I was told I might need open heart surgery… at the same as I was having my baby: Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton on how a heart condition turned the joy of pregnancy into a terrifying ordeal



11:12 GMT, 6 June 2012

The birthing pool was booked. She had practised the self-hypnosis and visualisation techniques. Like many women, Michelle Heaton wanted the birth of her first child to be a perfect, stress-free event.

‘Instead of having pain relief, I would picture myself walking through a tranquil forest,’ says the 31-year-old former Liberty X singer.

In reality, Michelle gave birth to baby Faith in January this year, by emergency caesarean section. On an operating table. With a 20-strong medical team attending to her.

My miracle: Michelle Heaton with daughter Faith soon after birth

My miracle: Michelle Heaton with daughter Faith soon after birth

There was her obstetrician, his nurses, and her midwife. A cardiologist and heart surgeon were on hand, alongside a specialist anaesthetist. ‘It was the opposite of what I was hoping for. But there was nothing I could do,’ she says. ‘At one point, my husband Hugh burst into tears. I was too scared even to cry.’

The worry was that Michelle’s heart would stop due to the physical stress of labour – a real possibility, as she suffers from arrhythmia (irregular pulse), an umbrella term for conditions that affect the heart rate. A form of arrhythmia is thought to have caused the collapse of Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba in March. Sudden bursts of activity are a key cause of cardiac arrest in sufferers. Michelle’s heart specialists had to be prepared to perform open-heart surgery, should this happen, simultaneously to delivering the baby.

Her specific type of arrhythmia – second-degree atrioventricular block, commonly called heart block – causes attacks in which her heart slow down, beats unevenly, stops, then jolts back into a regular rhythm.

Back in shape: Michelle's exercise regime has left her just 7lb above her pre-pregnancy weight

Back in shape: Michelle's exercise regime has left her just 7lb above her pre-pregnancy weight

As revealed in The Mail on Sunday last year, she believes it was triggered by her dependence on caffeine-based diet pills after shooting to fame in Simon Cowell’s talent show Popstars in 2001.

Initially, the singer attributed the attacks to stress. But after collapsing at the London Marathon in 2010, she finally sought an official diagnosis. Shortly after being diagnosed, Michelle discovered she was pregnant. It was an almost unbearably tense nine months.

‘There was a lot of bleeding at first,’ she recalls, ‘so we had to visit the doctor every day for five days for blood tests. They told me to prepare for a miscarriage.’ The bleeding wasn’t related to Michelle’s heart condition but it caused her to fear the worst. ‘Every day we had to wait at the hospital for the results of the blood tests to see if my HCG [pregnancy hormone] levels were doubling as they should be.

‘For the first four days they weren’t. We were both terrified. Then, on the last day, the levels finally doubled, so we knew there was a chance the baby would be OK.’

Thankfully, she did not miscarry – and doctors soon gave the pregnancy the all-clear. Yet, almost as quickly, the heart-block attacks went from every three months to every few weeks. ‘I become breathless and feel faint. I have passed out a couple of times,’ she says.

‘There isn’t any research to show whether heart blocks can damage a foetus but the idea that they might made me horrifically anxious. I started having palpitations every day, on top of the heart blocks.’

On the advice of her doctor, Michelle has always dealt with the attacks by jumping up and down or coughing violently to jolt her heart back into rhythm. During the pregnancy, she had to undergo an echocardiogram once a fortnight. This is an ultrasound scan that monitors the heart. Those who suffer from heart block are often advised to carry on exercising.

The new mum works out at home every week day and uses heavy weights at the weekend to get into shape

The new mum works out at home every week day and uses heavy weights at the weekend to get into shape

Michelle, like Hugh, 31, is a qualified personal trainer and so, with the help of her doctor, she devised a fitness plan that would keep her active without triggering attacks.

‘There were certain rules. Don’t do anything explosive because that puts extra strain on your heart. And don’t lift weights over your head, because that could upset the natural flow of blood and oxygen.’

