“I had a heart attack on 11th February 2012 when I was only 39 years old. Each year, on the anniversary, the memories come flooding back. This year, on the 5th anniversary, I am taking part in Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Red Dress Run at Stormont, to raise awareness of women’s heart disease.
“I am a woman. I have heart disease. This is my story.
“It was a normal Saturday. It was about 15 minutes into my Taibo class, doing punches and kicks, when I suddenly felt sick. I had never felt a sickness like it. I bent down to get my bottle of water and the pain moved into my jaw and left arm.
“I knew something was very wrong so I left the class and called my husband, Derek. Derek picked up the fear in my voice and collected me immediately. When we got home I told him I thought I was having a heart attack and that he needed to call 999.
“But before the ambulance arrived, I needed to see my children, our 19 year old daughter Gemma, our 13 year old twin sons Darren and Jamie and our 3 year old daughter Emily. I knew that if I was going to die, I wanted to see everyone first and kiss them goodbye.
“When the paramedic car arrived, I was given aspirin and he did an ECG, but it showed nothing. Because I was so young, he didn’t think it could be a heart attack. He thought I pulled a muscle in my taibo class. But I have done exercise for years and I know what pulled muscles feel like. This was different. By this time I had pain down both arms and in the centre of my chest. It felt like an elephant was sitting on me. I could hardly breathe with the crushing pain. I was insistent it was my heart.
“Even at the Antrim Area Hospital A&E, my age made it was hard to convince anyone it was serious. I said to Derek, ‘I am going to die here.’
“I am a Healthcare Assistant and I work between the Antrim Area and Whiteabbey Hospitals, so I know people there and thankfully a friend was able to get me the immediate help I needed. The nurse working on me realised how serious the situation was and said ‘This women is very ill. We need to take her to the cardiac ward. It looks like a heart attack.’
“Derek went home to sort out our three year old and my parents stayed with me. Within 30 minutes of arriving in the cardiac ward, the pain was unbearable again. Just as my dad was about to get help, the nurses came running, alerted by the telemetry machine. The doctor arranged my immediate transfer to the RVH for an angiogram. It had been booked for the Monday but I needed it right now.
“As I was wheeled back out of the hospital, I passed many of my work colleagues, and I could see on the shock on their faces at my condition.
“It was a blue light run all the way to the RVH where I was taken straight to the cath lab. My troponin levels showed I had had a heart attack but an angiogram was needed to show the extent of the damage or blockage. As the cardiologist was performing the angiogram, he could see that my arteries were not blocked. My artery was dissecting and this was causing the heart attack.
“I had never heard of a dissection. Now I know that a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) is when an artery is either bruised causing it to swell or it is ripped, like mine was. No one knows why they happen. Dissections do not show up on ECGs which is why my ECGs had been normal. Unfortunately though, the aspirin and the other blood thinners I was given had increased the bleeding.
“SCAD is a rare heart condition with few or none of the common ‘risk factors’ or causes. I was smoker but not a heavy one. I ate healthily and exercised. My colleagues in the hospitals were shocked this had happened to me as they didn’t consider me to be unhealthy. If anything, I was underweight.
“Because the problem was a dissection rather than a blockage, the doctors were unable to stent it. The cardiologist told me that the only thing that would save my life would be a triple bypass.
“A triple bypass is a major operation. My family was all brought in to see me, to say their goodbyes, in case the operation did not save me.
“I can remember my mum’s wee face. ‘You’ll be okay,’ she said, ‘It is not your time.’ My dad is diabetic and had not eaten all day. He nearly collapsed with the emotion. My brothers and sisters all said they would see me again after the operation.
“Derek, however, was still not back from home. The doctor was very understanding but said that they could wait no longer and started to transfer me to theatre. My life depended on it. Thankfully, just at that minute, Derek and my daughter arrived. I told Derek I loved him and he said, ‘It’s not your time. I’ll see you after.’
“The operation took from 9pm to 3am. They took the grafts from my leg – veins from my ankle all the way up to my knee, then from my knee to my groin. The next thing I remember is waking up in ICU, in and out of consciousness.
“The first two days were awful for my family, especially Derek. I was on a ventilator, tubes everywhere, and the pacing wires sticking out of my chest, in case I needed to be defibbed. My family were told the first 48 hours were vital to see if the graft took. I still wasn’t out of the woods and they were very worried.
“It takes a long time to recover from a triple bypass. However, because I was young, I was discharged after one week. Derek had to look after me at home, which was difficult and felt much too soon. He was taught CPR ‘just in case’ and that frightened us even more. Derek was very worried that it would happen again and that he would be unable to save me.
“Another heart attack has been my biggest fear for many years. I was very anxious about going out in case there would be no one nearby to help me. And if I was out with my 3 year old daughter, I had the added fear about who would look after her if I collapsed in the street. It took me and my family a long time to recover mentally and emotionally – much longer than physically.
“When I had my heart attack, Gemma was 19. She had to take on the role of mother to my 3 year old daughter and my 13 year old twin boys and care for me when Derek was out at work.
“My breastbone took 6 months to heal after being opened for the bypass surgery, which is normal. My leg was the hardest part of my recovery. I had a haematoma under the skin at the top of my leg and I almost had to have another operation to remove it.
“My heart muscle is now damaged. If I am pushing my grandson Kobe’s pram up a hill I would sometimes get breathless. I am able to run on the treadmill for 15 mins, but my leg gets sore. I exercise regularly but have been advised not to take my heart rate too high. I walk 3-5 miles, five days a week, and I go to the gym for one hour three times per week. The cardiac rehab taught me how important it is to keep my heart muscle strong through exercise.
“I no longer smoke. I eat even more healthily. My cholesterol was fine anyway but I have taken it lower so as not to put pressure on my heart by having clogged up arteries.
“I can’t believe it has been five years. I always wonder if it will happen again. I am told that because they use veins for the graft, not arteries, they will last 15-25 years. I dread having another bypass. I know that the better I look after my heart, the longer it will last.
“I enjoy spending time with my family that is what is important to me now.”
Find out more about the cardiac support services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.