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Drowned photographer in Hampstead Heath bathing pond Sussie Ahlburg told not to swim in open water

Sussie Ahlburg had a heart condition and had been advised not to swim in open water. Picture: Isabelle Busnel Sussie Ahlburg had a heart condition and had been advised not to swim in open water. Picture: Isabelle Busnel

Thursday, December 26, 2013
5:00 PM

A celebrated photographer who tragically drowned in a Hampstead Heath bathing pond was warned not to swim in open water by a doctor because of a heart condition, an inquest has heard.

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A celebrated photographer who tragically drowned in a Hampstead Heath bathing pond was warned not to swim in open water by a doctor because of a heart condition, an inquest has heard.

Sussie Ahlburg, 51, had a long-standing heart condition and was advised not to swim alone in open water by a cardiologist in March 2012, a doctor told St Pancras Coroner’s Court.

The Swedish-born photographer, whose portraits of leading classical musicians featured in Vogue, the Ham&High and the Wall Street Journal, died after her heart started beating irregularly while she was swimming in the Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond on Sunday, August 4.

Her body was found in the pond the following day after her family reported her missing. It was the first death at the ponds in at least a decade.

Ms Ahlburg, who lived in Holborn, had also been advised to take medication for her condition but did not do so regularly.

Mary Hassell, senior coroner for north London, said at the inquest on Thursday: “It is not my job to blame anyone, least of all the deceased, but I have to say this to warn others, that it would have been much safer had Ms Ahlburg alerted the lifeguards to potential problems.”

Safety review

Lifeguards Claire Roach and Madeline Marlet were on duty at the pond when Ms Ahlburg died but said they “can’t explain” why they did not see her drown, as they were both continuously scanning the water.

The ladies’ pond was not busy on the day, with only five or six people swimming in the morning.

After internal and independent safety reviews, Paul Jeal, senior supervisor of swimming facilities at Hampstead Heath, was satisfied that all safety requirements had been met.

He said the water is “opaque” and visibility is lost below six inches, meaning that it would have been hard for a lifeguard to see Ms Ahlburg getting into difficulties.

The court heard that Ms Ahlburg, thought to be a mother-of-two, did not take her prescribed medication for cardiomyopathy, or heart muscle disease, on a regular basis because the drugs made her feel “fatigued”.

But just six days before her death, she told her GP she had begun to regularly take her medication as she had been suffering from runs of palpitations and more frequent episodes of abnormal heart rhythms.

Dr Hassell concluded it was an accidental death, caused by drowning after suffering an abnormal heart rhythm as a result of cardiomyopathy.

She said: “I say to everyone in court and to the family, who I understand did not feel able to be here today, that I am very sorry for their loss.”

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