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“I was the last person anyone expected to have a heart attack”

At 55 Debbie Beesley had ditched her stressful job, was running her own business and really enjoying life. But then a heart attack changed everything. Here the business owner from Sussex tells her story.

As told to Andreina Cordani

‘At 55 life was going pretty well for me. I had quit my exhausting, stressful job and was running my own sports and wellbeing agency which I loved. My daughter had recently moved out, and while I missed her, I had more headspace for my own hobbies and interests, and I’d gone back to my childhood passion, figure skating.

I’d loved skating in my teens and 20s but you know how life is. I got married, moved further away from the ice rink, had my daughter and slowly lost touch with that part of myself.

Now, though, I practised several times a week, pushing myself to try more daring jumps and turns and entering competitions. I was enjoying life to the full. I knew that menopause was around the corner but at that point, I didn’t have any symptoms and felt healthier than ever.

One morning I woke up with a toothache, a throbbing in the left side of my jaw, then five days later, a wave of fatigue hit me – I’d never been so tired, and that night I had the most horrendous nightmare. It left me with a horrible feeling of dread and fear that lingered after I woke. I even rang my mum to check on her – she was fine.

Trying to shake the feeling off, I went into the kitchen to make a coffee. As I was getting milk out of the fridge I felt this terrible pain in my chest, like nothing I’d ever had before. I staggered back against the wall and slid to the floor.

Pain was radiating down my left side, I was sweating, and felt sick. I’d had enough first aid training in my job to recognise the symptoms. I was having a heart attack.

My husband David was at work so I called 999 wondering, how could this be? I was a fit, healthy woman and thought I was young to be in the high-risk group.

The paramedics were also doubtful. I’ve since discovered that a woman is 50 percent more likely than a man to receive a wrong diagnosis after a heart attack [1]. They even got me to walk to the ambulance! But at the hospital tests proved it beyond doubt.

I was settled into the resuscitation unit and just as I heard my sister Ellie coming into the ward I suddenly felt everything in my body close down, energy draining, my consciousness going. I thought this is it, I’m dying.

I woke up with crash pads on. Doctors told me my heart had stopped – and we still had no idea of what was causing this. The next day I was given an angiogram and halfway through, one of my arteries ruptured during the procedure. I was only on a local anaesthetic, lying there listening to the surgeons who were at a loss, calling for a consultant to come in from home. It was so frightening.

But that angiogram did give me an answer. I had a condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, when an artery tears or bruises. It’s quite rare, so all the information I had was a small leaflet. But I did more research online.

I discovered that SCAD IS more likely to occur in women, and it’s associated with hormonal changes, like having a baby – or menopause [2].

I had assumed my menopause hadn’t started because I was still having periods, but my hormone levels were already changing. This, added to the stress of my old job and an underlying connective tissue disorder had led to my heart attack.

I also learned that, although SCAD is relatively rare, women over 50 are at higher risk of cardiovascular diseases in general. Oestrogen helps protect our hearts, so as levels drop, fat can build up in our arteries. Other symptoms of menopause, like weight gain, high cholesterol and high blood pressure also increase women’s chances of having heart problems[3]. I’d had no idea.

On the morning of my heart attack, I’d been a busy, confident former fitness instructor and figure skater. But when I went home I was so fragile I could barely walk to the car. Almost as bad was the damage to my confidence. I couldn’t stop thinking that any physical exercise could cause another heart attack. Forget skating, I was worried about walking.

I went into a six-week cardiac rehab programme full of fear, but the team was so supportive. Slowly I understood that although I’d have to take extra care of myself from now on, I didn’t have to put my life on hold forever.

Rehab gave me the confidence to go out on the ice again. It was very tentative, I skated gently around the rink. But it felt amazing to be back.

I started eating a healthy diet – lots of fruit and veg, avoiding sugar and trying to include as many different nutrients as possible. I did gentle exercise, avoided any heavy lifting and I also started seeing a psychiatrist to help me deal with my stress levels. He gave me some wonderful mindfulness techniques.

About a year later, my periods stopped and I began experiencing some mild symptoms of menopause – brain fog, the occasional hot flush and night terrors. My SCAD specialist advised against HRT but I was able to manage the symptoms myself – I think the diet and exercise regime I was already doing for my heart helped.

Now, five years on, I’m post-menopausal and, while I’m much more cautious on the rink these days, I am able to compete. I’m even planning to go to the Winter World Master Games (the winter sports event for athletes over 30) next year! The fear of another heart attack will always be there in the back of my mind, but I listen to my body, I keep my stress levels low, and enjoy every minute I can.’

To find out more about SCAD go to

Head here to understand more about heart disease in women.

Heart palpitations are a common symptom in the menopause but often nothing to worry about.

Confused by exactly what’s happening to your body in the menopause? This expert advice will help.

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