Thursday 18 January 2018

Health case study: Heart matters... beating two strokes

Sinead Hamill feels that taking your health seriously is vital. If the super-fit businesswoman hadn't been vigilant about her heart, she might well have ended up having a very bad stroke, or worse

Sinead Hamill checks the rhythm of her heart every day. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Sinead Hamill checks the rhythm of her heart every day. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Joy Orpen

Though she has been through the mill health-wise, Sinead Hamill is not letting her ordeal cloud her outlook on life; in fact, she has probably never been busier.

This attractive 45-year-old mother of two has her own business; she has just completed her second novel; she plays GAA football and has recently taken up public speaking as well. Yet, not so very long ago, she suffered two strokes, but thankfully she is currently making a good recovery.

Sinead, one of five siblings, had a perfectly happy childhood in Kilmacud, in south Dublin. When she finished school, she headed for New York and became an au pair, before moving to London where she worked for a marketing company. Eventually, she made her way home, and was soon gainfully employed at Eircell (now part of Vodafone) and later at Xtra-vision.

In 2007, just before the crash, she was made redundant. "I always like to be ahead of fashion," she quips. In the meantime, she had married local boy Tony Hamill, who works in IT, and they now have two beautiful daughters, Hazel (10) and Dawn (7). Sinead's redundancy package afforded her the opportunity to branch out on her own. So she opted to set up a dog-grooming business in Stillorgan. All was going brilliantly - she was happily married, loving her work, enjoying her girls and nicely settled in a comfortable home.

Then, one day in June 2012, Sinead got a notification from Laya Healthcare to say they were offering a heart-screening plan to their members; this would involve having an ECG at a local hotel. This particular member had more reason than most to be interested. "Now and again, if I had my head under the water in the bath I'd hear my heartbeat, and it seemed a bit irregular to me," remembers Sinead. "So I decided to go for the screening. The nurse, who did the ECG, confirmed I had an irregular heartbeat. I'd known a few people who'd had similar problems, so I wasn't particularly worried. Especially as I'd already done three full marathons and I was starting to ramp up my training for the Dublin run that coming October. I wasn't worried at all."

Sinead was told the report would be forwarded on to her own GP. Just two hours later, she was stunned to get a call from her doctor, who told her, having seen the report, he felt she should shelve plans for the race until her heart problem had been resolved.

"When I brought it to his attention that I had already run three marathons he said, 'well, you're lucky you're not dead'. That got my attention alright," she says. Sinead was referred to a cardiologist, who confirmed she was suffering from atrial fibrillation (AF).

This greatly increases the chances of having a stroke. The cardiologist shocked Sinead's heart back into a correct rhythm and he put her on a blood thinner. "After that, I felt like a million dollars," she says. "It was amazing - I could have done somersaults, I felt so good."

Unfortunately, three days later, her heart reverted to its irregular rhythm. The cardiologist again restored her heart to a acceptable rhythm, but this time she was also given beta-blockers to lower her heart rate. In a follow-up review in January 2013, everything looked good, so it was decided to take Sinead off the blood thinner and to replace it with a slow-release aspirin. The next review was scheduled to take place a year later.

However, in March 2013, Sinead woke with an intensely stiff neck and felt very irritable. But she had a busy day ahead, so she concentrated on getting the girls ready and off to school. However, driving them down the road she got such a ferocious headache that she had to pull over.

"I rang Tony, who came straight away," says Sinead. He then drove the girls to school before bringing Sinead home. "When I got out, I was careening all over the driveway, so we went to the Beacon Hospital," she recalls

A CT scan was inconclusive and, as meningitis was suspected, Sinead was admitted to the hospital. Later that evening, an MRI scan revealed that she'd had two strokes; the first about a month previously.

"That was a massive shock," she says. "The doctor told me that if I hadn't been on a blood thinner it would, at best, have been a devastating stroke. That's quite something to hear when you're only 44 years old. So my heart was shocked into a proper rhythm again, and I was put back on all the medications."

Sinead spent a week in hospital and has subsequently had a procedure called a pulmonary vein ablation. This was performed by Dr Ben Glover, consultant cardiac electrophysiologist at the Mater Private, and was done to regulate her heart. A left atrial appendage closure device was also implanted. As a result, Sinead no longer requires beta-blockers.

After that, she was able to begin picking up the pieces of her shattered life. One of her dreams was to write a book, so she did that in six weeks flat, and then decided to publish it herself.

It's called Scumbags and Handbags and is about a couple of unlikely lads who are coerced into turning a squad of unfit 'mammies' into a winning GAA football team. The book is getting really good reviews on Amazon.

Sinead got her inspiration from doing the very thing that she wrote about - playing women's football. "They call it Gaelic4Mothers&Others," explains Sinead. "There are 22 of us mammies in the squad. We have so much fun."

She says her team has played Croke Park on two occasions, but they lost both times. "Maybe leave that out!" she suggests, not at all seriously.

Sinead is also a keen public speaker who wants to spread the word about the importance of getting medical help if you have any concerns at all about your wellness.

Once again, Sinead is in a really good space. In spite of all that goes on in her hectic life, she has already completed Smiling Vendetta, her second novel, which is awaiting publication. Her close brush with death has left its imprint.

"I check the rhythm of my heart every day," she says. "I'm on a blood thinner and I have a little sieve in my heart to prevent clots, but you still wonder, 'what if it happens again?' But I know these kind of worries will pass in time. I'm really into football - I think exercise is very good for your mental health as well as your physical body, so yes, I'm full-on."

For more information, contact the Irish Heart Foundation, tel: (1890) 432-787, or see irishheart.ie

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