"There's just me and my daughter - I couldn't allow heart disease to beat me"
Dealing with heart problems was hard for Sarah McBryde, especially as she is the main carer for her daughter Ellie. She tells Sarah Brealey how she looks after Ellie and herself.
When Sarah McBryde discovered she had coronary heart disease, her biggest fears were not for herself but for her daughter.
“I thought ‘who will look after Ellie like I do, what will happen to her?’”
Sarah, from Doncaster, has a busy life looking after her daughter Ellie, 14, who has Asperger syndrome, epilepsy and other health issues. Sarah has to do a lot for Ellie, including helping her wash and dress.
Sarah, 42, says: “It is stressful with Ellie how she is; her behaviour can be very challenging. My life is not easy, but then it is not easy for her, poor thing. But she is lovely, she is funny – she is just Ellie.”
Until a year ago, Sarah was suffering from severe angina, which left her struggling to look after her daughter and do things such as walk up the stairs.
She later found out she’d had a heart attack without realising it. It has been a difficult year but, after an angioplasty and cardiac rehabilitation, she’s back on her feet again and has learnt to make time for herself as well as her daughter.
I haven’t been this happy inside for years
“I haven’t been this happy inside for years,” she says. “I never would have dreamed that I could feel like this after feeling like I did last year.”
In July 2012, Sarah started experiencing pain. She describes it as “a tightening across your chest, like you can’t get enough air in your body”.
Walking their two dogs or even putting out the washing became difficult. At one point, the pain was so bad that she called 999. Making the call was a difficult decision, as Sarah knew that seeing an ambulance arrive would scare Ellie.
“I sat her down and told her I wasn’t feeling very well and what I was going to do, but I knew it would still make her panic,” explains Sarah. “When she panics she vomits, and she was sick all over the house.” While Sarah was taken to hospital, a neighbour looked after Ellie until Sarah’s mum Jenny arrived.
Initially, Sarah was treated for a chest infection. As weeks passed, doctors said she might have asthma or even rheumatic pain. Coronary heart disease in women is currently under-diagnosed and undertreated, and it is less easily identified than in men.
“At first I thought I was going crazy,” says Sarah. She had several ECGs, which seemed normal. Eventually she had a CT angiogram. She received the results by letter, which she describes as “the worst day of my life”.
“The letter said, ‘You have coronary heart disease,’” she recalls. “I remember being in my kitchen and it was like life had just stopped for one minute. The range of emotions are difficult to describe. I thought I was going to die. I felt sick, I was hysterical and crying.
"I know this seems like an overreaction. I think it’s because my life is full of daily dramas and usually, I just have to laugh so I don’t cry. Luckily Ellie was at school and I was able to let it all out,” she says.
Help and reassurance
I walked out thinking I didn’t need to be frightened
Sarah immediately went to see her GP, where she was given advice and reassurance. She was referred to the cardiac team, which she says was a turning point.
“When I went there I thought angina was something old people got, and that it meant you couldn’t do anything,” she says. “The cardiac nurse, Jo Partington, showed me what was going on in my heart and how it works – she even drew pictures. I walked out thinking I didn’t need to be frightened.”
Sarah was told how to follow the Angina Plan – a self-management programme that covers healthy eating, exercise, mental wellbeing and dealing with symptoms, which is available from some cardiology departments. She’s found it very helpful.
Although her angina symptoms improved with medication, by February 2013 she needed an angioplasty and stent. First, she had to tell her daughter why she was going to hospital.
“I explained to Ellie what stents are and how they work,” she says. “We looked it up on the internet together. As soon as I’d had it done, I texted her from hospital to let her know I was alright. Still, she was really worried about me – she couldn’t go to school the next day because she hadn’t slept that night.”
Sarah’s mum helped look after Ellie when Sarah was in hospital and afterwards. But Sarah felt she couldn’t rest completely. “I still had to do a lot, but I just did it carefully and slowly while I recovered.”
Her recovery was slow at first but gradually she got better, with help from cardiac rehab, which she attended while Ellie was at school. She says: “The whole cardiac team at Doncaster are amazing. If there was an award I could give them I would.
“The exercise sessions were really good. The physios, Anne and Dawn, taught me about exercising properly, about warming up and cooling down. They taught me to exercise without getting out of breath, without doing too much but still working my heart and body to make a difference.”
For Sarah, finishing the cardiac rehab sessions was “a bit scary, like losing my safety blanket”. But she is moving on with her life.
When you become ill, you are afraid for your child and afraid for yourself as well
She had already improved her diet and started an exercise regime, which she fits into her schedule by getting up early and walking three miles while Ellie is still asleep. She also does sit-ups at home, and when her mother looks after Ellie on Saturdays, Sarah takes the opportunity to do a five-mile walk.
Because Sarah doesn’t want to upset her daughter, she tries to conceal her feelings when she is unhappy or ill. “I try to be jolly and positive all the time. I can’t tell her I am upset. I found that really difficult.”
Like many carers, Sarah has never felt she can put herself first, even when she has had health problems. But she says that has made her more determined to overcome them. “There is just me and Ellie. I cannot sit down and say ‘I have got heart disease, oh dear’.
"I have got to say, ‘sorry, heart disease, but this is more important.’ I couldn’t allow it to beat me.”
Sarah now feels so fit that she has joined a running club, which she goes to while her mum looks after Ellie. She says: “I’m really excited about running for the first time. One reason I want to do it is so that I can do a run in aid of the BHF.” Another way she’s made time for herself is by volunteering to help others at the cardiac rehab sessions that helped her so much.
She says: “For years I have just been Ellie’s mum, but now I am Sarah again.”
The hardest thing for her has been dealing with the fear. “As a mum you are afraid of lots of things, you worry about what will happen to your child. Then when you become ill, you are afraid for your child and afraid for yourself as well.
“You have to not be afraid. I was afraid, but I am not afraid any more.”
Support and information
Sarah benefited from many BHF publications, including our booklets and Heart Matters magazine. She says: “I have read all the booklets, especially Angina and Angioplasty. There is lots of useful information and it makes things easy to understand. I get Heart Matters, which I always read. I have learnt a lot from it. I always support the BHF now in every way I can.”
You can order our booklets from our publications web page or by calling 0870 600 6566.
Carers Direct web page has useful information on health, support and benefits. You can also call 0808 802 0202.
The National Autistic Society Autism Helpline (which also covers Asperger syndrome) is 0808 800 4104.
To raise awareness about heart disease among women, we have an online Women’s Room full of practical information to help women adjust to life with a heart condition. There’s also a forum where you can talk to other women like you.
Visit our Women's Room now