Swimming after heart problems – Maria's story
Swimming has been a source of strength for Maria Davey, who was born with a heart condition. Sarah Brealey hears all about it.
Watching Maria Davey in her local swimming pool, it’s hard to imagine that she was once scared of water. Swimming has helped her lose weight, gain confidence and increase her fitness. Along the way, she’s raised money for the British Heart Foundation, a cause she cares deeply about.
Maria, 35, was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a cluster of structural problems in the heart. By the time she was five, she’d had heart surgery three times. She says she always felt different to other children, especially because she couldn’t run around like they did.
I was really nervous, but I managed to swim 20 lengths and felt amazing
Maria didn’t enjoy school swimming lessons and couldn’t manage more than a doggy paddle. Living by the sea in Cornwall, Maria’s dad would often take Maria and her younger sisters, Kathryn and Susan, to the beach.
“One afternoon, Kathryn and I were playing in the sea and my foot slipped,” she says. “I panicked and went underwater a few times. All I remember was my dad running in the sea fully clothed to save me.”
The experience left her with a fear of swimming, compounded by the scar left behind by her heart surgery. “I would always try to buy swimming costumes that covered my scar, and if they didn’t, I would wear a T-shirt on top,” Maria says.
But as she grew older, she gained confidence and didn’t mind having her scar on show.
Building fitness to lose weight
In her 20s, Maria went through some tough times in her personal life. She sought refuge in comfort eating and drinking alcohol, increasing from a size 10 to 16. At that point, Maria realised she needed to get active to get her weight under control.
She started gradually with small walks to a nearby harbour, building up to a mile. She made walking part of her routine and started to do it regularly before work.
As a result, she felt more energetic and decided to take up swimming. Maria chose swimming because of its low impact on the joints, and she felt safe in her local pool where there was always a lifeguard watching. Thanks to the exercise and healthy eating, Maria lost the weight she’d gained.
In 2005, Maria and a group of friends walked five miles from St Austell to Mevagissey, where she lived at the time, raising nearly £1,000 for the BHF. “It gave me a great boost,” she says, “both the fact that I was able to do it and that I could support a fantastic charity.”
New chapter in her life
Maria met her partner, Darren, and found a new job as a property administrator for Aspects Holidays. Darren would often go cycling with his two sons and Maria bought a bike so she could join them.
“I felt like a child again,” she says. “The joy and happiness that I had going off track and out in the open was amazing.” She soon built up to long bike rides all over Cornwall with Darren.
In September 2008, Darren proposed. Three months later, Maria was told she would need surgery to replace her heart valve within two years. “I was devastated,” she says. “The wedding plans had to be put on hold for the operation.”
Maria decided to increase her fitness in preparation for the operation and to help her chances of a good recovery. She took swimming lessons to improve her technique. When she managed two lengths of front crawl for the first time, she cried with joy.
After that, Maria was a regular visitor to the pool, swimming three times a week before work and working up to 60–70 lengths each time.
She felt so well in the run-up to her operation that she questioned doctors as to whether she really needed the surgery – but she was assured that her valve was deteriorating, meaning she would soon be seriously ill without surgery.
Return to health after surgery
The surgery went ahead in October 2009. In the immediate aftermath, Maria felt very weak and had some difficult days, but she tried to focus on her progress. Four weeks later, she joined a cardiac rehabilitation class, where she was given advice on exercising safely and healthy eating.
I always try to challenge myself, because I can!
Twelve weeks after surgery, Maria’s cardiologist advised that her breastbone was healed and that she could swim again. “I told the leisure centre lifeguard what I had been through and asked them to keep a special eye on me,” she says. “I was really nervous, but I managed to swim 20 lengths and felt amazing.”
As she built up her strength, she felt “better than ever”, thanks to her new heart valve. Having been told as a child that she would never be able to run, she tried it for the first time. Eighteen months after surgery, Maria and her brother Kevin ran a half-marathon to raise money for the BHF.
During training, Maria celebrated her 30th birthday and she and Darren finally set a date for their wedding. “What kept me going throughout my recovery was the thought of me walking down that aisle to be the proudest bride in the world, showing off my new scar to all,” she says.
On her wedding day in September 2011, she did exactly that – watched by her parents, Karen and Morley, who have supported her so much over the years.
Keeping active as a source of strength
Maria wanted to “give something back” in recognition of the research and treatments that have helped her survive. She decided to take on a sponsored swim equivalent to the English Channel in her local pool, Penzance Leisure Centre.
She covered the 22-mile distance over 12 weeks in 2014, doing 118 lengths per week. She aimed to raise £500 for the BHF, but with the support of family and friends raised an impressive £850.
Keeping active has been a source of strength. “It’s brought me so much happiness,” says Maria. “It makes me feel free and alive. It’s helped me lose weight, get more toned and keep my heart healthy. And it is good mentally too – it is my relaxation.”
Maria says the fact she wasn’t always able to swim properly makes her enjoy it even more. “I have conquered my fears, and it allows me to challenge myself.”
She adds: “I used to always say swimming was my favourite, but now I find I love cycling too. I like that it is open and free; I like being out in the environment.”
She knows she’ll need more heart surgery in future, but in the meantime, she is planning to do part of the BHF’s London to Land’s End bike ride in July.
“I feel like I have had a new lease of life,” she says. “I am able to go for long walks, go to the gym, go on long bike rides, skiing – you name it, I give it a go.
“I always try to challenge myself, because I can!”
Swimming when you have a heart condition
Swimming helps to keep your joints supple and your muscles strong, and will improve your aerobic fitness. But your heart has to work harder when you are in the water, so it’s not suitable for everyone.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition, it’s really important that you seek advice from your doctor before taking up swimming, as each person and their condition is different.