Sally McPhail gearing up for 10k race and heart operation

Sally McPhail
Sally McPhail
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WHETHER they were running, playing team games or pushing themselves to the limit windsurfing or skiing, for Sally McPhail’s family the great outdoors and sport were a way of life.

But while she looked fit and healthy enough, when it came to joining in the action, Sally was nearly always stuck on the sidelines.

For as dad Colin took part in his long list of favourite sports, mum Isla taught PE and big sister Jenny excelled at lacrosse in the Scotland squad – Sally’s heart just wasn’t in any of it.

Looking back, the 24-year-old isn’t sure if the heart condition that emerged within hours of her birth was holding her back, or whether she actually just wasn’t that fussed about taking part.

However now, as she waits patiently for open heart surgery that promises to give her a whole new lease of life, she’s planning to find out.

And one of the first things she hopes to do once she’s fully recovered, is grab a pair of trainers from her dad’s Bruntsfield running shop Footworks, and start pounding the streets to see what all this jogging fuss is about.

“I don’t imagine I’ll be running right away,” she grins, looking forward to the time when she can get out and about without frightening palpitations and debilitating breathlessness. “And it might be that my first 10k run is actually more of a ’post operation recovery’ walk. But my hope is to get out there and give it a go.”

She learned recently that her heart is struggling to cope with the effects of a leaky pulmonary valve – putting pressure on the organ as it struggles to pump blood around her body. Incredibly, she was quite excited at the latest hospital findings, for they put her a step closer to the operating theatre and life-changing valve replacement surgery.

It’s the kind of operation that’s more likely to crop up in someone nearly three times her age – the 
average age for a valve replacement operation is 68.

However Sally, from Colinton, has known all her life that, eventually, she’d need to go under the knife.

Sally was two weeks premature and just hours old when her parents learned she had heart problems.

“We were at a ski show in Harrogate when I went into labour,” recalls mum Isla. She was a blue baby, so right away it looked like something was wrong with her cardiovascular system.”

Medics found she had been born with two holes in her heart and problems with her pulmonary valve.

However rather than risk surgery on a tiny infant, they were content to wait until she was five before carrying out open heart surgery to repair one of the holes.

Three years later she underwent a second bout of surgery to repair the other hole, followed by several other procedures to fit cardiac catheters to monitor her heart.

It meant that while other children at St George’s School where she was a pupil were able to take part in outdoor sports and gym hall games, Sally was often left out.

“I never really wanted to take part in PE at school,” recalls Sally, from Colinton. “I was always the last one over the line at school sports day, running was a struggle and I always felt knackered so I didn’t really feel any of that was for me.

“At the same time my sister Jenny was really active – all the family is except me – so maybe it just looked like I was lazy.”

Her problems worsened when she developed scoliosis – a curvature of the spine which may have been linked to the earlier heart surgery. A spinal fusion left her back in plaster for six months.

On top of that, she’s had painful surgery to repair a broken elbow – the result of a fall – and surgery to fix damaged ear drums, all of which would suggest she’s had enough of hospitals and operations to last a lifetime.

Yet while some might have dreaded news of open heart surgery, it was precisely what Sally wanted to hear.

For soon she could be enjoying the kind of busy lifestyle other 24-year-olds take for granted – running her own mobile beautician business, 
enjoying regular nights out and 
keeping fit.

A turning point came at her sister’s wedding recently when mum Isla noticed Sally’s legs seemed swollen – a build-up of fluid in the legs is a sign that the heart might not be functioning very well.

“A scan last week showed that the left side of my heart which was really big is now smaller so it’s responding to medication, but now the right side is pretty big,” explains Sally. “Apparently it’s big enough for them to say it’s time to get a new valve.”

The enlarged heart is the result of all the extra work it must do because of the faulty valve – a side effect of which is every day tasks like walking uphill or doing a day’s work become overwhelming.

“I used to work at a nursery but it became impossible because I was so exhausted,” she explains. “I started my mobile beautician business recently which means I can work on days when I’m not so tired and rest on others.

“My social life is really limited. My friends can go out three nights a week whereas I can manage once a month and then I’m shattered for days.”

Surgery should bring an end to the daily cocktail of medication she needs to take but better still it could mean Sally will soon be giving her sporty family a run for their money.

She’s already set a post-op target to beat her performance in last October’s 5k Winter Warmer Walk when, determined to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, she forced herself to complete the route around Arthur’s Seat in 55 minutes.

That she did that at all was remarkable. For as she pounded uphill, her heart erupted into frantic palpitations and she became so light-headed and exhausted she felt she would pass out.

“I couldn’t breathe properly and I thought I’d have to stop,” she recalls. “But I still really enjoyed it, so I’m planning to do a 10k this year – hopefully jogging!”.

She has no fear of open heart surgery, indeed she can’t wait.

“I feel I’ve already waited so long to start feeling better,” she laughs, “so in a strange way I’m really quite excited.

“I can’t wait.”

Little regulator that keeps it all ticking

THE pulmonary valve regulates the flow of blood from the right ventricle of the heart to the lungs. A defect can force the heart to pump harder, leading to an enlarged heart.

Some pulmonary valve problems, such as those suffered by Sally McPhail, are the result of a rare congenital heart defect, the cause of which is unknown.

In some cases, the valve can be damaged by rheumatic fever, cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle – damage caused by a heart attack or, in rare instances, infection.

However, in most patients, valves become faulty simply due to wear and tear that comes from getting older.

Diseased or damaged valves can obstruct the flow of blood or allow blood to leak backwards, both of which put strain on the heart.

Signs of valve problems include fatigue, breathlessness and swelling in the legs and feet.

Narrow valves can be stretched and repaired. However, in some cases, valve replacement surgery is


Replacement valves can be either artificial mechanical valves made of metal and plastic or natural tissue valves from pigs.

The operation requires open heart surgery and the patient being placed on a heart lung bypass machine to pump blood around the body.

However, in 2011 surgeons at Clydebank’s Golden Jubilee hospital performed groundbreaking valve replacement surgery via a vein in a

patient’s leg.

Rock to the beat today

SEEING red today? It could be because today has been declared Rock Up in Red day by the British Heart Foundation.

The fundraising event – which aims to encourage everyone to wear something red for the day – kicks off National Heart Month which raises awareness of heart disease and conditions.

The charity, which supports heart research and cardiac patients, says the colour red has been signalled out in research for its ability to make wearers feel more confident. It has urged workers nationwide to donate £2 and slip into something bright red for the day.

Around 47,000 people across Edinburgh and the Lothians are living with heart and circulatory disease.

The British Heart Foundation invests around £88m a year in research. Hundreds of researches, some based in Edinburgh, are currently working on around 1200 projects aimed at better preventing, diagnosing or treating heart disease.

For details of

the British Heart Foundation Scotland’s work, go to, follow on Facebook or tweet @BHF_Scotland