If you think heart health and high blood pressure are old man issues, think again. Young women are affected too, says yoga instructor Sarah Malcolm, 28, whose own diagnosis came out of the blue
My heart condition was discovered totally by accident. I had been hospitalised with a bladder infection, age 15 and while the doctor was doing a routine check on my heart, he noticed I had an irregular heartbeat.
Up until that point I’d always been perfectly healthy, a normal active teenager who was a keen horse rider and aspiring ballerina.
my heart condition was the worst case my cardiologist had seen in his career
But suddenly there was this major issue. I was whisked off for an echocardiogram (ECG) which uses ultrasound to look at how the heart is working and that’s when they discovered I had an issue.
Discovering my heart problem
The ultrasound showed I had ‘Coarctation of the aorta’, which is when the main artery leading from the brain to the heart is squashed so that the blood can’t pass through easily, which in turn leads to high blood pressure.
My blood pressure was sky high which had caused ruptures in the cartilage between my ribs. But I wasn’t shocked, when they showed me the X-ray, I thought, ‘Well that’s very cool.’
After that, things happened very quickly and I was booked in for surgery within the month.
The cardiologist inserted a stent, using key hole surgery, through my groin and used a balloon to force the artery open.
But my condition was so severe – the worst case my cardiologist had seen in his career – they had to operate again six months later.
Funnily enough, I was never frightened and found it all quite fun. I was only 15 and thought it was a bit of an adventure, because I was off school and was getting all this attention.
My poor mother, who was a nurse at the time, was far more worried than me, though today she jokes, that’s one of the reasons we’re so close, because we spent so much time together when I was in hospital.
It took about a month to recover after the operation. It was a week after surgery before I was back on my feet. And then another three weeks before I was back to normal.
How my heart problem impacted my life
At 19 they repeated the operation, because the old stent was no longer sufficient after I’d grown, but other than that, having a heart condition has never affected my life. I’m not sure what caused it, but they believe it to be congenital, meaning I was born with the condition.
My cardiologist said: ‘Don’t think of this as a restriction,’ and I never have. I’ve lived a very fulfilling and adventurous life since my surgeries, having sky dived even scuba dived.
The only thing it initially stopped me from doing is skiing, because sadly no insurance company would insure me. But I managed to go skiing for the first time this year and absolutely loved it! And now my days are the most active I’ve ever been, teaching and practicing yoga every day.
Since I was 15, I’ve had to monitor my blood pressure and straight after the surgery I had to start taking medication for blood pressure. It was only when I was diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) aged 23, that I really took control of my health.
Living with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)
PCOS can affect your hormones, weight and fertility, but fortunately it can be helped by diet so that’s when I really started paying attention to what I ate. It was a real lightbulb moment.
I cut out sugar and dairy and started eating a lot of green leafy vegetables, grains and fruit and lots of chia seeds which are great for blood pressure.
These changes helped with my PCOS, but they also improved my blood pressure and eventually I was able to come off my blood pressure tablets, with the blessing of my cardiologist, which I was thrilled about.
Healthwise I don’t feel my heart condition has had a negative effect on me. As long as I keep an eye on my blood pressure – which I measure every other week – there’s nothing I can’t do and I feel perfectly healthy.
It can go up when I’m stressed or under the weather. And when I came back from Sri Lanka, after teaching a yoga retreat there, my blood pressure was sky high, I had to make sure I kept a close eye on it.
They didn’t know what it was and I was kept in quarantine for three weeks because of a rash I came home with.
Living with PCOS has meant I have to work hard to keep track of my weight and keep it at bay.
The only other time I’ve had an issue was at summer camp in Massachusetts. I had chest pains so I went to the nurse, who immediately called an ambulance.
I was in hospital for a day and they ran all the tests but couldn’t find anything. (I think it was actually probably a result of practicing too many headstands and my muscles got a little twitchy).
Living with PCOS has meant I have to work hard to keep track of my weight and keep it at bay. Which actually used to upset me quite a lot when I’ve had to exercise more than my friends to maintain a healthy weight.
But my brother reassured me and pointed out: ‘You are twice as strong, because you have to work twice as hard.’
And actually, being diagnosed with PCOS pushed me to see that health is something so much more than what’s on the outside, more than “weight” and looking a certain way, it’s internal health, feeling fit and living for your future happy, healthy self.
I still self-monitor my blood pressure. I keep an Omron blood pressure monitor stowed under my bed and take my blood pressure very two weeks and record it on a spread sheet to show my cardiologist.
And every two years I have to sport a very sexy blood pressure monitor strapped to my arm for 24 hours for them to keep track. It always creates a lot of odd looks from the public.
Staying healthy to keep my blood pressure down
I also make sure I’m eating lots of heart-healthy foods such as plenty of garlic, beetroot and leafy greens which are packed full of vitamins and work with a balanced diet.
I’d started practicing yoga at university, doing it three times a week from the age of 19. After my second round of surgery it became my passion.
I’m actually incredibly grateful as the diagnosis has definitely given me a far greater appreciation of my body and made me more aware of the importance of looking after myself.
As a teenager, my cardiologist told me I would not have lived past 23 if they hadn’t caught my condition when they did, which is crazy as now I’m 28. If I hadn’t been diagnosed when I was, totally by chance, I might not be here today.
And as a result I think it’s a good idea to get your blood pressure checked every so often – even if you’re symptom-free like I was. It could be a life saver.
Sarah Malcolm is a London-based yoga teacher. Follow her on instagram @sarahmalcs.
Check out day one of our 30 day yoga challenge, where Sarah teaches an in-depth beginner yoga pose each day.