Body & Fitness

International triathlete and young Auckland mum’s shock heart attack

Anna was young and fit. She thought “how could this happen to me?” But the message is clear. “No matter who you are, don’t ignore chest pain.”

Anna Cupples (38) sat up in her hospital bed and thought, “How on earth could this happen to me?”

An international triathlete and multiple ironman competitor, Anna was shocked to learn she had suffered a heart attack – or, to be more specific, a sudden coronary artery dissection (SCAD) – just a day earlier.

It was a normal morning for the Auckland woman as she set off to play a game of Ultimate Frisbee before work with some colleagues in January 2016. But during the game, she started to feel an unusual discomfort in her chest.

“It wasn’t pain,” she explains. “It was like my sports bra was too tight. I kept subbing off during the game and was getting tired really quickly. So I called it a day and decided to head back to work.”

Coincidentally, Anna was playing right next to Auckland Hospital and she tossed up whether to visit its emergency department. “When I walked out, I stood looking at it and wondered if I should go in.

“You see those ads on TV about heart attacks and chest pain, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s not how I feel – I’d look so silly!’ I wasn’t in a lot of pain, it was just a weird discomfort and my arms felt quite heavy,” says Anna, who was completely unaware at the time just what was happening to her heart.

Instead, she chose to go to work. But while sitting at her desk during lunchtime, the discomfort hadn’t gone away. Luckily for Anna, she was able to call on her sister for advice.

“I’m pretty lucky in that my sister is a nurse and my brother is a doctor in the UK, so I called my sister and she suggested heading to my GP just to get it checked out.”

The triathlete is pictured on the finish line at Ironman Canada in 2014.

Upon visiting her GP, she was given an ECG test that came back indicating nothing was untoward. The doctor put the episode down to an intensive weights workout the day before, but also suggested Anna get an urgent lab test to make sure everything was OK. Anna then went back to work.

“I was feeling better during the afternoon when suddenly the doctor called me and asked ‘How are you feeling?’ I told him I was fine, but that’s when he said my lab results said otherwise. I had to go to the emergency department immediately,” she recalls.

Anna’s blood test indicated her heart had indeed suffered a trauma, evident by her raised levels of troponin, a protein that can indicate damage to the heart muscles. And so began a whirlwind of an afternoon as she jumped in the car and raced to hospital.

SCAD is a rare condition when a tear forms in one of the blood vessels of the heart. This can slow or block blood flow, causing abnormalities in heart rhythm or even sudden death.

Being visited by her young niece after her ordeal.

The hard part to fathom, Anna agrees, is the fact there is no known indicator that a person could be prone to SCAD. Medical professionals still don’t know why certain people suffer from the condition as patients are often healthy young women with few or no risk factors for heart disease.

“It was so hard to believe!” exclaims Anna.

“I was a triathlete – I lived in California for eight years and I did seven ironman triathlons and three world championship triathlon races. I was fit, very active and very healthy.”

Treatment for the condition ranges from patient to patient. Some require surgery to insert a stent, but Anna’s condition was more manageable. She would need to start taking a course of medication, after which the condition would heal itself. However, Anna was also told she would need to make drastic changes to her lifestyle.

“I wondered, ‘What is this going to do to my life?’ They said, ‘No exercise, no trying for a family and plenty of rest’ – and let’s just say I’m not very good at resting. That was the hardest thing. I felt like I’d lost a lot of what I loved about my life.

“Once I got my head around it, I became very anxious. I over-analysed every little chest pain I had,” she recalls of the six-week period immediately after her hospital stay. “I think most of that was to do with the shock of it all.”

However, two years on, Anna says that shock has gone and she now feels fully recovered from her ordeal. Exercise is back on the menu, she no longer needs to take medication and she definitely hasn’t wasted any time!

“Since then, I’ve gotten engaged and married to my husband Simon, and we’ve had our 14-month-old daughter Zara,” she laughs. “I absolutely love being a mum but what they say is true – nothing can prepare you for it!”

The experience had such an impact on Anna that she has decided to collect for The Heart Foundation’s Big Heart Appeal. And she has a message for those who are uncertain whether to get help when feeling pain.

“I think the main thing is, no matter who you are, don’t ignore chest pain.”

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