If someone were to tell you to 'imagine a heart attack', what would be the first image to spring to mind?
There's a high chance it'd be someone in their '60s clutching their chest in pain. They're most likely male and perhaps overweight too.
It's probably what I would've imagined before I had my first heart attack. It was certainly never something that entered the realm of possibility.
But there I was, 35 years old, seemingly fit and healthy, and having a heart attack.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a glorious Sydney day and I was lucky enough to be going out on a friend's boat in the harbour.
My husband James and son Marcus, then 7, were with me and I was very much in my happy place – great friends and sailing around the harbour – what more could you possibly want?
Only, I started feeling queasy not long after we'd set sail.
"It must be seasickness," I told myself firmly.
I did what you're supposed to do in that situation – sipped some water and looked at the horizon. But I felt so ill.
We docked at Darling Harbour for lunch and I was still feeling lousy.
"Have a sip of lemonade," one of my friends suggested.
All I was concerned about was not ruining the day out on the boat. I was determined to ride it out.
But around an hour or so later, I took a turn for the worse.
"I can't cope," I spluttered to James.
I'm not sure what came first – the vomiting or the pain.
I got this excruciating pain shooting up my left side to my shoulder blade and it felt like I was being strangled. Then, the incredible pressure started. I'd heard a heart attack feels like you're been steam-rollered or sat on by an elephant and I can confirm it was most definitely true in my case.
I can't begin to describe the pain I was in – it felt like my ribs were being shattered.
It was then I had the horrifying realisation what was happening to me.
"I'm having a heart attack," I managed to shout.
I can still remember the colour draining from James' face.
My friend sped us back to the mainland and we drove to the nearest hospital, leaving Marcus in the care of our friends.
With the power of hindsight, we would've called an ambulance immediately but we weren't equipped mentally for what was happening – we just rushed there ourselves.
James ran into the hospital shouting "Medical emergency!" as I slid in and out of consciousness.
I honestly thought I was a gonner.
You see, death seemed like a foregone conclusion when it came to heart attacks for me.
My dad died of one, ironically enough when I was the same age as Marcus was at the time. It felt like history was repeating itself.
Although my dad had died of a heart attack, I wasn't scared about having one myself. At no point in my life did any medical professional ever give me any cause to worry.
"Healthy, young, slim, fit" were all adjectives used to describe me. So the shock was palpable.
I mostly associated heart attacks with factors like smoking, obesity and having a sedentary lifestyle.
I was stabilised at the hospital and transferred to specialist cardiologists at another. I had stints fitted in my heart and moved onto cardiac rehab – which I think is an absolute must. It gives you peace of mind about how much you can push yourself in terms of exercise and helps train your body back up slowly.
Afterwards, I tried to come to terms with what had happened. The psychological impact for everyone was huge – especially for poor Marcus at such a young age. It must've been terrifying for him.
I'd done everything right – exercised regularly, ate healthily, I didn't smoke or drink excessively.
I now know I'm just downright unlucky – I've since had a further three heart attacks.
I have familial hypercholesterolemia which is hereditary and means I have high levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels which would explain why I had a heart attack at such an early age.
Despite the fact I eat well, I have abnormal amounts of cholesterol which results in the odd vessel blockage and causes me to suffer from terrible angina.
It's been a pretty scary process – particularly as I kept having heart attacks like clockwork every two years.
James and I almost got to the point we were joking I'd made it through April!
But doctors ended up having to perform a heart bypass on me when I was 42 so seven years after that first excruciating heart attack.
It was a huge deal for me having open heart surgery but I don't regret it one bit. I've also had six stints in my heart in total.
Nowadays I'm very, very careful to monitor myself. I know to call my cardiologist – day or night – if I feel the dreaded twinge and to take it easy on myself. I have fortnightly injections to lower my cholesterol and see my specialist every six months to a year. I'm also on medication.
And although that might all sound scary to you, I'm living life to the full and have such a ridiculously healthy respect for each and every day.
I'm part of The Heart Collective – a Heart Foundation group full of these beautiful, young, vibrant women – who, you've guessed it, all have a heart condition.
Cardiovascular disease is the umbrella name but we all have different stories. Obviously some conditions are hereditary and others aren't but startlingly, 90% of women have at least one risk factor.
Heart disease is the single biggest killer of Australian women. Women are almost three times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer.
And remember back to that image of a person clutching their chest? Up to 40% of women will not experience chest pain – to me, that's terrifying as it was how I personally identified I was having a heart attack.
Pregnancy can also be the "ultimate stress test" too. Pre-eclampsia , high blood pressure and gestational diabetes can all occur.
Sometimes when I look around at the other women from my heart group and they're wearing their 'embroidery' on their chests – this is my way of saying they've had their chest opened up and have the scar to prove it – it's a confronting sight but I also feel very empowered and inspired by their stories.
There is still such a long way to go when it comes to education and that's coming from someone who's survived four heart attacks.
The bottom line is – we need to talk more about our hearts. They're the most important part of us after all.
The Heart Foundation recently launched their 'Don't Get the Sits' campaign for Heart Week - find out more by visiting their website.
- CareerThe Australian companies making a difference to the lives of women
Australian Women's WeeklyAug 13, 2020
- The WeeklyCalling All Future Trailblazers! Enter now and you could win $72,000 in cash and prizes!
Australian Women's WeeklyAug 13, 2020