After her SCAD, Nicola lost trust in her body, but eventually found a new purpose in her life


There are occasions in all our lives that profoundly change us. Often, they are planned and celebrated, such as when we marry or become parents. However, sometimes they are unplanned and unwanted, such as when I suffered a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD).

The date was Friday, 7 October 2016; the SCAD coming uninvited, as an unwelcome and frightening bolt from the blue, which threatened my life. Thank God, I survived; however, my life had changed forever. My body, that I had known and trusted for 51 years, became a stranger.

This is my story. The story of that day, of the challenges of the days which followed, of the doubts, and of how I rediscovered myself through music. It is set against one of my favourite Peter Gabriel songs, ‘Solsbury Hill’, the lyrics of which have taken on a new significance in my post-SCAD world.

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill, I could see the city light…

When I suffered my SCAD, it was two days after my son David’s graduation ceremony from the University of London; a wonderful occasion which had bought joy to my heart. As well as marking David’s personal achievement, it was a special family celebration. Life was good; I was happy.

After the graduation, my then 20-year-old daughter Amy and I had remained in London for a couple of days, to unwind and spend some quality time together before returning to our home in the Scottish Borders. Then, whilst checking out of our London hotel, I suddenly started to feel a little niggle in my back and chest. I couldn’t quite place it and I remember moving a little awkwardly, as I waited for the hotel receptionist to provide the invoice. I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, so instead of heading straight to the train station, I said that I wanted to sit in the hotel lobby.

Nicola and daughter

Wind was blowing, time stood still…

As I sat very still and quiet, I was aware I was feeling noticeably worse, but I couldn’t quite determine what was wrong, apart from this niggle in my lower chest/back area. A feeling of dread began to rise-up from deep within me; I started to feel a little nauseous and slightly hot. My hands felt strangely weak and my left arm had an unusual heaviness. A pressure started to bear down on my chest and, I remember thinking, these are all heart attack symptoms!

I gave myself a stern talking to, I tried to monitor my pulse rate and, unsuccessfully, I attempted to relax. All the time, I was desperately trying to convince myself that it was a ridiculous notion that I could be having anything close to a heart attack, especially here sitting in a hotel lobby with all the normal daily busyness going on around me. I thought “this will pass, if I just sit still and stay calm”.

After some 25 minutes, Amy asked me if I was going to be staying any longer; I reluctantly said I wasn’t feeling well and explained my symptoms, which she promptly investigated on her phone and then gasped “You could be having a heart attack, Mum”. I responded in a panic-stricken voice “Yes, I know I could!”. Amy told me it wasn’t something to joke about; I nervously told her that I wasn’t joking, and I asked her to get help – thinking to inform the hotel staff; instead, she was already phoning NHS Direct. I then had the slight frustration of talking to a young man on the phone, painfully spelling out my name and Scottish address, whilst trying to get him to understand that I wasn’t at home, but 400 miles away in London and needing help extremely urgently!

Eagle flew out of the night. He was something to observe…

Just as the gentleman from NHS Direct was telling me to take some Aspirin, a First Responder appeared on a motorbike in front of the hotel. He flew into the lobby, making an imposing entrance. Asking where the patient was, no one else in the hotel even knew there was a problem at that point! In the resulting confusion, it took my daughter a moment to convince him that I was the patient in urgent need of assistance, as I calmly sat there in the hotel lobby. Even to a trained professional, I appeared the most unlikely person to be having a heart attack!

Standing, stretching every nerve…

The First Responder asked me about my chest pressure and some other general questions, whilst checking my pulse (which I had already done a few times earlier; but it was normal). Getting me to breathe into a paper bag, he advised that he was ninety-nine percent certain that I was having a panic attack. He tried to reassure me that, “I would very likely be on my 4pm train home to Scotland that afternoon”. I felt relieved and thankful. However, I also felt somewhat bewildered; I had never had a panic attack before, and the feelings of impending doom were still in the pit of my stomach.

As the chest pressure didn’t subside, he called for an ambulance to take an ECG. This, he said, would reassure me that my heart was fine, and I would then feel much better.

I had to listen, had no choice…

Once in the ambulance and the ECG completed, I heard the Paramedics say to the First Responder, “Do you want to tell her…or shall we?”. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news, as the First Responder very calmly explained to me that I was having a heart attack and they were therefore going to take me to a hospital that had a specialist cardiac unit.

I did not believe the information…

From that point onwards, everything started to happen very fast; I just remember feeling surprisingly calm and quite disconnected from what was happening, whilst they started performing tests in the ambulance, as we sped along the busy London streets to the hospital.

