I was 49 when I had my SCAD heart attack in 2011.
It was a Sunday and I had done some cardio work at the gym followed by an arm weights machine. I then did a fast walk on the treadmill and after a couple of minutes felt a pain in the centre of my chest and my left hand and forearm were numb. I stopped exercising, thinking I had pulled a muscle when using the arm weights. By the time I had showered and changed the pain had gone.
My arm and hand were numb for the next 8 days – I felt like I wanted to shake my arm to get rid of the numbness – but I had no pain. I wasn’t concerned about the numbness, thinking I’d either pulled a muscle or trapped a nerve.
During the following week I did two cardio sessions each followed by sessions with my personal trainer doing core-strength and resistance work. I had no pain during or after these sessions.
On the following Saturday I had a back massage and when I was driving home I had central chest pain. I went shopping and, thinking the pain was a result of me rushing around, I went home and tried to relax. The pain eased off and I went out again to the hairdresser, where I had the pains again. Once I got home and relaxed again the pain eased off (although I still had the numbness in my arm/hand).
On the Sunday I dropped my parents off at an airport about 70 miles away and drove back home, with no pain. That evening the pain in my chest returned. I thought it was indigestion (which I never get!). It was, however, such an extreme pain I immediately got down on all fours. It was only 8.30pm but I decided to go to bed to see if that would help. I also tried drinking tea and taking pain killers. The pain was worse when I lay down and eased off a bit when I stood up and walked around.
I did an internet search on the symptoms and even went through the NHS Direct symptom checker, but didn’t believe the ‘result’ telling me to call 999! Why would I be having a heart attack? I wasn’t clutching my arm and collapsing in agony, which is the sort of thing I associated with heart attacks. The level of pain was like a bad migraine, not the violent, agonising pain I would expect from a heart attack.
I decided to call NHS Direct just after midnight for some advice – at this point all I wanted was to be able to get some sleep! They called an ambulance straight away and, following an ECG, the paramedics told me I was having a heart attack.
I was taken to Papworth Hospital where I had an angioplasty. The consultant diagnosed SCAD in my LAD and cleared the blockage. Thankfully, I didn’t have a stent and was discharged a couple of days later.
The first few weeks of recovery were scary and frustrating. Scary because every time I had a twinge in my chest I’d fear it was another heart attack. Frustrating because I felt I should be able to do more than I could – walking just a couple of hundred yards was hard work. It got better though and I gradually increased the distance I could walk.
I started cardiac rehab about three months after the heart attack and found it invaluable in giving me the confidence to exercise in a monitored environment and understand how far I could push my body. I was keen to get back to the gym as I had been making good progress before my heart attack, but I wasn’t allowed to, which I found frustrating!
One frustration about the information provided at cardiac rehab and elsewhere was that it’s aimed at the ‘normal’ heart attack survivors… stop smoking, improve nutrition and reduce cholesterol. My diet was healthy, I exercised regularly and my cholesterol was normal, so much of the information, although interesting, was not directly relevant – and often raised more questions than it answered!
I also felt advice from the hospital that I should never again do ‘strenuous’ exercise (apart from being a bit vague) was based on what the medical profession knows about preventing a ‘normal’ heart attack… but mine was not ‘normal’ and there was no definitive information about whether strenuous exercise would help prevent a SCAD heart attack.
I’m sure these are frustrations felt by many who have a ‘rare’ condition and I hope the research being done will answer some of our questions!
Two years on, I am fit and well and have had no further heart issues. I’m back at the gym and making real progress. The possibility of another SCAD event is always in the back of my mind, but it doesn’t rule my life or stop me doing anything.