Sally Bee is lucky to be alive. Suffering three seriouse heart attacks in a week, she had to reassess everything she holds dear. Alison Jones reports.
One doctor bet me a million pounds I wasn’t having a heart attack,” says Sally Bee. “I must go back and find him because he has a debt to pay,” she adds with a wry grin.
A near-death experience is not usually something to laugh about, but Sally’s ready humour as she tells the story is, it becomes clear, one of the ways she prefers to deal with the memories of that time four years ago when she was, literally, minutes away from death.
Today, looking at the former model and TV presenter from Stratford-upon-Avon, one would not think she was in anything but the rudest of health.
But her heart bears the scars of the three attacks she had in a week and she remains on heavy medication to keep it relaxed.
What happened to Sally was so rare that even when the ECG machines said she was having a heart attack, the doctors could not believe it.
“The first time it happened was at a children’s birthday party. I was taken off in an ambulance.
“The doctors sent me home with indigestion medicine. I was only 36, there was no history of heart disease, I wasn’t a smoker, a drinker or overweight.
“There has to be some reason for you to have a blockage in your heart and I didn’t have any of them. Then two days later it happened again.”
Sally had all the classic symptoms, a crushing pain in her chest, pain in her left arm, sweating and nausea.
“When people say it is like an elephant sitting on your chest that is a very good description. I’ve had three babies and this was much more painful.
“I also had this feeling of impending doom, that something very wrong was happening.”
Then she was hit by a third heart attack “the big one”.
“On a scale of one to 10 the others were a 10, this was a 20. It took my breath away. I couldn’t even speak through the pain of it.”
Sally was rushed to Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry where an emergency angiogram to x-ray the arteries of the heart was performed.
“The guy who was doing it suddenly started swearing and then they all left the room,” Sally recalls. “Apparently he had just seen the main artery in my heart was unravelling in front of his eyes and there was nothing they could do.
She was suffering from a rare condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection which had destroyed the left anterior descending coronary artery.
There are only about 150 recorded cases of it – most of them discovered post-mortem.
“If it had just been a little bit in the middle they could have done a bypass, but because it had gone from top to bottom there was nothing to attach it to.”
The doctors called her husband Dogan into the room and told him to quickly say his goodbyes.
“I wasn’t expected to survive those few minutes, but I did somehow. My heart had sustained such massive damage that I was really incapable of doing anything, but I survived the night, and then the next day, and my recovery started from there.
Heart attacks are measured by the amount of the enzyme toponin that is released as the muscle is dying.
“Anything between five and seven, then that is a pretty fair sized heart attack,” says Sally. “Mine was over 50. It was off the scale.”
Sally stayed conscious throughout most of her ordeal and she believes that helped save her life, that she was able to will herself to go on living.
“When it did get really serious one nurse crouched down beside me and said ‘Do you know what is happening? You are having another heart attack and we are getting your husband’.
“I said ‘Am I going to die now?’ and she said ‘Not now’ but I saw the way she raised her eyebrow to the other nurse and I thought ‘She thinks I am going to’. I decided there and then I was just going to keep breathing.
“I had it in my head that if I just kept breathing in and out then I wouldn’t die. I got so bored but I just couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
At one point the surgeon left the room and Sally thought she had actually died.
“I thought this was what it was like, so I was a bit unimpressed,” she laughs.
“But there were definitely times when I could have just let myself go.”
As the minutes of her survival stretched into hours, she told Dogan to go home to see to their children, Tarik, then four and a half, Kazim, who was two, and Lela, who was then just nine months old.
“My mum was with them but I knew Lela would want a bottle about 1am. I have asked him a few times how he could have left, not knowing. But apparently I had whispered to him ‘I’ll be alright’ and he had chosen to believe me.”
Sally thinks that she had already suffered minor heart attacks in her late teens and 20s, when her parents had taken her to hospital with chest pains. However, the condition had gone undiagnosed.
“Thank God it wasn’t, she says, surprisingly. “I think if it had been I would have been living in fear, afraid of everything. I wouldn’t have had children, let alone three of them. It was diagnosed at a time when it had done its worst.”
Sally feels that the fact that she was young and fit also contributed to her survival.
S ally was allowed to go home after two weeks in hospital but she remained physically very weak.
Her husband was able to take a year off work – he is freelance cameraman – in order to help care for her and their children.
“He has just been brilliant. In the beginning I was scared of everything and emotionally I was just a complete mess. I kept looking at the children and crying and thinking what would they be doing now if I wasn’t here.”
It is difficult seeing Sally today, so animated and filled with purpose, to imagine that at one point she could barely walk to the garden gate.
Now she takes life at a run. Needing to build up her strength and then maintain her fitness levels she eschewed conventional exercise in favour of what she calls ‘active living’.
“I do still suffer from chronic fatigue and if I get a sore throat I can be in bed for three days. But because I take care of myself I don’t tend to get ill very often and nor do the children,” she adds, touching wood for reassurance.
She has also had to struggle with the fear the attacks left her with that any unusual strain on the heart might bring on another one.
“I was petrified of everything at first. I was scared of walking too quickly because I could feel my heart rate going up, or of turning upside down because the second attack had come on when I was on the floor clearing up the tea remains.”
A year into her recovery Sally had a scan on her aorta because her doctor was concerned there might be an aneurysm.
“That was a really dark, difficult time because I had a possible date when I might die. When the scan showed there wasn’t an aneurysm I decided that from then on it was down to me and if I had survived a year I had to believe I could survive longer.”
Sally has now turned her attention to the family’s diet. They hadn’t eaten particularly unhealthily before but she was determined to come up with recipes that were good for the body, particularly the heart.
She now gives demonstrations to heart patients, showing how they can still enjoy their favourite foods like chips and bangers and mash and has put her recipes together in a book called The Secret Ingredient.
The book has endorsements from a number of celebrities, including Sir Ranulph Fiennes who underwent a double heart bypass operation after a heart attack.
“He sent me a recipe for melted Mars bar sauce. I thought ‘Okey dokey. That might be why...’.’”
Sally also gives talks to cardiac rehab groups, is a spokeswoman for the British Heart Foundation and an NHS Expert Patient.
She has pledged to raise a million pounds for the British Heart Foundation in five years.
Her upbeat attitude has been hard won. She admits that for a while she sought professional because she struggled to come to terms with the fact that nearly died.
“I have learnt that dying is not the worst thing, being afraid to live is worse. There were times in the early days when I thought I can’t live like this. My children were used to a get up and go, nothing can beat us kind of mum and suddenly I was afraid of everything.
“Now I wish it hadn’t happened because it was awful for everybody, but I can’t say my life is worse, in some ways it is better.”
Sally’s book is available from Waterstones.