"I thought i was indestructible, but now i’m simply grateful to wake up in the morning"

Woman&Home - 2011

Elaine Kingett was 60, didn't smoke and had low cholesterol, so was stress to blame when she had a heart attack?

My friend Rosie looked at me anxiously. "Was it my tea?" she asked, alarm sounding in her voice. "Are you okay?" "What do you think it means when both your arms start to really ache?" I ventured in a very small voice. Rosie, a recently retired midwife, knew about medical stuff. "And what about," I added, "when it feels like the dog's sitting on your chest?" I'd only called in for my Ottolenghi cookbook, not a cardiac arrest. At the time, I thought it was exhaustion; I never imagined a heart attack. I hadn't fallen to the floor, gripping my chest in agony, sweating like a Bikram yoga lover. I was just sitting quietly at the kitchen table, admiring her Jack Russells.

"I'll call the doctor," she announced. Then she called the ambulance. Then she gave me 300mg of aspirin, which might very well have saved my life.

The first paramedic's ECG machine didn't work, then the ambulance crew's ECG machine didn't work. "Don't worry, it's not you, love. It's the machines."

I was way beyond worrying about their problems with NHS equipment. I was on another planet, trying to get a grip on what was happening inside of me. But I still didn't think it was a heart attack.

They clamped an oxygen mask over my face and set off for the hospital. Apparently, without a siren, much to my children's disappointment. Not even when they wired me up in A&E in Truro, took blood, put me on a drip, gave me morphine and put a name band round my wrist did I cotton on what was happening.

I woke up the next morning in a hospital ward, feeling perfectly relaxed after a night of drug-assisted sleep. It was surreal. I felt such a sham. I was convinced that the medics would arrive, give me a slap on the wrist and pack me off home, telling me to calm down and not get so emotional. Ha!

"Good morning, Elaine. I'm Doctor Davadasen," said the cheery consultant surrounded by his crew members. "You've had a heart attack." The thought that flashed through my mind was, "I've had a heart attack in Vogue. How chic." Not as mad as it sounds, as Vogue is the name of the village where my little incident had occurred. I then followed up with a line straight out of a soap opera, "Is this going to change my life?"

They shuffled their feet, stared at the floor and said nothing. After describing the apparent seriousness of my situation, they filed out to cheer up somebody else's day.

I decided to call my three children, the youngest of whom is 21, and who live in London. It's no fun telling your offspring over the phone that you've had a heart attack. The emotive phrase is laden with nightmare images of death and disability. "But Mum, you're fit. You walk up mountains and everything!"

I wasn't your classic candidate. I'd just returned from a trekking holiday in Morocco with my partner and daughter. I'd walked 130 miles over rough terrain, climbing to 9,000 feet, camping with Berber muleteers. I was 60, didn't smoke, drank no more than you, hated fast food, always had low cholesterol, weighed eight-and-a-half stone. But I'd had more than my share of stress over the previous years and I'd pushed myself too hard, for too long. To be a fighter is, apparently, not conducive to longevity, whatever the battle. And as a leading cardiac consultant told me later, "Not everyone with a lot of stress has a heart attack, but precious few of my patients have not had considerable stress in their lives.

"I'd always assumed that action was positive, inaction laziness, but if you've got six things to do, doing 12, it seems, doesn't necessarily make you a better person. I'd dabbled with meditation and yoga, but always been too busy to go regularly.

"I'm fine, " I told the kids when they burst, in turn, into tears. "No pain, can walk around, there's even a little man with a trolley who delivers snacks and The Guardian."

Jamie, 30, the eldest, negotiated a week off work and zipped down to help out. He could relay my condition to his siblings and reassure them that I didn't look as if I was yet at death's door. Friends and family I hadn't seen for years turned up, laden with fruit. I felt like an idiot, with a holiday suntan, sitting on my bed in pyjama, looking the picture of rude health.

But something had exploded inside of me, something I couldn't see or feel, however much I prodded my chest. After a lifetime of survival against all odds, I was damaged goods. I'd thought I was indestructible, but now, as the cliché says, I was simply grateful to wake up in the morning. My heart was deciding my future

and, silly me, all along I thought my head was going to do that. I worried about death, how my kids would manage without me. I wandered the hospital corridors. "Where are you going?" asked a 12-year-old staff nurse. "Not too far, now, no stairs. Have you got your spray?"

The spray for under my tongue in case I got chest pain, which, along with aspirin, was to be my new essential accessory. Things had definitely changed.

A week later, having located my blocked artery and lost half a stone, I was allowed home. No surgery, no nasty scars, just a sobering recognition of the perils of smoking in my twenties and of my family history of angina. I blamed the parents. I was brim full of statins, beta blockers, ace inhibitors and aspirin. I was disorientated and exhausted. My partner was jetting off to Tuscany to run another walking tour; I couldn't even toddle up our lane to the main road. I was banned from driving for a month for insurance purposes, but my eyesight was so dodgy and responses so slow that just the thought of it scared me.

"Mum, your answers on the crossword are all wrong and you've spelt them wrong, anyway," remarked Jamie, a note of panic in his voice. I'd gone from 60 to 80 in one short week and firmly believed I had dementia.

Three months on, I still flake out early in the evening, but it's a wonderful excuse to leave boring dinner parties. Now that my drug regime has been adjusted, I can plan my day, achieve most of it and not stress out if I don't. My waist expands as my slower pace catches up, but I'd worry far more if I was losing weight. I've started a weekly cardiac exercise class in the local community centre, which, despite resembling an episode of Victoria Wood, is great fun. A couple of women and, predictably, loads of blokes, all with heart attacks in common, learning once more to trust their hearts to keep them alive, even if they work up a sweat. And yes, that's good for me too!

My prognosis is encouraging. The fact that I was physically fit before, should aid my recovery. Most importantly, I'm no longer chasing my tail 24/7 and I've learnt, at times, to do absolutely nothing at all with great delight and no guilt whatsoever.

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