Read an Extract from Izzy’s original post… My Open Heart.
I started to walk faster, legs shaking, and sheer panic overtook my entire body. As fast as my shaking legs could take me, I stumbled down the escalator of Oxford Circus station, attempting to get home. I carried the ‘panic attack’ label the doctor had kindly prescribed me the week before. The tube approached; it was rush hour on a cold December night. The carriages were full. I boarded, sank to the floor in a ball and watched as all eyes turned in on me. I couldn’t ask for help, I’d already tried that at the platform, peering into the driver’s eyes.
I could only go one stop, and with sheer panic I stumbled off the tube and out of Tottenham Court Road station. As the world blurred around me I found a taxi and made my way to bed. I couldn’t tell you how I got home that night, I was numb. The doctor was right; I was a young, fit and healthy 18 year old, the odds of something being ‘wrong’ were slim, in her opinion.
“It must be panic attacks, you’re so young and I can’t see it being anything more serious”, she was convinced, “You are feeling emotional; having left home and moved to London. You need to get used to it.”
I had been seeing the doctor in secret for a few weeks. I had only been living in London for 5 months and for 5 weeks of that I had been fainting and having unfamiliar sensations in my body. It was embarrassment that stopped me saying anything; I was living the dream fashion designer life in London as a student. I wanted to make my parents proud – illness and pride didn’t go in the same sentence. Swallowing my citalopram medication I stayed quiet. At the tender age of 18 I was petrified by the vast amounts of power the mind could have over the body.
I returned home to Wales. In desperation I visited my childhood doctor. There was an aching feeling inside me. Maybe I was having panic attacks, but I had to be sure this ‘feeling’ was not just my mind playing tricks on me. The blackouts were becoming more frequent and I was terrified of feeling sick in public. What if I were to faint on the tube? Who would find me? Would I find myself in the back of an ambulance? I had no trust in my body. My body was giving up on me.
The doctor took one look at my ECG, called me into her office and asked if I had been to see a doctor in London. I lied. I didn’t want her to know that I had a prescription for anxiety medication, that I’d spent the past few months afraid to exert myself. I wanted her to shed light on the situation, and think this had suddenly happened. However this seemed to have worked, she spotted something out of the ordinary with my heart. I was referred to a cardiologist and I returned to London to start the first year of Textile Design.
Nine months later I found myself in the cardiologist’s office. He examined me thoroughly, listened to my heart and stopped for a long period over my left shoulder blade with his stethoscope. “You can put your top back on and take a seat.”
I was no longer alone; it was no longer a secret. I told my mum and dad that tests were being performed and likely to be nothing. Just panic attacks.
‘I reviewed this 18 year old lady in my clinic today. She has noticed a sensation of palpitations over the last 6 months and during these episodes she will feel her heart racing and beating forcefully. She gets breathless symptoms when walking upstairs and there is no link to her menstruation cycle. She is getting a loss of consciousness weekly and tells me she is exhausted. She has an ejection systolic murmur which was particularly audible over the left scapula. It also radiates to the carotid. 12 lead ECG today shows sinus arrhythmia with a normal axis and a narrow QRS. She has a partial right bundle branch block pattern. The QT interval was normal. She clearly needs an echocardiogram. I am particularly keen to exclude coarctation of the aorta. This will be rebooked and I will be in touch with the result.’
It was 17 months later I found out I would need open heart surgery. I had a camera put down my throat. I gagged, fainted and got over the anxiety attack I had going into the room. I was taken to a small office and told that if surgery was not performed soon I could find myself with an oxygen mask, a wheelchair – or quite bluntly in heart failure.
Following the announcement I acted as if nothing had happened. I moaned my throat felt sore and I proceeded to eat pea soup in my favourite cafe. This wasn’t the only test I had to determine the ‘problem’ but this was the final test that gave the doctors the go-ahead to announce surgery.
An update on Izzy’s Story:
Since writing the original article I have physically and emotionally and mentally been great. I have had a few touch and go moments with my cardiologist but overcome them all. There are certain things in life that still frighten me, especially exercise but I am working with my fantastic personal trainer who pushes me more and more every day.
To be involved in the campaign has been a dream since my heart operation to help others and help raise awareness of mental health and the silent struggle that we go through. To find out how common it is, well I wish I’d have known sooner I would have saved a fortune having someone tell me I’m not crazy and this is totally normal and also it’s totally ok.
To donate to our BBC Radio 4 Appeal please follow the link below: