My Journey began 12 years ago when I was 36 years old. I was with the children at a birthday party when everything changed. One moment, life was as it should be: we were happy, content and secure. But within a breath, my whole life turned upside down, never to be the same again.
At the birthday party, I suddenly 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 that it was beyond my control. I collapsed on the floor, feeling as if my chest was being crushed and struggling to breathe. I felt sick and hot and sweaty. The pain I was enduring was so much worse than giving birth to any of my three babies.
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. 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 that I should go to the hospital immediately to get properly checked out.
After a few hours spent being looked over, I was eventually let home with some indigestion medicine.
I spent the next couple of days recovering and feeling traumatised by the whole event. 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. If at that moment someone had offered to cut off my right arm so that the pain would go away, I would readily have handed over the knife.
My husband called for an ambulance again and events at the hospital 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 left alone in my cubicle, suffering in agony. I couldn’t call anyone to come and help me 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 with people all around me. At one point I had three cardiologists looking at my heart trace chart. It was telling them that I was having a heart attack, even though they found that impossible to believe because of my age and healthy lifestyle.
The next morning, I was told by a cardiologist that blood tests showed I had suffered a very serious heart attack. I was relieved that I had survived but felt numb with disbelief. Throughout the day, I started to suffer more chest pains. I was monitored constantly as my heart rhythm continued to perform acrobatics. A nurse was sent to take 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 that she was shocked – it was the most excessive cardiovascular damage she had ever seen in anyone so young.
I continued to deteriorate and was eventually wheeled into the Coronary Care High Dependency Unit. It had a very different feel about it to the ward: it was all white with very high ceilings and echoing voices. The beds in the unit had wide spaces between them to accommodate rescue teams of doctors and nurses. My team came to my rescue at about 5 pm. I had sunk so low, the pain in my chest was breaking through the drugs they and I could no longer talk. The only thought in my head was to keep breathing.
Breathe in and breathe out: breathe in and breathe out.
I figured if I could just keep breathing, I wouldn’t die. The doctors and nurses rushed to put needles and lines into both of my arms and each hand. They moved very quickly around me and spoke in hushed voices. I managed to whisper to one of the nurses as she crouched at my bedside and held my hand with great pity in her eyes. She said they were calling my husband to return; 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’. Then she gave her colleague a look. She was a lovely, gentle creature and was no good at telling lies.
The team managed to stabilise me enough to move me to another hospital, where, they said, I would get fixed up. They had arranged for me to have an angiogram, expecting to find a blockage somewhere in my heart that was causing the problem.
I was passing in and out of consciousness. I was aware that I was just hanging on, and wasn’t at all sure how much longer I would manage. We arrived at the new hospital and the surgeon, who had been dragged from his bed, told me all the risks associated with an angiogram. He explained the mortality rate.
The Cath Lab, where they were going to perform the procedure, was very cold and I had to lie on an even colder table to have the angiogram. By now, I was relatively relaxed, partly due to the drugs but also because of what was happening to my body. I was starting to shut down. I felt myself let go a couple of times and it frightened me, though it wasn’t 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 remained.
The surgeon started his procedure, putting a small incision in my groin. I felt the blood trickle over my leg. He fed the line into my heart to pump dye and x-ray the results. I was very close to the edge, but I was still quietly determined to keep breathing. Yet I almost gave up when I heard the surgeon start to swear under his breath. I looked at his face and saw an expression of shock and disbelief and then panic and then nothing. It was when he started to swear that I think I began to understand just 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 with his shoulders drooped. The nurses and assistants followed quietly as if embarrassed – I was all alone. Without another soul in the room, I was alone on a dreadful cold table. I thought for a moment that I was dead and that was what it was like.
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? I could drift off really easily and when I did the pain in my chest went away. I did it a couple of times to see what it was like. It was fine. Just fine. I would then pull myself back and the hurting returned, but it had turned into a ‘good’ pain because it proved that I was still alive. I really needed that confirmation. And I really needed to feel the pain.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, but which was probably only a couple of minutes, Dogan, my husband, walked into the room. 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 as he walked into the lab, 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 the feeling was. It was this surge of emotion that literally saved my life. It must have been all about the people that I love. It was instinctive and I decided there and then that I would never, ever give up breathing.
I had so much to live for.
For 12 years, I continued to improve. But in November 2016, disaster struck.
