‘My heart attack left me with permanent heart damage’

Posted on 12 November 2014

"Even if you’d told me there was a family history of high cholesterol, I wouldn’t have thought a heart attack could happen to me."


It’s been six years since a heart attack stopped radio DJ and entrepreneur Mark Pilgrim in his tracks. But this go-getter is not letting it affect day-to-day life and is knee-deep in new adventures – just the way he likes it!

Words Amanda Killick Photographs Melanie Maré

Monday 14 July 2008 began with a routine visit to the doctor for the then 38-year-old radio personality and emcee Mark Pilgrim. Little did he know that a couple of tense hours later he’d be undergoing a life-saving heart procedure with an arterial stent to correct the aftermath of an acute heart attack.
The story of Mark’s heart attack actually started on the Friday before, on stage at M-Net during a recording of SA’s biggest new game show, Power of 10.

Mark recalls: ‘It was the first day of filming. TV game shows don’t typically work well in SA, so the pressure on me to make the show a success was immense, but it was nothing I couldn’t take in my stride. That Friday, while in front of nine TV cameras and 200 audience members, I started experiencing chest pains, which threw me off my game – but I chose to ignore them. The reason being, I didn’t know where my heart was. It sounds odd but, at that stage, I’d Googled* it (as you do) and mistakenly understood that if you’re having chest pain from a heart attack you’d feel it on the left side and get a tingling sensation down your left arm.

I had neither – my pain radiated from the middle of my breastbone, so I assumed it was acid reflux and just carried on filming.’

The next day, Mark fainted after getting out of a hot bath.

Nicole, his wife of a year at the time, encouraged him to get it checked out by a doctor, but he fobbed her off with an ‘I’ll go tomorrow’.

He didn’t go.

*Don’t Google it, visit www.mediclinicinfohub.co.za instead! – Ed

The day that everything changed
When Mark woke on the Monday, he was feeling ‘iffy’,and thanks to urging from Nicole, he made a 9am appointment to see his GP. He remembers sitting in the doctor’s consulting room, trying to explain the pain, when he started feeling cold, clammy and weak. The doctor immediately strapped him to an electrocardiograph (ECG), which revealed he was having an acute heart attack.

‘From then on, it was all action stations. An ambulance was called and I remember telling Nicole that I loved her. I also, quite cheekily, asked her not to let her brother drive my car back to the house!

‘It’s so weird what you think about when you’re going through something like this – I recall being quite disappointed, like a little kid, when the emergency medical technician didn’t put on the ambulance’s siren. When transporting heart attack patients, it’s their policy not to do so, as it may
cause more stress.

‘An hour later, I was having a heart intervention procedure in the catheter laboratory at Mediclinic Morningside to insert the stent, under the care of cardiologist Dr Len Steingo.

‘My heart attack has left me with a permanent heart damage and on medication – a few pills a day for the rest of my life – but it’s a small price to pay when I think what could have happened.’

An exciting future
Six years on, Mark’s just turned 45. He’s healthy, and he and Nicole have two daughters, Tayla-Jean and Alyssa. After a break from radio, he is now on Hot 91.9FM doing a Saturday request show. Mark is also pursuing a whole new life as a retail entrepreneur by opening a Smooch frozen yoghurt store in Centurion.

‘Even if you’d told me there was a family history of high cholesterol, which is what ultimately caused my heart attack, I wouldn’t have thought it could happen to me. I lived a healthy lifestyle, exercising regularly and watching what I ate, but I should have gone for more checkups.

‘My lifestyle has only changed in that I need to pop a few pills every morning and I don’t have exactly the same energy I used to. I also can’t train too hard at the gym – I have to keep my heart rate down to not put too much strain on my damaged heart muscles.’

Mark was out of action for a week and a half before returning to a hectic filming schedule on Power of 10, but on doctor’s orders he had to take it easy.

‘I learnt that it’s okay to take the time you need to recover. Having undergone hectic chemotherapy for testicular cancer when I was in my late teens, I didn’t experience the psychological trauma post-heart attack that many people do,’ he says.

Mark’s advice to fellow heart attack survivors is to embrace the positive: ‘You’ve been given bonus time. Use it wisely. Allow yourself to have bad days as you recover. Just get back on the horse the next day!

‘The heart attack reminded me what’s important in life – for me that’s my girls and my health. I bumped into Dr Steingo two years later when my daughter Tayla-Jean was born and thanked him again for saving my heart so my daughter could steal it!’

AGE 45
WHERE YOU’VE SEEN AND HEARD HIM DJ on 5FM, Highveld Stereo and Kfm. Host of Big Brother Africa 1 and Power of 10.
WHAT’S NEXT? Mark will continue doing emcee and voice work while managing his frozen yoghurt store.

Heart of the matter
Dr Len Steingo at Mediclinic Morningside is the cardiologist who performed Mark Pilgrim’s life-saving heart surgery procedure.

‘In patients like Mark who have a familial predisposition to high cholesterol, called hypercholesterolemia, it’s important to get your levels checked regularly and manage your condition consistently,’ says Dr Steingo. ‘The problem with this kind of cholesterol is that it narrows the arteries and can affect the vessels in the brain, legs and heart. As such, these patients are more prone to stroke and heart attack in the long term.’

Dr Steingo believes there was really no better place for Mark to have had his heart attack than in his doctor’s office, because it meant he had direct and immediate access to care, which is vital in the first six hours.

‘In the case of an acute heart attack that presents with chest pain, like Mark’s did, our primary intervention is to open the artery with a balloon and stent as quickly as possible,’ he explains. ‘The earlier you open the artery, the less permanent heart damage there will be – preferably less than two hours from the onset of chest pain is best. Mark got off quite lightly – he has some lasting damage to the heart muscle but it wasn’t as catastrophic as it could have been. Some patients aren’t as lucky and their heart attack will damage the heart to the degree where the damage is irreversible.’

Dr Steingo’s advice to men – and women – whether they have high cholesterol issues or not, is never to ignore any new pain in the chest area. He also cautions that what we term ‘chest pain’ can actually be felt in the left arm, neck or jaw as well. If you experience these pains, a pressure across the chest area and are short of breath, it’s vital you seek medical care immediately.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Cardiology

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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