How a devastating diagnosis led to a precious friendship
Katy and Pippa suffered a rare and life-threatening condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, changing their lives forever. They tell Christie Norris how they’ve become cherished friends as a result.
It was a normal day in September 2015. Katy Dyson was driving back from her son’s football training just before 8pm when she suddenly felt intense pain all over her body. Aged just 42 and with a healthy lifestyle, a heart attack seemed out of the question, but Katy knew something was seriously wrong.
Two weeks later and 40 miles away, Pippa Day, 33, was enjoying a night out with her friends in Manchester. Suddenly she felt very hot, and pain radiated down her jaw and shoulders. Explaining her discomfort as a strenuous gym session, she carried on with her night.
Unknown to her, Pippa had suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) - a tear in the layers of one of the blood vessels supplying the heart. As a result, she went on to suffer a heart attack. The idea of a heart attack never occurred to her, so Pippa didn’t seek help straight away. When she did go to hospital, she was shocked to be told she'd actually had two heart attacks.
Pippa's been there for me during the most scary and difficult times of my life
It was a terrifying time for both women. But Katy and Pippa, who had never met, found friendship as a result and now can’t imagine a life with each other’s support.
Katy, a probation officer, lives in Sheffield with her husband Jonathan and their three children, Lauren, Ben and Jacob. Pippa, a beautician and mother of two-year-old Olivia, lives in Winsford, Cheshire.
Remembering the day of her SCAD, Katy says: “I managed to get myself home, but the crushing feeling in my chest only worsened, making breathing difficult. I couldn’t speak properly. I didn’t want to believe it could be a heart attack.
“In hospital they thought I was simply suffering from indigestion. I knew something serious had happened, so decided to stay and sent my tired mum home. After my blood troponin levels were tested and I was given an angiogram, I was diagnosed with SCAD.
“So many questions were running through my head. What is SCAD? Why me - I live a healthy life, I don’t smoke, I exercise regularly and eat healthily. And are my children at risk?”
When we met, it felt like we'd known each other for years
Like Katy, Pippa’s ECG results also showed up as normal (typical of a heart attack caused by SCAD rather than coronary heart disease), but paramedics decided to take her to hospital to be sure. Again, it was a blood test that showed she was having a heart attack.
Pippa says: “It was such a shock to me and my family. An angiogram and echocardiogram showed that I had a dissection (a tear) in one of my coronary arteries, a condition called SCAD. Being sent home with this unfamiliar diagnosis was devastating.”
Friendship as a source of strength
Scared and confused, Katy and Pippa both found a SCAD support group on Facebook. That was how they met. Now they can’t imagine a life without each other’s unwavering support.
Katy says: “Four weeks after I joined the support group, Pippa became a member. I instantly empathised with her situation and desperation. We’ve been in touch ever since.
“Pippa is a constant support, she’s been there for me during the most scary and difficult times of my life. She always manages to put a positive spin on a negative situation. We only managed to meet in person for the first time recently and it felt like we had known each other for years.”
Pippa says: “We gelled immediately. We were of the same mindset, and quite quickly became good friends. We share things with each other that we can’t share with other friends. It doesn’t matter what time, day or night, we’re there for each other.
“Before this happened, I thought I was immortal. But it’s rocked my foundations. I pray to God that I wake up in the morning – it’s as simple and primal as that. Without friendships like ours and the support of other SCAD survivors, I’d have fallen apart.”
Research holds the key
Dr David Adlam and BHF-funded research fellow Dr Abi Al-Hussaini have launched the first UK clinical trial into SCAD. They are carrying out multiple tests on SCAD patients and healthy volunteers, with hopes of learning more about this little-known condition and developing new treatments.
I pray to God that I wake up in the morning – it’s as simple and primal as that
For survivors like Katy and Pippa, it’s the best hope of getting answers to their questions. People who have suffered from SCAD are at increased risk of further heart attacks, so it’s important to find out how to treat or prevent the condition.
Katy says: “My cardiologist recommended me to the cardiovascular biomedical research unit (CBRU) in Leicester. That’s when I heard about Dr Adlam and Dr Abi Al-Hussaini and their research into SCAD. The support I've had from them has been outstanding.
“When I met Dr Abi in November last year, I couldn’t believe it when she told me my SCAD had healed. But so many questions remain unanswered. I still experience chest pains, and other symptoms. The unpredictability of SCAD is really hard. Is this how my life will be now?”
Pippa says that taking part in the BHF-funded research helped find out that the long-term effects of the condition were better than she had feared. “My research day and clinical tests were exhausting and emotional, but it in turn gave me my life back. They found that my tear had healed and that I had less than 1 per cent damage to my heart - it felt like a miracle.
I am eternally grateful for the work that the BHF do
“As someone who has been personally affected by SCAD, I am eternally grateful for the effort and time put into the research and for the work that the BHF do - how do you say thank you for saving my life, for taking such gentle care of me during the research? For being so amazing and handing me my life back - you can't just say thank you for that, can you?
Katy says: “The British Heart Foundation is unique. Its contribution to research is irreplaceable.
“We also need more people to be aware of the signs of a heart attack, particularly women who tend to wait longer than men before seeking help. Time is crucial.”