She may have been young, fit, and healthy, but she still had a heart attack at the early age of 35. Margaret Kilby, 51, from Sydney, Australia, shares her story.
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 a person 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 harbor.
My husband James and son Marcus, then 7, were with me, and I was very much in my happy place with great friends, sailing around the harbor. What more could you possibly want? Yet I started feeling queasy not long after we’d set sail.
“It must be seasickness,” I told myself.
I did what you’re supposed to do in that situation: I 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 that I had the horrifying realization what was happening to me.
“I’m having a heart attack,” I managed to shout.
I can still remember the color draining from James’ face.
Margaret with James recently. (Photo Credit: Now to Love)
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 goner. 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.
And although my dad had died of a heart attack, I hadn’t been 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. The shock was palpable; I mostly associated heart attacks with factors like smoking, obesity, and having a sedentary lifestyle.
I was stabilized at the hospital and transferred to specialist cardiologists at another. I had stints fitted in my heart and then 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 it helps train your body back up slowly.
Afterward, 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, didn’t smoke or drink excessively. I now know I’m just downright unlucky. I’ve since had 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 — 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 injections every two weeks to lower my cholesterol and see my specialist every six months to a year. I’m also on medication.
Although that might all sound scary to you, I’m living life to the fullest 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 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 percent of women have at least one risk factor. Heart disease is the single biggest killer of women in Australia., and women are almost three times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer.
Remember that image of a person clutching his chest? Up to 40 percent of women will not experience chest pain. To me, that’s terrifying, because that 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.
Margaret with Marcus recently. (Photo Credit: Now to Love)
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 that we need to talk more about our hearts. They’re the most important part of us, after all.
This story is from Margaret Kilby, as told to Lorna Gray. For more, check out our sister site, Now to Love.
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