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Too young for a heart attack?

It may be hard to believe, but Kelly Widdowson was just 26 years old when she had her heart attack.

Kelly was a fit and seemingly healthy young woman until that life-changing moment on the netball court in August 17, 2013. 

“I started to feel very light-headed, nauseous, and had tunnel vision. So I went to sit down on the sidelines, thinking it would pass. Sitting turned into lying down, I got the cold clammy sweats and suddenly felt unquenchably thirsty.  

“This was followed by an indescribable pain in my left shoulder, moving round to my chest. It felt like being stuck in a vice grip.”

In the ambulance, the medic asked Kelly if she thought she might be having a heart attack.

"And I said ‘Are you serious? That’s ridiculous, I’m only 26!’”

But it turned out the medic was right – Kelly was experiencing the warning signs of a heart attack 

She experienced what’s called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a highly uncommon occurrence caused by tearing in the coronary artery wall.  

Kelly was rushed to Dunedin, where she had two stents inserted into her heart – but not before she’d suffered a shocking total of 10 cardiac arrests. 

Her traumatised family rushed from around the country to be at her side, expecting to say goodbye.  

“My parents and siblings were told I wouldn’t make it through, and if I did, I would be severely brain damaged and would need to be looked after for the rest of my life.” 

But somehow, Kelly pulled through and was able to begin the long, difficult process of cardiac rehabilitation. 

“I have had to rebuild my stamina to get through the day without having a sleep, and work my fitness levels back up, although they will never be what they once were,” she explains.  

“My body no longer has energy reserves, and once it’s gone, you can’t keep going, you just have to sleep to recharge. As I have two young boys, this has been tricky at times and they too have also had to adjust to life with a tired mum.”

Kelly says it’s truly incredible that she’s alive to tell her story. 

“To defy the odds of death is a miracle. To be alive, walking and loving life is a miracle and I am grateful for every minute of it.” 

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. 

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.