Returning to running after heart problems – Helen's story

Hitting the road can give you time to think and a sense of achievement. Rachael Healy meets Helen Doyle whose running goals kept her recovery on track.

Helen Doyle resting after running

Helen Doyle, 24, a studio assistant based in London, started running when she was at university, as a way of relieving stress. “I love being outside and the sense of accomplishment I get after going out,” she says.

Helen continued when she finished university, doing up to six runs per week. But in 2012, she passed out at work and an ambulance was called.

On the way to hospital, a paramedic performed an ECG to reassure Helen that her heart was fine. Abnormal results, followed by further collapses on her commute to work, led to tests that revealed an atrial septal defect (a hole in Helen’s heart). She realised the exhaustion she experienced after running was not normal, but a symptom of her condition.

There’s a certain buzz you get, going to race. It makes you feel really positive

Determined not to be defined by her diagnosis, Helen asked if she could carry on running. She was given the go-ahead, but was told she’d need check-ups every couple of months.

In 2013, she ran her first race – a 10K to raise money for charity. It went well and she signed up for the London Marathon. “I got a ballot place straight away, but a week later, I was told I had to have open heart surgery,” Helen explains. “They said I might not have made it if I’d attempted it.”

Helen’s heart was struggling to cope with the hole and on top of that, one of her valves was leaking. “I was so shocked when they told me,” she says. “I felt like my whole life had been tipped upside down. Everything just stopped. It was so scary.”

Helen was referred to the Royal Brompton Hospital, in London, where her surgeon explained the procedure. “They said part of the reason [for doing the surgery] was so I could run with a normal heart, so I wouldn’t be putting myself at risk while exercising,” she says. “It’s so you can live a normal life.”

To keep her mind off the impending surgery, Helen began fundraising for the BHF. During one event at her office, she raised nearly £300. “A lady from a local BHF shop gave me a silver badge and a wristband, which I haven’t taken off since,” she says.

Inspired to raise more funds and reassured that she would one day run again, Helen signed up for the 2016 London Marathon. It proved a helpful goal during her recovery. “It’s been really motivating,” she says. “Even if I have to walk, I’m going to do it.”

Back on her feet after surgery

Helen Doyle training for the London Marathon 16 months after surgery

Helen Doyle is running the London Marathon 16 months after surgery 

Helen had her operation in January 2015 and went to her parents’ home in Somerset to recover. Getting back on her feet was tough, but Helen wouldn’t change anything. “You’re completely dependent at first. You have to learn how to walk and talk again,” she says.

“But it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Even though it has been the most painful, awful experience in some ways, it’s absolutely amazing in others. It’s changed my life and put everything into perspective.

“I’m spending more time doing things I love now, because I feel like life’s very short and my story could have ended up being very different. I feel lucky that I’m still here and I’m healthy.”

Even if I have to walk, I’m going to do it

After her surgery, Helen started gradual exercise before attempting to run again. “I only ran for about five seconds,” she says. “But I did it.” However, recovery progressed more slowly than expected and in summer 2015, Helen contacted her local cardiac rehabilitation programme in Lewisham, London.

“The people there are absolutely amazing,” she says. “Part of the programme is learning to relax and get things in perspective. My nurses would answer any little questions and helped bring my confidence back.”

For a while, Helen found it hard to run without thinking about her heart and whether she’d make it home, but she’s come to view every outing as a ‘mini miracle’. “It’s just readjusting your mindset,” she says. “My heart has been fixed and the reason it’s been fixed is so I can live my life.”

In autumn 2015, Helen did her first 10K since her surgery. It went well, spurring her to sign up for other races ahead of the marathon.

“I’m aiming to raise £3,000 to help the Royal Brompton buy an echocardiogram machine,” says Helen. “An echo scan is how I got diagnosed in the first place, so it would be amazing to do it.”

The marathon is on 24 April and Helen’s already excited. “There’s a certain buzz you get, going to race,” she says. “It makes you feel really positive, especially when you’re running with other people. And having people cheer you on is amazing – even if it’s just my mum and dad at the sideline!”

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