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I had a cocaine-fuelled heart attack on the dance floor

Updated on July 2, 2016
Hayley on a night out
Hayley on a night out
Jocie (far left) partied hard during her teens
Jocie (far left) partied hard during her teens

Hayley Thomas was ready to party. She'd spent hours perfecting her look and had all her Saturday night essentials sorted - a LBD, killer heels, lipgloss and a wrap of class A drugs in her handbag.

"Before I'd even left the house, I'd polished off a bottle of wine and a gram and a half of cocaine," she remembers. "I couldn't imagine a night out without it."

Drink and drug cocktails are becoming the pre-party ritual for an increasing number of young men and women. Statistics show that children as young as 14 are taking cocaine to get an extra buzz while drinking. No wonder then that for many 20-somethings, a night out is considered all the merrier because it's fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

And this night was no different for Hayley, then 23. Except it was the night she almost died...

Just hours after hitting a club with friends, Hayley was rushed to hospital after suffering a heart attack in the toilets.

Doctors later confirmed she could have died. Despite believing the amount of cocaine she used was "recreational and therefore harmless" it was, in fact, potentially lethal.

In the past four years, A&E departments across the UK have seen the number of young people being treated for chest pains after a night out more than double. The main culprit? Cocaine.

Hardly surprising when enough cocaine to see a group of friends through an evening can cost as little as $50.

On that fatal night, Hayley - a shop manager from Southampton - had followed her usual Saturday night routine. Cocaine, wine, more cocaine.

By the time she arrived at a Portsmouth nightclub at 10pm, she wanted a pick-me-up. So she headed to the toilets to finish her second gram of white powder, then made a start on her third.

"My chest was aching," Hayley, now 25, recalls. "I thought it was indigestion, so I downed more wine to numb the pain."

As her friends hit the dance floor, Hayley began to feel worse. "My legs were like dead weights and my heart was racing," she says. "By midnight, I had excruciating chest pain. I felt like I was being stabbed. My chest was so tight, I was struggling to breathe. I didn't know what was wrong with me."

Hayley grabbed her friend, Aimee*, who took her into the toilets. There, Hayley collapsed and started vomiting as she went into cardiac arrest. Aimee ran to get help and the club bouncers called an ambulance. Hayley - now unable to speak - was stretchered out. Her heart was beating four times faster than normal as it struggled to cope with the toxic drugs and drink in her body.

She was given oxygen and put on a heart monitor as she was rushed to hospital. "I was terrified as I slipped into unconsciousness," she says. "I was sure I was going to die."

And she nearly did. When she came round hours later, she learnt that she had suffered a massive heart attack.

"I woke up to find I was hooked up to a drip and a heart monitor, and had been given two different drugs to slow my heart down," she says. "I couldn't believe how stupid and naive I'd been when I was told I'd brought it on myself."

She was kept in hospital for a week and was lucky to make a full recovery.

Hayley thought she was just unfortunate that her partying had caught up with her. But medical experts say that as cocaine use spirals, so will the number of young heart attack victims.

Already, statistics show that one person is admitted to hospital every 10 hours for cocaine-related problems. The latest British Crime Survey shows a 25 per cent increase in 16-24 year olds taking cocaine over a 12-month period, while research in the medical journal Circulation shows up to 25 per cent of heart attacks in people under 30 can be blamed on regular use of the drug.

Consultant cardiologist Dr Iain Simpson, vice president of education and research at the British Cardiovascular Society, says cocaine abuse is a well-established cause of heart disease in young people.

"Cocaine constricts the blood vessels, which causes spasm or cramp, so the heart rate rises," he explains. "Blood pressure goes up, and in some cases it can cause enough constriction in the arteries to provoke a heart attack."

It's not just the use of the class A drug that's worrying experts. Partygoers are mixing cocaine with alcohol - this creates the potentially lethal chemical cocktail, cocaethylene, a highly toxic substance being linked to cardiac illness.

Dr Ken Checinski, a toxicologist and expert in addictive behaviour for drug charity FRANK, warns that mixing even the smallest amount of cocaine with alcohol produces high levels of cocaethylene. More worryingly, this is believed to trigger exaggerated heart failure and liver malfunction.

Dr Checinski adds: "If you use cocaine, you're likely to drink more than you would normally, as the cocaine keeps you alert and you don't feel the tiredness that usually comes from sticking just to alcohol."

Drug and alcohol charity Addaction says it's treating an increasing number of people who mix cocaine with alcohol.

Lesley Manka, team leader with Addaction's young person's service, says: "Cocaine isn't just the preserve of rich City types. It's available in most big cities and towns, and the people who sell it are more likely to be 'respectable' - friends of friends or colleagues - rather than a shady dealer type.

