"How I beat the bad times"
Heart disease, divorce and bereavement haven’t dampened Jill Smith’s joie de vivre. She tells Sarah Brealey how she keeps a positive outlook on life.
“There’s laughter and humour in everything,” says Jill Smith. Having been through heart disease, divorce, the loss of a son and the death of her ex-husband to whom she was still close, Jill is an impressive example of the ability to laugh in the face of tragedy.
Now 68, she rides a 650cc Aprilia motorbike, practises Pilates, swims and is learning to play golf.
She’s a firm believer that a heart attack doesn’t mean that life as you know it has to come to an end and is keen to spread her belief to others.
Jill, who lives in central London, had a heart attack in February 2007. She’d been suffering from what she thought was indigestion for three or four years, although it turned out to be angina.
“I was taking tablets for heartburn and I even changed my fridge freezer, thinking there was something wrong with my food. In retrospect it wasn’t heartburn but my heart trying to tell me something was wrong.”
"I soon managed to recover my old spirit and now live a really full life"
Her heart attack happened on a Saturday, a few days after returning from a trip to Egypt. “I was struggling to breathe and called the doctor, explaining my symptoms, which were like very bad indigestion. I was sent to the local chemist for a prescription for a stomach upset!” She managed to stagger to the chemist and back, but feeling worse and worse, called the doctor again to ask him to come round.
“When the doctor arrived, he took one look at me, got out his mobile phone and quickly dialled 999. The next minute an ambulance arrived and I was on the way to hospital,” says Jill.
She was taken straight into the hospital’s catheter laboratory, where she had two stents fitted to improve the blood supply to her heart muscle.
Jill had known she was at risk of heart disease because of her very high cholesterol level, which runs in her family, but she never thought she would have a heart attack. She admits that she was frightened at first and was shocked when she was told she would have to take pills for the rest of her life. But she says: “I soon managed to recover my old spirit and now live a really full life.”
What’s that pain?
Angina is the discomfort or pain you get in your chest when you have coronary heart disease. If you haven’t been diagnosed with coronary heart disease and experience chest pains, call 999 immediately. If you’ve been diagnosed with angina, sit down and rest, and take your GTN medication according to your doctor’s or nurse’s instructions. The pain should ease within a few minutes. If it doesn’t, take a second dose, and if it still doesn’t ease within a few more minutes, call 999.
Road to recovery
Jill was once married to Mike Smith, singer and keyboard player from 60s group the Dave Clark Five. She was a racehorse trainer before becoming a hairdresser to the stars, with clients including Laurence Olivier, Richard Harris, Penelope Keith, John Mills and Bobby Moore, to name a few.
Now semi-retired, she was due to put some lowlights in a friend’s hair on the day she came home from hospital, just two days after the heart attack. Most people would have cancelled but Jill, who said she felt “fit as a fiddle” the day after the operation, went ahead, although the friend had to come to her house. The next day she even managed to fit three tiaras for VIPs at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.
She was told at the time of the first procedure that she would probably need a stent in another artery in future, and this happened a year later. But on that very morning, Mike, her ex-husband to whom she was still close, died. Explaining what had happened, Jill said to the cardiologist, “Will you keep me alive?” but she turned down his offer to postpone the procedure.
The two procedures were a wake-up call, and now Jill tries to follow a healthy lifestyle and keep her cholesterol level down.
“My diet is better now,” she says. “I try to have boiled veg, fresh fruit and low-fat yoghurt. I have porridge or wholegrain cereal for breakfast, I drink semi-skimmed or skimmed milk and I’ve cut out cheese and animal fats.” She also takes a cholesterol-lowering drug as well as aspirin.
Despite all this, Jill is determined to live life to the full. She recently abseiled down the side of a 540ft building to raise money for the Red Cross, and one of her favourite pastimes is exploring the countryside on her motorbike. She started riding in 1972, when she bought a motorbike from the lead singer of pop group Mott the Hoople.
She gave it up when her son James was young, but has been a keen biker for the past two decades. “A bike gives you speed and freedom – you feel like a bird flying across the countryside,” she says. “And in traffic you can be first away at the lights and get away from the queues!”
Jill is determined not to let past events spoil her outlook on life. “Lots of people think, ‘I’ve had a heart attack, I’m on statins, my life is really over’ – but it’s not. Maybe I am luckier than some.”
Jill may be lucky in the way she’s bounced back from her heart attack, but she’s certainly had her fair share of cruel blows.
She describes the loss of her beloved son James at the age of 24 as “the great tragedy of my life”. James, who was a professional diver, never returned to the surface from a dive in the Red Sea in 2003. A memorial to James at a famous diving spot in Egypt called Blue Hole bears an inscription from his father Mike, which reads: ‘Don’t let fear stand in the way of your dreams.’ Jill says: “I’ve tried to apply that to my own life.”
Her advice for dealing with loss is to not be afraid to cry and grieve, and to confide in friends. “Rather than bore one person, have a selection of people you can talk to, to get the grief off your chest. And remember that one day you can live in the love and the spirit of all you shared together."
Jill says life can get harder in your late 60s. “You lose friends, health issues can occur, we realise we have less time left to us. My advice is to try to build and keep friends, and be true to yourself.” She recommends gardening, country walks, anything rather than becoming a couch potato. Her parting words are: “Keep going. In the words of the Dave Clark Five song, which Mike wrote, you can still feel ‘glad all over’.”
Get our tips for wellbeing after a heart event
Get a check
If you’re over 40, you can have a health check to find out about your risk of heart disease, how to keep your heart healthy, and if you need any treatment to protect your heart. Ask your GP or practice nurse for details.