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Days from death, after 'indigestion' pain turned out to be heart failure

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 05, 2012

Jess Smith was diagnosed with endocarditis which, left untreated, can result in death

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A schoolgirl who thought she had indigestion suffered heart failure aged 16 which may have been caused by her earrings or braces.

Jess Smith began suffering mild chest pains and assumed it was a common case of heartburn.

She saw one GP who diagnosed indigestion and gave her Gaviscon but the symptoms continued.

Jess saw another doctor who told her she was in fact suffering heart failure – and was just days away from death.

She was diagnosed with endocarditis – an infection of the heart – and rushed to hospital to have open-heart surgery.

Jess, now 17, was in theatre for seven hours while surgeons battled to replace her heart valves, which had been completely destroyed.

Just 24 hours after the surgery, she had a heart attack – and was in intensive care for three weeks.

Doctors have now told her the infection could have been picked up when she had her ears pierced or brace fitted when she was 15.

Jess, of Camborne, has been told she needs a new heart and is currently on the transplant waiting list.

She said: "At first I thought it was indigestion so I went to the doctors and was given Gaviscon.

''But when it didn't get any better I went back, thinking it was a chest infection. I couldn't believe it when they said it was my heart.

''They said if I hadn't gone back to the doctor's then I could have died in just a few days."

Jess was a healthy teenager who loved dancing and gymnastics when she started getting pains in her chest in September last year.

She went to see her doctor, who prescribed Gaviscon, but the problems continued.

Her mother, Dawn, 51, encouraged her to go and see an out-of-hours doctor a week later.

The GP then referred her for an ECG (electrocardiogram) examination, which measures electrical activity of the heart. It was when a nurse detected a heart murmur she was immediately sent to Treliske Hospital in Truro to get it checked out.

Jess was diagnosed with endocarditis which left untreated can result in death and normally only affects people aged over 50. The condition is caused when bacteria enters the bloodstream which can occur during procedures such as having injections, ear piercings and dental work like brace fittings.

Jess was rushed to Bristol Royal Infirmary for emergency surgery and Dawn was told to prepare for the worst.

Dawn said: "I was stunned when we were told she needed open-heart surgery. We didn't realise how serious it was until we were in Bristol because it didn't seem real."

In theatre, surgeons realised the infection was much worst than initially thought as all her heart valves were destroyed.

Dawn was relieved when Jess pulled through – but just 24 hours later she had a heart attack. She was in hospital for seven weeks – three of which were spent in intensive care.

Jess, who had dreams of being a professional dancer, has been left with a six-inch scar on her chest – but she isn't afraid of people seeing it.

"I don't purposely have it on show but I don't feel I have to cover it up because I'm proud that I went through this and pulled through," she said.

Jess, who has had a defibrillator fitted in her heart while she waits for a transplant, is now at college where she is training to be a hairdresser.

"My dream of becoming a dancer is out of reach now," said Jess, who gets tired from walking up the stairs.

"I know it's too dangerous for me to pursue so I'm studying hairdressing instead."

At first, the teenager struggled to accept her illness – and even broke up with her boyfriend Jack, 17, because of it. But four months ago the young couple got back together.

Jess said: "It was too much for me to take at the time and I pushed my boyfriend away as a result. But we are now stronger than ever and he wants to give me his heart so I won't die.

"Knowing he'd sacrifice his life for mine is very comforting. I thought he'd leave me because I had so many health problems, but he's been my rock."

Her mother added: ''I'm really proud of her because she was strong and she got through it. But at the same time it's sad because it's taken a lot away from her. She can't go dancing every day like she used to."

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