I survived three heart attacks in one week -- but now life is better than ever
TV's Sally Bee tells Sue Leonard about living with a rare disorder
Tuesday March 02 2010
Sally Bee positively glows with health. At 42, the TV presenter and mum of three looks years younger. She doesn't smoke and is a walking advertisement for her new book of healthy recipes. It's impossible to believe that, just five years ago, Sally suffered a series of such severe heart attacks that her doctors left her to die.
It started at a friend's birthday party in her home town Stratford-on-Avon.
"I was holding Lela, my then nine-month-old baby, when I felt this sense of impending doom. I just knew something was terribly wrong. Twenty seconds later, the pain hit. Then I was on the floor having a heart attack."
The doctor in the A&E, though, couldn't believe it.
"There were 'changes' in my ECG, but he didn't think, 'heart attack.' They think there has to be a reason; that you have to be overweight or a smoker, or have a history of heart disease in the family. They said I had reflux, and sent me home with medicine for indigestion."
Three days later, the pain hit again. Given morphine, she was left alone and unable to breathe. Then a nurse, reading the heart monitor, shouted for the doctors.
'I had three cardiologists standing around saying, 'this is telling us that you are having a heart attack, but we still don't believe it'.
"The next day they performed an angiogram, and they saw the main artery that feeds my heart literally fall apart. They'd never seen that before, and they didn't expect me to live. They left the room, and told my husband to go in. They thought I would die there and then."
Sally, it turned out, was born with SCAD -- Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection -- that could have killed her at any time.
To the doctors' amazement, Sally survived. She stayed in hospital for two weeks, then was sent home on 'critical recovery'. And, as the mum of three under-fives, unable to do anything, that was tough.
"We had to get a nanny, and my husband took a year off work. I couldn't be on my own with the children for one second, because if one of them fell, I couldn't get up to help.
"I worried all the time. I'd think each breath was my last. A few times I thought I had died, and was a ghost.
"But, gradually, I began to get better. I started walking a little every day, but I was always scared.
"After a year, I'd got used to the idea of living. I had my year anniversary and was on a high. Then the cardiologist said, 'I think you have a problem'. He thought I had an aneurysm in my aorta. He said we need to scan this, and if I had, there were two options. He could operate -- there was a 40pc chance of survival -- or leave it, meaning it could blow and I could die any time.
"I knew if they found an aneurysm they'd operate at once, and I could die. So I prepared for the date. I had wardrobes built; I got the decorators in; I bought the children's clothes for a year, and I put all my girlfriends on standby. I cried every day.
"Then the night before, I thought, if I'm going to die let it happen. I thought, I can't live like this anymore. I can't live with the fear of dying.
"I'll never forget the MRI scan. They told me it would take 40 minutes, and I knew it had taken an hour and 20 minutes. I was getting fired up, sure I had an aneurysm. I was thinking, if you doctors do your bit, I'll do mine. I will really fight.
"This Chinese doctor said there was no aneurysm. I kissed him, and decided that I wouldn't live with fear anymore.
"That was my tipping point. I remember saying to my kids, 'right, on your bikes. We're going round the block'. I began to push forward, and I've not stopped since."
From the start, Sally had watched her diet with care. Her body taught her how.
"If I had a cheese sandwich for lunch, I'd sleep for 14 hours. If I ate fish and fruit I'd have a bit of energy. After six months I had an Indian takeaway. The monosodium glutamate sent my heart into abnormal rhythm and I was back in hospital."
Sally experimented with healthy heart recipes. And at the same time she was counselling heart patients sourced by her own heart nurses. She helped them with their diet too, and she decided to write a recipe book, The Secret Ingredient.
With a TV programme planned for the autumn, Sally is flying high. She's not cured, and never will be. But she's not worrying about dying.
"I've got a voice. People need to be educated after a heart attack, and I can help them with my recipes.
"I'm having an adventure and I'm loving it. Life isn't worse than before. In many ways it's better."
The Secret Ingredient by Sally Bee is published by Harper Collins. For more information; www.sally-bee.com
- Sue Leonard