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Why the Red Dress Run is a cause close to our hearts

Ahead of Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke's Red Dress fundraising race at Stormont on February 10, Stephanie Bell talks to mother of three Jacqueline McGonigle, who took up running after her husband's health scare, and Carryduff mum and coronary survivor Barbara Gowen

A sea of people in red will converge on the Stormont Estate next month to help combat Northern Ireland's biggest killer.

Rugby star Chris Henry has joined forces with Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS) to urge people to join in the second Red Dress Run to be held on February 10.

This year's event aims to raise awareness of the fact that heart disease kills more men and women here than any other individual illness. There are around 75,000 people living with coronary heart disease in the province. The event also will raise much needed funds for research.

It is hoped that hundreds of flamboyantly dressed men, women and children take part in a 5k or 10k walk or run to mark the now annual event.

Jackie Trainor, director of fundraising at NICHS, says: "We are calling on all men and women to join in and take part and wear anything red to walk, run, or even crawl and join in the fun. All runners and walkers of all abilities are welcome and each will receive a medal, a hearty bowl of veggie soup and fun morning out with the best craic."

The first Red Dress Run last year saw 335 runners and walkers taking part and this year NICHS is hoping as many as 500 will sign up.

The charity has set itself a target to raise £30,000, which will support research and help raise awareness.

The focus of last year's event was to highlight that men and women can have very different symptoms when having a heart attack - a message which saved the life of one of the charity's employees, Barbara Gowan.

To take part register at nichs.org.uk/reddressrun

‘We wanted to turn my husband’s diagnosis of the disease into a positive’

Local businesswoman Jacqueline McGonigle (49), from Upperlands in Co Londonderry, who owns whatsonni.com, took up running after her husband Nigel (56), a production manager, had a heart scare last year. Now she is calling on women across the country to take part in the Red Dress Run. The couple have three children, Aymen (22) and twins Charlotte and Joseph (15). She says:

Nigel didn't seem to be the type who would be at risk of heart disease. With his job he walks an average of six to seven miles a day, he is not overweight, has never smoked and rarely drinks.

However, when his mother was roughly the same age, she had a triple heart bypass.

That was on his mind when one day last year he felt something in his chest.

At first he thought it was indigestion and while it didn't scare him, he realised it was different enough to make a note in his diary so that he could remember when it had happened, should it happen again.

A couple of weeks later he was at the doctor for something totally unrelated and had his blood pressure taken. On a previous occasion it had been a bit high and this time it was high again.

The GP knows the family and that his mum had a triple bypass, so she asked him to come back for further tests. After the tests he was referred to the Causeway Area Hospital, in Coleraine, for a treadmill test which showed something up and he was admitted to hospital.

He had more scans, X-rays and monitoring and then was transferred to Altnagelvin Hospital for an angiogram which showed that there were three serious blockages in his heart. The main artery into his heart was 70% blocked and required two stents to open it. Two other arteries also required stents - one was over 70% blocked and one was 90% blocked.

Nigel is a calm person so, as a family, we didn't panic when it happened. But looking back, it makes you realise how quickly things could have changed. If our GP had not been so attentive, we could have had a different outcome. I could have been a widow with three children in my forties. It puts everything in perspective.

Now for Christmas and birthdays, we try to go somewhere and do something, building memories rather than buying things.

It made me think of my own health too. At the time I was into swimming so I increased the amount I was doing. But then I hurt my shoulder and had to stop swimming. I admit I became lazy and started to put on weight.

A friend told me that Declan Leung from Aspire Health was developing a virtual couch to 5k. It could be done at your own pace, outdoors or on treadmills, and we 'met' through a virtual social media group, rather than in person.

I trained on the treadmill three times a week, building the distance up slowly but surely until I was ready for my first race.

My first 5k was in Magherafelt in July of last year, just five weeks after starting to run, and I've done seven 5k road runs since. I've just done my first 10km last week.

The camaraderie while you are running is great. And I love the rewards at the end - the satisfaction, the pats on the back and the medals. I love the bling.

It's an easy, low cost way to keep fit. When I heard about NICHS's Red Dress Run, I knew it would be a perfect 10k for me as it is for a cause close to my heart.

Heart disease affects women in a number of ways, not only the women who have heart disease themselves, like my mother-in-law, but also the families of men who have heart disease.

