My heart attack at 36
At just 36, Sally Bee suffered a heart attack so severe that doctors told her husband to say his goodbyes. Here, she recounts her recovery against the odds
Tuesday 02 February 2010
My story begins on a lovely sunny, happy day, at a child's birthday party. I was talking to my friends and my husband, Dogan, laughing and watching the children play. One moment, everything was just as it should be, but within one breath, my whole life turned upside down. Suddenly I felt extremely poorly. I handed my nine-month-old baby girl to a friend, and ran to the toilet. I had a feeling of impending doom, as if a big black cloud was looming over me, making every breath more meaningful. I understood immediately that something very serious was happening to me and that it was beyond my control. I collapsed on the floor in agony struggling to breathe as if my chest was being crushed. I felt sick and hot and sweaty.
I managed to get back to my friends, and what followed was chaos. An ambulance was called, and while we waited my kind friends tried in vain to help me – bringing me ice, water and a bag to breathe into. All I wanted at that moment, though, was to stare into my husband's eyes because I needed him to be with me and to understand what I was saying to him. I managed to give him some brief instructions on what to do with the children, but I guess I was telling him something much more than that, too.
The ambulance arrived, and the crew checked me over. They managed to calm me down a little and took an ECG (a measurement of the heartbeat). They said there was a slight abnormality, but because of my young age (36) and the fact that I led a healthy lifestyle and there was no family history of heart problems, they were happy to rule out anything serious there and then. Even so, we decided I should go to hospital immediately to get properly checked out. After a few hours, I was let home – with some indigestion medicine.
I spent the next couple of days recovering and feeling traumatised. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I felt something had changed inside me. A couple of days later, the pain hit me again. It felt like a herd of elephants stamping on my chest. Each breath was tight and so painful.
My husband called for an ambulance again, and events at the hospital this time started to unravel, like a really bad soap opera. It started with pure panic. I felt I was not being taken seriously and I was alone in my cubicle, suffering in agony. I couldn't call anyone to come and help because the pain literally took my breath away. I thought I might die alone in that cubicle and not be found for hours. Eventually one student nurse looked at my ECG and her jaw dropped. Suddenly, I was no longer alone; the room was buzzing. At one point I had three cardiologists looking at my heart trace chart, saying that it was telling them that I was having a heart attack but that they didn't believe it because of my age, lifestyle etc.
The next morning, I was told by a cardiologist that my blood tests showed I had suffered a very serious heart attack. I was relieved I had survived, but numb with disbelief. I wanted to go home but I started to suffer more chest pains. I could feel myself sinking lower and lower. I needed to be monitored constantly and my heart rhythm was doing some amazing acrobatics. A nurse took a scan of my heart. I suppose it is down to my natural optimism that I still expected her to say: "Oh, everything's fine ... probably eaten something dodgy." But her expression was grave. She has since told me she was shocked – it was the most extensive damage she had ever seen in anyone so young.
Eventually I was wheeled into the Coronary Care High Dependency Unit. The pain in my chest was breaking through the drugs they had given me and I could no longer talk. The only thought in my head was to keep breathing. Breathe in and breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. I figured if I could just keep breathing, I wouldn't die. The doctors and nurses were quickly putting needles and lines into both of my arms and each hand. I whispered to one of the nurses as she crouched by my bed and held my hand with great pity in her eyes. She said they were calling for my husband to come back – he'd gone home to be with the children for tea. I asked if I was going to die now, and she swallowed hard before saying "not now", but she gave her colleague a look. She was a lovely, gentle nurse, but no good at lying.
The team managed to stabilise me enough to move to another hospital. They had arranged for me to have an angiogram. This involves inserting a tube, via a vein in your groin, into the heart. Dye is pumped through the tube and an X-ray shows the blood and oxygen flow and any blockage.
At this point, I was starting to shut down. I felt myself let go a couple of times and it frightened me ... but it was not unpleasant. It would have been very easy just to drift off. I knew my situation was very bad but the thing that surprised me was how calm I was by then. Yet I almost gave up when I heard the surgeon start to swear under his breath. His face wore an expression of shock and disbelief and then panic and then nothing. I began to understand how dire my situation was.