Dr Dhiraj Gupta, consultant
cardiologist at the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital, explains:
‘During pregnancy, cardiac output – the volume of blood being pumped by
the heart – increases by 50 per cent to help pass nutrients to the baby
and compensate for any blood loss during birth.

heart-block attack puts extra strain on the heart, when it is already
working harder than normal. For this reason, we recommend pregnant women
with arrhythmia stick to walking and yoga.’

On the advice of her medical team,
Michelle kept her heart rate below 140 beats per minute. Her regime
included 40 minutes of walking near her home in Crouch End, North
London. She would also go to the gym twice a week to do light weights
for half an hour, followed by a yoga DVD at home.

With each trimester, Michelle eased
off the regime. She stopped exercising for the last month because of the
strain on her body from the baby.

night before she gave birth, she weighed herself. She had put on
exactly 3st since conceiving, going from 8st 6lb to 11st 6lb – a healthy
weight increase.

Until two weeks before the birth, she was preparing herself for a normal labour. ‘But two weeks before I was due, the doctor told me my heart couldn’t deal with the stress of pushing – that I’d have to have a caesarean. This made me even more worried.’

The hospital booked Michelle’s operation for her 39th week of pregnancy. She went into labour a week earlier.

Pregnancy for Michelle started out as a joy but later turned into a terrifying ordeal

Pregnancy for Michelle started out as a joy but later turned into a terrifying ordeal

‘I didn’t have time to panic,’ she says. ‘I went straight to Watford General at 2.30am. I was terrified – I knew if I had a heart block, I wouldn’t be able to jump up and down or cough. If my heart didn’t restart, they might have to perform open-heart surgery while my baby was being delivered.

‘It was hellish. There were about 20 medical staff in the room. I couldn’t feel anything down below because of the epidural, but that didn’t stop my mind racing, imagining what could go wrong.’ Thankfully, a heart block didn’t arise and baby Faith was born at 10.01am on January 11, 2012, weighing 7lb 5oz. ‘Hearing her cry for the first time was just such a relief,’ she says.

Soon after the birth, Michelle’s heart symptoms returned to their pre-pregnancy pattern. Women are advised to wait six weeks after a caesarean before doing any exercise, but Michelle waited an extra fortnight. ‘Monday to Friday, I work out at home,’ she says. ‘I pick ten exercises, things like sit-ups, tricep dips, press-ups, and squats. The whole workout takes about 40 minutes.’

On Saturdays, she does 40 minutes of heavy weights at the gym. Michelle also drinks a green tea blend designed for weight loss called Cho-Yung.

‘Every patient with a heart problem needs to be assessed for their ability to cope with exercise on a case-by-case basis,’ says Dr Gupta. ‘This might include strenuous exercise. It is sustained rigorous exercise such as a marathon that can trigger an attack.’

Michelle’s graft has paid off. ‘At the beginning [of the pregnancy] I felt as if I had lost control of my body. Then, I thought, ‘‘I’m just going to enjoy eating what I want – within reason.’’ In the last three months I felt like a fat cow: my clothes didn’t fit, I had water retention and I felt really uncomfortable.’

Now, just 7lb above her pre-pregnancy weight, Michelle is pleased with the results. Her trips to the hospital to check on her heart are back to once every three months. Michelle’s doctor has told her the only cure for her condition would be a pacemaker.

‘They want to put that off as long as possible as it has to be replaced every ten years, which means open-heart surgery.’

Michelle has had one heart block since Faith was born. ‘Every one seems more intense than the last.’

She also has her career to focus on: Liberty X are rumoured to be reforming this year. But neither that, nor the heart condition, will stop her getting pregnant again. ‘I absolutely want more babies,’ she says, beaming. ‘Being a mother has made me 100 per cent happier. I feel blessed.’

Cho-Yung Tea is available from Holland & Barrett stores nationwide and choyungtea.com