Nigel's heart disease could have had very dire consequences for our family but thankfully the worst did not happen and instead we want to turn it into a positive.

As well as improving my own health because of it, I want to help raise awareness of heart disease."

'The pain was on my left hand side ... that's when I got scared'

Barbara Gowen (53), from  Carryduff, is a senior finance  officer at NICHS and mum to Sarah (24) and Matthew (23).

She says that without the charity's 2017 Red Dress campaign her recent heart attack could have been much more serious. She says:

On the morning of May 31, 2017, I woke at 5am with a pain which was primarily in my neck but also in my shoulder. I had felt pressure, though no pain, in my chest over the bank holiday weekend, but I took it easy and the pressure went away.

However, that morning, the pain was so strong that it was uncomfortable to stay in bed lying down. It also intensified when I breathed in. As I got out of bed, I realised, all the pain was down my left hand side.

That was when I started to get scared. I remembered our Red Dress campaign from last year - and although I'm very clued in already to the symptoms of heart attack, that campaign had particularly highlighted that women can have different heart attack symptoms to men.

It also reinforced that most people, men and women, do not experience the dramatic chest-clutching heart attack symptoms you see in films. I did a quick search online and my fears were confirmed - neck pain can be a symptom of a heart attack.

My son was still asleep and my daughter was in England. I wasn't alone in the house, but I wanted to protect my son from what was happening. I knew what I had to do. The STOP acronym that we use for heart attack symptoms ends with P - Phone 999. So I called an ambulance. It was 5.30am.

The operator stayed on the line with me. She told me to wake my son, Matthew, and then sit and wait. She talked to me the whole time, keeping me calm in the 20 minutes it took for the ambulance to reach my home.

I never lost consciousness and when the ambulance arrived, they worked on me and did tests for around 30 minutes before 'blue-lighting' me to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

The fact that I had called an ambulance rather than going to A&E speeded up the process. I was taken directly to the cath lab to await the team who had been called in. They arrived around five to 10 minutes after I did.

By 7.30am it was over and I had two stents successfully put in. If NICHS had not done its Red Dress campaign, I would probably have given it an hour or so, to see if the pain subsided and then phoned my GP at 9am. It could have been so much more serious. The quicker you get treatment, the less damage there is to the heart muscle. I was lucky that I have very little residual damage at all.

I was discharged from hospital the following day but the cardiac rehab team limited how much physical activity I could do, especially as I live on a steep hill. I was confined to the house and garden. I wasn't even allowed to do housework. I never thought I would miss vacuuming, but I did. I'm still fatigued. Getting back to work and being able to do things around the house has taken longer than I expected.

I had three and a half months off work and I am still in a phased part-time return.

My lifestyle wasn't great before and I have started to do three half-hour exercise sessions a week as well as walking. I have also improved my diet.

I completed NICHS's Taking Control self-management programme which has helped me to accept the fact that my recovery has taken longer than I would like. I no longer beat myself up over it. Instead I prioritise and make a conscious decision about where to use my energy each day, whether it is for vacuuming or paying the salaries.

I have three simple messages to women in Northern Ireland - that heart attack symptoms can be different for women, don't hesitate to call 999, and pace yourself during recovery."

Don't ignore the warning signs ...

Coronary heart disease is usually caused by the build-up of fatty deposits (plaque) on the walls of the coronary arteries, which narrows them.

A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, is when part of the heart muscle dies because it has been starved of oxygen by a blockage in a coronary artery.

Most of these occur when the fatty deposits in the coronary artery rupture and trigger the formation of a blood clot. A blockage may also result from a spasm or sudden narrowing of a coronary artery.

The symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person, but the acronym STOP can help. It stands for:

S - Something's not right - symptoms can start slowly

T - Tightness or pain in the chest, pain in the arm, neck or jaw

O - Other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or sweating

P - Phone 999 immediately - the ambulance crew will do an ECG.

The last letter of STOP is very important - Phone 999 immediately. There's no time to waste when chest pain strikes. Every minute that passes can mean the difference between life and death.

NICHS advice is to call 999 rather than driving the patient to hospital, because the ambulance crew can provide treatment at the scene. Unlike angina, pain associated with a heart attack is not usually relieved by rest or nitrate sprays, such as GTN (Glyceryl Trinitrate).

For more details visit nichs.org.uk/

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