in the UK and Ireland could not identify the four main symptoms of heart failure: shortness of breath, swollen ankles, feeling unusually tired and dizziness
69 per cent misidentified heart attack symptoms such as a sharp pain in the arm and chest, for heart failure symptoms
She added: “I can’t walk far and need a stick. Some days I just feel awful and drained.”
With heart failure affecting up to a million people in the UK, it is one of the leading causes of avoidable hospitalisations. Yet, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Boehringer Ingelheim and Lilly Alliance, only 20 per cent of Brits would seek same day medical assistance for shortness of breath – one of its main symptoms.
Sarah said: “Unfortunately, my story isn’t unusual.”
She added: “I had all the classic signs of heart failure in the year before my diagnosis – swollen ankles and abdomen, a cough, breathlessness and dizziness on exertion and extreme fatigue.”
“But I obviously slipped though the net.
“Heart failure can be managed through medication, but we need to identify it before it becomes life threatening.”
She added: “If by working with Pumping Marvellous to raise awareness of its main symptoms I can make a difference and help just one person, it will have been worth it.”
Sarah is also urging anyone who suspects they may have heart failure to request a simple blood test from their GP.
“It saves lives,” she said. “It costs so little and from that test doctors can identify heart failure. I think, especially because of Covid, people are hesitant to go to the GP.”
She added: “But if you have any of these symptoms you need to request a blood test, or even an ECG.
“There needs to be more education about heart failure. Doctors thought because I was young and a woman it couldn’t be heart failure.
“It can affect anyone, though, and we need to be aware of the main four symptoms.”
Nick Hartshorne-Evans, CEO of the Pumping Marvellous Foundation, the leading patient organisation for people living with heart failure said the condition and its associated symptoms are poorly understood, despite the number of people affected by it.
He said: “In England every year, one in every 18 hospital visits includes a heart failure diagnosis as the cause or contributing factor, yet 40 per cent of people diagnosed in hospital had symptoms that should have triggered an earlier assessment. ”
For more information go to https://www.pumpingmarvellous.org/