Four women tell how they cheated death after suffering with heart diseaseFebruary 12, 2019
AS Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us turn our thoughts to affairs of the heart.
And appropriately enough, February is also Heart Month, a time to think about the millions of Brits who are affected by cardiac problems.
Heart disease causes a quarter of all deaths in the UK – around 150,000 a year, the equivalent of one every three minutes. Around seven million Brits are living with heart or circulatory diseases – and the victims are not always men. Around 28,000 women die of a heart attack every year, making it twice as deadly as breast cancer.
But a University of Leeds study also found women are more likely to be misdiagnosed – perhaps because the symptoms are more subtle in females. Here, four women who have been affected by heart disease tell Fabulous their stories.
‘It was skipping beats, it took my breath away’
COMMERCIAL director Laura Stewart is from Lewisham, South East London. She is married to Alex, 45, an art teacher, and they have a one-year-old daughter, Orla. Laura says:
“Six years ago I got the running bug. I was entering lots of 10k races and half-marathons.
“I wanted to set a good personal-best time so I was training hard, but I started to notice my heart was skipping beats.
“It didn’t just happen when I was training, it also occurred when I was sitting on the sofa.
“It felt as if it would stop, then suddenly beat quite hard. It would take my breath away.
“It happened quite a few times over the course of the year and, eventually, I went to see my GP.
“My doctor carried out an ECG, which showed I had a condition called heart block.
“It’s very serious but there are different levels – first, second and complete block.
“I was showing as first degree so he said they’d keep an eye on me and run some further tests.
“Six months later, I went back for a second ECG and it just so happened that, in that moment, my heart went into complete block, which can be fatal.
“The treatment is to be fitted with a pacemaker, which came as a huge shock.
“I was a healthy 31-year-old, I didn’t smoke and I didn’t feel unwell. Plus, there is no history of heart disease in my family.
“But in April 2014 I went into Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Woolwich, to have the procedure.
“I was on a ward with five other people all having the same – they were all women in their 70s and 80s.
“I just kept thinking, “I shouldn’t be here.” But the operation went well.
“I had to take two weeks off work and took it easy, resting at home.
“Physically, I recovered well but mentally it was much harder to come to terms with.
“I found it hard to accept this was something I’d have for the rest of my life. But I think of myself as lucky.
“It sounds strange when you need a pacemaker in your 30s but, if it hadn’t been picked up, I might not be here today.
“Every time I read about someone collapsing while running a marathon, I think, “That could have been me,
“I’ve not let it get in the way of my life. I still run, I do half-marathons and weight training.
“I’ve had a baby since, too. The doctors had to keep a close eye on me when I was pregnant but fortunately it all went well.
“I always need to carry a pacemaker ID document with me and get frisked every time I get on a plane, but these little inconveniences are a small price to pay for being alive.
“I don’t mind my scar either. It’s part of me now and I’ve learnt to accept it.”
‘I had an argument with my neighbour then I started to get a severe pain’
CARON Curragh lives in Milton Keynes with husband Brian, 60, and runs a Pilates studio. She suffers from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which leads to a sudden weakening of the heart muscle. She says:
“I’m a former dancer and I’d had ongoing problems with my spine. In June 2013, I had some injections to reduce the pain and inflammation.
“I was just getting back to normal when I had a car accident, which jolted my back. The pain was in the middle of my back, which was odd, as until then it had been low down.
“I also had pain around my breast bone. They assumed it was whiplash and I was discharged.
“Five weeks later, I had an argument with my neighbour and, as I walked back indoors, I started to get severe pain again. I was breathless and sweating. I called another neighbour, who phoned for an ambulance.
“I was taken to Milton Keynes University Hospital, where I waited for seven hours in A&E. I was admitted to a ward and, at 1.30am, my husband Brian went home.
“Shortly afterwards all hell broke loose when my test results came through. I was rushed to a specialist unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, where I was taken to theatre and given an angiogram – a type of X-ray to show blood vessels.
“The good news was that I had healthy arteries and no blockages. The bad news was I’d had serious heart failure. They said the name Takotsubo, which I had never heard of before. It is often called Broken Heart Syndrome, because in some cases it is brought on by stress or grief.
“Doctors now believe I had a first attack after the car crash. The second time was after the argument. However, research has shown it often happens after physical activity, such as jogging or after surgery. The cause is unknown.
“I’m lucky to be alive. I’ve been left with damaged heart valves and have an abnormal heart rhythm, which is carefully monitored.
