Video: "Thanks for being my mum"
Leanne Clarke was born with heart problems, and her mum has been there for her ever since. They tell their story to Sarah Brealey. Plus, don't miss the touching video.
There are few things as powerful as a mother’s love, and Leanne Clarke understands this better than most. Leanne, 33, was born with a heart defect. She’s always had health problems and was told she may never have children. But her mother, Ann Danks, has supported her at every difficult moment.
Harley is an absolute gift to me
Leanne wants to say thank you to her very special mum. “She means the world to me. She keeps me going through all the bad times I’ve had; she always keeps me smiling. I’d just like to say thanks for being there.”
Leanne, from Redditch, Worcestershire, had her heart problems diagnosed as a toddler, when her mum noticed that her lips and fingers were turning blue. Tests showed she had an atrial septal defect, also known as a hole in the heart. Aged five, she had major surgery to repair the hole.
Ann, 51, a jewellery maker and mother of four, says: “We’ve had some scary times. I think the worst part was handing her over to the surgeon. I was crying. You worry they might not come back.”
Leanne’s health problems didn’t end there. She also has a disorder of the connective tissue that affects her heart valves, joints and skin. As a result, she was born ‘floppy’ and couldn’t walk until she was four. Doctors think this might be Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of inherited conditions affecting the connective tissue, which can manifest in a number of different ways.
As Leanne grew up, she experienced regular chest pains and migraines, as well as breathlessness when she played sport. Her mum was always there though, through the hospital visits and days off school.
When she was 23, she was admitted to hospital with crushing chest pains and, again, her mum raced to be with her. Leanne was told she’d had a heart attack, which was linked to her existing heart condition.
During her 20s, she also had three transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs, also called mini strokes), which are caused when a blood clot temporarily blocks the blood supply to the brain. The first time it happened, Leanne and her mother thought it was a full stroke, so it was a frightening experience. Since then, she takes warfarin tablets to reduce the chances of further clots.
Beating the odds Leanne always hoped to have a family, but her cardiologist warned there would be risks to her and the unborn baby, because pregnancy puts extra strain on the heart. She would need regular monitoring and might even be kept in hospital for the full nine months.
We’ve helped each other through difficult times
There was also the chance that her baby might be born with the same condition. On top of that, Leanne had fertility problems. She and her fiancé, Joseph Daly, were approved for NHS IVF treatment, but six weeks before it was scheduled, she fell pregnant naturally.
Leanne had to stop most of her medications during pregnancy to protect her unborn baby. No longer able to take warfarin tablets, she injected herself with enoxaparin every day to reduce the risk of blood clots.
Yet she felt fit and well, and regular scans showed she and her baby seemed healthy. During labour, her fingers and lips went blue as the oxygen levels in her blood dropped. She was kept in hospital for a week to make sure she and baby Harley were alright.
Harley is now nearly five. Leanne says: “He’s an absolute gift to me.” Ann adds: “Having Harley has been the dream for her; she’s always wanted a child of her own, even though we were told that might never happen.”
When Harley was a toddler, Leanne’s heart valve problem worsened. By 2013, she needed surgery again to fix the mitral valve. Leanne says: “My mum took me to hospital and I said goodbye to my son and my fiancé. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, as I was frightened I might never see them again. But I had to look at the bright side and think: ‘This will make me better, and nothing is going to go wrong.’
“When I opened my eyes after the surgery, I heard my mum’s voice and I was so happy.” Leanne’s mum looked after her for three weeks, then her fiancé took over care for another six weeks, by which time she was back on her feet.
Leanne’s scar has faded and she rarely thinks about it, although her first scar, from childhood surgery, used to bother her. “I hid it all the time,” she says. “When I got older I thought: ‘You know what, it’s a part of me and if people don’t like it, it’s their problem.’”
Overcoming health challenges has inspired Leanne to make the most of her life. She lost weight before the operation to reduce strain on her heart and still follows a healthy diet. She works full-time in a department-store warehouse and hopes to go back to college to train as a hairdresser. She says: “I want to learn things. I feel I’ve been given a second chance at life.”
Ann says her daughter has always been positive and determined: “Leanne’s such a happy person. She always has a smile on her face, even when she’s having tests and scans. We’ve helped each other through difficult times. I’m really proud of her.”