Sunday 22 October 2017

'I would have died there and then on the ground' - Heart failure survivor Michael Lyster on the importance of CPR

Michael Lyster knows from personal experience what it is to endure life-threatening heart problems. He tells our reporter that if his wife Anne hadn't done CPR, he probably wouldn't be presenting 'The Sunday Game' any more

RTE's Michael Lyster. Photo: Gerry Mooney
RTE's Michael Lyster. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Joy Orpen

Michael Lyster is living the life of Riley, doing a job that many people would give their eye teeth for.

As a presenter on RTE's The Sunday Game, this 63-year old gets to chat to like-minded souls about their shared passion for sport. And while GAA is close to Michael's heart, he is also an integral part of broadcast teams that cover other international events, such as the Olympic Games. So he gets the full package - plenty of sport, social interaction, debate, travel, fame, and presumably a good living.

Michael Lyster back in studio with colleagues Ciaran Whelan, Colm O'Rourke and Pat Spillane
Michael Lyster back in studio with colleagues Ciaran Whelan, Colm O'Rourke and Pat Spillane

However, in the last few years, Michael has had an additional challenge to face - ill health. But, like the great competitor he is, he has come through it all in good shape.

He grew up in Barnaderg, near Tuam, Co Galway. His father was the local guard, and had no hesitation in ticking his son off when he was caught racing around the place, or stealing other people's apples. And even though Michael's mother was a triple Irish-dancing champion, he didn't inherit her gra for the damhsa. But he did get a passion for sport (in bucketfuls) from his father.

"Dad was big into GAA," Michael says. "He even played for Galway, briefly. He was interested in lots of other sports, too." Across the road from the Lyster family home was the obligatory sports field. "It wasn't just for GAA," explains Michael. "We didn't care a hoot if the ball was round, square or oval."

When Michael was 15, he was already six feet tall. After school, he worked in a sugar factory, but his career there was short-lived when he became a cub reporter with the Tuam Herald, whose editor was Jarlath Burke. "He was well respected," says Michael. "You were taught the fundamentals from the very beginning. Anything substandard, anything questionable, was sent back. I was covering everything from courts to county councils to murder cases."

Michael and Anne Lyster. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Michael and Anne Lyster. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Michael Lyster is not letting his health scare change his life. Photo: Tony Kinlan

When Michael was 26, he bagged a slot as a sports-bulletin presenter on RTE Radio 2, now 2FM. RTE was already buzzing following the recent arrival of DJs Ronan Collins and Marty Whelan. "It was a very exciting time for us all," Michael recalls.

Not long after, he met and married Dubliner Anne Morrison. They settled in Cabinteely, and have four children, who are now in their 20s. As the years progressed, Michael's career blossomed, until he became fully entrenched in The Sunday Game.

Fellow presenters and pundits have included some very interesting characters. "When you've known guys like these for such a long time, it becomes a team," says Michael. "I wouldn't normally see them socially, but they're great to work with.

"Sure, controversies crop up, often unexpectedly, but as long as everything is balanced, then it makes for good television. The Sunday Game is part of the fabric of Irish life. I'm absolutely loving what I'm doing; it doesn't feel like work to me."

RTÉ's The Sunday Game Live presenter Michael Lyster with panellists Joe Brolly, Colm O'Rourke and Pat Spillane at Croke Park.
RTÉ's The Sunday Game Live presenter Michael Lyster with panellists Joe Brolly, Colm O'Rourke and Pat Spillane at Croke Park.

GAA and rugby are not Michael's only passions. He is also an accomplished rally driver who has competed in the Circuit of Ireland. And he's no stranger to the golf course, either. However, he is living proof that a healthy, active lifestyle is no guarantee that medical problems won't come knocking.

In 2012, he began to feel unwell. "As the summer progressed, I was getting busier and busier," he recalls. "But I was also experiencing flu-like symptoms, low appetite, and I lacked enthusiasm. So, I went to the Blackrock Clinic, where I was seen by a heart specialist. They discovered my arteries were damaged, and my heart was only functioning at 12pc capacity. I was diagnosed with heart failure. When it's operating at such a low ebb, you feel you are risking it if you so much as cough. Naturally I went with the [medical] process; I wasn't prepared to be measured for the box just yet."

Michael was in hospital for three weeks. He lost four stone, and by his own admission "looked terrible". He says it was particularly harrowing for Anne, because there was no certainty he would survive. "I was half out of it," he says. "Fortunately, she is a strong person emotionally." The following year he had a mini-stroke, but yet again, he managed to bounce back.

Then on June 5, 2015, a near-tragedy struck. Michael had played golf in Galway with his friend Vincent Hogan. "After he dropped me home at 11.30pm, I discovered I'd left my phone in his car, so, I called him and he said he'd come back," Michael recalls. But when Vincent returned, he found his golfing buddy comatose on the floor. He yelled for help. Anne came flying down the stairs and immediately began CPR. She continued until an ambulance arrived. "Pumping [with compressions] is vital, to keep the blood flowing to the heart and the brain," explains Michael. "If she hadn't done CPR, I would have died there and then on the ground."

Anchor man: Michael Lyster prepares for his 30th season at the helm of 'The Sunday Game'; inset, the panellists; from top right, the many faces of Michael Lyster from the 1980s to 1990s
Anchor man: Michael Lyster prepares for his 30th season at the helm of 'The Sunday Game'; inset, the panellists; from top right, the many faces of Michael Lyster from the 1980s to 1990s

It later emerged that Michael had suffered a cardiac arrest; in other words, his heart had simply stopped beating when the electrical impulses failed. Michael had a cardiac defibrillator inserted, which helps to regulate the heart's rhythm, and will shock it back into action should it stop beating again. He also attends the Heart Failure Unit at St Michael's Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, to deal with his earlier condition.

Neil Johnson, speaking for Croi, the Galway-based charity supporting cardiac patients, says the organisation (in conjunction with the Heartbeat Trust and pharmaceutical company Novartis) believes that it is crucial to raise awareness about heart failure.

"This can be a highly debilitating, life-threatening condition, in which the heart cannot pump enough blood around the body because the muscles of the heart have become too weak or too stiff," Neil explains. "The prevalence of heart failure is set to increase dramatically in Ireland in the next 25 years. Early diagnosis is important, as is timely access to innovative medicines. With appropriate medical management and follow-up services, a patient's prognosis can be significantly improved."

So, these organisations are asking people to Stand Up to Heart Failure this September.

Michael is fully supporting this campaign. "My heart failure didn't happen in a flash," he says. "It happened over years. I should have had my heart checked. You have to take responsibility for your own health. You wouldn't dream of not servicing your car. But people don't service themselves. My message is this: get your heart thoroughly checked by a specialist - before it is too late."

For more information on heart failure, see croi.ie, heartbeat-trust.ie or irishheart.ie

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