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It should have been one of the best times of her life instead, Bronnach was fighting for life on operating table

By the time Belfast woman Bronnach Pemberton gave birth to her third child she had already suffered five heart attacks due to a rare cardiac condition. Now, she tells Stephanie Bell her sister Karen will run the London marathon to raise money and awareness for the British Heart Foundation.

Published 19/04/2016

Struck down: surgeons fought for nine hours to save Bronnach
Struck down: surgeons fought for nine hours to save Bronnach
Marathon effort: Karen (left) will be raising money for the BHF
Family life: Bronnach with husband Andrew and sons Eoin, Jarid and Conan
Sister Karen Ebrahim in training

A Belfast woman who was left fighting for her life just days after giving birth to her third child is now devoted to raising awareness of a rare heart condition which, it is believed, can be caused by pregnancy.

Bronnach Pemberton was only 34 and in good health when she suffered a massive heart attack during what should have been one of the happiest times of her life - eight days after the birth of her third son, Eoin, in February 2012.

Little is known about the condition - Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, or SCAD - which happens when an inner layer of the coronary artery splits. Blood then seeps between the artery layers, forming a blockage and starving the heart muscle.

Lifestyle is not a factor in this potentially lethal condition, which is only now being researched in the UK and which is believed to be triggered by pregnancy.

A lack of knowledge and understanding of the condition, though, meant that Bronnach's symptoms were not picked up until it was almost too late.

In fact, she had suffered five heart attacks before her life became endangered - but each time she sought medical advice she was told her symptoms were due to being pregnant.

Now suffering with heart failure, Bronnach (38), who now lives in Leeds and has three young children Jarid (8), Conan (7) and Eoin (4), has had to give up her job as a teacher and relies on carers and her husband Andrew (45) to help her get through each day.

Life is unrecognisable from the busy career and family life she enjoyed before her heart condition developed.

She can't walk any distance and has to rely on a mobility scooter to get about. She also spends a good part of her day sleeping, as the slightest exertion leaves her exhausted.

Despite her fragile health, Bronnach has been doing everything she can to warn people of the symptoms and also raise awareness of SCAD among health professionals.

She has spoken at a medical conference attended by more than 200 medical professionals, sharing her story. Now, she is helping with research which has just begun in Leicester.

This Sunday, in a bid to raise awareness of SCAD as well as much-needed funds for research, Bronnach's sister, Karen Ebrahim (40), who lives in Belfast and also has three young children, is to run her first marathon in London in aid of the British Heart Foundation.

Bronnach put her life today in perspective, saying: "You can't even describe it to anyone who is healthy.

"Especially because I don't look unwell and because I am young. It is hard for people to grasp that I have heart failure.

"Karen does her running, and a really long run for her will leave her feeling exhausted - that is how I feel every day doing very little. Even sitting on the floor playing with Lego with my son leaves me exhausted."

Bronnach's life took its tragic turn late in her pregnancy with her youngest son.

Unusually, her symptoms manifested as pain in her ears, shoulders and jaw, as well as exhaustion.

She says: "The backs of my ears were sore and the side of my jaw ached and the tips of my shoulders - I just didn't feel right. I Googled the symptoms and there was information that it could be linked to the heart.

"I spoke to my midwife about my concerns and she told me not to be silly, that it was normal to feel that way as it was my third pregnancy.

"I actually started to feel a bit like a hypochondriac. The symptoms came and went eight different times, from 35 weeks into my pregnancy until my surgery on March 12.

"It was only later that I discovered I had suffered a series of heart attacks. Eight days after Eoin was born, I knew something wasn't quite right and I went to my GP, who told me I was having panic attacks.

"I used to work at an inner city secondary school and it was a very stressful job, so I was used to stress and not the panicky type.

"I rang my sister Karen and my mum, who are both nurses. Mum advised me to go to hospital and advised me to go to the maternity unit, as A&E is so busy."

