Symptoms of heart failure: Aussie mum warning after daughter’s ‘constipation’ was sign of silent killer

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One Monday four years ago, Sydney mum Leah took her eight-year-old daughter Jada to the GP for what she suspected was stubborn constipation.

Within days, Jada was in the ICU – in desperate need of a new heart.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Leah tells 7Life of her shock and confusion at hearing the news.

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“I was just walking around Randwick (Hospital) – I couldn’t even go in and see her.”

Looking back, the mum can’t believe she missed the symptoms for heart failure and urges parents to “never think it’s nothing”.

Jada spent two months recovering from her heart transplant in Melbourne. Credit: Supplied

The ordeal for the eight-year-old – and her distraught mum – started with Jada’s swollen belly.

The youngest of four, the primary schooler was constantly napping, something Leah put down to Jada being the “baby of the family”.

But one Monday morning in 2018, the little girl was experiencing slight abdominal discomfort, so Leah took her to the GP thinking her daughter may have been constipated.

The doctor confirmed the mum’s suspicions and suggested medication to help relieve the symptoms.

He also wrote a referral for an ultrasound if things didn’t improve.

On the way to the hospital the mum noticed her Jada’s swollen stomach. Credit: Supplied

At home, Leah told Jada to drink more water, to hopefully help alleviate the problem.

But by the Wednesday, Jada’s belly was still enlarged, prompting Leah to book the earliest possible ultrasound, for the Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile at school, cruel gibes began to swirl about Jada’s growing stomach, eventually flowing back to Leah.

“People were asking if Jada was okay. One kid told Jada that she looked pregnant,” Leah says.

Leah thought her daughter was constipated but a week later she was in the ICU in heart failure. Credit: Supplied

After school on Friday, Leah took Jada to the ultrasound, recalling that the “technician just went white”.

“He said to go back to our GP right away – it was 5pm, the doctor was closed, but the technician just told us they would stay open for us,” Leah recalls.

Unaware her daughter was seriously ill, the mum drove calmly to the doctor.

The GP quickly read the ultrasound report and revealed Jada’s organs were enlarged – advising Leah to go to Randwick Children’s Hospital.

heart failure

As Leah drove, she glanced at Jada in the rearview mirror.

She was shocked to notice her daughter’s stomach was bulging over the seatbelt, with Jada obliviously resting her hands on her engorged belly.

“That was the first moment I knew something was seriously wrong,” Leah says.

On arrival at the hospital, Jada was surrounded by heart and liver specialists as they discussed which organ needed the most immediate attention.

During her first hospital visit, five litres of fluid was taken from her swollen abdomen. Credit: Supplied

In ICU, the brave girl was hooked up to machines, and five liters of fluid was released from her abdomen.

Specialists had by then discovered there was no issue with the little girl’s liver – this, at least, was a welcome relief.

By Sunday, the mum reveals Jada “was a completely different girl.”

“She was doing cartwheels. I have never seen her so energetic in my life,” Leah says.

Hospital staff suggested Leah go home for some rest, ahead of a cardiologist appointment the next day.

The hospital helped Jada understand her treatment using needle therapy. Credit: Supplied

On the Monday, the mum attended the appointment alone.

“You know how doctors can be, she was just straight to the point,” Leah says.

“She said, ‘Jada has restrictive cardiomyopathy (RCM) and needs a heart transplant’.”

RCM causes the chambers of the heart to stiffen over time, causing restricted blood flow to the body.

Leah began to cry.

Pacing the hospital floors, she eventually mustered the courage to face her daughter – who was unaware she needed a new heart.

The school girl became accustomed to living in and out of hospitals. Credit: Supplied

“She was asleep,” Leah reveals. “I was just crying and crying and holding her.

“She was in heart failure and they (doctors) didn’t know when her heart would just stop.”

The following months were tormenting for the family as they endured an agonising wait at home for a donor heart to save their little girl’s life.

Every few days, Jada returned to the hospital.

There, she was poked and prodded, blood was taken and samples were examined to ensure she was in top health when a heart became available.

For six months, the family had “go bags” at the front door, ready to drop everything and head to hospital for the transplant.

Organ transplant

Finally their prayers were answered – after six months, an organ was available in Melbourne.

“We were just sitting down for dinner when we received the call,” Leah recalls.

“Poor Jada had to act fast so she couldn’t even eat.”

Grabbing their bags, they headed straight to the airport and jumped on the next available flight.

Jada flew from her home in Sydney to Melbourne to undergo a lifesaving heart transplant. Credit: Supplied

Jada faced every step of the journey – from walking off the plane and into the operating theater – with a smile on her face.

“We stayed with her in the operating room until they put her under,” Leah says.

“I made a joke that if she makes it to [the count of] 10 when they are putting her under that we would buy her an iPhone.

“But at the last second, just before she went under, she got scared and grabbed my face and said, ‘No mummy’, then she was out.”

Instantly the mum burst into tears.

Jada proudly sporting her transplant survivor T-shirt following the successful surgery. Credit: Supplied

The surgery was a success and Jada was wheeled into ICU a few hours later.

Snaked in wires, she and her new heart were being kept alive by machines.

“Nothing prepares you to see your child on life support,” the mum says.

Leah spent two months in Melbourne with Jada as her little girl recovered, before they were able to fly home to Sydney.

However, Jada still needed regular checkups to ensure she wasn’t experiencing organ rejection.

Make-A-Wish

The constant tests began to take a toll on the young girl, who began experiencing post traumatic stress and anxiety around the relentless hospital visits.

That’s when the family was introduced to the Make-A-Wish foundation.

With the help of the charity, they were able to make Jada’s wish come true – owning a pet cat for the first time.

Jada with her best friend Penny, donated by the Make-A-Wish foundation. Credit: Supplied

With Leah allergic to cat hair, Jada requested a Sphynx, or hairless cat – which coincidentally carries a similar heart condition to Jada.

Jada poured her heart out to the Make-A-Wish team about her transplant – something she had not done previously.

Then after months of research, Penny was welcomed into the family.

“Penny has brought Jada out of her shell,” Leah smiles.

“She took her to the first day of school, she lies on her chest when she is upset and everything we do Jada knows that she gets to come home and Penny will be there.”

Jada is now 12 and in Year Seven at high school. Credit: Supplied

The pre-teen now has the confidence to attend vital medical appointments again.

And at her last appointment she was given the all clear.

Her body is officially showing zero signs of rejection – a huge milestone.

Jada is now 12 and in Year Seven at high school.

She is forever grateful for the generous donations that allowed Penny into her life.

But her deepest gratitude is reserved for the person and their family who gave her the gift of life – her new heart.

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