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Helen Eftekhari, 56, qualified as a nurse almost 30 years ago in 1993 (Picture: British Heart Foundation)

A nurse has modestly spoken of her dedication to helping change the lives of women fighting a potentially debilitating heart condition.

Helen Eftekhari, who lives in Coventry in the West Midlands, qualified as a nurse almost 30 years ago in 1993 and four years later started to specialise in heart health.

‘I became a cardiac rehabilitation nurse – following up people who have had heart attacks and heart surgery,’ said the 56-year-old.

‘This is called supported self-management, and it’s basically a helping hand for people to understanding and look after themselves with their conditions.’

This involved discussing an exercise programme, counselling and advice about life adjustment post-surgery or after a heart attack.

Helen then became an arrythmia nurse in 2009, which involves supporting people with heart rhythm disturbances, including conditions such as Brugada, Long QT and people who have implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) devices.

Then eight years ago she developed an interest, alongside a colleague, in a specific condition called Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS) and helped set up a new clinic for it.

According to the NHS, PoTS is not a traditional cardiac condition like heart disease or heart failure – it is an abnormal increase in heart rate that happens to  patients when sitting up or standing.

Helen said she is becoming a ‘medical feminist’ as a result of her work (Picture: British Heart Foundation)

It affects a range of people but is most common in girls and women aged 15 to 50.

Helen explained: ‘There are a number of symptoms from dizziness, racing heart sensations, excessive tiredness and “brain fog” – and just standing up to make a cup of tea can make you feel like you’ve just run a marathon.’

She said she wants to raise awareness and help women who have the condition ‘because they have their lives ahead of them’.

It is already known there is a ‘heart attack gender gap’, which sees women being less well treated and having higher mortality rates.

This could be for several reasons, including that women present with difficult symptoms than men and can more easily be misdiagnosed.

Previous research by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) found women are 50% more likely than men to receive the wrong initial diagnosis.

Helen, who works at the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, said: ‘Historically PoTS would probably have been diagnosed as “hysterical woman”.

How to know if you’re having a heart attack

According to the NHS website, symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • Chest pain: a sensation of pressure, tightness or squeezing in the centre of your chest
  • Pain in other parts of the body: it can feel as if the pain is travelling from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm, but it can be both), jaw, neck, back and abdomen
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling or being sick
  • An overwhelming sense of anxiety, similar to a panic attack
  • Coughing or wheezing

Some people may only feel minor pain, similar to indigestion. Women and older patients occasionally experience no pain at all.

If you think you’re having a heart attack, you should always call 999 straight away.

She was put on the heart transplant list, but doctors struggled to find her a match due to her age and size.

‘Syndromes like PoTs along with conditions like ME, polycystic ovaries and endometriosis have historically been poorly misunderstood.

‘I’m becoming really passionate that these young women deserve better than they’ve got in life.’

Referencing clinician Sarah Hillman’s Ted talk about being a medical feminist, Helen added: ‘I think I’m actually becoming a medical feminist now, although I didn’t start out as one.’

She helps diagnose PoTS by carrying out an ‘active standing test’ – which takes around 15 minutes by checking heart rate and blood pressure before and after standing – and helps suggest treatment, which includes upping fluids and salt intake if appropriate.

Helen has recently been awarded a nurses fellowship by the BHF to do a PhD focusing on PoTS, which she does four days a week focusing on self-management. She hopes to get the results of her research published in a medical journal.

‘There isn’t any research to suggest why PoTS affects more women than men,’ Helen said, adding it is currently unclear how many people across the country are currently affected by the condition.

‘But the suggestion in clinical practice is that 80% of those diagnosed are women.

‘It’s probably a lot better now, but there was a survey around 2014 that estimated it can take seven years from onset of symptoms to a diagnosis in the UK. Imagine what can happen in your life in that time?’

Helen works at the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust (Picture: PA)

She said giving young women the validation of a diagnosis ‘is hugely important for them’.

‘A lot of them aren’t able to carry on schooling, they fall well behind with the experiences their friends are having at a comparable age and it affects their family relationships, because if doctors don’t understand sometimes their families don’t either,’ Helen added.

She has now been nominated at the BHF Heart Hero Awards, which is the media partner of this year, in the Healthcare Hero category by a patient.

Helen, who will be attending the awards this week with her son who is currently studying for a Masters in London, said: ‘When I first found out I’d been nominated I was a bit uncomfortable about attending an awards ceremony.

‘But then I thought that if one of my patients had taken the time to nominate me, the least I could do was use this as an opportunity to raise awareness of PoTS.’

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For more stories like this, check our news page.

The British Heart Foundation Heart Hero Awards 2022

A BHF Heart Hero, with as its media partner this year, can be anyone from a healthcare professional doing exceptional work, to a young person living with heart disease that has shown incredible courage and determination, to an inspiring fundraiser who has found creative ways to help fund research.

Those shortlisted will be invited to an awards ceremony hosted by Vernon Kay at Glaziers Hall in London on December 1, when the winners will be announced.

You can register to watch the celebration online through a live stream on the evening from 8pm. Guest celebrities will be announcing some of the winners.

Judging of the categories is now complete with Scottish footballer Scott Allan and TV and radio presenter Will Njobvu among this year’s celebrity judges.

But the Young Heart Hero and CPR Hero categories remain open to nominations throughout the year.

The awards ceremony raises awareness of the continued need for funding for the pioneering research that is turning science fiction into reality, and providing hope for more than seven million people in the UK living with heart and circulatory conditions.

To find out more about the categories or to make a nomination, visit the British Heart Foundation website.


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