Forty-three-year-old Fiona Dalgleish was two kilometres into her first run of 2014 when she felt a sensation of heaviness and tightness spread across her upper body. “It felt like my crop top was too tight,” recalls the human resources administrator from Dandenong, Victoria. “I thought if I kept running it might go away.” But when she slowed to a walk, the pain didn’t subside. For the slim, active non-smoker, with no immediate family history of heart disease, “it couldn’t be” a heart attack.
Of all heart attacks in Australia, 35 per cent happen to women. “There is no single cause of heart disease and there are people like Fiona who only have a few risk factors,” explains the Heart Foundation Victoria’s Director of Cardiovascular Health, Kellie-Ann Jolly. “That’s why it’s important for everyone to be aware of the warning signs, which are not always sudden or severe. For women, they can be subtle.”
Doctors determined that Fiona’s main artery on the left side of her heart was completely blocked. They inserted a “stent” – a small mesh tube that supports the inner wall of an artery, and she stayed in hospital for five days.
“Adjusting to life in the weeks after was a difficult period,” she says. “I felt in limbo because a lot of the information about recovery is written for people who fit the profile of an at-risk person. Exercise-wise, I didn’t know what was too soon.”
Six weeks after leaving hospital, Fiona laced up for the first time since her heart attack. Driving to Meeniyan, a small country town in South Gippsland, Fiona and her husband, Bret, ran for two kilometres along the Great Southern Rail Trail, surrounded by well-watered pastures and rolling green hills. “It was scary,” she admits.
When she runs now, Fiona needs to keep her heart rate around 140 beats per minute. “My cardiologist said that on a scale of 1 to 10, I should be working out at about 7,” Fiona explains.
She says: “Before my heart attack, I used to plug in my iPod and go into a musical blur to distract myself from any discomfort. Now I focus more on what my body’s doing and how I’m feeling.”
But her biggest milestone was her first solo run. In June, Fiona ran a 5.5km lap of Lysterfield Lake, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. “Up until then, my husband was my security blanket. This time, I told myself, Okay, if anything doesn’t feel right, I’ll slow down,” she says. Fiona ran the entire lap without stopping. “It felt great,” she smiles.
It’s Fiona’s positive attitude that’s helped. “When I think back to the moment I arrived at Dandenong Hospital, I was determined to be positive and get through whatever came my way. That was my mindset,” she says.
Since her heart attack, Fiona is on five different types of medication: two blood thinners, a cholesterol tablet, a beta blocker (which takes the load off her heart) and another tablet that opens up blood vessels. While Fiona may be able to stop taking one of the blood thinners next year, she’ll take pills for the rest of her life.
But she doesn’t let this affect her. When Fiona suffered her heart attack in January this year, she was a session away from ramping up her training for a half marathon in May. And she’s determined to keep going. While a half marathon is off the cards for now – “I don’t want to rush it” – Fiona signed up for the Run Melbourne 5K and aims to raise $700 for the Heart Foundation.
“The message I want to get out is, learn the signs of a heart attack and act on it straight away,” she says. “A lot of times you see on TV, someone has a heart attack and they clutch their chest and fall, but it’s not always that way. Symptoms can vary widely, and they can be different for women as well.”
She says: “I consider myself lucky to have survived. My fitness helped – not only physically, but mentally. Having the tough mindset of a runner is helping me through my recovery.”For more information, visit heartfoundation.org.au