Arrhythmia to the Apprentice
Taking on Lord Sugar and his boardroom challenge was the goal Ruth Whiteley needed to get through her health issues, as she tells Sarah Brealey
Ruth Whiteley has always been “an all or nothing kind of gal”. She liked to work hard, train hard and ski fast. But developing a heart rhythm problem aged 44 made her question her body. Her goal through her recovery was to become a contestant on reality TV show The Apprentice. She felt that if she was able to appear on the programme, then she would know her health was back to normal.
Ruth had just finished a gym session with a personal trainer in late 2011 when she collapsed. An ambulance was called and she was taken to hospital.
“All I knew was that I didn’t feel in control of myself,” says Ruth, who runs a sales training business in Harrogate. “I was incredibly dizzy and couldn’t stand up. I had an overwhelming feeling of my heart banging in my chest – I thought it was going to explode. The medics calmed me down and said there was a chance it could be a one-off.
Unfortunately it continued to happen, often for no reason that I could tell. I could be asleep and wake up with my heart going at nearly 200 beats per minute.”
Out of rhythm
Ruth had an electrocardiogram (ECG) in hospital and was sent home with a wearable ECG to give doctors a fuller picture of her heart rhythm. She was told she had supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), an abnormal heart rhythm in which the heart suddenly starts racing. Ruth was given medication to help, but was keen to deal with the source of the issue.
I didn’t want to let people down, but I would worry about whether my heart would start racing
“I was in a tricky middle-age situation,” she explains. “I was having problems with my periods, I ended up not being able to have the operation I needed [a hysterectomy] because they couldn’t stabilise my heart rhythm. I was always going to the doctor. Physically, I was tired and very emotional, and personally I felt like my life was a mess.”
Ruth’s health problems affected her whole life. “I had always felt my body was my ally and suddenly it wasn’t any more,” she says. “What your heart is doing affects everything you do. When your heart doesn’t do what it is supposed to, it makes you question everything.”
Because her condition was so unpredictable, Ruth felt she couldn’t plan ahead. She started turning down social invitations. “I didn’t want to let people down, but I would worry about whether my heart would start racing,” she says. “I wasn’t very good at coping with it.
There was one occasion when I did go to the opera with a friend and I got a tachycardia midway through the first half. I told my friend I was going to the loo. I was in there trying to control my heart rate, as I’d been taught to do by my doctor, and I was there for ages. My friend came out to see how I was, then she got flustered, and it was all a lot to cope with.”
Eighteen months after the problems started, Ruth had an ablation. Within days she felt back to normal and was able to plan the hysterectomy she needed. But two weeks after the hysterectomy, a significant tachycardia episode sent Ruth back to hospital.
“They had warned me that there was a danger of the arrhythmia coming back,” she says. “At first I thought I was imagining it.” The return of her heart problems felt like “a big hurdle”. But fortunately, a second ablation, six months after the first, was successful, and she’s been fine since.
Ruth had both ablations at Leeds General Infirmary, carried out by Dr Lee Graham, Consultant in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
“It felt strange having an ablation, because you are conscious,” Ruth says. “It felt like being part of a magician’s show. It’s fantastic. For him it was just a job. For me it was a completely life-changing moment. I am in awe of him. He was totally and utterly brilliant. The whole process was life-changing, so I thought: ‘I can’t just let this go. I have got to do something I never thought I would be able to do.’”
Some people row the Atlantic…but as a businesswomen who’s watched The Apprentice, that’s what I wanted to aim for
While watching box sets of The Apprentice during her recovery, Ruth decided to apply. She saw it as a way of proving to herself that her health problems were in the past. “I know for some people that would mean climbing a mountain or rowing the Atlantic,” she says. “But as a businesswoman who’s watched The Apprentice for 11 years, that’s what I wanted to aim for.”
Ruth applied to be on the show and was selected for the 2015 series, broadcast last autumn.
“It was a very overwhelming experience,” she says. “It does take over your life. But I knew that before I went on, which is why I thought: ‘If I can stand that, I am cured.’
“The boardroom tasks are very stressful. You have to be totally on the ball. You don’t know what you’re going to be asked. They take your pen and paper away before you go in – that was difficult for me, because my list is my life.”
Lord Alan Sugar fired Ruth in the fourth week. She says: “I think it is right that I left when I did. Although I would have liked to stay on, it was incredibly stressful. “It was stretching in all ways – emotionally, physically, maritally. The media attention was hard on my family, who have been amazing. Without my husband I wouldn’t have been able to do it. My daughter Gabriella – she was 11 at the time – has been exceptional. She never cried or moaned. “So it was challenging, but I wanted to feel normal, that I was truly over my heart problems. I know I am now better and stronger as a result.”
Back to normal
I had a few panicky moments because I couldn’t feel my heartbeat. Then I realised – that’s normal
Ruth, now 48, is focusing on her business (delivering training in sales), public speaking engagements, and spending time with her family. She’s given up alcohol, as she found it had a negative effect on her heart rhythm. “I wasn’t a big drinker anyway,” she explains. “It’s just easier and less stressful if I don’t drink.”
She feels better, though it’s made her realise how central alcohol is to many social occasions. “My friendship groups have changed, as I’m no longer someone that goes out Friday night drinking, or that a girlfriend can sit up late with over a bottle of prosecco. Sometimes that seems to cause other people a bigger problem than it causes me.”
Ruth tries to eat healthily, with lots of vegetables, fruit, oily fish and nuts. Life is back to normal, although she’s still frightened to exercise. “I don’t do any exercise at all,” she says. “I know it’s all in my head, and it’s because I first collapsed in the gym.
I have gone skiing twice, but only very slowly. I worry that the exercise is going to set my heart off again, but I realise the problem is more mental than actual.”
Most of the time, Ruth doesn’t think about her health. “I have got out of the habit of feeling for my pulse,” she says. “It became a real habit for me. You can become quite fixated on your heart.
“I got so used to noticing it, that after my ablations I had a few panicky moments because I couldn’t feel my heartbeat. Then I realised – that’s normal.”