Sunday 15 September 2019

'I thought it was an old person's problem' - Meet the women who had heart attacks in their 30s

It's 50pc more likely heart problems will be missed in women. Tanya Sweeney talks to two survivors who has symptoms, but never thought they were about to cheat death.

Sharon O'Driscoll
Sharon O'Driscoll
Patricia thought she was too young to be having a heart attack
Patricia at 39

Picture in your mind's eye a person having a heart attack and it's quite likely you have imagined someone older, possibly male, in the throes of chest pain. So, when Sharon O'Driscoll, then 34, returned home from one of her regular spinning classes, it was the very last thing she could have conceived of.

"I could have been doing up to five spinning classes a week, so to say it was unexpected is a bit of an understatement," says the business development consultant, who lives in Lucan.

After the cool-down part of her class, Sharon, who is originally from Cork, felt unwell and registered a pain in her left arm.

"I'm not sure how you'd describe it, but I couldn't settle and was feeling very uneasy," she recalls. "I rang my sister and she took the incentive to ring an ambulance.

"Everyone asks if I'd felt shooting pains, but more than anything, it was just an uncomfortable feeling. I was getting sick and there was a ringing in my ears," she adds. "When the ambulance people arrived and saw me in my gym gear, they just assumed I'd pulled something in the gym."

Upon arrival in hospital, Sharon went into cardiac arrest: "Next thing I knew, I woke up and was being resuscitated," she says. "I was told I had a 100pc blockage and would need a stent."

Patricia Ryan, a special-needs assistant from Drimnagh, was luckier, and was waiting to be seen in a hospital A&E when quick-thinking doctors spotted the warning signs of an oncoming cardiac episode.

"I'd turned 39 and was out for dinner, and my arms went dead. A couple of weeks later, I'd been in the supermarket and couldn't lift my hands off the trolley," she recalls.

Patricia thought she was too young to be having a heart attack
Patricia thought she was too young to be having a heart attack

"I'd just turned 39 and my son, who was 19 at the time, pleaded with me to go to the doctor. I was in St James's Hospital when I'd told the doctor what had happened, and when I said I was getting pains in my shoulders and arms, he said, 'Let's just bring you to A&E.'

"Tests showed that I had an 80pc blockage at the back of my heart and I wasn't getting blood there. Initially, doctors were looking at open-heart surgery but, instead, they went in with a stent. I remember saying, 'I haven't got heart trouble, I'm only 39.'

"I thought it was an old person's problem. I wasn't morbidly obese. I didn't have a cholesterol issue. I wanted answers - but there were no answers."

Meanwhile, doctors observed that the fact Sharon was a smoker and family history may have been a factor in her heart attack - her father had a heart attack in his 30s too.

Generally, genetics, age, gender, cholesterol levels and lifestyle influence our chances of getting cardiovascular disease.

In the main, it's unusual for women, not least of Sharon and Patricia's age, to have heart attacks.

The sobering truth, according to the Women's Heart Foundation, is that worldwide, 8.6 million women die from heart disease each year, accounting for a third of all deaths in women.

Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, hypertension and strokes, is the number one killer of women. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said almost two-thirds (64pc) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.

Patricia at 39
Patricia at 39

"Looking back, there were warning signs in the past, like that tightening, uneasy feeling after the gym, but I didn't know what they were. I certainly didn't think it would be a heart attack," notes Sharon.

A rarity, certainly, but not an impossibility: according to a British Heart Foundation report last year, thousands of women having heart attacks are misdiagnosed and the problem is 50pc more likely to be missed in women.

The Irish Heart Foundation, meanwhile, has revealed that heart disease kills six times more women than breast cancer.

Oestrogen and other hormones safeguard women against cardiovascular disease - they help the arteries to relax, for instance - but once women get to menopause, their rate of risk catches up with those of men.

Coronary artery disease can also start to develop in teens: in research published by DCU last year, it was revealed that schoolchildren as young as 15 are presenting with signs of heart disease typically seen in people aged 55-60.

IHF Medical Director Dr Angie Brown, a consultant cardiologist, says: "About one-third of all women in Ireland will die from cardiovascular disease, yet many women still view a heart attack as mainly a man's problem.

"Women also metabolise nicotine faster than men, so a cigarette will increase a woman's risk a lot more than it will for a man.

"A total of 80pc of women who have heart attacks under the age of 40 are smokers. The risk of heart attack is reduced by half a year after quitting.

"Furthermore, the signs and symptoms of heart attack may be different for women to those of men," says Brown. "A woman may experience more vague symptoms such as nausea, tiredness, shortness of breath, rather than the more usual crushing pain in the chest."

Women, too, are also likely to dismiss these symptoms. "They think there's no point in seeing a GP as they don't want to worry anybody," says Brown.

"Unfortunately, this can mean that women delay in getting to the hospital and, therefore, lose valuable time for the necessary treatment."

Time, according to Dr Brown, is very much of the essence: "If you think you're having a heart attack, get to casualty quickly," she reiterates. "The longer it's left, the higher the chance that any damage done might be irreversible."

There's a broad spectrum of experiences post-cardiac arrest: "For some people, having an event doesn't have much impact on their lives and they may need to get stented or take lifelong medication," says Brown. "For others who have had a big heart attack, life is significantly affected. For people who have had a bypass, we'd suggest cardiac rehabilitation exercise, with an exercise regime tailored to get them fit again.

"We'd tell everyone that they need to stop smoking and have a healthy balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, chicken and fish, and less red meat, cheese, cakes and sugar."

Mella Buckley is a cardiac nurse at St James's Hospital, who teaches cardiac rehabilitation classes in Islandbridge, Dublin. Many of her clients are people who have had heart attacks and together they do circuits, weights and TRX under her close supervision.

"More than anything, these people want to come together with people who have gone through the same experience. And after they've had something happen to their health, they're so dedicated to keeping their fitness levels up. It's amazing to know that they can go back to having a normal healthy life after," she says. "I've seen people run marathons after having heart attacks."

The good news, according to the IHF, is that 80pc of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable ­- it's been proven that a year after quitting smoking, the risk of having a heart attack or stroke is slashed to half of that of a smoker.

What's more, the cardiovascular disease mortality rate has dropped in recent times: "This has to do with being more aware and certain interventions. Ireland's used to have the worst mortality rate, but we are now classed as a lower risk country.

"Poland, meanwhile has one of the highest rates and this often has to do with poor diet and higher levels of smoking."

Patricia now describes the episode as a major wake-up call.

"I used to be worrying about everyone else and only myself now and again. But now, this has made me realise that it's alright to take time out for me. At the end of the day, you have to look after yourself."

Sharon, too, looks back on 'cheating death' with a positive mind frame.

"Having the heart attack doesn't stop me from doing anything," she says.

"If you met me and didn't know my story, you'd think nothing ever happened. I do think I'd never have given up a secure job and made the move to Dublin from Cork if it hadn't happened. These days I'd be more likely to think, 'Well, what's the worst that can happen?'"

For more information on the IHF, go to For more info on Mella's classes, see


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