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Monday 18 December 2017

Jennifer battles illness that could scare her to death

Allison Bray

Allison Bray

CINDY Burke was only 33 years old when an early morning phone call startled her and triggered a fatal heart attack.

She was otherwise healthy, so doctors at the time attributed her bizarre death in 1993 to irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS).

Cindy's daughter Jennifer and her siblings were tested for heart defects but nothing was found.

But in 2010 when Jennifer went for testing at the Family Heart Screening Clinic at Dublin's Mater Hospital, she learned she had inherited a condition called Long QT Syndrome, which can make the heart susceptible to abnormal heart rhythms and potential cardiac arrest.

The clinic tested ten of her immediate family members and found three others had the defective gene which they suspect was the cause of the mysterious early deaths of several ancestors.

In Ms Burke's case, any sudden noise or fright -- like an loud alarm clock or backfiring car -- can cause her heart to momentarily stop and cause her to collapse.

"The worst case scenario is if the heart stops for too long," she said.

Along with being fitted with a heart monitor and prescribed beta blockers, Jennifer tries to live a normal life -- but she's been advised not to do anything that could give her a sudden fright.

"I wanted to go to skydiving in Australia but my doctor said no," she said, adding that at least now she is aware of her condition.

Geraldine Woods, (53), from Dunleer, Co Louth, is also a patient at the clinic after her 12-year-old daughter Rebecca collapsed on stage at a school production of 'The Sound of Music', in Drogheda, Co Louth, in 2006.

Despite the efforts of nurses in the audience, she couldn't be revived and was pronounced dead at the scene.

An inquest attributed her death to cardiac arrest due to SADS.


Her heartbroken family has only recently learned through a tissue analysis at the clinic that she was also carrying a defective gene responsible for a rare heart disorder known as a channelopathy -- which affects the heart's electrical impulses.

For years they had no idea what killed her.

"She played football, she did everything possible in a little girl's life. It just came out of the blue," Mrs Woods .

"It was horrific not knowing," she revealed.

In Rebecca's case, a sudden burst of adrenaline -- possibly due to stage fright -- may have triggered an abnormal heart beat which led to her fatal heart attack.

Now Mrs Woods' other daughters, who are aged 16, 27 and 31, have all been tested for the condition as well as their own children so they can now take appropriate steps to manage their condition.

Consultant cardiologist Dr Catherine McGorrian said it is vital that any family who has experienced a death due to SADS in their immediate or extended family be checked at the clinic for similar conditions.

"Once it's identified, there's a lot we can do to prevent these tragedies," she said.

The five-year-old clinic yesterday launched its month-long Mater Heart Appeal campaign to raise funds for the free clinic which kicks off today.

Noting that at least one young person a week dies from an undiagnosed heart condition, she said the money is urgently needed to fund the programme.

People can donate online at or by texting MATER to 51500. Mater Heart badges will also be on sale nationwide for just €2.

Irish Independent

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