“I’ve already had two cardiac ablation procedures to stop the fast heartbeat and it’s likely I’ll need another soon.
“Experts believe there are roughly 2,500 Takotsubo attacks a year in the UK, but the true figure could be much higher as many people have them without being diagnosed. That’s why I’m keen to raise awareness of the condition so more people spot it before it’s too late.”
‘Emotional side of recovery has been much harder – my life has changed’
FORMER store manager Claire-Marie Berouche lives with husband Bouchaib, 53, in Ealing, West London. She had a heart attack in 2012 and will need a transplant in the future. She says:
“When you think of a heart attack, you imagine someone clutching their chest and collapsing, but that’s not what happened with me.
“It was August 2012 when I fell ill. I lay in bed for three days, feeling nauseous, thinking I had a stomach bug. I had no pain in the chest.
“On the third day, Bouchaib became quite concerned. I’m type-one diabetic and hadn’t eaten or drunk anything.
“We couldn’t get an appointment with the doctor, so called paramedics. When the first responder arrived, he agreed it was most likely a bug and sent my husband out for paracetamol.
“In the meantime, an ambulance arrived and the paramedic said she’d need to do more tests before leaving.
“She performed an ECG. The next thing I remember is hearing her shout, “We need a code blue.” She said, “You’re having a heart attack.”
“My instinct was to jump out of bed and get dressed, but she told me not to move and I was taken out on a stretcher. I was sat up in the ambulance, talking. It wasn’t how I imagined a heart attack to be.
“I arrived at Hammersmith Hospital to find myself surrounded by doctors. When I came round later, I was told I’d had a massive heart attack and they had fitted a stent (a tube to keep an artery open). I had to return in two months for bypass surgery, which I had in October 2012.
“Many people recover well from this, but I’ve continued to have problems and, in November 2013, was told I had third-stage heart failure. They fitted an internal defibrillator, or ICD, and at some point I’ll need a transplant but I won’t go on the list until it’s a last resort.
“Having a heart attack is one thing, but the emotional side of the recovery has been much harder. My life has changed beyond recognition. I used to be a full-time store manager. Now I can’t get up the stairs, and I use a mobility scooter to go out.
“My mission is to make women more aware of their hearts – you might not drop to the ground as you’d imagine. If in doubt, get checked out.”
‘I needed help getting up stairs. My husband said I’d gone shade of grey’
COMEDIAN and actress Rebecca Shorrocks lives in South Norwood, South London, with husband Paul, 36, also a comedian. She says:
“I’d always loved exercising and was very fit. In January 2017 I was training for my second half-marathon and felt some palpitations while running.
“I felt a bit light-headed and my breathing was funny. I thought I’d overdone it and didn’t worry too much.
“I was going to an audition afterwards and really struggled on the Tube. When I got home, I told my husband I needed help getting up the stairs. He said I’d gone a shade of grey.
“We rang NHS 111 and they sent us to A&E. An electrocardiogram at Croydon University Hospital showed my heart was beating in a fast and dangerous rhythm.
“I was given drugs to try to slow it down, but that didn’t work and I was taken to resuscitation.
“They had to use a defibrillator. I was awake throughout and it was incredibly scary.
“I’d never expected anything to be wrong with my heart. I was only 34 and I had no history of heart problems in my family. After 12 days in hospital, I was diagnosed with a heart condition known as ARVC, or arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, and was shocked to hear it is often fatal. Around 80 per cent of cases are only found post-mortem. That means most people don’t know they have it until it’s too late, so I was incredibly lucky.
“I had to have an internal defibrillator fitted. I can feel it in my body and certain positions are uncomfortable when I sleep.
“I can’t do as much exercise and I stick to walking and yoga these days, but it’s a small sacrifice to make. It was hard to get my head around the fact that I wasn’t invincible.
“I decided I wanted to raise awareness of genetic heart conditions, in the hope it might save someone else.
most read in fabulous
“We were about to try for a baby when this all happened and now we’re about to have PGD, or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which is the genetic profiling of eggs so that doctors can select one that doesn’t carry the gene which causes my condition.
“I wouldn’t want to pass it on to a child. We were lucky we had the choice – most people don’t know until it’s too late.”
- The British Heart Foundation’s mission is to fund around £100 million of research each year into heart disease, stroke and vascular dementia to help save and improve the lives of people living with these conditions. See bhf.org.uk.