Bronnach took her mum's advice and fortunately the staff in the maternity unit at her local hospital in Leeds also suspected something serious could be wrong.

She was admitted for tests and transferred to the cardiac ward. The next morning she suffered a massive heart attack and had to be rushed to surgery later that day.

The operation, which was expected to last four hours, went on for almost nine as doctors battled to save her life.

She says: "The hospital actually is the main heart centre for Yorkshire and one of the surgeons, who usually works at the London College of Surgeons and has lots of experience and expertise, had never seen it before.

"My heart had been healthy and it was just sudden, and for no reason, that my arteries tore open."

Bronnach was moved into intensive care after surgery and such were the concerns for her life that she was given the Last Rites.

Her life hung in the balance for a week when her family - who all live abroad - flew in to be by her bedside.

No-one could quite believe that this healthy, fit 34-year-old mum of three young children was so gravely ill.

She says: "I think at the time it didn't seem real to me. It is like watching something on TV. And it was only a year later that it really hit me how ill I was, and that was a real shock.

"My life has changed beyond all recognition. I have to sleep every day from 1pm until 4pm or 5pm, as even the smallest bit of exertion leaves me exhausted.

"I have carers who come in and I have a mobility scooter. That's not the way I want to go about with my family, but I have no choice.

"My husband is absolutely fantastic. He has to do all the things I used to do, like cooking the dinner, washing the dishes, putting the children to bed and getting them ready for school.

"I have suffered depression, but I just try very hard not to let the darkness creep in and focus on what I do have."

Despite the many restrictions on her life, Bronnach is remarkably positive, and it is this which she says helps get her through each day.

While there are many things she misses, she chooses to focus on what she does have, rather than on what she can no longer do.

She says: "We were brought up to get on with things and always look on the bright side. And, while there is a lot that I can't do - and I can't go to work - I am thankful that it means I have time at home to play with Eoin and have time with my children.

"Things could be worse and there are people going through a lot worse things in this world."

Bronnach is now keen to warn others about SCAD and its symptoms.

She says: "I would just say to people, if they are concerned, not to take 'no' for an answer and to insist on a second opinion.

"Women don't display the same symptoms as men and often their symptoms are put down to indigestion or panic attacks. More women than men are turned away from hospital.

"The longer you wait, the more damage you do to your heart. Women tend to not want to cause a fuss and they put off getting help, but I would urge them not to."

Meanwhile, her sister Karen is getting ready to support Bronnach by taking part in her first marathon this Sunday (April 24) in London for the British Heart Foundation.

Karen says: "It was hard to accept how a healthy, 34-year-old could be preparing for her impending birth one day, and so close to leaving her sons without a mother just days later. Thankfully, she pulled through, but is living with incurable heart failure. It was incredibly hard to see such an ambitious person be forced to give up her job as a teacher on medical grounds, not even able to push a buggy down the road.

"So, as I turned 40, I set myself a challenge and signed up to run the London Marathon for the BHF. I've felt so helpless, watching my sister succumb to heart failure.

"This is my way of helping the BHF raise funds for research into diseases like SCAD, and doing my bit to realise my dream of my sister being cured of such a devastating condition.

"I've done 10k runs before, but nothing this challenging, so I'm a little nervous.

"No matter how much I'll be struggling on the day, knowing what my sister has to cope with every day, physically and emotionally, will keep me going."

Bronnach is proud of her sister for taking on the challenge. She adds: "I have personally benefited from the studies carried out by the BHF, so raising awareness and money is very important; every single penny counts."

  • The BHF has a programme of running events throughout the year. To find out more, visit bhf.org.uk/events, or you can contact the events team at events@bhf.org.uk or tel: 0845 130 8663.
  • To sponsor Karen and help stop others from facing the loss of a loved one through heart disease, visit https://www.justgiving.com/karen-Ebrahim2

Belfast Telegraph

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