"Mixing cocaine and booze creates a dangerous double addiction. As soon as you've drunk a beer or a vodka, you crave cocaine and the rush it gives you."

As well as cardiac-related illness, combining cocaine and alcohol has been linked to irrational and violent behaviour.

Dr Checinski explains: "People's inhibitions may be lowered, which can also lead to risky sexual behaviour, resulting in anything from STIs to unwanted pregnancy. And the increase in confidence means you can feel almost invincible, or that you can win a fight."

For Hayley, cocaine and alcohol were the essentials for a good night out. She started drinking at the age of 14, and took her first line of cocaine at 16.

"I hung around with an older crowd and cocaine was always on offer. Someone told me I'd feel more confident if I took it, so I did," she remembers. "I was drunk the first time I tried it, but the drug really seemed to clear my head. I felt great. I quickly became addicted. I didn't have a care in the world and I didn't think about my actions."

Hayley says that from then on, cocaine and booze went hand-in-hand with a night out. As she got older, her cocaine use increased, until she was taking three grams of the drug every weekend, along with countless bottles of wine.

"The more I drank, the more cocaine I wanted, and vice versa," she says. "While the drug was stimulating, a drink took the edge off it. Combining the two soon became normal for a Saturday night out."

Before long, Hayley was buying extra wraps during the week to help her handle the aftermath of weekends spent partying.

"I'd snort a line before I went to work to pep me up and give me the energy to talk to customers," she says.

She never expected her drug use to prove almost fatal.

"When doctors told me I'd had a heart attack because of how much cocaine I'd had, I was shocked," says Hayley.

"I didn't think I'd done that much, or that things like that happened to young people. I was only 23 - I'd never really considered what it was doing to my body. My parents would have been really disappointed if they'd known. They still don't know."

Now Hayley steers clear of the drug and limits her alcohol intake too.

"Having a heart attack so young made me realise how stupid and naive I'd been," she says.

"I haven't touched cocaine since, and I don't drink much alcohol now, either.

"After seeing me in such a bad way, Aimee stopped taking cocaine too. I've distanced myself from friends who still take it, and I focus on being healthy. It terrifies me to think just how close I came to dying.

"Cocaine makes you feel invincible, and it's so easy to think this sort of thing would never happen to you. I'm proof that it can and does happen. I just feel extremely lucky to be alive."

Jocie Brown, 18, lives in Hove, East Sussex, with her parents. She's training to be a make-up artist at college.

"My Saturday nights had always consisted of going to a mate's house or a club and partying hard. I didn't just drink, I took cocaine too. And I wasn't some street kid going off the rails. I was just doing what all my mates did - we got drunk and took cocaine to get a better high.

My parents are middle class - they're both photographers and work hard. We live in a nice part of town. But I hung around with an older crowd, and drink and drugs were the norm on a night out.

The night would begin with a few beers or vodkas. Then I'd take half a gram of cocaine that I'd paid for with my $30 pocket money.

It wasn't long before I craved more cocaine to get the same high. I even started to secretly take money from my parents so I could buy wraps of coke to take at school.

My parents never knew - if they had, they'd have been mortified. But my school friends realised what I was doing and distanced themselves from me. I don't think they knew how to deal with my behaviour.

At home, I often had violent mood swings where I lashed out at my younger brothers, often leaving them with bruises. My parents blamed it on my teenage hormones and I didn't correct them.

When I was 16, I went to a house party. High on drink and drugs, I lost my virginity to a guy I'd just met. The next morning, I felt sick with shame. I couldn't stop crying as I walked home.

It didn't stop me, though. I was now getting through five grams of cocaine a week, at a cost of $300. I used up all my savings - years of birthday and Christmas money.

When all my savings were gone, I sold clothes and gadgets - like my computer and MP3 player - to keep my coke habit going.

Mum and Dad still had no idea what I was up to, especially when I managed to pass my GCSEs with flying colours.

Once all my money had run out, I took my mum's bank card and stole $700 from her account.

Not surprisingly, my secret was discovered. My parents were so shocked. They pleaded with me to stop - and, with their support, I went into rehab for a month.

It was tough, but I got clean. That was a year ago. Now I'm back home and have just started a make-up artists' course.

I still see a counsellor to help keep me on the straight and narrow, and I don't really drink now either. It's easier that way.

Looking back, my teens are a blur. It was too much, too young."

Coke & booze: a lethal cocktail
Cocaethylene is the chemical formed when alcohol and cocaine are taken together. This substance is so toxic the body takes twice as long to process it than if it was alcohol or cocaine alone. This puts the body under such stress that it struggles to cope, and can trigger heart failure, liver malfunction and stroke. The risk of sudden death is 18 times greater if you take cocaine and alcohol together than if you just drink alcohol or take cocaine. Taking just one line of coke with a drink is all it takes to produce toxic levels of cocaethylene.


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