Wednesday 11 December 2019

'I'd no idea there was a problem with my heart until I had two heart attacks when I was 37'

Arlene Harris meets three people who suffered heart problems at a relatively young age - and what do they all have in common? - they never thought it would happen to them. Now they're urging you to check your blood pressure, cholesterol and family history

Galway farmer Maura Canning suffers from high blood pressure. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Galway farmer Maura Canning suffers from high blood pressure. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Bernadette Moore had a heart attack aged 59 . Photo: Tony Gavin.

Arlene Harris

Heart disease is the biggest killer in Ireland with 10,000 people dying every year from complications relating to the condition.

But 80pc of heart disease is preventable, and with a healthy diet, exercise, a total cessation of smoking, a knowledge of family history and a minimal amount of alcohol consumption, most people could reduce their risks considerably.

When Thomas Bergin was just five-years-old, his father died as a result of heart disease at the age of 37. Coincidentally this is exactly the same age the Bray man suffered his first of many heart attacks.

Now 68, the father of four who is married to Jenifer, says he didn't take any precautions as a young man as there was little advice or support available four or five decades ago.

"My father always had heart problems and he died leaving behind nine children, the youngest of who was 12," he says.

"But because there was very little help for people at risk of heart disease, I didn't really think much about it until I suffered two heart attacks in 1985, when I was 37 and living in London.

"I was put on Aspirin and told to take things easy, but then four years later after Jenifer and I had moved back to Ireland, I had a check-up and was referred to a cardiologist who discovered that the three main arteries to my heart were blocked.

"As I wasn't at death's door, I was put on a waiting list and finally eight months later I had a quadruple bypass," recall Thomas.

This would be enough heart trouble for most people, but the retired printer wasn't finished yet, and went on to have several more scares until finally he was fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), which would restart his heart should it decide to play up again.

"A few months after my surgery, I was back in hospital again as I had another cardiac arrest while undergoing a treadmill test," he says. "Luckily I was in the right place and was admitted immediately for more treatment and medication - I was also fitted with an ICD.

"This worked perfectly for a few years but then in 2003, I had a blood clot and in 2004, my body rejected the device so was rushed in again."

The mechanical device has since accepted its new home and in fact saved the Wicklow man's heart on more than one occasion.

"In 2005, I had another cardiac arrest and was saved by the machine activating and kick-starting my heart and the same thing happened again in 2010," he says. "Since then I have been fine but I could have a cardiac arrest at any time - this knowledge was very strange at first but I have learned to live it.

"Before I had a bypass I was a smoker - I have obviously given up now but I also have high cholesterol which I am on medication for so I am doing all the right things," adds Thomas.

"However, I would encourage other people to pay close attention to their hearts and aside from living a healthy lifestyle, to get to know their family history and go to the doctor if they have any pains at all which are out of the ordinary."

Maura Canning has no family history of heart trouble and has always been health conscious - working as a farmer in Galway, she is very fit and healthy and doesn't smoke or drink to excess.

But she was diagnosed with heart disease when she was 41-years-old.

"I was at a conference for female farmers in Killarney about four years ago when I decided to have my blood pressure taken," says the 45-year-old. "There were two nurses offering delegates the opportunity to get checked out and even though I had no notion that there was anything wrong with my heart, I decided to get it checked anyway.

"I'm so glad I did because my reading was sky-high and I was advised to see my doctor the next day. I was quite shocked and drove home to Galway in a daze - which was a foolish thing to do as I could have had a stroke while I was driving."

When Maura - who is married to Seamus and has two children Craig (17) and Tegan (14) - visited her GP her blood pressure reading had reduced and she was told there was little to worry about.

"Initially I was happy to leave it at that, but I went back a few days later for another check and was advised to get a monitor so I could test myself at home.

"Seamus and I went to a wedding the following weekend and I took the monitor with me, doing a few checks here and there. After the meal, I suddenly became exhausted and when I did another reading, my blood pressure seemed really high, so we went home to change and then to hospital, where I was admitted immediately as apparently my blood pressure was dangerously high.

"I was kept in for a week and had every test under the sun before being put on medication for high blood pressure management as apparently stress is also a risk factor when it comes to heart disease, and my lifestyle was so busy that it was damaging my health."

Since her diagnosis, the mother of two has made some minor changes to her routine which she believes will help keep heart disease at bay.

"I didn't have any of the classic risk factors for heart disease such as obesity or smoking but I did do too much," she admits. "I'm on various committees and have always been the sort of person who can't refuse when I'm asked to do something. But my daughter said I had to learn how to say no and I have taken that advice to heart, literally.

"I now delegate jobs and am not afraid to tell someone I can't do something. I was also guilty of standing up while eating as I was always in a rush so I have stopped doing that also and have found time to go to a country and western dance class every week.

"I had no symptoms which indicated heart disease so it shows that it can happen to anyone. And if I could give any advice it would be to have regular blood pressure checks, because things can change so quickly and finding a problem in time, could save your life," says Maura.

Bernadette Moore was also diagnosed with heart disease at 59. The Dublin woman thought she was suffering from digestion problems but after a visit to her GP, she was rushed to hospital where she underwent emergency treatment.

"I had a pain in my chest on and off for a few weeks which I thought was indigestion," she recalls. "Then one day it got worse and I went to my doctor who immediately referred me to hospital.

"I was shocked by the speed of it all and didn't even have time to call my husband Michael because I was admitted straight away and sent for an ECG.

"When the results came back I learned that I had suffered a heart attack because one of my arteries was blocked and would need to have a stent inserted."

Bernadette, who has three grown-up children, gave up smoking 15 years ago so didn't believe that she was at risk from heart disease, but she was advised to lose some weight, take up some form of exercise and eat a healthy diet.

"I still can't believe I had a heart attack," she says. "I have always had regular cholesterol check-ups and thought I was fairly healthy, but apparently the blockage in my arteries was hereditary so I have to be very careful with my lifestyle and have made my children get themselves checked out.

"I have lost a stone and am now exercising regularly, plus I am on medication for life so I am grateful to be alive.

"I know now that heart disease is preventable by living a healthy life and having regular check-ups, so I would advise others to visit the doctor as soon as chest pains appear, rather than leaving it as long like as I did," says Bernadette.

Did you  know?

• 100,000 new cases of heart disease and stroke are diagnosed in Ireland annually

• About 10,000 people die from heart disease and stroke in Ireland every year

• 80pc of cardiovascular disease is preventable

• Risk factors include: High blood pressure, smoking, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, being overweight, poor diet, diabetes, too much alcohol, age, family history

• Prevention: 30 minutes moderate activity five times a week, healthy diet and weight, quit smoking, have regular blood pressure and cholesterol tests, de-stress, know family history

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