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Panting, Carolyn thought she needed the gym. What she needed was heart surgery

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Everyone deserves a second chance at life. That was Carolyn Visser’s main takeaway from a health scare which could have been fatal if it hadn’t been caught in time.

There were no obvious signs Visser, a West Australian primary school teacher, had heart disease besides a shortness of breath walking uphill.

Carolyn Visser on a recent trip to Karijini National Park.

“I remember being on vacation, taking on the Abel Tasman walk with my family. I was struggling and had to get others to carry my backpack,” she said.

“We were all joking about how maybe I needed to get into the gym.”

Visser later went to her doctor, who did a heart health check, which involves measuring blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, alongside a discussion about family history and lifestyle.

Her doctor then sent her for a coronary calcium scan, given both her parents had died of ischemic heart disease. But Visser said she was unconcerned.

“My dad was a smoker and my mum’s diet wasn’t great. I don’t smoke and I eat relatively well, I thought I was in the clear. When the doctor got the results and showed me pictures of my arteries, I honestly thought she had me mixed up with someone else. I just thought, ‘there is no way that’s me.’”

A calcium reading of zero to 100 is regarded as normal, 101 to 400 is a moderate risk, and anything above 401 is high risk.

Visser’s reading was 2581. Her husband of 27 years, who led a similar lifestyle, had a reading of four.

“My doctor told me I was at critical risk of having a heart attack. She said it was the worst case she’s ever seen,” she recalled.

A follow-up angioplasty revealed multiple blockages, including a long and almost complete blockage in a major artery. She had two stents inserted to open one artery, but the smaller blood vessels were too small to be reopened.

“It’s been harder for my husband, I think. He was lying awake at night checking I was breathing,” she said. “Emotionally it took a few weeks to settle down.”

Now, Visser is on medication and able to take on hiking at Karijini National Park. She gets heart health checks every year, which have been free through the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

She said she had been given a second chance to live and believed everybody should be afforded the same chance.

But with heart health checks to be removed from Medicare benefits from June 30, and no word from the federal government on whether it will be reinstated, she feared others would miss out.

The Heart Foundation has started a campaign to save the Medicare checks, which has been joined by more than 30,000 people.

Healthcare Programs Manager Natalie Raffoul said the former government introduced the checks as a temporary item on the Medicare Benefits Schedule in 2019.

Data from February shows nearly 440,000 Australians have taken the check since then.

“The Department of Health and Aged Care is in the process of reviewing the Medicare-funded items, but a report is not due until later this year,” she said.

“Australia is at risk of having a significant and life-threatening gap in cardiovascular risk prevention if the item is not renewed at a cost of $11.5 million in the 2023/24 Federal Budget.

“This is a relatively small investment compared to the $1 billion in healthcare costs that could be saved with broad uptake of heart health checks in high-risk Australians and more importantly, the 67,000 heart attacks, strokes and heart disease related deaths that could be prevented over five years.”

Raffoul said no reason had been given for the lack of clarity and response on the issue.

Foundation chief executive officer David Lloyd said the check took less than 30 minutes with a GP and was the nation’s best tool for preventing heart disease.

“Prevention is still the best cure – not only for the heart health of Australians but now also for the nation’s overwhelmed healthcare system,” he said.

“More people live with cardiovascular disease than die from it – now the challenge is to shift the nation’s mindset to one that helps people avoid it altogether, to prevent the strain on our hospital and primary care system and improve the overall health and wellbeing of Australians.

“Change will not happen overnight, and so it is crucial that the government consider the smaller cost of prevention now.

“Right now, the heart health check is the only Medicare item available in Australia dedicated specifically to the early detection and prevention of heart disease. To let it expire would be a huge loss.”

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