Video: Travelling after a heart attack

After a heart attack Caroline’s confidence plummeted, but she wouldn’t let it hold her back from travelling the world, as she tells Lucy Trevallion.

Caroline Tippen has been travelling since the day she was born. Her father was an oil engineer, and after her mother gave birth to her on an oil rig in the Arabian Gulf, they were both airlifted over the Iraqi desert. “I was flown to a hospital in Baghdad, and I’ve been flying ever since,” she says. 

Now 65, she’s been to Canada, Thailand, Cuba, the Greek islands and Norway, to name a few places. For Caroline, exploring and meeting new people have always felt like part of her identity, so it was a double blow when she had a heart attack, and felt scared to leave her house, let alone the country. 

A life-changing moment 

Caroline was sitting at home, watching the snow falling outside, when she had a heart attack, aged 58. “There was nothing classic about my symptoms,” Caroline says. “No pain or indigestion: I just couldn’t get comfortable and my fingers felt clammy. I was hot and cold at the same time. No one was more surprised than me when I was told I was having a heart attack.” 

It’s a terrible shock to realise that you’re vulnerable

Caroline had an angioplasty procedure at Harefield Hospital in London, and returned home feeling weak and unwell. 

“To say a heart attack is life-changing is an understatement,” she says. “It’s a terrible shock to realise that you’re vulnerable. At that point I thought I’d never do anything with my life. It was all unknown. You think of all the things you did and the person you were and that you might never get that back,” she says. 

Support from loved ones

Caroline Tippen and her husband Len on holidayIt was support from Len, her lifelong love, that helped Caroline recover. They’d met when she and her friend Pauline were Saturday girls in a London jeweller. One day, Pauline’s brother came in. “Apparently, he went home that night and told Pauline he was going to marry me,” says Caroline. “And he did! We fell in love immediately; it was fabulous. He played in a bluegrass band and I sat front row in all his gigs. We married at age 18.” 

After her heart attack, Caroline thought she would never travel again, and was very nervous, but Len encouraged her. “I didn’t want to be a person who just sat around wondering if they’re going to have another heart attack,” she says. “I wanted to get on with enjoying my life; travel is such a wonderful way of doing that.” 

Caroline also travelled with her best friend Janice, who works for an airline. Janice took her to Sri Lanka, three years after her heart attack. Caroline, still regaining her confidence, had to be persuaded to go on a jeep safari. She regretted her decision when the elephants they were watching became aggressive and their jeep broke down – but the story ended safely. “It was scary at the time, but brilliant too,” she says. “The experience I had made me feel alive. Sometimes it’s worth taking a chance. Life’s full of risks, including everyday ones.” 

The experience I had made me feel alive. Sometimes it's worth taking a chance.

After she recovered from her heart event, Caroline returned to her job as a Young People’s Services Manager in local government for six months, but decided to take early retirement, aged 59. “Having a heart attack makes you rethink your life,” she says. “I was lucky that I was in a position where I could retire, so I did.” 

Giving up work gave Caroline and Len the freedom to travel the world together. Some standout moments were travelling down the Mississippi river on a paddle steamer, and visiting Nashville and Memphis, where Len could play bluegrass. 

But sadly, Len developed lung cancer, and died in January 2016, after 45 years of marriage. Caroline says: “He had the treatment, and we thought we were on the home straight, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. It was devastating. I’d been with him my whole life; he was my best mate.” 

“The funny thing is, without the heart attack I would still have been working until after Len passed away. Instead, we had some fantastic travels together. Although it’s hard to think anything positive about a heart attack, it changed my life in a way that gave me some wonderful memories.”  

Caroline Tippen

Enjoying life again

Caroline’s passion for travel helped her through her grief. “One strategy to cope with Len’s death is to have things to look forward to on the bad days,” she says. 

There are still so many lovely things to see and experience

Janice helped Caroline get back into travelling, and their first trip after Len died was to Borneo, to see the orangutans. At one point, they were deep in the jungle with a tour group. Everyone had been told to wear natural colours, since orangutans are attracted to bright colours, but one woman wore a red dress. She ended up screaming and running through the jungle with an orangutan attached to her. “He was in love with her and trying to grab her bottom,” Caroline says. “We laughed so much.”

She recommends that everyone takes the time they need after a heart attack. “There’s no mad rush to go off and do things,” she says. “But if you enjoyed travel before, you will like it again.” She also advises to prepare thoroughly before a trip, then forget about your heart condition and enjoy yourself. 

“I do understand, having been there myself, what a heart attack can do to your confidence,” says Caroline. “I want to let people know that I felt like that and it doesn’t last. You can get back to enjoying life – there are still so many lovely things to see and experience.”

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