“Two weeks after giving birth to my third daughter, at the age of 36, I had a heart attack.
“I’d had a normal labour and Chloe was born on 18th January 2009. There was nothing worrying during labour. I didn’t have to be monitored for anything.
“On 28th January 2009, the health visitor came for a routine visit. She took my blood pressure and all was normal. She had only been gone about 10 minutes when I had a sharp, severe pain between my shoulder blades.
“It was my husband Paul’s last day of paternity leave so he was at home with me. I told him I had a wild pain in my back and we wondered if it was a muscle spasm.
“The pain then moved to under my left arm. It was a crushing, tight pain that no matter how you tried to reach it to rub it and soothe it, you just couldn’t. The pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced, even worse than labour. I started to sweat – huge balls of sweat on my forehead, thick and heavy. It was not the kind of sweat you get when you are exercising. It was very different. I also started to have difficulty breathing.
“I asked Paul to phone the health visitor to get her to come back, but instead Paul phoned our GP, a decision for which I am very thankful. He described what was happening and the GP sent an ambulance.
“The paramedics’ first thought was that it was possibly a severe chest infection. They carried out an ECG in our living room though it did not detect that I was having a heart attack. The doctors explained to me later that this can happen. However, the other acute symptoms and pain meant they gave me morphine and immediately took me to A&E. At the time there was an A&E department in the Mid Ulster Hospital at Magherafelt.
“On the way, I lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. The paramedics had to perform CPR on me in the ambulance and we were met by the resuscitation team at A&E.
“Meanwhile Paul was following in his car, oblivious to what was happening.
“At Magherafelt, I arrested a further three times. At one point, I can remember feeling pain from someone hammering my chest and stomach. I could hear them counting 24…..25…..26. I’d been trained in CPR and so knew what was happening. I remember thinking that at least I would have a brief rest from the hammering when they reached 30.
“From Magherafelt, I was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital for two stents, one at the front and one at the back of my heart. The consultants found that one artery was completely blocked and one was 98% blocked.
“The doctors have not been able to give me a reason for my heart attack. Afterwards they did tests and scans but found no underlying health problems. I had never smoked, was a healthy weight and wasn’t a drinker. I had normal cholesterol and, if anything, low blood pressure. None of the normal risk factors applied. But somehow or other my blood became stickier and clots formed that caused the heart attack.
“Because I have none of the normal risk factors, I know the chance of it happening again is no greater for me than for anyone else. In fact, it is probably lower because of the medication I am on. However, the heart attack has had an ongoing impact on my life.
“When I got home from hospital, I was in bed for about 5 months, the first 5 months of Chloe’s life. I could do very little to look after her which I felt very bad about.
“I used to work in HR for a manufacturing company. After a year of maternity leave and a further year of sick leave, I talked to my employers about returning to work but they needed me to work for a minimum of four days per week and I that would be too fatiguing for me. So I had to give up work. It was a big decision to make as I’d worked hard at university and in my career to reach the stage I was at. I had also found a suitable job closer to home to make family life easier and I had to walk away from it all. It was a hard decision to take but I knew it was the right decision for my health.
“I took a long time to get used to the medication. This was completely unexpected. No one warned me how hard that side of it would be. For example, the medication causes stomach problems, which in turn causes reflux and acid, which is unpleasant and very worrying for someone who has had a heart attack. So I have to take further tablets for my stomach.
“It took 7-8 months to find the right level of beta-blockers and 18 months of trying different levels of cholesterol medication before coming off it altogether. I don’t have high cholesterol so that medication wasn’t needed. Instead my cholesterol is monitored.
“I attended three rounds of cardiac rehab and it is the best thing out there. Cardiac rehab consists of exercise, education, and meeting others in the same boat as you. It allows you to function on a day to day basis with confidence. Without rehab you would take a lot longer to move on. Before rehab if I was walking and could feel my heart beating, it would worry me and I would stop. But rehab taught me I need to do exercise to strengthen my heart muscle. Now if I feel it beating, I just tear on. I have to go for a walk every day or my heart muscle wouldn’t be strong.
“The heart attack damaged my heart muscle. It has 48% functionality which clinically puts me in the mild heart failure bracket. I have dizziness and low blood pressure which is a result of the damage to the heart muscle and the medication I am on.
“I also suffer fatigue. If I pace myself during the day when the girls are at school, I can manage my ‘working day’ which is from 3.30pm when they get home and 6pm when Paul gets home. The girls are really great though. They have been brought up knowing how to help me, and knowing that if Mummy is lying down, not to disturb me.
“Paul has also been great. Apart from calling the doctor in the first place and supporting me and the family, he is also a good sounding board when I get frustrated with what I can and can’t do. If I see someone who has had a heart attack being able to things I can’t, I ask ‘why can’t I do that’ and every time Paul reminds me that everyone’s heart attack is different.
“I had none of the lifestyle factors that normally put someone at risk of a heart attack and yet I still had one. You have to be aware that it could happen to you. If Paul had not been there that day, I probably would not have called the doctor, despite what in hindsight seem obvious symptoms. It is important to know the symptoms and even if you are a young woman like me, to realise that it may be a heart attack and to get help.
“My heart attack was a life changing event, but I am very thankful to be alive. It could have been a lot different.”
Find out more about the cardiac support services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.