Wednesday 16 April 2014

I marched my entire family off to the GP for an ECG

Will Leahy found himself in a cardiac unit when his palpitations stayed with him for months on end

Radio presenter Will Leahy

THERE are some things that you can always take for granted. The toast will fall butter side down. Bela will wear that leather jacket. Your heart will go on.

Oddly enough, the last one cannot always be relied on. I was always relatively fit and healthy, so it came as quite a shock to me to find myself in my mid-30s in a cardiac unit being treated for a heart ailment that I had been suffering from for quite a while but had mistaken for indigestion.

For most of my adult life, I would occasionally feel palpitations in my chest. They usually only took the form of a mild tickle so I generally disregarded them. Then, about six years ago, the palpitations paid a visit for a few hours. Then days. Then months.

For almost an entire summer, I had the constant feeling that someone was lightly poking me in the side of my chest. It might sound endearing but couple it with the feeling that your heartbeat wasn't exactly what it should have been and I began to suspect that the ongoing indigestion that I had self-diagnosed wasn't about to go anytime soon.

It really began to affect me when I was trying to sleep and I could hear my heart take on a different rhythm than the one I had been used to. Imagine listening to your heartbeat on your pillow. One beat okay, then another. Then it stops for about three seconds. Then beats about five times in a second. Then stops again for a while.

So, after three months of this, it was off to the Galway Clinic where they made a very quick diagnosis. It turned out I had something called "atrial fibrillation", an arrhythmia. There was some relief to know what was wrong but it was also hard to take in. I, not someone else, was officially a heart patient.

Now I'm not an expert but I have become an expert on my own heart since and here is what the diagnosis meant. Put simply, we all have a pacemaker in our heart that sends out a signal to tell our heart to beat. The signal usually fires once per second or slightly faster. Patients with a-fib have a second pacemaker sending out various signals whereby you end up completely out of kilter and your heart doesn't know what pace to beat at.

Of course, the doctors will tell you that it isn't immediately dangerous as long as your heart continues to beat at all. There's a relief! But what is dangerous is allowing it to continue untreated for more than 24 hours continuously.

When the chambers of the heart are not beating at normal pace, the blood isn't exiting at the correct flow, which can cause it to clot. A big enough clot can trigger a stroke when you least expect it.

Thankfully, I was put on an anti-arrhythmic drug and this sorted my problem out almost instantly. For the next five years I took the drug daily and suffered only sporadic bouts of a-fib, which normally disappeared after half an hour.

I lead a fairly busy life as I am fortunate enough to have two jobs, so living with even occasional bouts of a-fib has an impact on my life. Firstly, I am a solicitor in a busy practice in Limerick. Secondly, I present the drivetime radio show on RTE 2fm from 4.30pm to 7pm, so my average day starts with dropping my daughter to creche and then I am at my desk at about 8.15am. It ends with my last song on 2fm at 7pm. Sunday is the day for radio preparation, so a 60-hour week would not be unusual, and both jobs come in at the high end of stressful, particularly the broadcasting.

By mid-2012, my consultant had talked through the options for my future treatment. Why, you might ask, but the reason was that although the drugs were working fine, their effectiveness would likely start to diminish with time.

In his opinion, at some point I would need to have the "procedure" done and it was probably better now while I was relatively young rather than face it at 60. This made sense to me so I went ahead with it.

The procedure is called ablation and it involves the surgeon threading something similar to a microscopic soldering iron through your veins, accessing them in your groin. Once at the heart, he burns the area that is sending out the wrong signal, cutting off its electrical path to your heart.

Now, I have never smoked, but having spent the morning in the prep area with patients awaiting bypass and other smoking-related procedures, I concluded the Government should just ban cigarettes altogether. Alternatively, the health minister should make all smokers spend a morning in a cardiac unit to see what awaits them in the future.

I had my operation a year ago on November 20, 2012, in the Mater. All went well with the procedure . . . until the following day. The words of my late grandmother were ringing in my ears: "You should have left well enough alone."

I had been warned that there might be reoccurrences of the arrhythmia as the burn sites were healing. But I wasn't prepared for 14 hours of continuous a-fib on the first day and about 20 hours on the second day. I was taking blood thinners so wasn't concerned about a stroke but nonetheless it was an incredible distraction.

It reached a stage by early December that I had to go back for a dreaded cardioversion. This is the procedure you see so dramatically performed on television where the ridiculously handsome doctor and his breathless team turn the patient into both ends of a Duracell battery and yell "CLEAR" at the top of their voices.

Naturally, it isn't as dramatic when you are having it done by appointment, but it is still a sobering thought when you read that the procedure involves stopping your heart and re-starting it again in order for your rhythm to re-boot itself. Until they invent a control/alt/delete command for the human body, we still have to go through these horrors in order to restore factory settings.

Three sleepless months later, I was back on the slab again and this time it appears to have succeeded. The stats say that if I can get to 12 months without a major a-fib incident, then I have only a 5pc chance of it returning.

Many of us are out of rhythm but have no idea and are at a huge risk of stroke if we remain untreated. I know other sufferers who have no symptoms at all save for fatigue, and when presenting at their GP are shocked to discover, following a simple ECG, that they are out of rhythm and may have been for quite some time.

Naturally, I don't want to frighten anyone. However, I have had all of my family marched to the GP for an ECG and they will continue to do so annually. I encourage everyone to simply take their own pulse. Nice steady rhythm? No worry. Rhythm a little askew? Then off to the doc with you.

So often we read of young people dying of unexplained strokes or other heart-related malfunctions. A-fib is rare but not uncommon amongst those under 40, and I, for one, had never even heard of it. As we age, it becomes just another one of those quirks of the body that has to be endured.

That's why I'm supporting the new atrial fibrillation awareness campaign by the Irish Heart Foundation which launched last week with support from Pfizer and BMS, encouraging you to have a pulse check.

Bet you are reaching for your pulse right now. It's working.

To learn more about the Irish Heart Foundation's atrial fibrillation campaign supported by Pfizer and BMS, see

Irish Independent

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