Everything was trotting along nicely. My kids were all growing up, happy, healthy and thriving. Dogan had stepped back from some of his work as a cameraman, allowing me more time to concentrate on my career, which was going well.
During the years since my heart attacks, the emotional rollercoaster had calmed and life was on an even keel. It had taken me years of ‘working on myself’ to reach a point of calmness where I didn’t let my fear of another heart attack rule my life.
I actually believed I had a future. Something that evaded me for the first few years after my heart attacks.
I’d had some tough news to deal with the year previously when I was diagnosed with a condition called FMD (Fibromuscular Dysplasia). This is a rare condition of the blood vessels which caused them to be very wiggly. It transpires I have wiggly arteries in my brain, neck, heart, kidneys and legs – the condition potentially leaves me prone to heart attacks and strokes. As there is nothing that can be done to treat this condition, in this instance, knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge just means I worry. I took the decision to put my FMD to the back of my wiggly mind and move along with life. I felt I had lived too many years fearfully already.
And then it happened. On November 12 2016, I was walking along with Scruffy Bob, my cute, if a little ‘cuddly’ Border Terrier, and Dogan. I fell over.
It was one of those incidents that happened in slow motion. I face planted the pavement and felt my nose squash into the concrete with ugly and painful consequences. Dogan tried to get me to stand up, but I couldn’t move. The wind had been blown out of me. I was aware that I was counting my teeth with my tongue trying to find out if they were all there. Then I was blinded by blood. It was gushing out of my head and running into my eyes. When I eventually did stand up, I went a little crazy, giddy almost, giggling and finding everything hilarious. That’s what adrenalin does for you.
Dogan sprinted up the road to fetch the car and took me to the local hospital. It was only when I was lying on the bed, with the nurse stitching my forehead, that the adrenalin must have abated and all of a sudden I felt every bit of damage to my face and my arm.
My arm? A moment before, I’d been waving it around, now all of a sudden it was agony. An X-ray showed I’d broken my elbow. Ouch. Over the next few days my face turned every colour of blue, purple, green, yellow. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it wasn’t life-threatening. Yet.
Six days later, still cradling my broken elbow, and feeling fragile with a mashed-up face, I sat up in bed and felt that unmistakable sweep of ‘impending doom’ wash over me again. Having felt it before, I knew what was coming. The pain in my chest arrived.
I stumbled downstairs and Dogan called the ambulance. In a true emergency, words aren’t needed, atmosphere and the look in a person’s eye says it all.
The children were all around me, they didn’t panic, or ask questions, they simply got their school stuff together and left the house silently.
The Ambulance crew and a paramedic arrived and sadly, again, I wasn’t taken seriously. I have a laminated copy of my ECG on the fridge but the paramedic wasn’t prepared to look at it. My husband called my cardiologist on the phone for him to explain my rare condition, but the paramedic wouldn’t talk to him either. He wanted to take me to the small local hospital, but I knew I needed to go to a large hospital with full cardiology theatre services. After much pleading and crying, he eventually agreed to take me to the appropriate hospital.
Looking back I can’t believe I had to jump through those hoops to get the treatment I knew I needed. I know I don’t tick the normal boxes for what a ‘traditional’ heart patient might look like – but come on.
My treatment at the hospital was amazing. They knew all about my condition, SCAD, and treated me appropriately. I had a calm day and night while they monitored me and waited for the Troponin blood test results to confirm a heart attack.
By the following morning, I felt so much better and my natural optimism took over. I convinced myself I had been too dramatic and that I hadn’t suffered a heart attack. When the nurse came to take my food order for the evening I thanked her, but said I’d be going home before dinner.
The cardiologist visited me soon after and broke the news: my blood tests showed I had suffered another big heart attack. I was so shocked that I felt myself contort, break inside and struggle to breathe. I was suffering yet another attack.
At precisely the same time, Dogan called my mobile. I couldn’t speak and the doctor answered the phone. He told him they were taking me to theatre for an emergency angiogram. My darling Mr Bee understood I was in grave danger. I was bereft that he had to face those same fears again.
I survived the angiogram but the news wasn’t good. This time the circumflex artery that goes around the back of my heart had dissected fully, causing a massive heart attack and some damage. Again, there was nothing they could do to help me, it was simply a case of wait and see and hope and pray.
I was absolutely devastated. I had fleeting moments of fearing the worst. Unbelievably, the notion I might die wasn’t my biggest fear. Far worse was the idea that I wouldn’t be able to find the strength to battle back to recover. I’d worked so hard to build up my strength both physically and emotionally and within a day, I felt that all my hard work and determination from the past 12 years had been pushed aside.