Just had to trust imagination… My heart going Boom, Boom, Boom…

Once we arrived at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, I was rushed in for an Angiogram, which showed that this was no ‘ordinary’ heart attack, confirming the odd results they had been getting from me in the ambulance. Once on the ward, I was told that I had suffered a heart attack due to a SCAD; I now know just how lucky I was to have been taken to St George’s, where I was given this very quick and accurate diagnosis. As a result, I thankfully received the right treatment from specialists, who understood SCADs. I will be forever grateful to all the wonderful NHS professionals at St George’s and to the paramedics who took me there. I will always be in their debt.

‘Hey’ he said…’ Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home’…

After a week of various tests and scans in the hospital, and lots of monitoring, I was finally discharged. Miles from home, my family booked a nearby hotel, so we could stay a night in London before making the long journey home to Scotland by train. Although I was pleased to be leaving the hospital, I also struggled as the fear hit me hard. It had been a place of safety and care with 24-hour monitoring; now I was on my own and imagining all sorts. This was just the beginning of life as a SCAD Survivor; indeed, I had no idea of what lay in store for me or my family.

My heart going Boom, Boom, Boom…

The next few weeks were a blur, as if I were in a fog.

I felt very poorly; indeed, strangely nowhere near as well as I had done in the first days after the event whilst recovering in the London hospital. The SCAD and the journey home had taken their toll; I was now faced with being back at home, where everything whilst familiar, was strangely different. I had lost the reassurance of being in a specialist cardiac unit, with help on hand. My body had been through considerable trauma; it felt bruised and needed time to heal. My mind was troubled with doubt and I was left with lots of unanswered questions.

SCAD had robbed me of the trust in my body that I had always known; it had thrust me into a new, scary way of living, where I question every niggle, every pain, and every pronounced heartbeat. Whenever I feel out of sorts, a single thought rings around my head, filling me with the same dread that I felt on 7 October 2016, and making me ask, “is it happening again?”

Re-living that fear has lessened over time, but it never actually goes away. My confidence has grown, but it never quite returns. I know that I was lucky; what I don’t know is if I will suffer another SCAD. Whilst the journey which followed was somewhat of a roller-coaster, with largely better days often following bad ones, I did receive the help and support that I needed.

My local GP was excellent, even though she was in shock after seeing me for the first time. My friends and family were all amazing, looking after me round the clock for the first eight weeks back home. I realised that, whilst things would never be the same again, I had to rebuild my life and confidence, as well as my health.

It was at this time that my daughter Amy discovered Beat SCAD on Facebook and I was able to join the incredibly supportive group of SCAD Survivors. That was an important step; Beat SCAD has been a lifeline to me, providing answers to all those questions that I needed to address.

I couldn’t go back to the life that I had, and I was struggling to go forward; however, these brave, wonderful, wise women walked alongside me and helped me to find my ‘new normal’. They helped me to move forward and to take the necessary steps to my new life. I won’t pretend it was an easy journey, but with those women with me, it was a journey that I was able to take.

I couldn’t drive for almost 5 months and I was finally well enough to start Cardic Rehab at 6 months post-SCAD; recovery was slow but largely positive. As they say, it was one step at a time.

I will show another me. Today I don’t need a replacement.

I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant…

However, for me, that was the moment when the music started!

After a chance meeting with some local guys who wanted to form a rock band, I dusted down my old cello and I stepped right out of my classical training comfort zone to give it a go! Me, a rock chick!

It was the best therapy possible; I had a new purpose and rediscovered my love of music.

My first performance with the band reminded me of how I much I had loved being on stage 20 years earlier! It gave me a new lease of life; a purpose and a joy that I hadn’t even realised I had lost. Since then, several gigs later, the music has filled me and healed me more than the pills and the doctors. It has brought about a profound change in me, at exactly the time I needed it.

The SCAD was unwelcome and unwanted; however, my life now is immeasurably richer and fuller because of all that came after. Whatever the weakness in my heart, I am stronger and more fulfilled. I am enjoying life; my family, my friends, my home, my golf, our local countryside, and my music. Life has a purpose and meaning. I am now looking forward, rather than back.

Therefore, thankfully this isn’t the end of my story; it is the beginning of one!

My heart going Boom, Boom, Boom…

‘Hey’ I said, ‘You can keep my things. They’ve come to take me home’.

Solsbury Hill; Peter Gabriel has said of the song’s meaning, “It’s about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get; it’s about letting go”