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Meet the Northern Ireland mothers who had heart attacks in their 30s and 40s

Heart disease is the biggest cause of death for women in NI. Kerry McKittrick talks to Sinead Scullion, from Moneymore, and Patricia Young, from Dungannon, both of whom almost died from cardiac arrest, while mum-of-four Gillian Abraham, from Lurgan, reveals how a family tragedy prompted her to get fit

‘My heart arrested four times... I’m very lucky to be alive’

Sinead Scullion (44), lives in Moneymore with husband Paul and their three daughters Ciara (12), Hannah (10) and Chloe (8). She says:

I had a heart attack two weeks after I gave birth to my youngest daughter, Chloe, eight years ago. The health visitor had left 10 minutes earlier and had taken my blood pressure — it was fine.

I felt a severe, sharp pain in between my shoulder blades which both my husband and I put down to a muscle spasm. Then the pain moved to under my left arm — it was a crushing pain which I couldn’t soothe no matter how much I rubbed at it.

I then found it difficult to breathe so Paul phoned the GP who called an ambulance. En route to hospital I can recall someone counting and, as I had been trained in CPR, I knew that was what they were doing to me.

It was a shock as I was young with no family history of heart trouble, I wasn’t overweight and didn’t smoke or drink, so it honestly didn’t occur to me when it was happening that I was having a heart attack.

My heart arrested four times in total, so I needed surgery in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where they put in two stents. One of my arteries was totally blocked and the other was 98% obstructed.

There was no one reason that this happened to me. It was discovered that I had a clot which came from somewhere and travelled to my heart.

Afterwards I was in bed for five months recovering from the surgery which was a difficult time as my youngest was still a baby. Thankfully, though, I had the most fantastic family support.

Everyone rallied round to help me and look after the children. You also need to have your own strength in your mind to push through what’s happened.

Now I only have 48% heart function because of the damage caused by the attack. Life has changed a lot because of that. I had to give up work — I was an HR manager — and it was a big decision because I had studied and worked hard to achieve my career.

Fatigue and dizziness are big problems for me now. I need to pace myself during the day so I can spend time with Paul and the girls when they get home from work and school.

I’ve been through cardiac rehab three times, too — it’s all about education, exercise and meeting others who have been through the same thing.

They had to shock my heart three times to get it going properly again, so I know today I’m very lucky to be alive, and that overshadows everything else.

There’s nothing I can do about what happened to me and I know it wasn’t my fault.

I’m just thankful to be alive now.”

‘My husband had to do CPR... without it I wouldn’t  be here’

Patricia Young (49), who works in customer service, lives in Dungannon with husband David and their two daughters Niamh (22) and Molly (19). She says:

In 2012, we were getting ready to move house. It was the middle of the night and my husband woke up to the sound of me snorting and struggling for breath.

At first he thought I was mucking about — it’s the kind of thing I would do — but then he realised there was something really wrong.

David rang 999 and they talked him through doing CPR on me.

He did this for six and a half minutes before the paramedics arrived and if he hadn’t I wouldn’t be here.

The paramedics told him to get the girls into the car and come to the hospital — it’s clear they thought the family should have a chance to say goodbye.

I don’t remember any of this. There is a whole week of my life which is gone from my memory now.  What I do recall was waking up after being in an induced coma for three days.

No-one told me about the ambulance until I had left hospital a month later.

Although I had a heart attack I didn’t have any damage to my heart — it had started with an irregular rhythm. There wasn’t any reason why — no lifestyle factors or family conditions.

At the hospital I was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, so that if it happens again the device will shock my heart. I think I’m one of the lucky ones, as I’ve been able to make a recovery.

I’m still here, I’m back at work and I’m even able to go to the gym.

Now I run support groups for Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke, where people like me can talk about what has happened.”

  • Chest, Heart and Stroke, tel: 028 9032 0184 or visit nichs.org.uk. Red Dress Run, 5k/10k, Stormont Estate, February 11, 11.30am. Visit nichs.org.uk to register

Mother-of-four who shed five stone after her dad died at 54

Photographer Gillian Abraham (33), lives in Lurgan with her husband Keith. They have four children, Samara (10), Zava (5), Safya (4) and Isaac (11 months). She says:

Everything changed when my dad, Martin died. It was a very sudden thing - he went out to work one night and didn't come home in the morning. He was usually home at 8am but at 9am my mum said she thought something was wrong, and then the police arrived at the door.

He was only 54 and hadn't been diagnosed with any problems before he died. He did complain a few times about a strange feeling in his arm but we never suspected it was his heart.

The year before that my mum had a heart valve replacement. She had been in hospital with pneumonia when doctors spotted that her heart was leaking.

While I was never diagnosed with a heart problem I knew I didn't lead a healthy lifestyle. My husband said I was just like my dad - I ate the same things as he did such as takeaways and chips.

I was pregnant with my third child after dad died and that's when I started to put on weight. Previously I was slim but by 2012 I knew I needed to change my lifestyle. I joined a gym but I didn't really know what I was doing.

Then a friend of my husband, Gary Cordener, started supporting me at the gym - he showed me how to use the treadmill properly.

At first I could only do a minute and was so unfit. I weighed 15 stone at the time. Then, with his help, I was running for two minutes and then three. And it was all thanks to him because he kept encouraging me - it was like having my own personal trainer.

I changed my diet too, cutting out fizzy drinks and takeaways, although I would have the occasional nibble on chocolate. But it was amazing how fast my weight went down once we stopped going to the Chinese four or five times a week.

And when I saw an advertisement for a 5K race Gary encouraged me to go for it, so I began to train outdoors.

It was a different challenge to the gym but I kept at it. As soon as I got the kids to school in the morning I would go out for a run every day.

It felt so good once the adrenaline started pumping.

After completing my first 5k race then I found out about the Run To Remember half marathon organised by Chest Heart and Stroke which I did with my brother James.

At the time I thought I could never run a full marathon but since then I've run 12. I got hooked on running and my weight went down - I lost five stone.

When the day arrived to do my first marathon I did have a wobble. I had a series of panic attacks and couldn't stop thinking about what had happened to my dad. My doctor was great, though, he took my heart rate and told me I was totally healthy and was doing exactly what I should do for good heart health.

Since then, I've enjoyed a new lease of life and kept running when I was expecting Isaac. In fact I ran two marathons without knowing I was pregnant but my doctor assured me as I was a runner already it was fine. And I ran up until I was about six months pregnant.

Unfortunately I put all the weight back on again when I was pregnant but I've spent the last year taking it off, and I have a stone left to go."

Symptoms that could indicate you're having a heart attack

  • Something's not right - symptoms can start slowly
  • Tightness of pain in the chest, pain in the arm, neck or jaw
  • Other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or sweating
  • Phone 999 immediately - the ambulance crew will do an ECG

Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke's Red Dress Run to raise awareness of women's heart health will take place at Stormont on February 11, 2017. For information on this event or about strokes and heart conditions go to nichs.org.uk

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