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But I’m only 36! ­– a young woman’s heart attack

As a fit young medical professional, Kateshe Clark couldn't believe it when she had a heart attack after a workout in November last year.

Kateshe was only 36 at the time, with a husband and two young boys, Tyler and Jake.

“I had been at the gym with Russell, my husband, and had done a 45-minute spin class with no issue. We got home and I was downstairs making a protein shake for the two of us while Russ was in the shower,” she recalls.

“I had a sudden, severe onset of central crushing chest pain that initially radiated down both arms and then stayed in my left.”

Kateshe had been experiencing health ‘niggles’ for about a year, but the tests kept coming back with normal results. What she experienced this day was much different – much worse.

But despite both she and her husband being Intensive Care Paramedics, Kateshe was reluctant to go to hospital. That’s common in New Zealand – we’re too slow to call for help when experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.

“You may think this sounds insane but it was because my previous investigations had been normal, and the fact that I had no pallor, clamminess or dizziness,” Kateshe says.

Luckily, Russell realised something was wrong and took his wife to the hospital, where she was immediately triaged and put through countless tests.

A consultant eventually confirmed Kateshe was having a non-STEMI, which is a type of heart attack usually caused by a severely narrowed artery.

It was crushing news.  

“I cried for a minute and remember saying, ‘But I’m only 36!’ One of the doctors asked if they should call Russ but I chose to call as I felt it would be better coming from me.”

During this difficult time, Tyler, who was 6 at the time and who has autism, had to be admitted to Kidz First Children's Hospital because of a bone infection. That meant Russell was not able to be at his wife’s side.  

Word travelled quickly through the hospital and before long some of Kateshe’s nursing friends came to keep her company until Russell could arrive.

Kateshe was treated with a range of medications for the next three days, and had an angiogram on Friday.

The angiogram revealed the cause of Kateshe’s heart attack. She’d had what’s called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a highly uncommon occurrence caused by tearing in the coronary artery wall.  

Kateshe was fortunate the tear was at the bottom of her circumflex artery – meaning she didn’t need a stent inserted – and the damage caused no ongoing issues with her cardiac function.

But she had been out of theatre for only 30 minutes when Russell had to leave to have Tyler readmitted to Kidzfirst.

“It was a difficult time for our family with Tyler being sick and also having our older boy Jake at home. Tyler subsequently spent another four days in hospital so it was a somewhat lonely time following discharge. 

“As usual we carried on looking on the bright side – feeling thankful we were all going to be alright.”

Kateshe was discharged the next day armed with a prescription for four medications and lots of rest.  

She has refused to let the episode rule her life.

“I still go to the gym and do spin classes and try to exercise when I can. I still eat a healthy diet and look after myself as best I can.

“Am I worried it could happen again? Well yes, but the likelihood is low. Doing my job makes you appreciate how unpredictable life can be and that things could always be worse.”

There is currently no official known reason or cure for SCAD, but patients are most often middle-aged women with few or no risk factors for heart disease. 

Read about Deb Leslie, another young women who suffered a SCAD.

One way we are trying to prevent traumatic events like Kelly’s is by funding about $2 million of vital research and cardiology training every year. We are New Zealand’s leading independent funder of heart research.

Our hope is that, one day, we’ll find the causes and cure for SCAD.

But the Heart Foundation is a charity, and we urgently need your help to continue funding this important research.