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'It's not just men who have heart attacks' - Stratford councillor tells of her life-threatening scare

KATE Rolfe’s 68th birthday should have been a time for celebration. Instead, it will be remembered by her family as the day the Stratford councillor suffered a heart attack and set off a series of events filled with shock, tears and the news that she urgently needed triple bypass surgery.

Kate admits the tears she cries nowadays are tears of joy as she’s just glad to be alive following a harrowing encounter with death in July.

Cllr Kate Rolfe. Photo: Mark Williamson K21/11/21/7113. (53121124)
Cllr Kate Rolfe. Photo: Mark Williamson K21/11/21/7113. (53121124)

The warning signs had been there, but Kate said she ignored them because, as a councillor serving the community at county, district and town level, she was “just too busy giving 150 per cent of her time to work”.

The frightening episode which nearly cost her life has made Kate eternally grateful to the NHS doctors and nurses who saved her four months ago, and she now feels duty-bound to raise awareness that heart attacks don’t just happen to men, women are at risk too.

Sunday, 11th July, was a day of celebration for the whole nation as England reached its first final of a major football tournament since 1966. In advance of the Euro 2020 final at Wembley that evening, Kate went to Morrisons in Stratford to buy some snacks for the game that she planned to watch with her husband, Mike, and their son David at home. As she returned to her car, the symptoms that had been warning Kate she had a life-threatening health issue came back but she wasn’t sure what was going on.

“It felt like I’d had a bucket of water poured over my head and that someone was pushing down on my chest really hard,” Kate told the Herald. “It was weird so I sat down and the pain eventually went away. I never had any shooting pain down my left arm, but for two months I had been having hot flushes and sweating and a feeling that I wanted to be sick. I was also out of breath, but I thought I was just knackered from burning the candle at both ends.”

Back home, the family sat down to enjoy the match but Kate experienced more pressure on her chest, only this time the pain kept coming and going.

It was about 1am on Monday, 12th July - Kate’s birthday - but instead of looking forward to a day of celebration, she found herself sat up in bed feeling sick. Her restlessness woke Mike and they quickly realised her condition was not heartburn or indigestion.

“Two arteries were out of action and the other one was doing everything. I asked him why am I alive? And he replied ‘you’re just very lucky’.”

“I dialled 999 and said ‘I think I’m having a heart attack’ and an ambulance was sent to the house. There is a history of heart attacks and heart disease within my family so I self-diagnosed and quickly grabbed a toothbrush, my phone, PJs and a dressing gown,” Kate said.

She made the journey to Warwick Hospital alone because of Covid restrictions.

“Tests were carried out and the doctor said ‘Mrs Rolfe, you’ve had a heart attack’ and I was completely shocked. I’m really practical and asked if I could go home, but an angiogram confirmed I needed to go to Walsgrave Hospital,” Kate said.

On the Thursday Kate was admitted to Walsgrave where a heart surgeon three the main arteries to her heart were blocked.

“He added he was surprised I was alive,” said Kate. “Two arteries were out of action and the other one was doing everything. I asked him why am I alive? And he replied ‘you’re just very lucky’.”

Surgery would be a five-hour procedure, set to take place the following Wednesday afternoon.

Kate asked if there was any alternative but was told: ‘No, you’ll be dead in a week without the operation.’

“I became hysterical, I just cried and sobbed and sobbed, and I was completely alone. My husband came to the hospital, but I could only see and speak to him from the end of the corridor – it was just horrible.

“The surgeon was brilliant and told me they do 350 bypass operations at Walsgrave every year. It’s second nature to them. I was told there was a two to three per cent chance of a stroke or heart attack, but on a positive there was a 97 per cent chance I would survive.”

The surgeon told Kate she wouldn’t be able to lift a coffee cup or dress herself after the operation, but before the procedure could take place, a patient on her ward tested positive for Covid and everyone on the ward was put into isolation.

Once out the other side, Kate insisted on seeing her husband and their three children – David, 35, Jennifer, 36, and Caroline, 40. It was to be one of those heart-breaking family moments that couldn’t last long because of the Covid restrictions, and because everything that needed to be said was already understood.

“I gave my engagement ring and my 40th wedding anniversary ring, which Mike bought me, to my daughters and I gave my bracelets to my son. I told them to look after them if I didn’t recover. We were all beside ourselves and I hugged them before they left,” said Kate.

A triple heart bypass involves the patient’s rib cage being cut open, and the heart temporarily removed so that three replicate arteries, created with veins taken form the leg, can replace the blocked arteries. The heart is then put back into the body.

The operation was a success and on Thursday morning – the day after the operation – Mike called the hospital and Kate told him: “I’m alive.”

She had prepared a special note for Mike, which included her wishes for her funeral service, and made him promise only to open it if she didn’t make it.

But there was no need and on Monday, 26th July, Kate was back home in Stratford.

During her recovery at home she was regularly visited by recently retired Alveston parish vicar of St James, Richard Williams - he too had a triple bypass earlier in the year. Kate said they cried together over their shared experiences and were an important support for each other.

She received 37 bouquets of flowers and messages of support from the public, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and StratforwardBID. And she knows how lucky she to be alive after her father died of a heart attack, aged 70, and her eldest brother died the night before his triple bypass aged 46. Her three remaining brothers all have heart disease.

Kate has a chest scar and a leg scar which are daily reminders of the ordeal, but to have done nothing would have been fatal.

“Women must be aware of the warning signs. A build-up of cholesterol, a family history, feeling hot and clammy and sick and most of all the pressure on the chest. It’s not just men who have heart attacks and a heart attack isn’t necessarily clutching the throat and collapsing – it can happen gradually like it did to me” Kate said.

She is still a councillor on three local authorities is committed to the work, but what has changed though is how she lives her life with Mike, her family and four grandchildren.

“Mike and I have one day a week to ourselves. We go for a walk in the country, have a pub lunch, switch off machines, and watch a film together. I do suddenly burst into tears when I see something beautiful like the colours of the trees or something that gives me joy or reminds me how lucky I am. A doctor at the hospital told me that I’m going to live to my 90s and I’m going to take him up on it – I feel phenomenal!”

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