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9 January 2019

‘They told my family they didn’t think I was going to make it through the night’

Catherine Lawes
Catherine Lawes

Midwife and mother-of-four Catherine Lawes tell us how the team at Broomfield Hospital helped her fight back from heart failure and strokes to resume her career.

Four years ago, Catherine returned home after a shift as a community midwife and began experiencing chest pain. She put it down to anxiety, picked her children up from school and tried to carry on as normal.

When the pain didn’t go, she drove herself to A&E at Broomfield, walked in and collapsed. 

Doctors quickly established there was a severe problem with Catherine’s heart. With her condition deteriorating, she was transferred to the Essex Cardiothoracic Centre at Basildon Hospital.

“I wasn’t aware but they had to put me on CPAP (airway ventilator) because my lungs were filling up with blood. I was drowning because my heart wasn’t working properly.

“The consultant stayed at the end of my bed until 6am at which point they took me to theatre and put a balloon in to replace my heart function.

“They told my family they didn’t think I was going to make it through the night and to prepare for the worst. 

Catherine, who had no previous history of ill health, lost her eyesight and became confused. MRI and CAT scans revealed she’d had a stroke, and had had strokes previously. 

It was then discovered Catherine had a hole in her heart.

“They said it was a rare condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also called broken heart syndrome. After a long admission I left hospital with only 46% heart function. I had a stammer, a tremor, poor neurological function, poor memory.

“Six months after heart failure I had to go back into Basildon for open heart surgery and have my heart reconstructed with a pig pericardium.

“It was tough on the family. I was at home with my four children unable to work or function properly but trying desperately to.”

During an admission after another cardiac event last year Broomfield consultant cardiologist Dr Onkar Dhillon spotted abnormal heart rhythms and Catherine was subsequently diagnosed with a condition called Prolonged Q-T syndrome – which means she is vulnerable to sudden adult death syndrome. She now has a cardiac device in her chest which is monitored by the team at Bart’s in London.

Eight months after the open heart surgery Catherine was encouraged to come back to work. To help her recovery, she was taken off shift work and a role was created for her - screening newborns for congenital heart conditions, initially on a temporary basis.

But the transition back to work was incredibly challenging.

“I struggled with my memory, self-esteem, clinical confidence, fatigue – I was tired all the time. When I first came back I’d do two hours and feel like I needed to sleep. 

“The midwives here - Liz Williamson, Serena Rae, Carole Hughes, Sarah Dunn and Alison Cuthbertson - saw me at my most vulnerable and carried me.”

In December, Catherine returned to work full-time and is now the clinical lead midwife for newborn and infant physical examination on the Postnatal ward. She is also about to start a master’s level course to become to a professional midwifery advocate after being recommended by colleagues.

“Alison Cuthbertson allowing me to sit in my position on a temporary basis and then offering me a permanent role is quite unheard of. 

“Sarah Dunn really pushed for me. Serena and Liz were my friends and really supported me but Sarah and Alison said, ‘Catherine’s good at this, can we give her a chance? We’ll get her through.’ Anything that was too stressful, Alison kept me away. I’ve been looked after.”

“I’ve experienced excellent care. It’s kept me alive. What it continues to do for me and my family is just amazing.

 “There is so much that I’m grateful for, and thankful for. I am very passionate about early detection and screening for our babies. I love my job, my colleagues and I am very proud to be reinstated and a specialist in this field. So much good has come out of a really bad situation.

“The care and support I’ve had as a patient and an employee has been incredible.”