I was back at square one. Worse, I was in minus figures because this was the second round of damage that my heart had sustained. This time, there would be no hiding my condition from the children. They were now 18, 15 and 13. They knew exactly how slim my chances of survival were. They understood that the beeping monitors in the hospital room were there for a reason, they knew the oxygen being pushed up my nose wasn’t a toy and they understood that their Mummy was very sick. When Dogan brought them to see me the first night, they didn’t want to come. But he explained that they should, not knowing what might happen. I saw sadness and confusion on their faces. They tried to be brave, and so did I, even though I was so darned worn out. I slept.
The next day, my cardiologists met me for a pow wow. They were preparing me for more bad news. They assumed that my heart would have suffered serious damage again and that it was likely I would be back in heart failure. Serious heart failure eventually causes death and can only be avoided by a heart transplant. I cried in my bed. I wouldn’t let the nurses draw back my cubical curtains, I didn’t want to see anyone, talk to anyone, think about anyone. I hated the world for doing this to me. I slept some more.
Day three dawned and I finally agreed to let the nurses open my curtains so I could see the rest of the ward. I wasn’t happy but at least I was still alive.
There was a lovely old lady in the bed opposite to me. She was about 125 years old, smiling, enjoying the nurses company and handing out Ferrero Rocher chocolates to everyone that passed. I love Ferrero Rocher and I realised I wanted one.
The gentleman in the bed next to me was gravely poorly. He was being slowly drowned by his heart failure. He was struggling to get enough breath to speak to his daughter on the phone. He wasn’t going home to her ever, I don’t think.
The cleaner came by; he was from Nigeria and had the biggest smile I had ever seen in my life. He talked to himself continuously and kept making himself laugh. I fell a bit in love with him.
The auxiliary nurse came around with the tea trolley; I had a hot chocolate and two Bourbon biscuits. They were perfect, totally delicious. I could taste them. I had a thought: ‘dead people can’t taste hot chocolate and bourbon biscuits’. I wasn’t dead, I was still alive and I had this amazing team of wonderfully kind people taking great care of me. I realised that I was the luckiest person on the planet. I did have a chance to go home. I was able to wander over to Mrs 125 years and accept one of her yummy chocolates and have a little chat about the weather. My heart had suffered another ‘accident’ but it was still ticking, which at least gave me something to build on.
And build on it I would. I gave myself the biggest talking to ever! I dug so deep it almost hurt. I would find the strength, I would survive, I would recover. Why would I give up? Why would I think I wasn’t capable? My family needed me, my friends needed me. I’m a very needed person! What was I thinking? How could I feel sorry for myself? Come on now Sally Bee YOU CAN DO THIS!!
If ever they make a movie about my life – Angelina Jolie will be playing me (oh OK, the wonderful Julie Walters) and Al Pacino will be playing Mr Bee (oh hang on, Mr Bee says Al is too old to play him, it’ll have to be Ben Affleck!?). It’s at this point that the bolt of lightning will strike, God will appear, a hallow will form, a glow will descend and all will be well with the world. A happy ending. Well, I’ll concede, perhaps not a happy ending but certainly one that is far more positive future was playing out in my mind.
As before, but this time more so, I understood that my recovery was down entirely to my food, my fitness, my thoughts, my movement and me. They all needed to work together to get my life back.
As I thought about my life and what I needed to do to get better, I was aware that I had been wrong. All my hard work over the past 12 years to stay fit and well were not wasted, they had worked. I had again, survived the unsurvivable. Over the last 12 years I had been preparing my body for this and it didn’t let me down. It supported me, it saved me.
I had a heart scan. This time the news was shockingly good. Although I had suffered a very large heart attack, any new damage was minimal and my power-output (EF) was not massively affected. I was not back in heart failure. The doctor seemed a little baffled, I gave a quiet little cheer and a fist bump!
So there we have it. It works. My approach has saved my again.
The next 12 months for me are going to be a little challenging, I’m back on that emotional rollercoaster. I’m afraid of just about everything but determined not to miss a thing. I’m lucky that I’ve learned from my previous experience, so hopefully things won’t be quite so hard this time.
Life is a day-to-day journey. You can make big plans and reach for the stars, but that can only happen when you deal with the small steps every day. My mantra is simple: every day make sure you do the best you can.