A cardiac nurse who suffered a serious heart event a number of years ago Shirley Ingram knows more than most about the importance of looking after your heart.
In 2018 Shirley suffered a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection or SCAD while at the gym.
SCAD is an uncommon emergency condition in which a ‘tear’ happens within the layers of the wall of the artery. This leads to blood becoming trapped within the artery, forming a clot, and causing a partial or complete blockage. This can lead to a possible heart attack, an abnormal heart rhythm or even sudden death, if not treated promptly.
Researchers are not fully sure what causes SCAD, but it is known that 80 per cent of sufferers are women and 30 per cent of those are nearing the end of a pregnancy or have recently given birth. Like Shirley most people with SCAD are otherwise healthy and might not have any risk factors for heart disease. It tends to occur in people between the ages of 19 and 64.
Shirley had no chest pain, but she did have pain in both her shoulders and a burning discomfort in her throat. Both her arms also felt tight, and she instinctively knew she was in serious trouble.
If it wasn’t for her 30 years’ experience as a specialist cardiac nurse, Shirley may have dismissed her pain as simply overdoing it at the gym.
A fit active woman who had just turned fifty, Shirley had none of the common risk factors for heart disease. She was not overweight, she never smoked, and her blood pressure and cholesterol were normal.
" I sat there on the mat, and I said to myself, Shirley this is what women feel like when they are having a heart attack,"
I sat there on the mat, and I said to myself, “Shirley this is what women feel like when they are having a heart attack. That was the first thought that came into my head.”
Shirley’s instincts proved right and just a short while later she was in the Emergency Department in Tallaght where her concerned colleagues rallied to care for her.
While thankfully Shirley has recovered well from the physical impact of the SCAD, it took some time for the shock and emotional scars to heal.
“For me it was the shock. One minute you are running on a treadmill and two hours later you are lying on your back being told you have had a heart attack… It took me a good 6 weeks before it finally hit me,” she said.
After recovering from her heart attack Shirley faced yet another mission this time with symptoms of the menopause which she said was “very demoralising.” Because of her history of SCAD specialist doctors, in cardiology and menopause care were reluctant to prescribe HRT and menopause was making her life a misery.
Shirley said that she “lost her mojo” for exercising which she put down to low mood due to the menopause and she also suffered from severe muscular aches and pains.
“The thoughts of another 20 years like that…I’m a very active person, it was just awful,” she said.
“ The thoughts of another 20 years like that…I’m a very active person, it was just awful,"
Shirley said she would like to see the narrative about menopause symptoms shift from an over emphasis on hot flushes to one that encompasses the extensive range of symptoms women suffer at this time.
Hot flashes or flushes are simply one of a myriad of menopause symptoms and these include night sweats, low mood, anxiety, crippling joint pain, depression, sleep disturbances, headache, cognitive difficulties, palpitations, and recurrent urinary tract infections
According to Shirley, “while we all get the hot flushes, they come they go, and they’re uncomfortable. But you get through them, and a lot of people think that that’s the only game in town when it comes to the menopause. So, you’re not heard when you talk about your low mood, or joint pain, all of those things are common in menopause but are not really given the same kudos as the hot flushes.”
Thankfully, Shirley who has an extremely supportive GP, and Consultant Cardiologist was eventually referred to the new specialist menopause clinic in Holles St Hospital where she was prescribed HRT and says she hasn’t look back since.
“ It’s about giving women permission to take time for themselves,"
As a cardiac nurse who now works in the community Shirley regularly supports women who have symptoms of potential heart disease and so many tell her that they struggle to carve out time for themselves to mind their own hearts by making lifestyle changes.
“I try to support women who are coming to me by saying look, I understand, I’m in the same position and it’s about trying to free up time…delegate some time to care for yourself if you can within your family…you deserve the time to yourself. I feel, for women at this stage of their lives this is crucial. Because once you start getting older it’s going to be harder to make changes,” she stated,
Shirley recalled that her own mother used to have a separate cupboard in the kitchen where she would keep her own healthy foods and things, she needed for herself. As a child Shirley said she never understood this but now she does.
“It’s about giving women permission to take time for themselves …I don’t think we’re very good about saying, I deserve this,” she said.
“We are the sandwich generation. A lot of women’s children are still living at home, and some are looking after elderly parents I know I am. I have a full-time job which is high pressured. You put yourself on the back burner.”
Finally, Shirley said that women need to give themselves permission to look after themselves “ It’s okay to look after yourself, to carve out some time to exercise or use the supports on offer.”
Why not start looking after yourself today by getting your own cupboard and filling it with the physical and emotional supports you need to care for you.