‘It took heart failure to realise I had coeliac disease’

Stacey C. Slagle

I guess you could say I’m a lucky person. For example, I was supposed to fly to Milan just before the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown in northern Italy, but my plans got cancelled. 

Another example of my good luck was when I fainted in the spring of 2018. My flatmate happened to be home and made the crucial decision to call an ambulance. I arrived at the hospital with 42°C temperature and delirium and if she hadn’t called that ambulance, I could have died.

I spent a month in hospital and was eventually diagnosed with the complete destruction of my intestine. Before this, the doctors were so busy looking for an infectious disease they were too distracted to prevent dehydration and extreme weight loss. Basically they weren’t replacing all the fluids I was losing due to diarrhea and vomiting.

When you have low values of potassium in your blood (hypokalemia), due to dehydration, your heart can stop, which happened to me. 

Again, this is when my good luck kicked in: a nurse was asking for a detailed description of my symptoms while an ECG was being connected. After that, I blacked out. 

I woke up the day after and, after a few tests, the gastroenterologist walked through the door and said: “Now, we know, you are coeliac. And you are one of the few cases who got diagnosed this way.”

Honestly, after seeing my parents and friends wearing PPE in order to visit me and doctors groping in the dark with catastrophic forecasts, all I could say was: “Just coeliac?” I didn’t even know what it really meant.

But after my painful diagnosis, I connected the dots. As a good Italian, I always loved food containing gluten, but gluten didn’t love me back. From time to time, I would get painful stomach aches, skin rashes or nausea, that my GP at the time wrongly connected to anxiety and stress. Eating pizza and drinking beer always caused me pain.

Time and again, these symptoms would reappear and my GP would suggest a few drops of Valpinax, a tranquilizer sometimes used to treat IBS. 

The intermittent bloating with other confusing symptoms led my doctors to confuse it with stress related illnesses. 

According to Coeliac UK, around 1 per cent of the UK population have coeliac disease, but only 24 per cent of that number are diagnosed. This means that approximately 500,000 people in the UK remain undiagnosed and struggle to identify the cause of their pain.


When someone who has coeliac disease eats food containing gluten, the body reacts by attacking the intestinal villi. Eventually, those tiny tentacles can be completely flattened, leaving them unable to do their job of absorbing nutrients. Mine were destroyed by years of gluten-containing foods.

Two years on, I have an incredible support network of family and friends who have sacrificed delicious gluten-based dinners, to have dinner with me.  I even found a passion for writing  a blog that helps coeliacs and gluten intolerant to cope with the disease daily and to inspire their kitchen routines.

The diagnosis made me appreciate my health and take care of my body. I now exercise all the time, which was something I struggled with before I was diagnosed. Fatigue is generally unrelieved by adequate sleep when you have undiagnosed coeliac disease. My gluten-free diet has made me fit and active as never before.

It took me years of tests, a month in a hospital bed and a heart failure, to find out I have coeliac disease, but it has changed my life for the better.

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