Suzanne Sheppard has familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic condition which means she fights a daily battle against inflated cholesterol levels in her blood.
This World Heart Day weekend she talks about how she’s making a brighter future by instilling good habits in her young family.
"My first priority is to help my son learn being healthy is important"
When my dad died of a heart attack it was a massive shock. He was so young - just 41. I was devastated. Because he had died so young, the GP recommended that immediate family should get their cholesterol levels tested. Out of the whole family, my results were the only ones that came out higher than expected.
I didn’t know why I had such high cholesterol. It wasn’t like I lived a particularly unhealthy life. And I wondered – if I had high cholesterol, and so did my dad – would my son Cameron have it too? I didn’t know, and I didn’t know who to ask either.
It wasn’t till Cameron was 18 months old that I met a nurse, Delyth, at one of my routine screenings. She pointed me in the direction of a pilot scheme she was involved with, which was screening people for a particular gene that causes high cholesterol.
"I was desperate to know"
I was desperate to know if my son was at risk too, so I jumped at the chance.
Delyth was there when the test came back. The results were positive – I had the gene – and I finally had a reason for my high cholesterol; familial hypercholesterolaemia. And yes, it was possible I could have passed the gene down to my son, Cameron.
It was actually a relief to know what was going on. For me it didn’t mean much of a change as I was already on medication and looking after my health as best I could.
But for my son, it could mean much more.
He won’t be tested for another couple of years, so my first priority is to help him learn that being healthy is important. I’m not perfect – who is – but I know habits are set at an early age. So I’m aiming to reinforce the good and discourage the bad wherever possible.
We’re both partial to a biscuit or two, but when Cameron asks for one I know it’s my job to remind him that there are healthy alternatives he can take. I don’t even need to explain why anymore – he’ll tell me: “I know, I know, it’s bad for the heart”!
We’re lucky that he gets a really good grounding in school. I’m really impressed. They’ve set up tables for ‘red’ and ‘green’ foods – a really good way of helping kids understand what a balanced diet means - and an early introduction to traffic light labels too.
"He helps me pick up the pace"
Exercise is the other side of the coin. I make sure I exercise regularly, and I take Cameron along for the ride. Sometimes I’ll go running and have him riding next to me on his bike – it helps me pick up the pace a bit.
Cameron goes to Taekwondo and loves swimming, too. Well, to tell the truth what he really loves is splashing around and doing handstands, so I have to tell him to spend at least 10 minutes concentrating on just swimming.
Even on holiday we keep active. We took Cameron to Cornwall this summer, and had great fun falling off surf boards! We’ve tried hard to make sure that being active has been fun and a positive experience for him from a young age.
Whether he has the gene that causes high cholesterol or not – we’re making sure he’s got a head start on life.
That’s why I’m telling my story for World Heart Day, so that parents who read this can know it’s not too late for them, and it’s never too early to start instilling good habits in your family.