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Completely out of the blue

By Corinne Ellison

The first indication that I might have a heart condition was in October 2009, when I started to experience mild chest pain and palpitations at rest. These symptoms started after I ran two marathons within 6 months of each other. After the Berlin marathon, I felt very nauseous, faint and as if my heart was racing. My mum had to take me back to the hotel room without any post race celebrations. I put these symptoms down to exhaustion, the heat and over-training.

Over the next two months, I continued to suffer palpitations and twinges of chest pain, even when just sat on the sofa relaxing. I looked up my symptoms on the internet and delved into my nursing knowledge looking for possible causes. Surely at 27, being fairly fit and exercising 10 hours a week I couldn't have a heart condition. I pondered this, continuing to train.

My running ability began to decline, I felt slower and was getting very out of breath. After being outside in the cold, I would have blue or dark purple lips, fingers and toes. People started to comment about this. My initial thoughts were that I might have a faulty valve.

By December 2009, I got so concerned about my symptoms that I went to see my GP on New Year 's Eve. I explained that I was getting regular palpitations, pain and blue lips. He told me this was probably nothing to worry about but organised tests.

January 2010 brought a series of tests including Echo tests, MRI, blood tests and an ECG. By March, I was finally given the diagnosis of an atrial septal defect.

The hole in my heart was 2 x 3 cm in diameter. This news came as a shock and I wasn't sure how to take in it. My immediate feeling was fear for my fitness in the future and ability to race. I was told to give up any strenuous exercise as my heart was quite enlarged and was showing signs of failure. Doctors were uneasy about giving me answers to my questions about completing another marathon or triathlon. It transpired that the blue lips were as a result of shunt of blood backwards through the top chambers of my heart. This was a worrying time but I found strength in planning for the future.

At the end of May, I was told I required open heart surgery to close the hole. I was almost glad to hear this, as I wanted to be sure it was going to be repaired properly. Waiting to hear of a decision about the type of surgery I needed was the worst part. The surgeon asked me which scar I would prefer, particularly as a young woman. I opted for a vertical scar as, for me, it meant the best chance of recovery back into an active lifestyle.

Funnily, of all the concerns surrounding heart surgery, the scar was one of the lowest on the list. The determination to get better was my main priority, whatever it took.

During this experience, I found it useful to speak to others going through a similar experience. I found this support online and in the GUCH forum. Asking simple or seemingly silly questions helped with feelings of loneliness. Knowing others had been through the same anxieties was a huge relief. During my recovery, I kept a blog which recorded my progress week by week. Writing about my feelings and experience after my operation enabled me to remain positive, even on my worst days. Following advice from the cardiac rehabilitation team, I walked every day and slowly increased the time and distance. At 8 weeks, I began to run again.

Whilst having open heart surgery is a physical experience, I found recovery a test of my mental strength. Having to spend a large period of time resting was frustrating, as was missing out on a summer of activity. My daily diary of activity gradually increased and my focus was on what I could do, rather than what I couldn't. If it wasn't for exercise, my heart defect may not have been picked up for another ten years and for that I will always be grateful.

The future is now an exciting prospect. In April, I will run the London Marathon. This challenge is two fold, firstly to raise much needed funds and awareness for GUCH PA, which helped me through my diagnosis, surgery and recovery. Secondly, I will be returning to a race I love and running with a new pride that I can achieve great things despite having a congenital heart defect.

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