Even so, I wasn't prepared for what happened next. The surgeon took off his gloves, then left the room, his shoulders drooping. The nurses and assistants followed quietly as if embarrassed – I was all alone. I thought for a moment I was dead. I stopped forcing my breath and let my natural breath take over. Each breath was so shallow and light but it was all I could hear in the room. I couldn't fill my lungs. Was I still alive?
After what seemed like a couple of hours, but which was probably only a couple of minutes, Dogan, my husband, walked in. He was sobbing. He said that he loved me. The doctors had told him that I had suffered another massive heart attack; that my heart had sustained a shocking amount of damage, which could not be repaired; and that I was going to die. So he was coming to say goodbye. I would love to be able to write that I told him how much I loved him and we held each other tight. That didn't happen. Since I had just discovered that I was still alive, and I'd allowed myself to think for a second about my little ones at home, I was filled with an all-consuming need and desire and passion not to let myself die. I can't put into words how strong this feeling was. It was this surge of emotion that saved my life. I decided there and then that I would never, ever give up breathing. I had so much to live for.
What had actually happened to my heart was something so rare that none of the cardiologists that I saw subsequently had encountered it. It was the reason the surgeon had become so defeated and left me in the room. My main left artery, the one inside the heart that feeds the heart muscle with blood and oxygen, had unravelled and fallen apart. The condition is called "spontaneous coronary artery dissection", and is usually diagnosed post-mortem. It meant that the blood coming into the heart, instead of being pumped straight out to feed my body, was actually just leaking away. My heart was literally bleeding and being starved of the blood and oxygen that it needed to function, and my body and vital organs were also being deprived.
Nobody can really explain why I survived that night. The doctors believed that although I had survived the heart attacks, my chances of pulling through the next 24 hours were very slim. They were kind and gentle but, in this instance, couldn't perform miracles. They kept me in hospital for just over two weeks, and then let me home on "critical recovery", which basically means there's nothing more they can do for you. They expect you back – one way or another.
Initially, I was afraid of everything. Afraid to sneeze, laugh, cry, get angry, afraid to get excited, afraid to feel any emotion. I had nearly died, and no doctor was able to tell me that it wouldn't happen again or that my heart wouldn't just stop working. Getting to the point where I had to decide to stop surviving and start living again was even more frightening than the attacks themselves. But I had to do it. I had three young children who looked to me for everything. For the first three or four months at home I was just lying on the sofa or in bed, I couldn't do anything. Then I started each day going for very short walks – just two minutes, and if that went well, three minutes the next day.
I realised early on that the food I ate had a significant effect on my body. If I ate food with chemicals, preservatives and colourings, I rapidly began to feel unwell. One Indian take-away landed me straight back in hospital, so strong was the effect. The MSG (monosodium glutamate) in the meal caused my heart to enter a dangerous pattern that went way beyond a palpitation attack. When someone with a healthy heart eats a meal like this, they also will be affected, but probably won't notice. But that's not to say it isn't happening to you, too. You just don't feel it ... yet.
That's why I decided to collect some of my favourite heart-healthy recipes into a book, The Secret Ingredient. The recipes are for everyone and when I originally self-published the book, it went to number one in the Amazon food and drink charts. I was delighted when 12 copies were ordered by the White House.
My cardiologists continue to be impressed with my progress, and find it hard to explain why I show no residual symptoms of my heart failure. I can explain. I can feel why I am doing so well. Every time I eat a nourishing meal, it helps give me the energy to live my (very busy) life. And if I slip, for just one meal, I suffer. My energy levels drop, I feel tired and I struggle. It is that simple.
I'm not sorry that I suffered heart attacks when I did. Of course, I wish I didn't have the ongoing health problems, but I can honestly say that my life is much richer, fuller, more meaningful and certainly much more fun because of what I have learned from what happened to me. I believe I know what is important, I no longer waste my time on negative things, feelings or thoughts, and I hope I am able to help many, many people have a greater quality of life and a better, healthier future.
The Secret Ingredient by Sally Bee (HarperCollins, £12.99)
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