A heart attack at 48 forced former prime minister Jenny Shipley to shape up.
The Jenny Shipley relaxing at her central Auckland apartment is a different woman from the one who led the country as our first female prime minister. She’s slimmer, healthier and, at 57, she looks younger now than she did a decade ago. Her secret? A heart attack.
“It was a very close shave,” recalls Jenny of the event that, nine years ago, changed her life’s direction. “Before that, I thought I was bulletproof. I had achieved a lot and, even though I knew my father had two big heart attacks in his forties, and my mother had high blood pressure, I still didn’t think it was relevant to me.
It’s astonishing how intelligent people can go into denial like that.”
on that day in 2000, Jenny and her husband Burton were preparing for a formal reception when Jenny began experiencing strong chest pain. “I said to Burton, ‘I don’t feel very well, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.’ I had nausea and felt like someone was choking me. But I didn’t ring 111. Interestingly, I’d had aches in my arms for several weeks but my doctor thought
it was tennis elbow. I now know this is a common symptom of a heart attack.”
Burton sensed something more sinister in Jenny’s chest pains and called a doctor, who rushed her to hospital. An angioplasty to remove a clot in one of her arteries followed, and Jenny was encouraged to make some lifestyle changes.
“While the doctors were treating the illness and making choices about my care, I had to make a choice to survive,” says Jenny, who has since become the patron for the Heart Foundation’s Go Red for Women campaign. “It was sobering and frightening. But once I understood my heart was a pump that had a blockage, but that the pump was actually in reasonable nick, I could stop being afraid of the disease, put my family’s heart history in context and get on with living!”
Recovering at home after the event, Jenny was instructed to “behave herself”. For someone used to juggling family life, multiple commitments and dealing with stress, it felt terribly inconvenient to be forced into convalescence.
“I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to give my budget speech the week after I was released from hospital,” laughs Jenny. “I was bored stiff. So I started walking, at first on the flat, and eventually up and down small hills. And gradually, I lost weight. I got fitter and fitter, and when I had my next round of checks done, I realised I had survived and I could move on with my life.”
Jenny – who has retired from politics but now sits on the boards of several businesses – also addressed her eating. She concentrated on smaller portion sizes and changed to a diet that’s low in fat and salt, and contains a lot of fresh produce. Her husband and children – daughter Anna lives in London and son Ben in Sydney – played a vital role.
“Burtie was a complete brick. of course he was horrified when it happened and as shocked as I was. But I couldn’t have survived without his support. For Anna (32) and Ben (30), it was a scary realisation that one of their parents might not be around.”
Jenny has spoken at length with both Anna, who is returning to New Zealand to get married later this year, and Ben about their genetic predisposition to heart problems and encourages them to remain vigilant about their own heart health.
“It sounds morbid, to talk about it with your children, but it’s really not,” Jenny says. “Burton and I often speak about the day of the heart attack and how we didn’t go, ‘Get a blinking doctor!’ as soon as we should have. My message now to women is, if you are ever confronted with that type of symptom, ring 111.
“As partners, mothers and daughters, we often find ourselves caring for every other member of the family and ignoring warning signs in ourselves. It’s important that we take care of our own health too.”
These days, Jenny stays well by maintaining a healthy diet, walking up to 6km each day, swimming and cycling. But she insists she’s “no zealot” and still indulges in chocolate occasionally. Is she proud of the changes she has made in her life? “Yes, I am. Being alive is a great experience compared with the alternative. And the kids like the fact that I’m still around